Upon seeing my name mentioned recently in the context of film writing by the exceedingly talented Heather Drain, it struck me that I haven’t actually written about film in a long time. I’m not sure how much the following list counts as breaking that streak, but I will take a minute to talk about some of the more memorable titles I’ve watched recently.
I’m consistently shocked at the excellence of the selection at Shudder.com. We live in a beautiful world where $50 a year gets you access to titles like The Devils, Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and His Women. Selling me on a “horror streaming service” is a dicey proposition, since I’m more incidentally interested in horror. It’s not so much the horror-ness of a movie that attracts me, as it is that stories classed as “horror” are reliable sources of the kind of bizarre and thrilling things that I enjoy. As such, here are a few Shudder titles I can recommend.
Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion: DELICIOUS fashion, bad behavior, duplicitous women, and really awful personal decisions combine to make this Italo-thriller sizzle. So long as you’re not at 101-level gore-seeker status (and if you are, why are you reading anything I write?), this is a keeper.
Play Motel : OH MY GOD there’s a bouncy, soft-rock theme song that references the title of the movie and this was made for a dollar ninety-nine and I feel like I’m coated in a thin sheen of something slimy and disquietingly organic after accidentally stumbling into a sex party and then staying because dude, it’s a sex party–what am I going to do, LEAVE? Perfect, perfect, perfect. You, too, will be havin’ fun at the Play Motel, but you’ll feel super-gross about it afterwards.
Lust for a Vampire : Ralph Bates has gone on record saying this is “one of the worst films ever made,” which makes me sad. That the actor who is Hammer Films’ answer to Crispin Glover failed to see the beauty of this ode to lesbonic passion in a continental girls’ school where the heavy-bosomed students traipse about performing pseudo-Grecian dances while giggling is one of the great mysteries of cinema.
Amazon Prime Video is a reliable source for weirdness dredged up from god knows where, often with dubious-quality prints. All of this makes their pristine streaming copies of vintage Shaw Brothers movies even more of a treasure. It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but Human Lanternscan’t be rivaled for sheer Grand Guignol monstrosity. You’re gonna have a bad day after watching this martial arts revenge film whose “surprise” is right in the title. That is either a recommendation or a warning depending on your personality. Also: if you’re not watching movies starring the Venom Mob, then I just don’t know what you’re doing with your life. These martial arts masters make it all look so damn easy, capable of doling out serious ass whippings even when wearing bespangled, chest-baring satin outfits. Check out Flag of Iron, Five Elements Ninjas, and of course Five Venoms and prepare to be amazed.
I finally watched Fatal Attraction which is a wry comedy from the point of view of a middle-aged office worker who imagines himself to be an object of unbearable sexual desire, like some darkest timeline Walter Mitty (unless I’m reading this movie incorrectly…?). Following closely on the heels of this absurdist romp, I figured it was high time that I checked out Basic Instinct. The latter title was, if anything, even more bananas than I’d been led to believe. Sure, at one point in my life Basic Instinct was just a cultural artifact that brought me great pleasure when denying its rental to teen boys during my stint as a video store manager. I used to dismiss these 1990s erotic thrillers as aesthetically weak-sauce knockoffs of giallo, and while younger me was not entirely wrong in that assessment, I was very mistaken to think that this particular brand of bad taste was meritless as a result. Twenty-five years after its release, Basic Instinct has aged into a surprisingly heady brand of grotesque charm.
Speaking of grotesque charm, I blind-watched The Devil’s Mistress, a 2016 Czech docu-drama about actress Lída Baarová’s affair with Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and walked away satisfied. Have you ever wanted to see a telenovela-style love scene featuring a close-up on Goebbels’ leg brace set to Wagner’s Tannhäuser? Well, if you do now, you can head to Netflix and sate your curiosity.
Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1911 novel Alraune is part horror, part science fiction, part decadent prose, and absolutely of the most extreme femme fatale stories ever written. Kate and Jack tackle Ewers’ complicated personal and political history and why this German author’s weird tales deserve to be read alongside the work of other horror luminaries.
Kate and Jack selfishly take on the role of readers this month, highlighting the author’s luridly beautiful writing.
