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Dead Snow (2009) vs. Overlord (2018)

"No pressure, J.J. Abrams, but you don't want to know where I'm going to stick this if Episode IV sucks."

Nazis and zombies and guns..oh my!

Posted: Nov. 10, 2018 1:17 PM

“Sometimes dead is better.” – Pet Sematary.

In our voracious pop culture, every genre has its day. Westerns, musicals, Biblical epics…you name it and you can find a stretch of time when it seems like that was all anyone was watching. For the last decade or so, it’s been zombies that have been the “IT” thing in entertainment. The genre has moved from the fringe of midnight showings of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and low-budget knockoffs ignored by the general public to being the most watched series on television.

But every day ends and looking at the dramatic decline in “The Walking Dead,” both critically and in viewership, it feels like the zombie genre is getting ready to shamble back into the shadows. Before that happens, KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is going to take a look at two entries which hang on the same hook but couldn’t be more different if they tried. It’s “Dead Snow” (2009) vs. “Overlord” (2018) in a battle between a movie that aims high and falls a bit short and one that aims low and hits right on target.

“Dead Snow” is a Norwegian film about a group of youngish medical students who head to a snowy cabin in the woods looking for some fun and find undead Nazis who are anything but. This is the first film from Norway I’ve ever watched and it took a while to get used to the language. Not that everyone was speaking Norwegian but how many recognizable English words and phrases kept popping up. It almost felt at times like I was watching a documentary about the impact of American cultural imperialism on a tiny country just struggling to hold on to its identity.

"Step one:  take over the world!  Step two:  Find a new dry cleaner and dermatologist."

Anyway, five of the students make their way to the cabin and wait for a sixth to arrive and complete their trio of horny couples. An old man shows up whose name might as well be “Ed Exposition” to tell them about the Nazis who occupied the area back in World War II and fled into the mountains, never to be seen again, after the local populace rebelled against their cruelty. When those Nazis return as zombies that look like they were made out of beef jerky and painted gray, our young medical students have to fight for their lives.

“Dead Snow” is a pretty basic formula of humans + zombies = carnage but co-writer/actor Stig Frode Henriksen and co-writer/director Tommy Wirkola deserve enormous praise for the delightfully weird way they mix those elements together. Undeniably inspired by the “Evil Dead” flicks, “Dead Snow” swings from legitimate attempts at fear to over-the-top comedy to gross-out gore to action flick heroism to tugging the ol’ heart strings and back again. This film is happy to go as far as you think it can go and then a little bit farther. From Wirkola’s fetish for exposed intestines to an outhouse sex scene with Germanic overtones to a squirmingly good joke about amputating zombie-bitten body parts, you think you’ve see all this movie has to offer and then it hits you with something more.

"I DON'T WANT KETCHUP ON MY CHALUPA!"

I also enjoyed the 1970-esque funky awkwardness of “Dead Snow.” American filmmaking has reached such heights that the lowest-budgeted endeavors still wind up looking slick and focused and unreal. Even the grit and grime winds up looking spit and polished. There’s an organic messiness here visually and in performance and dialog that is as refreshing as jumping in a mud puddle and remembering what it’s like to be a kid.

It’s also interesting to maybe see a bit of Norwegian self-image shine through “Dead Snow.” An American version of this would have had most of the humans ultimately playing the part of victim while one or perhaps two of them see their inner hero emerge. In contrast, every one of these medical students turn out to be Nazi-zombie butchering bad asses of the highest order. I can’t help but wonder if that reflects an unspoken Norwegian conceit that they may be a small nation but they’re just as tough as any great power.

"I guess Uncle Ash was right.  You never should leave home without it."

They probably spent nearly 50 times as much money on “Overlord” as “Dead Snow” but they thankfully didn’t assume cash can replace creativity. This 1940s-era flick sees a team of anachronistically integrated U.S. soldiers parachuting into Nazi-occupied France on the eve of D-Day to destroy a radar tower in a small French town so Allied planes can support the ground forces storming the beaches of Normandy. After a tremendous opening that makes you feel like you’re watching an honest-to-goodness World War II movie, the surviving soldiers discover that their target also holds a lab where the Nazis are experimenting on French villagers to try and create the unkillable warriors Hitler needs for his Thousand Year Reich. With the aid of a war-embittered French lass, the soldiers must complete their mission while also making sure none of the Nazi’s monstrous innovations survive.

