Double Feature: ‘Dead Snow’ and ‘Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead’ Reviews

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After the laugh-a-minute riot that was Possum I felt the need to watch something considerably more light-hearted for my weekend double-feature. I also haven’t watched a zombie film in a while, so  I dug out Dead Snow and was planning on pairing it with Fido for a general “zombie comedy” weekend. Then I saw that Dead Snow 2 is currently free on YouTube (like, actually free – not ‘somebody uploaded a copy that hasn’t been taken down yet’ free). So I ended up with the incredibly specific pairing of “Nazi zombie comedies by Tommy Wirkola with the words Dead and Snow in the titles.”

I’ve got a soft spot for Nazi zombie movies in general,  so I’m already predisposed to like a film that features a bunch of goose-stepping gut-munchers. It’s not a niche that lends itself to quality, though, and you have to be ready for real bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Luckily, the  Dead Snow series isn’t down in the dregs with films like Zombie Lake and Oasis of the Zombies, and instead lands in the upper echelon of the sub-genre, along with films like Shock Waves and Outpost – though the tone of the films could not be more different from those. Think Shock Waves via Shaun of the Dead, with a little Three Stooges mixed in for that extra dumb physical comedy. (And more than a passing nod to the Evil Dead films as well.)

The Mediums
I’ve got a DVD of Dead Snow with a smattering of extras I’ve never watched. The quality was fine for DVD, but it’s not really a movie that you need to see in HD. Red vs Dead is, as I mentioned, up on YouTube and has occasional moments of really nice visual composition (such as when Herzog and his troops mass above the WW II museum). I believe they’re both available on Blu-ray.

Dead Snow
Fair warning – Dead Snow is in Norwegian with subtitles. That won’t be an issue with the second film, but just pointing it out if it’s an issue for you.

Points are always given for films that are aware of their niche and embrace it. Dead Snow doesn’t want to be any more than it is, which is a gory zombie film. It’s also a splatstick comedy, but unfortunately you’d never know that from the first 45 minutes or so. It plays out as a slightly tongue-in-cheek horror film in the “youth go to cabin in the wilderness and get attacked by murderers/demons/aliens/zombies” genre.

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It’s shot and edited well, but those first 45 minutes are so straightforward horror movie cliche that they risk boring you. After an opening sequence, in which a woman is chased through snowy mountains at night by a group of shadowy figures, we’re introduced to a group of medical students. Their characterizations are so thin it’s difficult to remember their names. There’s Simon, who’s afraid of blood and his girlfriend Hanna who doesn’t appear to be afraid of much. There’s the movie fanatic, the horndog, the ditzy one, the handsome guy and the new girl. They’re likeable enough, they’re just… bland. They’re all headed to a remote winter cabin in northern Norway for a weekend of fun in the snow. One of their number, Sara, hasn’t arrived yet as she’s skiing over the mountains to join them.

Other than a rude and vaguely menacing visitor – who tells them about a cursed group of Nazis who died in the area – it’s mostly having fun, getting drunk, hooking up and standard “ooh scary!” stuff with vague shadows in the woods. When Sara doesn’t show up (and we start thinking maybe we know who the girl in the opening scene is) the handsome guy, who is her boyfriend, goes looking for her. Meanwhile, the others find a cache of treasure in a space beneath the cabin. No one will accuse this film of being too interested in details. The ‘treasure’ is supposed to be half a century or more old and looks like something bought at a junk jewelry store yesterday.

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Just when you might start thinking that you’ll turn the movie off if something interesting doesn’t happen the Nazi zombies finally show up. There are a few scenes of building tension as the zombies assault the cabin and a few characters are killed, but it doesn’t take long for the tone to shift completely from horror to straight up splatstick. It’s almost like Wirkola couldn’t take the gore seriously. Or the Nazis.

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The rest of the film is horror comedy, with gory gag after gory gag. If you watched the first half hour and then went out and came back in during the last half hour you might think you were watching a different movie, that’s how great the tone shift is. The gore, while bloody and plentiful, is less shocking than silly. Wirkola really likes the whole “snag intestines on  something and have them unravel out of the body” shtick, for instance. For the most part the effects are pretty good, but it’s definitely a matter of quantity over quality.