Explore sexy funtimes dekadentenstil with bloodletting, gender bending, and attempts to scientifically identify the sluttiest woman in Berlin. What on earth is a German fencing fraternity? Why should we bring back dueling for satisfaction? How can reading out loud be an effective pathway to getting laid? Find out all this and more in this month’s episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
I realize that the TRVER members of the cult film community will get the vapors upon reading this, but I’ve become a convert to the world of streaming cinema. HEAR ME OUT, friends–I retain enough firing neurons from back in the day to tell you that your local mom & pop video store wasn’t exactly the Library of Alexandria, so you can leave your belly aching about “selection” at the door. Unless the specific thrill of the DVD hunt moistens your undercarriage, I defy you to have a better movie-watching experience than the one provided by the archives at Fandor (a site that I pay for and that in no way compensates me for saying nice things). Below are just a handful of titles I’ve watched over the past few months on this thoroughly wonderful site.
The Sinful Dwarf: OK, so a lot of you have told me to watch this, and I ignored you. Joke’s on me, because this was exploitation bliss. For the uninitiated, this is the tale of Olaf, a little person who traps unsuspecting young women into lives of drugged-up sex slavery in a bordello run by his mother, a fading former cabaret star. It doesn’t sound appetizing, and it is indeed a thoroughly unsavory viewing experience. The Sinful Dwarf is elevated past similar fare by its details: close-ups on wind-up toys, lengthy song and dance performances, and an underlying moral about the dangers of a career as a screenwriter combine to make this an unforgettable trash cinema classic. Thanks, Denmark!
Cloistered Nun: Runa’s Confession: The Japanese have weird ideas about both consent and Christianity, so proceed with caution. Should you be able to deal with that, then boyfriend-stealing, double-crossing, sexed-up melodrama awaits you!
The Sin of Nora Moran: This is THE most melodramatic title on the list. A pre-Hayes Code doozie, this tale of a young woman wronged by the men around her is much more than the sum of its story. The frequently clunky acting combined with numerous montages and utterly absurd plot details (ALERT: vintage circus nonsense) make this a wonderful artifact of its time and place. I hesitate to use the word “underrated” since the relative buzz about a work shouldn’t impact the degree to which one appreciates it, but this movie might qualify as an “underrated” gem.
Christina: I feel like this is the real DISCOVERY from my Fandor wanderings. This 1984 sex adventure is the second Harry Alan Towers pulp adaptation on this list. I don’t even seek these out–they seem to find me! Based on an expansive series of pulp novels written under the female pseudonym Blakely St. James (a psuedonym that was shared by multiple authors, including noted science fiction author, journalist, and computer programmer Charles Platt), Christina was intended to be a star-making vehicle for Jewel Shepard. The director of this slice of 80s culture is Paco Lara, whose version of The Monk I found so baffling at one point. Recounting the adventures of the world’s richest heiress, Christina screws her way across the Iberian peninsula while attempting to evade lesbian terrorists, pirates, and other assorted ne’er do wells. The plot hardly matters; what’s of importance here is that this is the sort of movie that thinks black leather gloved hands rolling toy cars across a woman’s abdomen is a reasonable representation of lesbian sex. Pure stupidity, pure joy.
“Senso:” the title of Camillo Boito’s 1882 novella evokes the senses, primal feelings that are more immediate than reason. A stunning work of decadent fiction, “Senso” is the story of Livia, a 22-year-old countess married to a much older man who recounts her obsession with her “strong, handsome, degenerate, reprobate” lover, the soldier Romigio. I have a soft spot for horrible leading characters, and Livia is truly dreadful: she’s vain, impulsive, and vengeful with a complete disregard for anyone by herself. The very name “Livia” evokes the deified wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, known as an idealized, queenly matriarch, but this Livia is called “Messalina” by her lover, linking her more closely to the wife of Emperor Claudius who was rumored to be wildly promiscuous. Romigio proves himself to be precisely the kind of scoundrel he’s always presented himself to be, wheedling lavish gifts from Livia, who delights in stealing her husband’s money for her roguish, beautiful side piece. Things turn sour when Livia discovers that—in addition to his gambling, drinking, and excesses—Romigio also keeps other lovers, she finds a final way to squeeze pleasure out of her relationship with him: ratting him out as a deserter and watching his execution. A story of lust, extreme selfishness, and power against the backdrop of war, “Senso” begs to be adapted for the screen.
