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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 10.23.11] zombies review horror

Year: 2011
Directors: Marko Makilaakso
Writers: Marko Makilaakso & Barr B. Potter
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 7 out of 10

When your movie is ostensibly about killing the undead, it has to succeed at presenting a number of basic elements: great zombies, a cool location, lots of ways to kill, and characters you want to live. War of the Dead puts bullets in the heads of two and a half of them.

I’ll get the bad part over with quickly: the undead are basically soldiers who are harder to kill. They look, react, move and attack like real soldiers, but they don’t have guns, they try to bite you to death… or at least infect you. This makes them simple to wipe out individually but dangerous as a group. Big deal. Unfortunately, if you like great, gory, makeup-laden zombies, then the undead in War of the Dead may be a bit of a disappointment as they are not going to do any of the lurching, brain-biting, grunting and groaning you’ve come to appreciate. They do, however, run really fast.

And that may be why the audience at the World Premiere on zombie night at the Toronto After Dark film fest – raucous and buzzed at the start of the film – might have been a bit stingy with their applause as the final credits rolled. But they might have been more generous: War of the Dead features great locales and at least two characters you’d rather see alive than undead.

The plot seems overly complex, given we’re basically waiting for the shooting to begin, but it appears some evil Nazis on the border of Finland and Russia have been experimenting with making undead soldiers in an underground complex, and they’ve now left and the place is overrun with Russians and Nazi super-undead. The good guys, a combination of Finnish and American troops, march deep into enemy territory to attack this secret bunker. Just as they arrive the Russians attack and before you can load your machine gun there’s a terrific battle in the woods, and later that night the few remaining Finnish and American soldiers are attacked by the zombie version of all the troops that died that day. Let the mayhem begin!

By the time this fight is over we’ve gone from about 50 troops to a handful, and even they die like flies in the next fight as we’re quickly down to just four protagonists – tough guy with a heart of gold Yankee Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan), the suspicious yet good-looking Finn, Lieutenant Laasko (Mikko Leppilampi), captured yet helpful Russian soldier Kolya (Samuel Vauramo), and the unhinged but mighty Finnish leader, Captain Niemi (Jouko Ahola). Crazy Captain Nieme is bitten on the neck, and soon succumbs to the infection, becoming a sort of supernatural undead strongman. Our trio of heroes escape in a great old car, and after some minor adventures finally reach their destination, a super-funky Nazi mad doctor experimental bunker, already complete with lots of undead soldiers, endless spooky passageways, and lots of machinery, dark caverns, air passageways (always big enough for a guy to crawl through), scientific laboratories, bad guys – including more “live” Russians – and general high-action excitement. Again, the undead don’t impress much as visual treats, but their numbers and agility make them sorta scary. And in case you were wondering, the really undead zombie featured in the film’s trailer is a bit of a deflect – that’s the only real zombie in the film who achieves any kind of close-up. In most of the action scenes it’s so dark and the movement so sharply cut that you really don’t see any faces.

Of our three heroes I gotta say I warm the least to the Martin Stone character. For a tough guy his face is just a tad too pudgy, and for some reason I just can’t buy into Tiernan’s overall portrayal... he doesn’t quite pull off the transition from worried underling to Rambo-like death dealer. Leppilampi is excellent as the “progressive” Finnish Lieutenant, dashing and daring, but Vauramo I think is the outstanding actor as the sensitive Russian soldier who decides it’s better to help these helpless invaders rather than survive of his own – he’s fun to watch against the backdrop of less inspired acting.

The production values of War of the Dead are very high, with only a bit of a cheap bailout at the very very end, and you’ll like the hat tip to Morlock architecture. Otherwise, the interiors are Nazi warpunk cool, the explosions realistic, the camerawork fantastic and Marko Makilaakso’s Direction sort of screaming to get to the end. One slight bitch: the battle scenes often get down to hand-to-hand, and Makilaakso uses the old “what was that?” motion close-up in quick edit to give the impression of action, rather than showing the real action. And yeah, it’s invariably dark.

War of the Dead. It’s a pretty woman of a flick, but she needs a face job. Even with the anti-lurching zombies I’d score it a lot higher if it had a half-decent script. The premise of this story is great, and there’s endless opportunity for lots of Dirty Dozen banter instead of the oddly obvious discourse our heroes employ. It’s like they’re speaking in sentences most of the time. But hey, maybe it’s better to shoot now and talk later. I’d call this movie an opportunity slightly missed. But at least it’s not Bore of the Dead.

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