Rad Norwegian Ski Trip

06/17/2009 4:00 AM |

Dead Snow
Directed by Tommy Wirkola

During its opening ten minutes, Norwegian zombie flick/Holocaust movie mash-up Dead Snow makes overt references to The Shining, Funny Games, Evil Dead 1 and 2 and Friday the 13th. And just in case we’re still wondering how well-versed in Hollywood horror these Scandinavian filmmakers are, one of their main characters (Erlend, played by Jeppe Beck Laursen) figures as a proxy audience member, a movie nerd fluent in zombie trivia who warns his friends not to get bitten when the first undead show up. Shortly thereafter his head is torn open and his brain falls out (George Romero-style), as if Wirkola and co-writer Stig Frode Henriksen were rejecting the genre’s dumber, fanboy tendencies.

For all its body fluids and predictable yet effective scare tactics, Dead Snow manages to offer an intelligent new take on the zombie movie without slipping into parody or boring, brainy didactics. Like in another recent enjoyable fright comedy, Baghead, a group of young adults head to a secluded cabin under some pretense other than the drinking and sex that are the getaway’s obvious goals. Even this conceit is ripe for commentary: as one bored participant in a game of Twister asks “Why do we even play this boring game?”, another responds “Because Hollywood told us to.”

Hollywood’s never seen zombie Nazis, though (too politically risqué, perhaps), which appear after the group of med students greedily pillages a box of jewels found stashed in their cabin under the pretense of using the loot to pay off their student loans. As an angry elder (Bjørn Sundquist) informs the snobby city kids — in a monologue that reminds of Robert Shaw’s U.S.S. Indianapolis speech in Jaws — them there mountains were an important Nazi base in WWII, and when the locals finally rebelled they drove the soldiers into the peaks, where they likely froze to death. The ensuing zombie action is surprisingly effective, even pretty, with grayed Nazi soldiers scampering down pristine white slopes and spilling bucket after bucket of deep crimson blood and chunky pink innards. The scene in which the cautionary old man gets it in his glowing orange tent while a light snow falls from the deep, dark blue sky is especially beautiful.

Ultimately, Dead Snow‘s very gradual shift from battle-of-the-sexes vacation humor to spectacular zombie battling keeps it from being as preposterous as its premise sounds. Wirkola eschews the set piece-driven narratives of the American action movies he cites so lovingly, creating a plot that builds slowly and steadily like snowfall, instead of moving along jerkily like a zombie. Veering away from the caricatured protagonists of American horror, each nuanced Norwegian has bad moments and good — Vegard (Lasse Valdal), for instance, is a fairly predictable macho jock textured with allusions to an uneasy military past and who still manages to sew his own gaping neck shut with a fish hook and bandage it with duct tape. This is the rare recent zombie movie whose living characters are more compelling than its undead.

The human-zombie opposition has been problematized in several genere entries (Day of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Fido), but making the undead thawed Nazi soldiers all but annihilates that possibility. Some might take offense at the idea of turning modern history’s most reviled mass murderers into horror movie baddies, but Wirkola steers clear of touchy territory. Aside from their uniforms and their oddly preserved rank hierarchy, these are your garden variety zombies, slightly less swift than the ones from 28 Days Later, but much quicker than Night of the Living Dead‘s. And though it has less ambitious themes than those two entries in mind, Dead Snow is no brain-dead zombie movie.

Opens June 19