Luchino Visconti’s 1954 version of “Senso” is a lavish period piece set, like Boito’s novella, in Italy during the 1860s at a time of escalating tension with Austria. Livia (Alida Valli) is married to an aristocrat with ties to Austria, but Visconti adds a “competing loyalties” storyline with the new character of Livia’s cousin, the leader of an Italian rebellion against the Austrian occupiers. Visconti’s Livia is not the arrogant young woman depicted by Boito; instead she an aging beauty plagued by anxieties who is swept away by the dashing Lieutenant Franz Mahler (the renamed Romogio, played by Farley Granger who used the time in between filming to carry on an affair with Jean Marais). It’s clear that Franz is bad news, but Livia convinces herself he loves only her, in spite of his known reputation as a drunk and a womanizer. Rather than being a headstrong femme fatale—the Satanic Female so favored by the decadent movement—Visconti’s Livia is a tragic figure and this is the story of her downfall.
Key moments of sensuality populate the novella: Livia examines bruises on her body, her first tryst with Romigio takes place while swimming nude in a public bath, and there are references to her body being “crushed” and “bitten” during sex. Visconti transforms this physical sensuality into a purely visual beauty. Bruised, bitten shoulders are replaced by sumptuous layers of silk gowns and crushing sex becomes smoldering eye contact of the kind Visconti films so adeptly. It’s a breathlessness not of exertion and exhaustion, but of constraint. This Livia doesn’t pant from her unrestrainable sexual urges, but is unable to breathe due to tight bodices and heavy gowns.
Toxic intimacy gives way to sweeping battlefield sequences, shifting focus from Livia and Franz to the greater impact of war on the country. Livia’s obsession feels trivial when contrasted with images of wounded soldiers and chaotic fighting. Livia isn’t so much driven by desire, as she is hysterical. In fact, her neglect of duties to her countrymen is made explicit when she gives money earmarked for her cousin’s resistance efforts to her lover so he can avoid active duty. The consequences of her choice are made terribly obvious when the Austrian army defeats the Italian partisans.
In a final departure from Boito, Visconti constructs a confrontation between Livia and her cheating lover that doesn’t exist for Boito. It is enough for Boito’s Livia to witness Romigio’s unfaithfulness without being seen, but Visconti depicts a heartrending scene in which Franz, caught in the arms of a prostitute and bragging about taking Livia’s money, rants his explanation at Livia, maddening her with grief and regret. This Livia musters the last of her dignity to turn him in, instead of ruthlessly informing on him and taking pleasure in his death.
Visconti’s film is a breathtaking one in its beauty, if not due to the dark sensuality evoked by Boito. To watch one of the director’s period pieces is to be put into an idealized, luxurious vision of the aristocratic past, where rooms are decorated in museum-worthy furnishings, every uniform is crisp and spotless, and one can hear the rustle of crinolines in the gowns worn by the women. While Visconti’s “Senso” leaves a lot to be desired in terms of decadence, it’s a stunner of a melodrama.
The view of Visconti’s “Senso” as a none-too-authentic adaptation Boito’s novella was one held by the director himself (who at one point wanted to rename the project entirely) as well as by Tinto Brass. Brass has mastered bringing the decadent aesthetic to the screen: plush, beautiful, immersive, horrific, and explicitly sexual, Brass fills his films with images designed to provoke a reaction. If decadence is defined as the rejection of realism in favor of artifice, then movies like “Caligula” and “Salon Kitty”—rooted in history but not terribly mindful of depicting it accurately—were cast in the decadent mold.
Tinto Brass’ 2002 “Senso ‘45” (aka ”Black Angel”) is the director’s attempt to connect the “Sensos” of Boito and Visconti, taking the latter’s adaptation and reworking many of the threads missing from the former’s novella. Revisiting the operatic fascism of “Salon Kitty,” though this time in the declining days of the German occupation of Italy, Brass recasts Livia (Anna Galiena) as the wife of an Italian fascist official and Romigio as SS Lieutenant Helmut Schultz (Gabriel Garko, sporting a regrettable bleach-blonde hairstyle).
The older woman/younger man dynamic of Visconti is present in “Senso ’45.” It’s noteworthy that the age shift on the part of the woman makes her a sympathetic figure—for a woman to begin to lose the beauty traditionally associated with youth is seen as tragic, but to depict a young woman in full realization of the power of this same beauty makes her demonic and threatening. To have the demonic female in a relationship with the demonic male (made explicitly demonic in Brass by his Nazi affiliation) creates an ambiguous balance of power and one that’s arguably closer to Boito’s original intent.
