Review: Nazis! Zombies! Chainsaws! Dead Snow has it all—except for one important ingredient

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Dead Snow is the first movie I can remember that is inspired by a movie that is inspired by a movie. As if going straight to the source was simply too much trouble, writer-director Tommy Wirkola pilfers shamelessly from the style books of folks like Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright to create a zombie movie that feels like a next-gen celebration of contemporary genre tributes and the cinephile filmmakers who make them.

But even if the distinction seems negligible to everyone except those folks who know the difference between, say, Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead, this Norwegian export adds precious little to the zombie-movie canon that hasn't already been thoroughly cannibalized by better directors and storytellers.

To his credit, Wirkola understands horror movie clichés inside and out, even as he yields to them to tell his story: The film follows a group of Norwegian medical students who retire to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, only to be invaded by flesh-eating zombies. The catch is that the zombies are fugitive Nazis who fled Norway after World War II and live in the mountains, hoarding treasure they wrested away from citizens during their occupation.

Before long, the co-eds are plunged into a quasi-hilariously nightmarish world where they're attacked from all sides and fighting for their lives in an environment where it's impossible to tell which direction leads to safety and which leads to death.

The beginning of the film actually works pretty well, mostly because Wirkola acknowledges that he's plunging his characters into a textbook horror-movie setting; there's even a requisite Jamie Kennedy Scream character who makes constant movie references and points out the folly of venturing out into the wilderness. Interestingly, he's the only character who actually gets laid—no doubt a bit of wish fulfillment for all of the Tarantino wannabes in the audience—but after his and the other characters' otherwise mundane problems are established (one girl is claustrophobic, another guy is a future surgeon who hates blood), the film falls readily into a conventional series of gory deaths and loses any sense of uniqueness or fun.

While the Nordic location is indisputably unique to most horror fans—even if they've seen other winter-themed flicks, from The Thing to 30 Days of Night—Nazis unfortunately are not as spectacular an invention as Wirkola seems to think. Even if few zombie enthusiasts have seen Nazi-themed flicks like Night of the Zombies or Oasis of the Zombies, 1977's Shock Waves is something of a cult classic, which means that the effectiveness of Dead Snow comes down to the way in which Wirkola uses the Nazi zombies.

And while they run, attack and even strategize on occasion, the Nazis generally do nothing more special or relevant to their political affiliation than any other kind of zombie. (As inappropriate as it might have been, one could at least admire if the filmmakers went for broke and made the human protagonists Jews fighting against their historic oppressors, or if the zombies unexpectedly elected not to kill certain members because they had blue eyes and blond hair.)

Meanwhile, the style of the film so obviously echoes the quick-cut, madcap style of folks like Raimi and Wright that it's hard to know where Wirkola's own directorial sensibility begins. His montages are chopped up into rapid-fire pans and zooms that will look familiar to even casual viewers of Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead II, while most of the "horror" comes from jump scares rather than any kind of mounting or sincere dread. Then again, he does create a couple of memorable moments, including a sequence in which a guy severs his own arm to rid himself of a zombie bite, only to be attacked—in the crotch, no less—immediately afterward.

But overall, there's not enough originality in the film to surpass its endless homages, moments of inspiration and just knockoffs of moments we've seen and celebrated in other movies—which makes Dead Snow a reheated bit of the genre's rawest materials, when what we really need is a completely new dish.