When a marketer finds it necessary to promote a movie based on the fact that it is “the most expensive movie ever shot in Lithuania,” you can’t help but lower your expectations. I didn’t think Marko Mäkilaakso’s War of the Dead would amount to much more than 90 minutes of popcorn ridiculousness, but thought it could at least give me a reason to keep watching.
We begin with some prisoners being escorted into a Nazi facility of some sort, and the scene ends with one of the prisoners being injected with something that makes him into something approximating a zombie. Skip to a cadre of American special forces led by Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan) and Captain Niemi (Jouko Ahola) joining up with Lieutenant Laakso (Mikko Leppilampi) and some Finnish soldiers, on a mission to crash a nearby Russian bunker. They encounter some resistance, and one of the more laughable shootouts in action movie history ensues. As expected, the Allies take down the enemy with minimal losses, despite standing out in the open half the time, their opposition clearly unable to hit the broad side of a barn.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, they encounter someone wandering in the woods. After putting a few rounds into the stranger’s torso, it turns out he’s one of the specially bred zombies the Nazis were working on. These aren’t plodding Romero-style zombies that are scary for the sheer overwhelming volume of undeath they present. Instead, these are more like the sprinter zombies seen in 28 Days Later, except they also are apparently smart enough to set up ambushes, drop from trees, and will acrobatically somersault tumble through windows before engaging in elaborate hand-to-hand combat. I’m not really sure what I was seeing, as one group would present itself much differently than the next. Plus, the speed and precision of movement and combat techniques made them seem more like adept savages than mindless zombies working from instinct alone.
The zombie things struck me more like mosquitoes than a terrifying omnipresent tide of undead horror. They show up repeatedly to complicate the lives of whoever is still alive at any given point in the movie, but a key element was missing for me -- I didn’t care about anyone, on either side of the conflict. The zombies were completely interchangeable except for one, all the other characters were just placeholders, people to fall victim to the bitey foes, and the relationship between Kolya (Samuel Vauramo) and Dasha (Magdalena Górska) was lifeless and uninteresting. The part where Dasha wanders off in the Nazi facility, only to be found inexplicably wounded and on the verge of death kicks off the biggest melodrama of the movie. Given the excessively quick pace between action scenes, it lingered here a while too long, especially for characters we’ve been given no reason to sympathize with. But there are guns and blood and explosions! That should be enough, right? Eh, not really.
It brought to mind films like 28 Days Later and Aliens, but only as examples of what this movie is lacking. Its obsession with getting to the next attack/action sequence as quickly as possible leaves the characters no room to even exist, let alone develop or tell us anything about them. Build some relationships, make the audience care for these people and their plight. Several moments are decided solely on the basis of what’s best for the mission and who gives whom a “direct order.” Similar films bring people together based on circumstances, allowing them to forge bonds based around the goal of surviving. Nobody in the movie ever feels anything for anyone else (except questionably Kolya and Dasha), so it’s no surprise that I felt nothing for them. In one scene, a guy is wounded and slowly turning into a zombie. Kolya hands him a grenade and tells him to pull the pin when he feels the change happening. This should have been wrenching to the viewer, like when Wade slowly dies from his wounds with his squad surrounding him in Saving Private Ryan, but I had no idea who this guy was, when he’d gotten attacked, what side he was on, what he was doing there, anything at all.
After about halfway through, I was just waiting for things to end. Someone finds a magic key to open the zombie chamber, a reveal that should have been climactic and horrifying, but instead was just a slow moment of the characters taking things in. It held no real significance for the rest of the story. Nothing happens here, other than Dasha mysteriously disappearing, but that had nothing to do with the room itself. The remaining trio splits up (per horror-movie doctrine) and wanders claustrophobic hallways with the intent of getting out, popping smoke, and letting the air cavalry finish off the place. One of the leads from earlier returns in zombie form for a fairly boring mano-a-mano fight. Then the horde breaks loose and the gang is on the run again, trying to find a way out of the bunker.
It lacked everything a serious horror movie should have -- tension, scares, excitement. It could have gone the campier route and channeled Friday the 13th trappings and Inglourious Basterds’ sense of humor, which might have been better.
It looks good in 1080p at 2.35:1, and rest assured that you’ll understand the dialogue despite being a shot east of the Atlantic; the only audio track is English. With only scenes, setup, and a trailer on the disc, there’s nothing to do once the feature has wrapped.
There’s just nothing here to recommend over any other genre standbys. If you have 90 minutes to kill, there are so many better ways to do it within the genre, ranging from the stupid fun of Osombie, campy humor of Shaun of the Dead, or the straight-up creepiness of 28 Days Later.