What Brass does bring to the forefront from Boito is the emphasis on sexual passion. The bodies so carefully disguised in meticulous period costuming in Visconti are on full display here—Brass’ no-less-gorgeous costumes are designed to be stripped from the players in moments of animal passion, with all the “crushing” and “biting” described by Boito. “Senso ‘45” is an extremely dark and cynical romance, with Livia frequently put into situations that force her to “overcome” some kind of inhibition (in contrast to the fully-realized sexuality of Boito’s protagonist). Of course, this being a Tinto Brass movie, we get a first row seat to Livia indulging in oral sex, group sex, public sex, anal sex, and transforming herself into a sexually awakened being as a result. There’s even a tonally bizarre scene—likely included to show us her point of view—where Livia and her SS boy-toy frolic at the seashore in a moment that feel like it would be at home in “The Blue Lagoon.”
Where Boito’s Livia is responding to her true nature and acting on her impulses, Brass’ Livia finds herself guided down a path of decadence. A character invented by Brass is Elsa, the procuress who ushers Livia into her first sexual encounter with Helmut and later is shown running a bordello and gambling den.
It’s noteworthy that, unlike the vast majority of Italian Nazi epics, “Senso ‘45” is set in and explicitly features images of Italian fascism. The streets of Venice are plastered with huge images of Mussolini and rifle-toting black-shirted troops roam the streets. While the movie never shows the front, the realities of war are present with blackouts and air raids a constant reminder that the social order is collapsing (or being returned to its proper alignment, with the ever-advancing Allies). World War II atrocities are evoked when Livia and Helmut witness the shooting of an unarmed woman in the streets. This does little to dampen their ardor, however, as they’re shown in their love nest apartment moments later.
The degree to which Helmut has exploited Livia is revealed when she discovers him spending the money she’d given him to save him from the front alongside a prostitute. The cruelty of the confrontation is emphasized here, with Helmut pointing out Livia’s age and laughing at her conviction that he loved her. What’s devastating to Livia has been obvious to the audience from the moment Helmut’s black-uniformed figure appeared on screen: he’s a vicious, amoral degenerate without a care for any other human being. The eroticism of Livia’s revenge on Helmut is emphasized in Brass, but a feeling of justification detracts from the shock at her final act of vindictiveness. Helmut/Romigio was not her equal in degeneracy, as is implied in Boito, but rather a far more horrible creature whose seductive power overwhelmed the already morally ambivalent politician’s wife.
This shift of power away from Livia as the stunning young noblewoman of Boito that transforms her into the elegant neurotic of Visconti and the late-blooming hothouse flower of Brass is an interesting choice. It’s almost as if the directors find it impossible to think the audience would be able to watch a movie focused on the demonic woman of decadent literature. Do they see her as a misogynist relic of a time past? Do they simply feel the viewer requires a sympathetic woman at the center of their stories in order to “sell” a narrative that hinges on revenge, rather than on Boito’s carnal death drive climax? Is it possible that, in recasting Livia as the “woman scorned” they’ve missed a key part of the power at the heart of the source novella?
The following are some movies I’ve watched recently that made enough of an impression one way or another to merit a post here. Consider these my personal pro/con recommendations for stuff you can probably watch on your streaming service of choice.
Black Book (2006, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
How could a two-and-a-half-hour WWII melodrama about a beautiful Jewish spy fucking an SS officer as directed by the man who brought us “Robocop” and “Showgirls” go so very, very wrong? I’m pretty sure the moment when the soon-to-be-seduced Nazi whips out his stamp collection, thus demonstrating his “we are not all barbarians” stock character, sets things on a path into deadly doldrums. All the resistance fighters, pert breasts, gun battles, double-crosses, and false indictments in the world couldn’t transform this lumbering hulk of stereotypes and blandness into the flashy, decadent trash-cinema masterpiece it could have been. The Critics, however, adored it.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012, dir. Peter Strickland)
This smart tribute to later-era Italo-horror shifts the focus from rivers of red to the gruesomely evocative sound design of these gorefests. Beautifully filmed, intimate in scope, and frequently bitingly funny, I was pleasantly surprised that this movie lured me into its strange spiral of madness. This is, at its heart, a movie about a culture clash and excellent performances drive home this central conflict. An ambiguous ending has frustrated many viewers, but this is highly recommended for fans of oddly-structured stories rich with period and technical details.
