It has been an odd experience tracking the post-Sundance coverage of Tommy Wirkola's Norwegian zombie picture Dead Snow, with more than one review offering criticisms along the lines of "If you take away the snow and the Nazis then it's just another zombie film." Well, yeah, and if you take away the Force and the space ships then Star Wars is just a film about a whiny kid with daddy issues. Does it really make sense to make a film into something other than what it is so that you can then offer up criticisms for what it's not? No, the question people should be asking is whether Wirkola's film works on its own terms, whether or not it's a good zombie film. And the answer to that is a resounding yes. Dead Snow is easily the best and most entertaining zombie picture since Spanish offering [REC] and just misses making the top five of the past decade.
The setup is simple enough: a group of eight Norwegian medical students are headed to a remote cabin in the mountains for some R&R over their Easter break, seven of them travelling by car while the eighth opts for a lengthy cross country hike. The seven pass the time waiting for their final friend in typical fashion - beer, sledding and flirtation - until tension over her failure to arrive on time begins to creep in and the mood finally tips over the edge thanks to a mysterious stranger who arrives with a local tale of Nazi torture, stolen treasure, and a squad of missing soldiers. Cue the carnage.
Given Wirkola's resume - his previous film was a broadly slapstick parody of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill - and the marketing materials the expectation was that Dead Snow would play as a horror comedy with an emphasis on the comedy but this proves - pleasingly - not to be the case. Yes, there is comedy throughout and the film aims far more for entertainment value than does the oppressively creepy [REC], but the humor is generally very sly. Wirkola is very careful not to break character and to not undercut the horror by making his zombies funny so while some gore moments are sure to draw an appreciative laugh - one disemboweling sequence in particular is sure to get the crowd going - there is never an obvious punchline.
Instead, Wirkola does a surprisingly good job of establishing his characters all of whom - with the exception of the obligatory 'mysterious stranger' - come across as entirely believable, likable people. The character dynamics are nothing overly complex - there is no attempt to make them into anything other than college kids off to spend a weekend getting drunk and, maybe, laid - but he gets them right, very quickly establishing the relationships and distinct quirks of each of his main players. Also very strong are the tech elements of the film - the cinematography, in particular, is gorgeous and showcases the natural environment of the film to great effect.
But what fans really want to know about is the zombies. Yes, there are lots. And, yes, they are Nazis. Gore is plentiful though neither excessive nor of the stomach-churning, tortuous variety. While there are a couple of shots that could have benefitted from a more experienced effects crew the region has made huge strides in this area in recent years and Dead Snow boasts the best physical effects of any genre film to come out of the current Nordic wave by a fairly comfortable margin. Wirkola obviously feels no particular compulsion to follow strict zombie dogma and strays from the standard 'rules' on a few fronts: his creatures move very fast, are entirely conscious and organized, and it's never quite clear whether they are infectious. For that matter, it's not clear what made them into zombies in the first place - all that we know is that they're there and they really, really don't like it when people take their gold.
Dead Snow is not entirely without its hiccups - the finale could be a touch stronger, for one thing - but it is a hugely entertaining film, a big time crowd pleaser that will hopefully be hitting the fest circuit soon. If you get the chance, see this thing on the big screen as it was intended.