Dead Snow is the perfect movie for our times, which is kind of crazy considering it came out a decade ago this week. Those of us old enough to remember when N*zis were just a school subject, rather than a very real threat to our democracy and way of life, have found it particularly difficult to assimilate to this new culture. And, if you’re one of those people, like myself, who believes that punching these creeps in the face is the best way forward, well, Dead Snow is the movie for you.
The premise is devilishly simple: N*zi zombies take out a cabin-load of hard-partying students because they kids have unwittingly stolen their long-buried treasure. But, as we all know from watching way too many horror movies, a brilliantly stupid idea does not necessarily a brilliant movie make (Shark Lake, anyone?). Here, though, it’s immediately evident a tonne of care, attention, and love went into making this movie happen — particularly considering shooting it was clearly an absolute pain.
In fact, the making of, which is hilariously entitled Madness in the North (it’s included on the DVD, so check it out if you own it — and you should), showcases just how difficult Dead Snow was. The small, tight-knit crew, many of whom worked day and night for little to no money, particularly towards the end, are shown quite literally battling the elements to get the thing done. The shoot lasted less than 40 days, but it would’ve been shorter if only the snow had held off. Director Tommy Wirkola is even shown gamely directing a shot while in full zombie makeup, before hopping into the fray himself to get down and dirty with everybody else.
The message is clear; this was made because everybody involved fully believed in the project, even when things went from bad to worse (footage of the cabin burning down was unusable, meaning the cast and crew trekked up a snowy mountain after their day had wrapped, for free, all for nothing).
That love, that sometimes insane level of commitment, is keenly felt in virtually every shot of the (surprisingly gorgeous) movie. From that killer opening, scored to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (presumably because it’s public domain, though it does fit the movie’s gnarly metal-head aesthetic), which is surprisingly well-shot and establishes the premise without even showing us the zombies — much to its credit — the warm feeling that this is something special, something authentic, and something completely homemade, settles in your stomach.
Dead Snow is an odd one because it’s structured like a slasher movie, which makes the early references to Friday the 13th much more interesting. It bears more than a passing resemblance to The Evil Dead, but the many nods are lovingly interspersed rather than smugly signposted. Crucially, although a film nerd character does feature, he’s told repeatedly to shut up and stop boring everybody and he’s schooled by a woman with arguably more horror knowledge than him (she casually refers to April Fool’s Day, causing both shock and arousal).
There are jokes, including a brilliant sight gag with a severed head and a mid-attack proclamation that “We should’ve gone to Sunny Beach!” (sounds like somewhere where very bad things happen, for sure), but this isn’t technically a horror-comedy. It’s light on its feet, and no time is wasted getting to the good stuff, but the premise is well-considered and presented without a shred of irony. The group is helpless but not dumb and they make mostly smart decisions. Picking who’s going to survive, if anyone, is fun rather than irritating because each character is fully-formed in their own right.
The stunning Norwegian landscape is gorgeously captured, and none of the shoot’s snow-related issues are apparent — quite the feat for a low-budget flick of this nature. Much of the action takes place in daylight, so there’s no hiding anything. As a result, everything from the dripping-wet blood on the zombies’ lips to their harsh, grey uniforms — horrid against the crisp, white snow beneath them — pops. Dead Snow saves its big money shot, of the leader, Herzog, for as long as possible and, when it comes, it’s an instant all-timer. He gathers his troops on the mountain, ready to pounce, many of whom emerge from the snow itself (poor extras). It’s classic.
The gore is wonderful, too, and super splattery. A local harbinger of doom refers to holding one’s intestines in one’s hands and being torn limb from limb early on. Happily, both of these things subsequently occur in the movie. There’s a weird, but very welcome, focus on intestines here particularly when one character hangs off a cliff using a zombie’s innards as a rope. Another poor sod gets his head pulled apart in gloriously disgusting fashion. Madness in the North gives an insight into how these effects were so lovingly created, and it’s clear each shot was expertly made to look as gruesome and convincing as possible.
The zombies themselves look incredibly gross and distinctive, and the final act carnage that kicks off (scored by what appears to be a traditional Norwegian folk song) with a classic tooling-up sequence is terrific. The female characters get their hands dirty too, which is always nice to see, while the zombie POV is an entertainingly disconcerting touch. It’s impossible to pick a best kill but the worst BJ ever is up there with that lady getting eaten out by a shark in Deep Blue Sea.
Dead Snow came around at a time when zombie movies were out of favor, five years after Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s brilliant Dawn of the Dead had been released. Rather than adhering to a formula, Wirkola took elements of the slasher movies he clearly adores and made a strange hybrid with an outwardly dumb premise executed to absolute perfection. The cast is uniformly great, and totally game to get wrecked in the snow (while drinking a beer called Arctic — ha!), while the zombies are gruesome, relentless, and look different than anything we’ve seen before or since.
It really puts the recent, completely rubbish, Overlord into perspective. Here we have a low-budget Norwegian movie made in the harshest conditions possible with a ragtag crew, most of whom were there because they didn’t have anything else to do, and it’s genius. Overlord had Hollywood money, a Hollywood cast, and a more reasonable premise (based at least partially in fact) and nothing about it is convincing, scary, or fun. Dead Snow proves you don’t need money or clout to make a great horror movie that’ll stand the test of time, just love, enthusiasm, and a team willing to go to any lengths to make it happen. It’s more relevant now than in 2009, which is really frightening.
Just to be clear, though, the (brilliant) tagline should be “Eins, Zwei, Die!” not “Ein.” Good grammar costs nothing guys. (I’m sorry)