Devil’s Kiss (1976, dir. Jordi Gigo)
Vintage Eurotrash can offer many delights: colorful cinematography, flashy jazz and prog rock soundtracks, and plentiful kink can frequently salvage an otherwise forgettable movie. Forgetfulness seems to be the order of the day in “Devil’s Kiss,” tragically, as someone at the helm seems to have forgotten to include music, beauty, and atmosphere anywhere in this neo-Gothic tale of revenge and the reanimated dead. I think the biggest shock was the inclusion of a scene that had enough impact to remind me that I’d previously watched this movie (though what that scene was seems to have escaped me at this point). I momentarily had this confused with “Devil’s Nightmare,” but that’s a far superior effort that features baby-stabbing and Erika Blanc’s delightful crazyface.
The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960, dir. Renato Polselli)
This clunky little feature has bad monster design without being compellingly bad monster design, but is narrowly rescued from tedium by the endearing goofiness of its premise: a dance troupe of nubile young things is rehearsing for a performance at a remote castle, begging the question of who their intended audience might be, and begin falling prey to the hungry dead. Jiggly coquettishness and vampiric demises ensue.
Revenge of the Ninja (1983, dir. Sam Firstenberg)
Every movie should inspire the kind of joy I experienced when watching “Revenge of the Ninja,” which marries a profound misunderstanding of Japanese culture with the dopiest heroin-smuggling scheme of all time. Honestly—how much heroin can you even include in a tiny doll? And why let the dolls be displayed in a shop so you have to steal them back? Inscrutable! Featuring the father-son team of Sho and Kane Kosugi as good-guy ninjas—bring your kid to work day is just plain different at Cannon Films.
Manborg (2011, dir. Steven Kostanski)
Deliberately camp movies are a dicey—nay, foreboding—proposition, but this Mortal Kombat meets 80s macho actioner puts in such overtime in its creative use of weirdo FX work that to not-like it would be like ignoring a puppy showing you its belly to receive tickles. After fearing that I’d have to turn this off after the first ten minutes, I was rewarded with stop-motion animated monsters, an unexpectedly charming villain in the form of The Baron, and some genuine laughs. This one may grow on my fellow hard-hearted cynics in a similar fashion.
Splatstick and the Specters of the Past: Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi Zombies and Killer Witches
DUMB MOVIES, SMART IDEAS
I’m firm believer that movies (and books and art and comics and whatever creative medium we’re talking about) can be smart and thought provoking purely by accident. What I mean is that, even if a director or a screenwriter didn’t set out to make a movie that was a reflection of his or her culture and in fact was just trying to create a showcase for gross-out special effects work and raunchy humor, that dumb-on-its-surface movie probably reveals something about the time and place in which it was made. I’ve found this to be particularly true with horror and exploitation movies, because these movies have to rely on gut reactions in order to create the intended atmosphere. A gut reaction has to be instantaneous; the source of horror has to be instantly recognizable *as horrifying* to its intended audience, which probably consists of people from a similar background to the filmmaker. The movies have to speak to the audience’s lizard brains or, if you prefer a more optimistic perspective, appeal to the collective unconscious. It’s why there are perennial themes in horror movies: amoral murderers derive pleasure from killing us, nature runs amok and destroys us, and the dead come back to complete dreadful unfinished business.
In the case of horror stories that involve the dead returning from their graves in either ghostly or physical form, creators frequently look to history for inspiration. Picking the right historical source of villainy means that viewers can make an immediate connection between a time, place, and series of events that have a horrific connotation to them. By their nature, horror movies featuring historical elements will be linked to larger political and cultural themes that lend themselves to picking-apart by people who think entirely too deeply about the absurd things they watch.
People, in other words, like me.
Over the course of his relatively brief movie-making career, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola has created a trio of blackly humorous horror movies that bank on finding fear in history. Wirkola fills his films with images from the frequently horrible record of European history and explores anxieties shared by his contemporaries: young Europeans who bear the burden of the past while having minimal personal connection to it. His emphasis on comedy in movies like the “Dead Snow,” “Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead,” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” allows him to take an incisive look at the ways in which the European identity has evolved to cope with elements of a blood-drenched history.
