Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi-zombie opus Dead Snow is how nostalgic the whole thing feels. During the exploitation boom of the late 70s, Nazis and zombies were staple preoccupations of filmmakers – the former because they provided a neat shorthand for the nastiest people ever without having to get bogged down with tedious things like character and motivation, and the latter because they were very very cheap. The two subgenres collided most memorably in Ken Weiderhorn’s Shockwaves (reviewed way back in the early days of the Black Lagoon) which was a moody if sterile attempt to combine the two. With the mid-noughties revival of the zombie flick plus the Tarantino-led resurgence in interest in Nazispoitation, it was inevitable that a new crossover would follow – and Wirkola obliges, with some success.
Let’s be honest here – this is not a cerebral movie. It’s not even a particularly “good” movie, by most critical measures. The plot is entirely perfunctory: eight medical students go on a skiing holiday in the hills, where they are picked off one at a time by undead Nazis, who have been reanimated by some unspecified local curse. That’s more or less it. Wirkola’s approach to characterisation is textbook exploitation: he doesn’t bother, but his cast are very attractive and we get to see some breasts early on. Sadly, he also opts for the irritatingly meta cliche of making one of the characters, Erlend, a horror fan – cue references to Evil Dead and so on. This is such a one-note movie that clumsy irony is unlikely to win over any sceptics, whilst genre devotees are likely to be irritated as to how hackneyed Erlend’s reference points are.
Clocking in at a lean 88 minutes, Dead Snow is really only about one thing – dismemberment, and wisely Wirkola sets the ball rolling early and keeps the blood flowing right until the very end. His handling of the massacre itself is a slightly mixed bag; there are some superb set piece moments and inventive deaths as well as some great gags. The sequence where Martin amputates his own arm is a highlight, and there are also several successful disembowelments. At times however the limitations of the budget show, with several goreshots obscured by camera positions and editing, presumably to hide some less than effective effects work. The zombies themselves are particularly effective – purists may balk at the running and snarling, but their tattered uniforms and (by the end) sheer numbers give them an oppressive presence that helps keep up the excitement levels.
But whilst the Nazi zombies are the headline attraction (compounded by the unsubtle tagline “Ein zwei die”), Dead Snow’s secret weapon is its setting. The rolling, snow covered hills form a beautiful yet haunting backdrop for the massacre, and Wirkola seeks out every possible way to use his location in a manner that’s surprisingly inventive. The shots of blood falling on the pure white snow are terrific, but the shots of zombies bursting through the snow, the sequences set in the outdoor toilet and the isolated tent and in particular the surprisingly claustrophobic avalanche scene suggests that Wirkola has really thought about how to get the most out of the mountains. This isn’t a film that could be set anywhere else, which is more than can be said for many other zombie flicks.
Ultimately, how much you get out of Dead Snow depends on how prepared you are to leave your brain at the door. This is not a sophisticated horror film; by most measures of critical success (character, dialogue, plot, pace) it’s an abject failure. It is however a hugely enjoyable, indulgent homage to one of horror’s most gloriously tacky subgenres, and a fun – if dumb – way to pass an hour and a half of your life.