I’m firm believer that movies (and books and art and comics and whatever creative medium we’re talking about) can be smart and thought provoking purely by accident. What I mean is that, even if a director or a screenwriter didn’t set out to make a movie that was a reflection of his or her culture and in fact was just trying to create a showcase for gross-out special effects work and raunchy humor, that dumb-on-its-surface movie probably reveals something about the time and place in which it was made. I’ve found this to be particularly true with horror and exploitation movies, because these movies have to rely on gut reactions in order to create the intended atmosphere. A gut reaction has to be instantaneous; the source of horror has to be instantly recognizable *as horrifying* to its intended audience, which probably consists of people from a similar background to the filmmaker. The movies have to speak to the audience’s lizard brains or, if you prefer a more optimistic perspective, appeal to the collective unconscious. It’s why there are perennial themes in horror movies: amoral murderers derive pleasure from killing us, nature runs amok and destroys us, and the dead come back to complete dreadful unfinished business.
In the case of horror stories that involve the dead returning from their graves in either ghostly or physical form, creators frequently look to history for inspiration. Picking the right historical source of villainy means that viewers can make an immediate connection between a time, place, and series of events that have a horrific connotation to them. By their nature, horror movies featuring historical elements will be linked to larger political and cultural themes that lend themselves to picking-apart by people who think entirely too deeply about the absurd things they watch.
People, in other words, like me.
Over the course of his relatively brief movie-making career, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola has created a trio of blackly humorous horror movies that bank on finding fear in history. Wirkola fills his films with images from the frequently horrible record of European history and explores anxieties shared by his contemporaries: young Europeans who bear the burden of the past while having minimal personal connection to it. His emphasis on comedy in movies like the “Dead Snow,” “Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead,” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” allows him to take an incisive look at the ways in which the European identity has evolved to cope with elements of a blood-drenched history.
And a lot of that is accidental.
Wirkola has spoken about how his primary motive in making “Dead Snow” was to combine Nazis and zombies into an ubervillain while incorporating Norway’s World War II history to provide texture.1 One gets the sense from these interviews that considerably more time was spent on brainstorming of all the ways that Nazi zombies are radical villains than on Norway’s dual role as host to a Nazi puppet government and incubator for daring resistance fighters, but this subtext runs throughout regardless. A similar level of historical-commentary-by-accident on seventeenth century witch trials exists in Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
But more about that later—let’s start at the beginning.
WHO IS THE NAZI ZOMBIE?2
The “Dead Snow” films fit neatly into the recent—or at least recently reenergized—cycle of Nazi zombie stories. Set in Norway in the present day, 2009’s “Dead Snow” begins with a group of students whose plans to spend their Easter break skiing and socializing are thrown for a loop when they are attacked by a troop of Nazi zombies hunting for a lost hoard of gold.
The Nazi zombie as we currently recognize it is a recently codified addition to the horror canon. While the American-made “Shock Waves” is frequently credited with being the first to employ this story element (it’s not—that honor goes to 1941’s “King of the Zombies”), there’s little in that movie that prefigures the ghoulish shoot-‘em-ups found in video games and movies created in the Twenty-First Century. The lurking dread of “Shock Waves” is pitched out the window while the stories retain the theme of the zombies as part of a brutal regime of exterminators. This makes the Nazi zombies a convenient and arguably pretty clever way of extending the reach of Third Reich terror long past the expiration date on the lives of Nazi war criminals. There’s also an expedient bit of narrative alchemy that takes place when an enemy is undead—this “no longer living” status means that there’s no need for our heroes to enter any kind of moral gray area over the urgent need to destroy the clearly-other-than-human threat. This can make for storytelling thinner than the skin on an aforementioned zombie’s ribcage, a fact that contributes to the unmemorable nature of most of most Nazi zombie stories. Much of the subgenre can be summed up in a scene that takes place early in 2012’s “Outpost 2: Black Sun,” in which a Nazi zombie brutally beats a man to death with a potato masher grenade, but is not intelligent enough to deploy the weapon in its intended manner.
