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One of the world premieres at this year’s Toronto After Dark
Film Festival was the new zombie-action flick WAR OF THE DEAD, which played as
a double feature with the buddy comedy DEADHEADS during “Zombie Appreciation
Day” at the tail end of the city’s infamous Zombie Walk (with these filmmakers
as the guests of honor). WAR has had quite the tortured history—over eight
years in the making with major changes in the cast, the production team and even
the title (it started filming as STONE’S WAR, starring James Van Der Beek!).
The production has so many stops and starts that it’s likely no one thought it
would ever see the light of day. So it’s quite a surprise that WAR OF THE DEAD
has turned out to be an extremely impressive debut by Finland’s Marko
WAR OF THE DEAD takes place during WWII in 1941 on the
Soviet/Finland border. It begins with a very brief prologue showing how, two
years earlier, the Nazis had been doing experiments on captured Russian
soldiers, attempting to kill and then reanimate them. The project was
abandoned, but the living-dead soldiers remain in the area. We then jump ahead
to ’41 and meet up with a team of Special Forces commandos, a mix of American
and Finnish soldiers about to infiltrate a Soviet camp in the Lithuanian
region, who find themselves completely outnumbered by the zombies remaining at
the abandoned camp and research facilities.
These ghouls aren’t the slow, shambling variety; they’re
still hardcore soldiers, back from the dead and trying to take bites out of
victims rather than using guns. The Allied squad is quickly reduced in the
zombies’ first attack to just a small group, including American Martin Stone
(Andrew Tiernan) and Finnish soldiers Laasko (Mikko Leppilampi) and Captain
Niemi (Jouko Ahola). The remaining troops capture Russian soldier Kolya (Samuel
Vauramo), who quickly switches sides to help them through the terrain and make
it through the night.
The structural simplicity of this film is wonderful, with
the entire movie taking place over one battle during one night. We are not so
much introduced to the characters as they are thrust upon us. They don’t really
know why they’re there, but they’ve got their marching orders and we’re along
for the ride. The downside to this approach is that it does lead to some
confusion at first regarding who is who; it’s not clear for a little while
whether this is an American platoon or a Finnish one speaking English for our
benefit. That problem is short-lived, though, and the film settles into an
action scenario that is never dull.
Another cool facet of the film’s approach is that it takes
the subject matter completely seriously. There is always a temptation to get
campy in movies like this, and the comparison to a film like DEAD SNOW, with
its use of Nazi zombies, might be tempting—but WAR OF THE DEAD is nothing like
that. It mixes slices of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE DIRTY DOZEN with DAY OF
THE DEAD, adopting the approach that this actually happened and the filmmakers
are simply recreating a historical event. Cinematographer Hannu-Pekka
Vitikainen does a brilliant job of lighting not just the sets, but the ghouls
as well. Instead of just throwing all the zombie grue on screen, most of them
are kept in the shadows, which keeps the action both more exciting and more
Despite being the most expensive film ever shot in
Lithuania, WAR OF THE DEAD was made for about 1.3 million Euros ($1.8 million),
which is chump change given the amount of production value on screen. The film
has no big stars and is mainly confined to a few large sets, but still manages
to have an epic atmosphere. You can’t help coming out of the theatre feeling
you have only seen a small portion of much larger potential movie. There’s no word
on a U.S. theatrical release yet, but WAR OF THE DEAD is worth seeking out when
it arrives on these shores.
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