Monday, May 23, 2011

The Disturbing Lack of Nazi Zombies

Zombies, ya know I hate 'em; always coming around trying to eat my flesh and tear my friends limb from limb. Do you know what I hate more though? Nazis, the only other indefensible group that it's always ok to kill. They make a natural pairing, two parts despicable and always threatening. And who doesn't enjoy watching nazi zombies get slaughtered, bashed in and blown to bits? So if the equation makes so much sense, why are there so few films that fit this bill? You've probably seen a few, most likely Shock Waves and Dead Snow. But I'd bet that you'd be hard pressed to name 4 more. The fact is that there are, sadly less than a dozen and many of them take the awesome potential offered by the nazi zombie concept then let it fizzle with a wet whimper; like a fire cracker under water. So let's take a look back to see what went wrong and what's worth watching.

The Pre-Show: A Different Sort of Zombie
These two flicks are pre-Romero and are only loosely zombie films as we define them today, but are worth mentioning as having planted the seeds of what was to come.

Revenge of the Zombies - 1943
John Carradine, father of genre fave David Carradine, plays an evil Nazi scientist named Max, who is resurrecting zombies to serve as warriors for the Third Reich. Everything is honky-dory until his wife dies and he uses his voodoo science magic on her. Unlike the rest of the zombies, she exhibits signs of free will and battles Max for control of the thralls. Glenn Kay interestingly remarks in his book Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide that the studios didn't feel, at this point, that the walking dead were interesting enough to carry a movie on their own and so zany subplots about nazis and mad scientists were added. This one is interesting as the prototype nazi zombie flick and for the climactic scene, but outside that it's slow and hasn't aged well. And of course, it doesn't have any of the gore genre fans so demand.

The Frozen Dead - 1967
20 years after the fall of the Third Reich, nazi scientists keep the heads of prominent war leaders frozen until such time as they can reattach them to bodies and take over the world (I hate it when that happens). Of interest here are the science experiments, hapless victims with glass domed heads and wires hooked directly to nerve endings. The zombie makeup is comprised of the standard grey pallor with mussed hair, which is cool as it's clear we've mostly moved on from voodoo zombies. Still the zombies are not what we've become accustomed to, but the torture is ratcheted up from earlier 60s horror films so you might want to check it out. I found the disconnected body parts attempting to be controlled by a severed, electroded head, to be an interesting concept, at least.

The TV dinner from Hell!

First Wave: 80's Zombie Dance Party
Zombies were all the rage by the late 70's and early 80's, so it should come as little surprise that it's this time period that produced the first wave of undead fascists. Sadly, a lot of that wasted potential I mentioned comes from this group. Yup, wasted potential, sounds like the 80's to me.

Shock Waves - 1977
The progenitor of the Nazi Zombie sub genre is also the only good entry in it for over 30 years! A groups of 20-somethings take up pleasure cruising on the yacht of John Carradine. Off the coast of a beautiful tropical island, the ship runs into a strange submerged wreck and the passengers have to take refuge on the seemingly abandoned piece of paradise. In a brilliant piece of location scouting, the mysterious ship that serves as the nazi transport is the real life S.S. Sapona; a concrete transport ship from WWII that had run aground. The group runs into a wickedly scarred Peter Cushing, the nazi commander in charge of an aqua division of zombie shock troopers. Interestingly, once they're unleashed, the zombies act with a purpose and somewhat intelligently. Folks connected with this film (mainly the makeup artist, writer and director) took the lessons they learned in this low budget guilty pleasure and went on to help create Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Deathdream and Return of the Living Dead part II. Clearly they had a soft, rotting spot for zombies. I won't spoil their secret weakness, but it's not your standard headshot. Shock Waves does everything right and of the films listed here, this is one of the two you should rush right out and see.

Oasis of the Zombies - 1981
The first of the pale imitators hoping to cash in on the relative success of Shock Waves. A group of SS troopers are tasked with moving a large amount of gold across northern Africa. The allies ambush them and between the sides, only one man survives to escape. After he's killed, his son sets out to find the lost treasure. The action here is tepid and the pacing couldn't be any slower. Perhaps director Jess Franco actually discovered time travel after a fashion, because he clearly found a way to make an eighty-two minute film feel as though it was three hours overlong. What passes for action sequences here do nothing to break up the tedium. We watch as teenagers just mill around and talk. We watch as badly made up zombies finally get about their business. We watch this one with friends...over drinks, if at all.

Zombie Lake - 1981
Nubile flesh fans take note: if you've searched high and low for your fill of early 80's tits and ass coupled with undead fascist assholes, this is your film. Here's the plot, such as it is: The French resistance kill a nazi patrol and hide their bodies in a nearby lake. Years later, nubile young girls from the nearby town skinny dip in the lake. This, of course, causes the ghastly Germans to rise from the dead and seek vengeance(and booty). I'm convinced that the setting and title were chosen just as an excuse to shoot the swimming ladies from directly below as they tread water, which is the only pulse pounding action in Zombie Lake. I suppose that might be a little disingenuous of me, there are a few explosions, of the combustion variety. Enjoy it, won't you?

