Director: Marko Mäkilaakso
Screenplay: Marko Mäkilaakso & Barr B. Potter
Starring: Andrew Tiernan, Mikko Leppilampi, Samuel Vauramo
Producers: Barr B. Potter, Ramunas Skikas
Running Time: 82 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I, along with many I'm sure, are sick (to death?) of zombie movies. The shear number of 'of the Dead' titles I see being churned straight out onto the DVD shelves of my local HMV make me lose all faith in the film industry. So why, you ask, did I volunteer to review the latest in the production line - War of the Dead? Well, largely it was to do with the Finnish heritage of the film – ignore the IMDB 'Details' section, the film is written and directed by a Finn, stars a number of them and is even supposed to be set around the Finnish/Russian border (actually shot in Lithuania). Having a proudly Finnish wife that I've kept prisoner in the wet and dreary UK means anything from the country must be treasured. Also, the film did seem to be playing with the formula a bit in the description I was sent, so I figured I should give it a go and to be honest, I actually quite enjoyed it.
War of the Dead is set at the beginning of World War II. An elite squad of US soldiers are teamed up with Finnish soldiers near the Finnish/Russian border, sent to destroy a mysterious Nazi bunker. As the group get closer to their target they encounter an enemy far more dangerous than they first expected, with both Nazi and Allied soldiers rising from the dead and attacking them. It eventually becomes clear that this bunker has something to do with the disturbing phenomenon and the last remaining soldiers, after meeting with a seemingly friendly young Russian, head on to complete the mission, no matter what it takes.
On top of the zombie factor, there are a number of reasons why I shouldn't have liked War of the Dead as much as I did. For one, the performances are pretty poor. Mikko Leppilampi, as Lieutenant Laakso, isn't charismatic enough to lead the cast and his character comes across as rather unlikeable for most of the film. Brit Andrew Tiernan, on the other hand, overdoes the gung-ho shtick demanded of his American soldier character, coming across as gratingly cheesy. He isn't helped by a painfully cliched script. We get all of the usual zombie and war movie mainstays – an infected friendly slowly on the way out, a suicidal push from a soldier 'with nothing to live for' and a girl who shows up for no reason other than to add a love interest to a male-orientated film.
I did find myself buying into the film though despite its flaws. A large factor is probably the fact that it's actually more of an action movie than a horror and I can forgive much more in an action movie so long as it delivers in the appropriate aspects. Throwing wave after wave of zombies at the protagonists, inexplicably coming from every corner, it gets ridiculous, but it's sure as hell action-packed. The pacing doesn't get hampered by never-ending violence though, there is just enough downtime to relax without getting bored. The action is well mounted too, maybe a bit quick-cutting for my tastes, but you can still make out what's going on and it's exhilarating at times. Due to the non-stop pace there is a distinct lack of tension though and I never found myself really caring who would make it out alive.
In general, what really helped the film work for me though were the production values. For a film that reportedly only cost €1,000,000 it looks incredibly slick. The cinematography, production design and make-up effects wouldn't look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. Only a bit of shoddy CGI right at the end lets things down. For what is essentially a cheesy straight to DVD genre film though, it stands head and shoulders above most similar titles in terms of presentation. The interesting setting helps too, adding a war-movie twist to the tired zombie genre.
A film that takes itself so seriously with such lazy writing and weak performances shouldn't be so fun, but somewhere around the numerous action scenes, fairly original setting and glossy visuals I let myself go with it. If you can switch off and go with it too, you're in for a good time – just try not to analyse things too carefully afterwards.
War of the Dead is out now on DVD in the UK, released by Momentum Pictures. Picture and sound quality is solid and there is a 15 minute Making Of which is a bit promo-like, spending too much time explaining the plot and kissing ass, but it's still worth a watch and makes the set look fun and friendly. There's the usual trailer included too.