War of the Dead (UK DVD)
Starring Andrew Tiernan, Mikko Leppilampi, Samuel Vauramo, Jouko Ahola
Directed by Marko Mäkilaakso
Distributed by Momentum Pictures
Flooding the trenches with leaping, snarling Nazi zombies, fledging feature director Marko Mäkilaakso hopes to fire an adrenaline-propelled bullet straight through your face – but in his hasty chase for thrills manages only to fire a round straight through the kneecaps of the ill-fated War of the Dead.
Set in 1941 during World War II, War of the Dead sees a ragtag group of American and Finnish soldiers cross into Russian territory and immediately become set upon by the results of a nearby covert German experiment in “Anti-Death”. When the initial massacres are escaped, our gang are reduced to merely three: American Martin Stone (Tiernan), Finnish Lieutenant Laakso (Leppilampi) and empathetic detainee Kolya (Vauramo), a Russian soldier who agrees to team up in order to increase chances of survival. Hot on their trail every step of the way, however, is their now-infected ex-comrade Captain Niemi (Ahola), hell-bent on putting the munch on his previously-brothers-in-arms.
Of course, the trio will soon make their way to the bunker that proves the breeding ground for the ravenous hordes, and... well... shoot the shit out of loads of them. That’s about all there is to War of the Dead, and this simplicity is ultimately its downfall: So ardent is director Mäkilaakso to keep the pace moving that everything else falls by the wayside – actual plot and characterisation be damned. Heck, the opening minutes are so rushed and chaotically staged that it remains exceptionally difficult to tell just who the hell is actually having a conversation on-screen at any one moment for almost half of the film! Characters are introduced with the promise of further layers to be revealed (for example a documentary filmmaker accompanying the platoon) only to be offed quite literally two minutes later in a visually incomprehensible style that leaves it nearly impossible to ascertain who just died or what exactly just happened.
The same visual incomprehensibility extends to what should be a leading set-piece of the flick, whereby the survivors of the first attack are further whittled down in a relentless zombie attack on a dilapidated farm house – a set-piece rendered completely ineffective and nigh-on unwatchable by overly murky lighting and a camera that seems to swing wildly throughout every single frame. The action taking place is impressive and frenetic when it can be seen (especially considering the budget), with these particular walking dead proving to be more than formidable opponents for the doomed soldiers, but once again the staging leaves it regularly too difficult to get a grasp on the physical space, and just who exactly is in what position. The pacing is indeed full throttle, but the first half of War of the Dead is exhausting for all the wrong reasons.
Once the final trio make it to the experimental bunker, however, Mäkilaakso reins it in and becomes much more focused – and, in turn, War of the Dead starts to become a much more accessible experience. The characters remain ill-defined, with only Samuel Vauramo’s admirable turn as the lovelorn Kolya managing to reach out on any humanistic level; yet, the action scenes in the latter half are much more cleanly staged, and with a semblance of plot starting to become uncovered, the final act of the film serves up a much better meal to chew on than what has preceded it. Unfortunately, it isn’t long after the realisation that the film has gotten much, much better than anticipated that it all draws to a pretty disappointing close. A confusing point to raise is the film’s original, shooting title of Stone’s War, which naturally indicates that the story and narrative arc of the flick should in some way be heavily influenced by, or meaningful towards, the character of Martin Stone. In execution, he’s little more than another gun-toting grunt, raising more eyebrows than anything else as British actor Andrew Tiernan’s super-creaky American accent borders on caricature.
Gore fans would do well to look elsewhere, with War of the Dead offering little more than a lot of splashing CGI blood, mano-a-mano fisticuffs and the occasional bite wound, but action fans and those in search of something that holds an attention span low on the list of requirements should appreciate this one on some level. Honestly, War of the Dead isn’t entirely terrible and may be worth the time spent for the second half, but it positively reeks of unrealised potential. Not a completely regrettable experience, but not a particularly recommendable one either. Maybe just watch Outpost again instead.
Momentum Pictures’ DVD presentation of War of the Dead is perfectly suitable, if completely foiled by the work behind the camera – no amount of care in the image department could make half of that kinder to the eyes – with punchy sound to boot. On the special features side of things, we get a trailer and a “making of” piece that runs around 15 minutes and offers a respectable number of interviews and snippets of behind-the-scenes footage. It’s definitely worth a watch and reveals Mäkilaakso as a smart and enthusiastic director who does appear to be one to keep an eye on. If he can keep the damn camera still, that is.
2 out of 5
2 out of 5