And a lot of that is accidental.
Wirkola has spoken about how his primary motive in making “Dead Snow” was to combine Nazis and zombies into an ubervillain while incorporating Norway’s World War II history to provide texture.1 One gets the sense from these interviews that considerably more time was spent on brainstorming of all the ways that Nazi zombies are radical villains than on Norway’s dual role as host to a Nazi puppet government and incubator for daring resistance fighters, but this subtext runs throughout regardless. A similar level of historical-commentary-by-accident on seventeenth century witch trials exists in Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
But more about that later—let’s start at the beginning.
The “Dead Snow” films fit neatly into the recent—or at least recently reenergized—cycle of Nazi zombie stories. Set in Norway in the present day, 2009’s “Dead Snow” begins with a group of students whose plans to spend their Easter break skiing and socializing are thrown for a loop when they are attacked by a troop of Nazi zombies hunting for a lost hoard of gold.
The Nazi zombie as we currently recognize it is a recently codified addition to the horror canon. While the American-made “Shock Waves” is frequently credited with being the first to employ this story element (it’s not—that honor goes to 1941’s “King of the Zombies”), there’s little in that movie that prefigures the ghoulish shoot-‘em-ups found in video games and movies created in the Twenty-First Century. The lurking dread of “Shock Waves” is pitched out the window while the stories retain the theme of the zombies as part of a brutal regime of exterminators. This makes the Nazi zombies a convenient and arguably pretty clever way of extending the reach of Third Reich terror long past the expiration date on the lives of Nazi war criminals. There’s also an expedient bit of narrative alchemy that takes place when an enemy is undead—this “no longer living” status means that there’s no need for our heroes to enter any kind of moral gray area over the urgent need to destroy the clearly-other-than-human threat. This can make for storytelling thinner than the skin on an aforementioned zombie’s ribcage, a fact that contributes to the unmemorable nature of most of most Nazi zombie stories. Much of the subgenre can be summed up in a scene that takes place early in 2012’s “Outpost 2: Black Sun,” in which a Nazi zombie brutally beats a man to death with a potato masher grenade, but is not intelligent enough to deploy the weapon in its intended manner.
The rudimentary nature of most Nazi zombie storylines comes from the fact that they rely on only two facts: a foregone conclusion that Nazis are bad (accurate) and that zombies are bad (also accurate). Beyond some plot sketching about the occult in the Third Reich,3 most of which is drawn less from historical record than it is from the screenwriter’s hazy memory of watching the History Channel while stoned at 2am, there’s little time spent grounding these tales in fact. Further contributing to the muddiness is the fact that most Nazi zombie narratives are created by people from countries without a history of occupation and therefore no soil-level connection to the perpetrators of World War II atrocities.4 The plots are instead built on pre-existing exploitation movie structures, creating a distorted impression of the past with minimal first-source knowledge of and little personal connection to the events of World War II.
Oddly enough, it’s in 1981’s “Zombie Lake,” one of the most roundly disparaged of the Nazi zombie movies (which is really saying something if you think about that statement for even a second), that the viewer stumbles into a surprisingly deep depiction of events surrounding the war. The movie’s plot concerns a French community’s attempts to submerge (quite literally, in this case) their violence by sinking the bodies of Nazi soldiers they’ve killed in a lake on the outskirts of town. The movie includes a German soldier who acts humanely in life and whose vestiges of decency linger even in zombie form. There’s an unease with the townspeople’s collective history of violent actions and in some ways the zombies are a symbol of failure to come to terms with wartime history: sort of a slimy, green-make-up-bedecked manifestation of PTSD. It’s noteworthy that this film is French and in some ways reflects the complexity of Nazi occupation, even though it’s an undeniably dumb, probably terrible, definitely cheap and certainly sleazy movie.
The “Dead Snow” films come with a similar pedigree, as the specter of German occupation haunts Norway as well, but their storytelling takes a dramatically different tone.
NORWAY: FOES, COLLABORATORS, AND HEROES
Separated from Germany by an expanse of the North Sea, Norway has served as ally, foe, and neutral bystander to that country over the course of history. Norway warred with Germany in the late Fourteenth Century as a member of the Kalmar Union and would later become involved in the Thirty Years’ War through its then-identity as part of Denmark-Norway.
