Directed by: Marko Makilaakso
Written by: Marko Makilaakso
Starring: Mikko Leppilampi, Andrew Tiernan, Samuel Vauramo, Jouko Ahola, Antti Reini, Magdalena Gorska
The zombie movie apocalypse continues with War of the Dead, an action film/zombie hybrid with some surprisingly strong cinematography, solid performances and several other positive aspects the target audience will not especially care about.
During WWII, along the Russian border, Nazi scientists hide away in a secret bunker and perform “anti-death” experiments on captured Russian soldiers. When the test subjects turn into crazed, flesh-eating zombies with superhuman strength, the experiments are abandoned and the “evidence” is buried in a mass grave. Two years later an American and Finnish task force led by Captain Stone (Andrew Tiernan) is recruited to find and destroy the Nazi bunker. They face off with German soldiers and several men on both sides are killed or severely wounded.
The remaining members of the task force continue on their mission, but are soon attacked by a group of crazed soldiers hungry for human flesh and damn hard to kill. The “anti-dead” represented here are an imposing group. They’re “fast zombies” who climb trees and are capable of amazing physical feats. Though they are, bound by genre convention, flesh eaters their motivation seems to be more of an insatiable rage (more of the 28 Days Later variety). Determined to find the bunker, the task force must fight not only the well-armed Germans, but also the ferocious anti-dead who begin to multiply as the bodies pile up.
War of the Dead is, at its core, a small-scale action film with some impressive cinematography (by Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen) and superior technical credits. In fact, Vitikainen’s work elevates what could have been a typical video-game exercise into a strikingly beautiful film that often succeeds on a purely cinematic level. While little suspense is generated by the weak script, the compelling mise-en-scène ensures some visual interest from the audience. Several impressive dolly shots through war-ravaged landscapes would be right at home in a multimillion dollar Spielberg production. Editor Michael J. Duthie does the film no favors by cutting too quickly on some of the beautifully framed compositions, which add some depth to the slim narrative elements. But quick cutting and computer manipulation are all a part of the “language” at this point. Images be damned.
The script, written by Marko Makilaakso (who also directed), follows a group of underdeveloped characters through a series of action set pieces. It’s a fairly monotonous approach that follows the basic “quest” narrative of enduring several battles in order to get to the treasure/bridge/ring/castle/thing or, in this instance, the bunker. Because the characters are all one-dimensional war film clichés, there’s no sense of urgency or investment in their fate.
However, Makilaakso has cast the film with a group of talented actors who manage to make their characters believable, if not exactly relatable. Tiernan is solid as Captain Stone, while Mikko Leppilampi as Lieutenant Laakso proves a charismatic lead. Samuel Vauramo, as Kolya, a Russian soldier who makes an uneasy alliance with the task force, delivers the most sympathetic performance. He’s the only one given much of a background (and a late-in-the-game girlfriend for some unearned pathos). Though this isn’t the first time a group of talented actors have been saddled with a poor genre script, it’s a sad irony that this production is superior on so many technical levels yet still manages to come up short.
Makilaakso’s film, an international production shot in Lithuania, is a curiosity in the overcrowded zombie subgenre. It’s unlikely to appeal to fans of The Walking Dead and its ilk - as it’s essentially a war film with an emphasis on action. It also plays its drama fairly straight, so it’s not exactly a tongue-in-cheek camp fest like the similarly revisionist Iron Sky. B-movie action fans are most likely the target audience. If they approach the film with low expectations, they might have a good time with it. The loud exchanges of gunfire, bullet violence, CGI blood, fiery explosions, hand-to-hand combat and general head-bangery will please the undiscriminating viewer.