Friday, October 31, 2014

Shocktober Review: Dead Snow 2

 It only seems fair to end Shocktober with something to look forward to - Tommy Wirkola's gonzo sequel Dead Snow 2. I've seen it subtitled "Red vs. Dead," but the title screen just said Dead Snow 2 (well, technically it was Død Snø 2), but when you get a chance to see it, you really ought to. If you read yesterday's retro review of Dead Snow, you'll know the Cap'n enjoyed the first film, but wasn't blown away by it. Dead Snow 2 is a completely different story, as Wirkola goes for broke in staging an all out war between his Nazi zombies, Russian zombies, a returning hero, a maybe not-so capable Zombie Defense Squad, and an even less capable local police force. It's more violent, more ridiculous, and a whole hell of a lot more fun without ever going off the rails.

 Wirkola picks up the story where Dead Snow left off - Martin (Vegar Hoel), the last survivor is about to drive away after giving zombie Nazi Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) the last piece of gold that reanimated his battalion, when another piece lands on the floorboard. Who's standing outside the car? Now, it's not totally unprecedented to continue a story directly, Dead Snow 2 gets points for turning the classic ending "twist" into a full-on horror action sequence as Martin tries desperately to drive away, Herzog and troops in pursuit. In the ensuing mayhem, both protagonist and antagonist end up losing their right arms, and when Martin wakes up in a hospital nearby, he's alarmed to discover that doctors have reconnected Herzog's arm to his body. He's also not too pleased to be the prime suspect in the murder of his friends (seen in footage from Dead Snow at the outset of the film).

 That's the least of Martin's problems, as it turns out, because Herzog and his undead minions don't just go back to their graves once the gold is returned. A chance encounter with a truck ignites memories of the mission they failed: to capture and destroy a small town in Norway. If Martin can stop them, he's going to need the held of the Zombie Defense Squad: a trio of American geeks (Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, and Ingrid Haas) who are anything but well equipped to handle Col. Herzog's newly acquired tank. He also picks up Glenn (Stig Frode Henriksen), employee of the WWII museum Herzog raids, and a zombie sidekick of his own (Kristoffer Joner). The latter comes as a result of Martin's new arm, which gives him a degree of super-strength and the ability to re-animate the dead. It's also something he has limited control over, as we learn during his hospital escape, which includes some impressive gore and a few accidental murders.

 But wait, there's more! Daniel (Starr) uses his research of Herzog's mission in Norway to deduce that there's also a unit of dead Russian soldiers somewhere in the mountains that Martin could raise from the dead to help, while Monica (DeBoer), Blake (Haas), and Glenn try to slow the march of the undead. Meanwhile, the local police force is on the hunt for Martin, so midway through Dead Snow 2 we're following no less than four different storylines that don't converge until nearly the end of the film. It's no small feat to keep so many balls in the air, let alone in a sequel with only two returning characters, but Wirkola somehow manages to keep Dead Snow 2 moving forward without ever feeling overstuffed. That's in addition to the fact that the film alternates between Norwegian, German, and English because of the inclusion of the Americans.

 Much of that is due to Wirkola's demented sense of humor and ability to acclimate to a larger budget. Dead Snow didn't necessarily feel hampered by its scale, but the sequel opens up in so many different ways that it's all the more admirable he manages to retain the anarchic sense of "anything goes" while not totally losing control of the story. The humor is still intact, and Dead Snow 2 is much funnier in its use of gore as a punch line (in this respect, I'd say it's fair to compare its approach as a sequel to Evil Dead 2). I thought that there was no possible way to use Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for comic effect again, but its placement in Dead Snow 2 is a great payoff of a setup you likely forgot from earlier in the film. To say any more would be to spoil the very end, which might have you laughing and gagging at the same time.

 Dead Snow 2 also stages the climactic battle, between Nazi zombies, Russian zombies, the ZDS, and Martin in a way that makes the chaos easy to follow, which is frankly uncommon these days. I'd like to highlight one moment where Wirkola distinguishes himself not only from frenetically edited horror films, but also from most current action films. Late in the film, when Martin is fighting Herzog, they end up inside of a house. Aside from using kitchen implements in a way that's reminiscent of Kill Bill by way of Evil Dead 2, Herzog also throws Martin through the ceiling. Rather than cut upstairs, or cut away to the battle outside, Wirkola holds on the scene, tilting the camera up slightly to show the ceiling and nearby stairwell, where Martin comes rolling down shortly thereafter. It's both an impressive stunt, but is also funnier as a gag because of his timing in an unbroken take. Wirkola relies on his actors (with well times sound effects) to sell the geography and timing of the stunt rather than dictate the pace with edits. It isn't the only example in Dead Snow 2, but it impressed me precisely because of how rare it is to see a shot like that in modern horror films.

 There are a few minor quibbles I have with Dead Snow 2, mostly from its mid-section: Wirkola's comic timing, with respect to using gore as punctuation, is often spot-on, but there's a lot of the Zombie Defense Squad that falls flat. Martin Starr (Party Down) is largely relegated to expository dialogue, and the decision to make Monica a Star Wars quoting "geek" doesn't really go anywhere. I think it's supposed to be a joke that she picks the wrong lines to reference, but it honestly wasn't very funny. I minded Wirkola's cheap shot zombie kills of children and the handicapped (mostly limited to a montage) less, and the continued abuse of Joner's sidekick zombie goes on for so long that it stops being funny and then becomes funny again towards the end of the film. While I'm not convinced the Americans were necessary, their presence isn't a detriment to Dead Snow 2. There's honestly so much to enjoy about the film that any complaints are minor. I would have been impressed that a movie this busy had worked at all, but not only does it, it's also constantly keeping you off-balance with unexpectedly smart twists. If the hinted Dead Snow 3 ever materializes, I'll check it out. In the meantime, fans of Dead Snow have plenty to look forward to, and there's enough of a recap that first timers can feel comfortable jumping in as well. Of the horror films the Cap'n saw during Shocktober (but didn't review*), this by far comes the highest recommended.

 * At some point, I will try to get you reviews for The ABCs of Death 2, Horns, V/H/S Viral, and See No Evil 2, but only one or two of them were any good.

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