Revenge of the Zombies - 1981
I watched this for you people. Damn you. Ok, here goes. Investigators stumble upon records for the USA's WWII chemical corps. Along the way, they hear rumors regarding left over nazi zombies, in this case, actors with a bad case of blue make-up syndrome. This one isn't even worth watching, not even in the "so bad it's good" vien. The titular zombies only appear in the film for a total of five minutes. This has been a public service announcement, you have been warned.

Floridian Nazi Zombies?

Revival: Back from the Dead...Again
Zombies fans have had much to rejoice about over the past decade, for never have we had such an unprecedented amount of zombie content released over all forms of media. We've had some great(and bad) comics, video games, movies, tv shows, wall calendars, dolls and way more. So it was only a matter of time before zombies of the WWII variety got the come back treatment. Perhaps after the bad taste left by Oasis of the Zombies, Zombie Lake and Revenge of the Zombies, the world needed a vacation from the Nazi Zombie sub genre. Let's hope that this new round gives a few more choice, meaty selections.

Outpost - 2008
I heard about Outpost from a friend, who assured me it wasn't your standard zombie fare. He wasn't wrong. Outpost is an interesting film which combines uneven parts mercenary action, nazi zombie, occult sci-fi and alternate reality shifting. I owe you an explanation for all that. This British production see a corporate scientist hiring a team of paramilitary mercenaries tasked with escorting him to and from an abandoned WWII Nazi bunker; itself the site of German experiments on their own soldiers. However, things are rarely never as easy as they seem in these films, and the mercs are beset by mysterious enemys, who appear as shadows in the forest. As it turns out, the nazis were working on a generator which would allow their soldiers to shift into alternate dimensions (interestingly, this is something that they really where alleged to have been trying to do). The experiment went wrong, creating dimension shifting, unkillable, vengeful nazi zombies. Perhaps taking a queue from Shock Waves, the rotting meat sacks here aren't slow, mindless gibbering idiots. They're coordinated, fast, stealthy and very lethal. Here's where I'm not so thrilled: while the practical gore effects are really awesome and excellent done, this film falls into the modern trap of using too much CGI gore effects, which I've yet to see really done well in this sort of film. It doesn't ruin the film, but it certainly doesn't make it any better. I recommend giving this one a look, just understand it isn't your standard zombie flick.

Dead Snow - 2009
I'll come right out and say it, this movie is god damned fun. Coming right out of left field (Norway), Dead Snow was clearly made with care by folks who absolutely love the genre. Director Tommy Wirkola and writer Stig Frode Henriksen (who costars in the film as Roy) have crafted a loving homage to the gory, sleazy 80's zombie movie in much the same way Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did for the Romero zombie style film with Shawn of the Dead. In a nutshell the film involved the cabin vacation hijinx of a cohort of medical students in the frosty mountains of Norway. Little do they know that an evil brigade of nazis had abused and tortured the locals here during World War II for three years, until the villagers rose up and drove them off to die in said freezing mountains. And die they did, but they didn't stay dead, much to our delight. These nazi zombies stay hidden in the snow until a zombie fodder character happens by to stir them. Make no mistake though, this is a zombie gore comedy, with many scenes being played for laughs. There's so much to enjoy here, including a head ripped in half causing a brain to shoot out, an Army of Darkness tool shed arming montage, a Rambo homage, a character so bad ass that he applies duct tape around his neck to stop the bleeding from a chewed up artery and a Norwegian film nerd who does a really spot on Harrison Ford impression. The practical gore effects are artful to behold, truly, nearly everyone ends up with Dead Alive levels of caked on gore. The digital effects, including a man being torn into quarters looks pretty bad though and I really wish they would stick to practical gore effects for these films. So far, Dead Snow is the class of the modern Nazi Zombie film. You need to see this. You need to show this to your friends. This film could become the new Evil Dead Girlfriend Test.

The 4th Reich - in post production
As of this publication, The 4th Reich is slated to come out later this year. It's interesting in two ways. First, it's a period piece, actually set during WWII. It follows a group of G.I.'s during Operation Overlord. Secondly, its got a fairly decently sized budget. That could either be excellent, if the right creative juices are behind it or it could be terrible, as with the Star Wars prequels: where lack of financial constraint allowed George Lucas cartblanche, to disastrous effect. Speaking of dictators, Hitler has charged his scientists and doctors with creating a new race of soldiers who can't be stopped by the Allies and will usher in the titular successive Reich. It sounds like our G.I. chums will have to combat the undead, stop the project and save the world. Keep an eye out for this one later this year.

Norway, no W's here.

So there you have it, over fourty years of zombie films since Romero revolutionized them and only nine Nazi Zombie flicks (seven since then, two before). Somehow, I can't help feeling we've been loosing out. Hopefully, before this wave of zombie love tapers off, we'll get a little more love for these fascist brain munchers.

Did I miss any? Let me know!

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