By the Twentieth Century, Norway had established an identity as a neutral state in matters of European alliances. This neutrality was questionable in its execution, however, as Norway’s actions during World War I favored the British as a trading ally (due in no small part the fact that German submarines sank over eight hundred Norwegian shipping vessels over the course of combat). During World War II, Norway’s position as a neutral country was precarious in the face of aggressive German expansion, particularly as the country was home to several deliciously strategic ports.
From April of 1940 through the German surrender in May 1945, Norway was occupied by Nazi armed forces that were aided by the head of Norway’s own fascist party, Vidkun Quisling. The ugly truth that the allegedly neutral country played a visible supporting role in the reign of Nazi terror is one that led to a struggle of conscience for many Norwegians in the years following World War II.
At the same time that the Quisling government was in bed with the Third Reich, an active minority of resistance fighters continued to execute raids and acts of sabotage on Nazi occupiers. Their extreme daring reached its apex during the resistance’s involvement in the Norwegian heavy water plant sabotage, a series of almost super-human acts that combined espionage, hang-gliding, parachuting, mountaineering, and demolitions to bring down Nazi nuclear efforts.5
The resulting identity crisis has haunted Norway, but with ensuing generations, the conflict has lost its immediacy. By employing the not-dead-yet-not-alive Nazi zombie as his villain in the two “Dead Snow” films, Tommy Wirkola brings the horrors of the past roaring back and demanding to be grappled with (quite literally).
I’ll leave a thorough analysis of the first “Dead Snow” film to other authors, since I wasn’t a big fan of its standard stalk-and-slash structure.6 What feels like half the run time is spent in an isolated cabin with awful young-person characters who finally get around to disturbing Nazi zombies and getting dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways, with a sole survivor predictably managing to escape.
The key value of “Dead Snow” is in its bloody visual gags. Wirkola displays a skillful hand in doling out wild abuses of the human body while eliciting genuine, if frequently shocked, laughter. His comic timing is first-rate, and the violent set pieces are perfectly executed from a technical perspective. Sadly, the movie’s twin lack of plot and character development (in spite of spending agonizing stretches of time with the story’s heroes) leave it squarely in the typically disappointing territory of standard Nazi zombie movies.
The search for the perfect Nazi zombie movie ends with “Dead Snow 2.” In less than two hours, Wirkola creates a Nazi zombie threat that overcomes the awkward dialogue and cartoonish protagonists of its predecessor by heaping in historical references and creating a more engaging plot. The thinness of the first “Dead Snow” can be summed up by the fact that about three minutes are spent at the outset of its sequel summarizing everything that happened in its run time.
Picking up precisely where the first film began, “Dead Snow 2” follows final boy Martin as he escapes from the Nazi zombie troops led by the leather-and-crusher-cap-bedecked Oberst Herzog7 only to find himself held in a hospital under the watchful eye of police who assume he’s responsible for the gory deaths of his friends. Further complicating matters is the fact that the arm Martin had amputated, “Evil Dead 2” style, in the first film, has been replaced with Herzog’s limb that retains the violent impulses of its previous owner.
The plot remains simple but, instead of the “survive the night” structure of “Dead Snow” (along with the majority of post-“Night of the Living Dead” zombie movies), the characters are given distinct goals beyond simple escape. Martin has to learn how to control his arm and stay ahead of the police. The stakes are higher as well—Herzog is no longer simply after a stash of gold, he’s determined to carry out his decades-old extermination mission against a Norwegian town that harbored resistance fighters.
Where “Dead Snow” hints at occult reasons for the zombies’ continued existence, “Dead Snow 2” engages in full-on myth making. Herzog is able to create zombies with the touch of his hand and resurrects an army of Nazis and also kills unfortunate Norwegian victims and converts them to his cause. The conversion of the zombie-murdered Norwegians can be read as a commentary on the Quisling collaborationist government, forcing the otherwise neutral citizens of the country to participate in a hate-filled, genocidal regime.
Martin is joined early on by the Zombie Squad, a trio of “Big Bang Theory”-level American nerd stereotypes, who provide an eager bloodthirstiness that contrasts with Martin’s own world-weariness and sense of duty. The Zombie Squad sets to stockpiling weapons, concocting outrageous plans, and taking selfies with mutilated bodies. Upon discovering that Martin’s newfound zombie arm gives him the same powers as Oberst Herzog’s, the leader of the Squad encourages him to amass his own platoon of Soviet zombies. The Zombie Squad’s safe emotional distance from the Nazi zombies reflects America’s relationship with the World Wars: participating in combat, but without the on-soil impact experienced by Europeans.
