Overlord comes out this week. Get your tickets here!
Let’s face it, Nazis are the ultimate villains of the modern era. There’s always a catharsis to be had when watching Nazis die onscreen. Punching Nazis is as American as apple pie. Likewise, zombies hold the crown as the most relevant modern monster. After George Romero created the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, people worldwide have been terrified by the walking dead. Combine them, and you’ve got cinematic gold.
Overlord is not the first film to tackle Nazi zombies. That was King of the Zombies, way back in 1941. However, the ultimate in Nazi zombie movies come to us from the demented mind of Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola. Dead Snow (2009) and its sequel Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead (2014) are glorious gonzo gorefests that no one should miss.
The year was 2009. Zombies had become a part of the cultural zeitgeist again after the success of movies like 28 Days Later (2002) and the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004). Out of the frozen Scandinavian mountains, Dead Snow brought Nazi zombies back to the big screen in a big way. Dead Snow stands on its own as a great indie horror flick. It's clever, the characters are interesting, and there's enough humor there to keep it afloat when pretty much everyone dies.
Five years later, Wirkola followed it up with Red vs. Dead and took the route of Evil Dead II, going into full-blown horror comedy. He replaced human drama with Nazi zombies fighting Soviet zombies in tanks, upped the budget, and made everything exponentially more ridiculous. He even filmed it in English and Norwegian concurrently, allowing for releases in both languages without the need for dubbing. Red vs. Dead is the pinnacle of Nazi zombie fare: it’s knowingly dumb, gratuitously violent, and delightfully over-the-top in every way.
Before there was Red vs. Dead, there was Dead Snow. This sublime slice of Scandinavian cinema utilizes almost every trope available, from the “cabin in the woods” to cursed Nazi gold. A group of twenty-something college students vacation at a remote cabin in the mountains when a creepy hiker stumbles upon them and tells them the horrors that befell the region. He’s a harbinger of doom, the Viking version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s infamous gas station attendant. He tells the students that Nazis took over the area during WWII and terrorized the locals, torturing them and wreaking havoc. The citizens revolted against the Nazis, who escaped into the woods and supposedly froze to death. The hiker goes about his not-so-merry way, and our heroes are left to drink and get freaky in the outhouse.
Eventually the gang stumbles upon the hiker’s corpse and the Nazi gold. Of course they take the gold, which raises a bunch of Nazi zombies from their icy graves. Pure chaos ensues as the students try to escape back to civilization. The human characters die one by one at the hands of the zeds and their leader, Herzog. These zombies aren’t exactly smart, but they’re a fair bit more organized than your average shuffler. They maintain a bit of their human selves, and they’re capable of reason and problem-solving. That makes them extra scary, given the average zombie can be stalled by something like a doorknob.
Despite a valiant effort involving Molotov cocktails, human intestines used as climbing ropes, and a machine gun mounted on a snowmobile, only one man – Martin – survives the ordeal. He doesn’t even survive intact, as he is bitten on the wrist and pulls another trick from Evil Dead II by cutting off his own arm with a chainsaw. It’s bleak and posits Martin as a kind of final boy (just like Ash!), but the sheer ridiculousness of everything prevents things from getting too depressing.
Dead Snow is a great movie to watch with friends. The plot points are simple enough for folks not paying attention (or too drunk to understand), the humor spans across languages because most of it is physical, and the splatter should delight even the grossest of gorehounds. It seemed like the perfect Nazi zombie movie, the pinnacle of the Undead S.S.
Until Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead:
The sequel picks up right where its predecessor left off, with survivor Martin driving towards the nearest town while Herzog attempts to kill him. He gets into a car accident and wakes up in the hospital, where things escalate immediately. Doctors have accidentally given Martin Herzog’s arm and the thing goes Idle Hands on everyone, killing several medical staff against Martin’s will. He’s restrained, but a precocious American tourist kid frees him after being impressed by his zombie arm. He tells Martin about a group of American zombie hunters, and things take off.
The plot of Red vs. Dead is ludicrous and not worth detailing. It only serves to create excuses for various gags and a few standout scenes, but that’s fine, because the gags and scenes are well worth it. Martin’s new zombie arm allows him to raise undead of his own, and he creates an army of zombies that are friendly to him. He even resurrects an entire gravesite of WWII Soviet soldiers to battle the Nazi zombies. It’s World War II: Part Deux – the Return. His zombie arm also gives him freakish strength, which he uses to comically (and sometimes accidentally) punch right through people, turning them into chunks of formerly human jelly.
The sequel ups the ante in every way. In Red vs. Dead, zombies use intestines as hose to gas up a tank, a grandmother in a wheelchair has her head stomped in, the heroes use a friendly zombie’s crotch to gain traction when their car is stuck in the mud, and a human and zombie bone down in the back of a tiny sedan to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. It’s completely, utterly batshit.
In addition to being utterly absurd, Red vs. Dead features excellent gore effects and some fun jabs at American zombie fan-culture. The American zombie hunters fly to Norway to try and help Martin, but they’re basically a bunch of Walking Dead fanboys and fangirls who took Max Brooks’ World War Z way too seriously. It’s a nice extra piece of meta, the icing on a very self-aware cake.
The Dead Snow movies aren’t high art, but they’re a hell of a lot of fun. There’s something wonderfully cathartic about watching Nazi zombies get smashed to smithereens – you simply can’t feel guilty about it. So while Nazis and zombies are always a winning entertainment combination, Dead Snow and its sequel take the subgenre to its peak.