It’s not a huge deal but the U.S. military was officially segregated until 1948, which means the squad of black and white soldiers serving under a black sergeant in “Overlord” is as fantastic and unrealistic as a unicorn flying a rocketship to the land of Oz. I realize we’re all about diversity nowadays and there is some legitimacy to fudging the facts of history a bit so stories set in the past can be relevant and acceptable in the present, but it is also legitimately important to remember that the ways things are now is NOT the way they’ve always been. It’s less concerning that there are black and white soldiers serving together than that “Overlord” doesn’t have even the briefest reference or allusion to the racial realities of its time period. There’s not even a token racist white solider who doesn’t like serving with blacks but gets killed right away so we can move past the subject. This film is so concerned with being “woke” that it actually winds all the way back to being decidedly “unwoke” and sugarcoats American history.

They now realized those Eastern European girls did NOT invite them back to their hostel to have sex.

Which I realize isn’t that important in a movie about Nazi zombies but if you don’t point out little issues like this, they tend to grow into bigger problems down the line. We shouldn’t stop making World War II movies because historical accuracy requires them to have almost all-white casts but we also shouldn’t casually rewrite history to make it politically correct. Offering some explanation for the racial makeup of the squad in “Overlord,” no matter how far-fetched or dubious, would have been nice.

Putting all that to the side, “Overlord” is a neat little flick. It’s got a lot of compelling ideas rattling around in its screenplay and director Julius Avery shows a deft hand at portraying the battles of war and unspeakable horrors, even if he’s a little too reliant on jump scares. I also appreciate how the story tries to be about more than just killing and mutilation but raises questions about whether you need to be just as evil as evil in order to triumph.

I think this Throwdown, however, has to go to “Dead Snow” because while it never wants to be more than entertaining, “Overlord” has greater creative ambitions it fails to achieve. Both movies are a bit sparse when it comes to plot but “Dead Snow” isn’t trying to do much more than get from one horror gag to another and does so quickly and efficiently. “Overlord” spends a lot of time treading water as its creators never figured out how to get from their outstanding beginning to their almost as outstanding ending. They establish certain plot requirements and character arcs at the start of the film, never truly advance or develop them, and then pull resolutions out of their collective behind. They’re trying to tell simultaneous tales of a civilian becoming a soldier and why it’s necessary to maintain our morality in the crucible of conflict but these filmmakers don’t understand how or why to do either.

Never touch another man's bag.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. There comes a point in “Overlord” where the hero says that saving a young child is more important than completing their mission. But if they don’t complete their mission, the invasion could fail and the Nazis could win. When the hero refuses to follow orders and forget about the child, he is literally putting millions of lives and the freedom of the entire world at risk. And you can tell as you watch “Overlord” that the filmmakers are trying to say something about the ends not justifying the means and how serving the greater good doesn’t justify tolerating lesser evils but they don’t understand WHY either of those things are true. They don’t know how to show the viewer that doing good ultimately works and doing evil ultimately fails so they wind up arguing that we have to do the right thing “just because.”

Yes, it’s a jerk move to criticize a motion picture for earnestly trying to be meaningful and falling short but if “Overlord” had built more effectively to its conclusion, both in practical plot mechanics and in advancing the evolution of its characters and thematic message, this thing would have been a damn masterpiece. The surrounding movie material is honestly that good.

Both “Dead Snow” and “Overlord” are well worth watching but the former is the superior chunk of filmmaking, though it is definitely strange enough to be an acquired taste. The latter is more mainstream, which only illustrates how much that stream has shifted. I mean, in ten years Nazi zombies went from being a cult foreign film only horror geeks saw to a multi-million dollar Hollywood production released on 3,000 screens and with an ad campaign to match.

Enjoy it while it lasts, zombie fans, ‘cause it won’t last forever.

"I see the two girls.  Where's the one cup?"

Dead Snow (2009)
Written by Tommy Wirkola and Stig Frode Henriksen.
Directed by Tommy Wirkola.
Starring Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Lasse Valdal, Evy Kasseth Rosten, Jeppe Beck Laursen, Jenny Skavlan, Ane Dahl Torp, Bjorn Sundquist, Orjan Garnst. Do Norwegians name their kids by grabbing a bunch of random Scrabble pieces?

Overlord (2018)
Written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith.
Directed by Julius Avery.
Starring Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbaek, John Magaro, Iain De Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Erich Redman, Gianny Taufer, and Bokeem Woodbine.

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