The rudimentary nature of most Nazi zombie storylines comes from the fact that they rely on only two facts: a foregone conclusion that Nazis are bad (accurate) and that zombies are bad (also accurate). Beyond some plot sketching about the occult in the Third Reich,3 most of which is drawn less from historical record than it is from the screenwriter’s hazy memory of watching the History Channel while stoned at 2am, there’s little time spent grounding these tales in fact. Further contributing to the muddiness is the fact that most Nazi zombie narratives are created by people from countries without a history of occupation and therefore no soil-level connection to the perpetrators of World War II atrocities.4 The plots are instead built on pre-existing exploitation movie structures, creating a distorted impression of the past with minimal first-source knowledge of and little personal connection to the events of World War II.
Oddly enough, it’s in 1981’s “Zombie Lake,” one of the most roundly disparaged of the Nazi zombie movies (which is really saying something if you think about that statement for even a second), that the viewer stumbles into a surprisingly deep depiction of events surrounding the war. The movie’s plot concerns a French community’s attempts to submerge (quite literally, in this case) their violence by sinking the bodies of Nazi soldiers they’ve killed in a lake on the outskirts of town. The movie includes a German soldier who acts humanely in life and whose vestiges of decency linger even in zombie form. There’s an unease with the townspeople’s collective history of violent actions and in some ways the zombies are a symbol of failure to come to terms with wartime history: sort of a slimy, green-make-up-bedecked manifestation of PTSD. It’s noteworthy that this film is French and in some ways reflects the complexity of Nazi occupation, even though it’s an undeniably dumb, probably terrible, definitely cheap and certainly sleazy movie.
The “Dead Snow” films come with a similar pedigree, as the specter of German occupation haunts Norway as well, but their storytelling takes a dramatically different tone.
NORWAY: FOES, COLLABORATORS, AND HEROES
Separated from Germany by an expanse of the North Sea, Norway has served as ally, foe, and neutral bystander to that country over the course of history. Norway warred with Germany in the late Fourteenth Century as a member of the Kalmar Union and would later become involved in the Thirty Years’ War through its then-identity as part of Denmark-Norway.
By the Twentieth Century, Norway had established an identity as a neutral state in matters of European alliances. This neutrality was questionable in its execution, however, as Norway’s actions during World War I favored the British as a trading ally (due in no small part the fact that German submarines sank over eight hundred Norwegian shipping vessels over the course of combat). During World War II, Norway’s position as a neutral country was precarious in the face of aggressive German expansion, particularly as the country was home to several deliciously strategic ports.
From April of 1940 through the German surrender in May 1945, Norway was occupied by Nazi armed forces that were aided by the head of Norway’s own fascist party, Vidkun Quisling. The ugly truth that the allegedly neutral country played a visible supporting role in the reign of Nazi terror is one that led to a struggle of conscience for many Norwegians in the years following World War II.
At the same time that the Quisling government was in bed with the Third Reich, an active minority of resistance fighters continued to execute raids and acts of sabotage on Nazi occupiers. Their extreme daring reached its apex during the resistance’s involvement in the Norwegian heavy water plant sabotage, a series of almost super-human acts that combined espionage, hang-gliding, parachuting, mountaineering, and demolitions to bring down Nazi nuclear efforts.5
The resulting identity crisis has haunted Norway, but with ensuing generations, the conflict has lost its immediacy. By employing the not-dead-yet-not-alive Nazi zombie as his villain in the two “Dead Snow” films, Tommy Wirkola brings the horrors of the past roaring back and demanding to be grappled with (quite literally).
I’ll leave a thorough analysis of the first “Dead Snow” film to other authors, since I wasn’t a big fan of its standard stalk-and-slash structure.6 What feels like half the run time is spent in an isolated cabin with awful young-person characters who finally get around to disturbing Nazi zombies and getting dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways, with a sole survivor predictably managing to escape.
The key value of “Dead Snow” is in its bloody visual gags. Wirkola displays a skillful hand in doling out wild abuses of the human body while eliciting genuine, if frequently shocked, laughter. His comic timing is first-rate, and the violent set pieces are perfectly executed from a technical perspective. Sadly, the movie’s twin lack of plot and character development (in spite of spending agonizing stretches of time with the story’s heroes) leave it squarely in the typically disappointing territory of standard Nazi zombie movies.