Fortune and Gory, Kid. Fortune and Goryby Sarahjane Blum
Dead Snow, Dir. Tommy Wirkola, Now Playing
Dead Snow is neither as groundbreaking or as heady you’ve been led to believe. But it’s big, and it’s bloody, and all in all, pretty awesome. Norway’s first contribution to the growing genre of “fast zombie” cinema has no use for narrative clarity. But confounding all reason, of course, is one of horror’s chief strategies. Awful things just happen, and a random universe is perhaps scarier than the sight of an undead army of Nazis draw-and-quartering a genial Evan-Dando-looking-Norwegian. But perhaps not. Nazi zombies (or as I like to call them zombzies) are pretty scary, especially when they are hungry and pissed off.
The film opens on a spirited, heavy-breathing chase set to “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” A nod to the rich history of Norwegian morbidity (Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s composed the 1875 piece for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and the original lyrics translate loosely to “Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan? Ice to your blood, friends!”), the relentless music drops the viewer into survivalist mode. The pursued victim seems chased by the beat. Director Tommy Wirkola maintains that sense of paranoid momentum throughout the film, though the rest of the film is set to modern Norwegian lite metal.
The music has little to recommend it besides homegrown earnestness, but the Norwegian-ness of the film is a big deal. Norway has no tradition of horror filmmaking, and the legacy of Nazi occupation remains a challenge for the nation. Dead Snow presents no coherent ideology of the post-World War II fjords, but a strong sense of national anxiety permeates. The ridiculous plot is ridiculously simple (simply ridiculous?). The origin story of the zombzies is this: During the last desperate days of World War II, a unit of brutal of Nazi occupiers looted a small Norwegian fishing village until they were driven out by a revolt by the townspeople. There’s a note of indictment in the story. Norway has characterized itself as a nation that fought collaboration, so the moment of the people’s revolt is significant. Rather than tell a story of heroic resistors, Wirkola tells a story about greed. Townspeople fought when Nazis stole their watches, and now, when a frivolous group of vacationing med students happens upon the Nazi gold, the Nazis fight back. Payback is such a tipse (bitch).
But have we really come so far that Nazis are the stuff of myth? The mountains hold “an evil one does not want to awake,” says the inevitable stranger at the door who recites the legend of the fjord. There is a hint of a lie in his voice. Though exhibiting some powerful denial, he doesn’t quite believe the evil has ever fallen asleep. Of course it hasn’t. The protagonists now and then show a fetishistic violent streak, suggesting a lingering attraction to fascism. One couple engages in some semi-non-consensual S&M, and as the gang prepares to go play in the snow, they pull on their gloves with a fury befitting Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
The film is informed by these North American images of the Third Reich, and evil itself. The mystical power of Nazi treasure recalls the adventures of Indiana Jones, and when the students come upon the eerily glowing box of gold, one quotes Indy, sounding out in phoneticized English: “Fortune and Glory, Kid. Fortune and Glory.” Minutes later, before heading to the outhouse for a quickie he quips, “I’ll be back.” The girl who pleasures him in the shack isn’t so lucky.
Arnold aside, the film’s knowing nods to American action and horror traditions are clever. Primarily, the film pays homage to the Evil Dead series. Before their final stand against the Nazis, two of the pursued hide in a shed staring at an unlikely assortment of weapons, including a chainsaw. “Do you know what we have to do?” one asks. They both do—they’ve seen Bruce Campbell do it before.
The playful derivativeness takes nothing away from the gore-fest that follows. For the last half-hour of the film, all narrative pretenses fall away, and the Nazi zombies just keep coming. The whole first hour of the film appears to have been a set up for one shot wherein the character formerly known as “the horniest guy north of the Artic Circle” stands preparing to lunge towards a horizon of zombies armed with only a hammer and sickle crossed at his chest, a tableau of the epic battle between Communism and Nazism. For this alone, the film is totally worth seeing.
The film is peppered with unexpected visual sophistication. Currently adapting Hansel and Gretel for the screen, director Wirkola is preoccupied with fairy tales. One zombzie appears as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, dressed in the high-end snow gear of one of his victims. The primal, childish fears evoked make the protagonists become as frightening as their pursuers.
Horror films have long mined the unimaginable things fear makes people do. In a world where the barbarity of the Third Reich is not only imaginable but manifest, our worst selves become unspeakably evil. Even compared to zombzies.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.