As its title suggests, “War of the Dead” is a horror-action hybrid which sees soldiers facing off against zombies, this time with a World War II backdrop. Much like its undead ghouls, the Finish film actually lurched its way slowly to the screen over several years, managing to overcome a troubled production history which saw funding problems and the loss of lead actors on two occasions. Thankfully, director Marko Mäkilaakso, best known for his documentaries and shorts, was able to keep a steady hand, and the film finally lands shortly on region 2 DVD via Momentum.
The film opens in 1939 in a secret Nazi bunker on the Russian/Finish border, where dastardly scientists are carrying out ‘anti-death’ experiments. Fast forward a couple of years, and a squad of American and Finish soldiers arrives on the scene, charged with cleaning up the mess and eliminating any survivors, living or dead. Surviving an ambush en route, the men are surprised to find themselves later facing again the same enemies they had recently killed, who seem to have returned to life and gained new strength in the process. With their numbers rapidly being whittled down, the remaining three squad members, an American called Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan (“300”) and the Finnish Lieutenant Laakso (Mikko Leppilampi) and Captain Niemi (Jouko Ahola, “Kingdom Of Heaven”) are forced to trust a young local Russian soldier (Samuel Vauramo, “The American”) in order to try and destroy the evil for once and for all.
It’s obvious from early on that “War of the Dead” is more action than horror, with director Marko Mäkilaakso going for thrills and gun battles instead of scares. Indeed, the film plays out almost entirely like one long protracted shoot-out set piece, with the hapless characters basically being herded from point A to point B, giving it at times the feel of a “Call of Duty” style video game. Sadly, the film also has all the plot and emotional depth of a video game as well, as there’s almost nothing going on aside from the pyrotechnics and occasional attempts at entirely predictable twists. Whilst on the plus side this does mean that the film is a fairly lean beast, moving along at a fast pace and wasting little time on filler material, there’s no meat whatsoever, and the viewer quickly disconnects from the action. A depressing lack of creativity and variety in the action really doesn’t help, and the endless scenes of faceless ghouls charging at equally faceless characters rapidly become repetitive and painfully dull, despite Mäkilaakso’s efforts to convince otherwise.
“War of the Dead” was apparently the most expensive film ever shot in Lithuania, and to be fair, the money spent does show up on screen, with some impressive production values and special effects which are generally reasonable. Sadly though, Mäkilaakso never seems quite able to make the most of this, and the film mainly takes place in the dark, with a strange overreliance lightening and other old horror motifs, presumably in a half-hearted attempt at whipping up some much-needed atmosphere. He also makes another crucial mistake in the lack of any real gore scenes or splatter, and again this leaves the film feeling very much like a generic piece of no-frills or thrills action rather than the kind of enjoyably daft mash-up it could have been.
It’s really quite a shame that “War of the Dead” fails to find its mark, especially given the effort which must have gone into dragging it towards completion. At the end of the day though, any film which somehow manages to make Nazi zombies boring definitely has a lot to answer for, and Marko Mäkilaakso ultimately fails to deliver anything other than unambitious, middle of the road shlock.
Marko Mäkilaakso (director) / Marko Mäkilaakso, Barr B. Potter (screenplay)
CAST: Andrew Tiernan … Martin Stone
Mikko Leppilampi … Lieutenant Laakso
Samuel Vauramo … Kolya
Jouko Ahola … Captain Niemi
Mark Wingett … Selzman
Andreas Wilson … Assistant
Antti Reini … Sergeant Halonen
Magdalena Górska … Dasha