The survivors make a stand with the tools to hand – mostly axes and hammers, though Simon – having gotten over his haemophobia – wields a chainsaw. There’s a fun Evil Dead 2 throwback as they ‘arm up,’ with lots of crash zooms and exaggerated sound effects. While they have a few victories the sheer number of Nazi zombies proves a problem – especially when the leader, Herzog, just summons dozens more to replace the ones cut down.

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Eventually Simon realizes that the zombies want their treasure back, but at that point he’s already lost his girlfriend (to an axe blow in the melee) and his right arm (hacked off to prevent being zombiefied after a bite). Herzog and the other zombies seem content with their prize and wander off (despite killing a couple of people BEFORE the treasure was found). Simon finds his way down the mountain and to the car.

But unfortunately he still has a piece of the treasure in his pocket.

Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
Dead Snow 2 picks up where the first film left off, with Simon – the sole survivor of the events in Dead Snow – fleeing Colonel Herzog and his minions. Though he manages to escape – taking Herzog’s arm off in the process – he also crashes his car. When he wakes in the hospital it’s to find that he’s the main suspect in the murder of his friends. It’s not all bad news, though! They managed to save his arm – except, of course, it’s Herzog’s arm that the doctors have attached. (Simon, you may remember, having sawed off his own with a chainsaw during the first film.)

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Meanwhile, Herzog and his soldiers have come off the mountain and proceed to cut a swath across the Norwegian countryside, picking up new recruits as they go thanks to Herzog’s ability to raise the dead. Eventually they stumble across a World War II museum – and the old tank on display in the parking lot. Of course it’s been kept in perfect working order.

Simon, with the aid of his monstrous new arm, manages to escape police custody. The authorities don’t believe his story of Nazi zombies and curses (shocker), and he realizes he’s going to have to stop Herzog himself. Over the course of the film he gains allies, including museum employee Glenn and three American siblings who call themselves the “Zombie Squad.” Once he figures out how to control his new arm Simon also proceeds to raise a troop of Russian POWs from the dead, leading to a final epic confrontation in a small Norwegian town.

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Dead Snow 2 is a lot of fun, consistently more entertaining than its predecessor. At its best it manages to combine both humor and gore, as when an ill-conceived attempt at CPR goes awry because Simon can’t control his new arm. You laugh as you wince. Vegar Hoel as Simon is much better here than the first film, possessing excellent comedic timing and managing the action sequences with aplomb. He sells the ‘average guy in extraordinary circumstances’ well, always seeming right on the edge of losing it permanently. The supporting characters do a great job of keeping up – particularly Martin Starr as Daniel, doing his best impression of the main character from Revenge of the Nerds (if that character was a massive zombie movie fan).

The special effects are also a standout, as with the first film, and the set pieces and gags are both plentiful and hilarious. Not everything is quite up to snuff – some of the makeup during the climactic battle just isn’t as well done as the rest – but if something fails to entertain just wait a few minutes and some fun new explosion of guts and blood is bound to turn up.

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It’s not all gore and roses, however. There’s a subplot featuring  a gung-ho sheriff and his crew that isn’t very good and the climactic battle sometimes looks like a bunch of grubby WWII re-enactors pushing each other around in a backyard somewhere. Some of the jokes are forced and/or just not funny – almost inevitable when a film is as packed with them as this one is.

Martin is allowed a happy ending – sort of- and I have to admit I laughed out loud at the music choice. I felt bad about it afterward, though.

The Bottom Line
Dead Snow is really all about that last 30-45 minutes. The setup is thiiiis close to being boring and there’s little to hint at the gory glories to come. To be clear, those glories are cheap and lowbrow, but god help me I found myself laughing out loud at a few of the gags. The thing I like most about Dead Snow 2 is that it cheerfully embraces the gonzo gore/comedy of the last 30 minutes of the first film and then goes about trying to top itself.

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If I’m honest with myself I probably enjoyed these more than I might otherwise, simply because they came after a film that was so dark. Enjoy them I did, however, and their gloriously gory insanity was just what I needed.