The appearance of the Soviet zombies goes a long way towards helping to understand how Nazi zombies became A Thing to the exclusion of zombies belonging to other historically vilified political groups.8 While the Nazis have uniforms that quickly denote them as soldiers fighting for an evil empire, even providing visual clarity between ranks (superior officers in their peaked caps and rank-and-file soldiers donning steel helmets or M43 field caps), there are few similar visual cues to mark Soviet zombies. As depicted in “Dead Snow 2,” the Soviet zombies have beards and a few wear fur hats. For the purposes of this movie, the design decision was likely made to distinguish them from the Nazis on the battlefield, as having two sets of helmeted, grungy combatants could get visually confusing pretty quickly indeed. Were the Soviet zombies given visual markers of their military/political allegiance, their red stars, hammers, and sickles would pale in comparison to the swastikas and death’s heads of the Nazis. It’s also possible that there’s little additional fear-factor that comes with Soviet iconography in the zombie context. Americans’ fear of communism, which grows less keen as decades pass and create distance from fall of the USSR, is similar to the horror of the zombie in general: the terror of being consumed by and transformed into part of a faceless horde.
But let’s be frank—if one is watching “Dead Snow 2” strictly for political satire, one will walk away from this particular cinematic meal hungry. Where the movie really shines is in its flagrant disregard for the human body. Beyond mere political incorrectness (just assume a movie that uses Nazi genocide as a hinge for humor is not intended for sensitive audiences), the movie goes out of its way to show horrific acts committed against bodies both living and undead. Early in the film, there’s a scene where a precocious, tow-headed child approaches Martin in the hospital and the two exchange a few lines of dialogue. Within moments of the child establishing his adorableness, he is thrown forcefully through a window and Martin winds up graphically rooting through the dead boy’s innards when he’s unable to control the urges of the zombie arm. This sets the tone of what’s to come. There’s a spectacular and disgusting gag that involves using human intestines to siphon gas for the Nazis’ tank. A repeated source of laughs comes at the expense of a gentle and pathetic zombie who is repeatedly brutalized and resurrected with increasingly uncomfortable results, and the film closes with rom-com necrophilia. At its best, “Dead Snow 2” evokes Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive”/”Brain Dead,” a compliment that’s somewhat ironic, given Wirkola’s nods to that movie in the first “Dead Snow,” which never reaches that level of giddy ghastliness found in its sequel.
Practical effects are employed throughout, with a majority of scenes filmed outdoors using natural light. It’s refreshing to see in-camera scenery in a world where fantastical movie-making has been dominated by green-screen sets and post-production monsters. The addition of multiple “character zombies;” including a tank operator, the Soviet giant, and a Nazi surgeon who acts as battlefield medic by stuffing combatants full of hay; gives further opportunity for the effects work to shine.
Back to that tank for a moment—there’s some kind of magic that happens with the introduction of a large piece of military equipment into a zombie story. In addition to the truly remarkable gas-siphoning bit, the slow clank and roll of the huge machine is used to telegraph and create tension that contribute to multiple comic moments. I could be convinced, solely based on the evidence of “Dead Snow 2,” that a majority of comedies could be improved with the addition of a tank.
HUNTING FOR WITCHES
Complex national allegiances spurred the discord of the World Wars of the Twentieth Century, and similar nationalistic impulses played a role in the conflict that would come to be known as the Thirty Years’ War. This continuous series of clashes began as a blow-up between Protestants and Catholics, drawing many European nations into its sphere of influence and devastating the population of the area that would come to be known as Germany. This ongoing warfare took place between 1618 and 1648, evolving from religious strife into a battle for political supremacy. Such consistent, generation-spanning battling took a toll in blood as well as in gold, and acts of extreme human-on-human ugliness were perpetrated in the name of power and money. Roving bands of soldiers and mercenaries, who were expected to finance their activities by extorting from the unfortunate populace of the areas through which they roamed, left brutalized and disease-ridden towns in their wake.
It’s not difficult to imagine that communities beleaguered by the toll of constant war and the clash of religious sects would be susceptible to hysterical responses and seek supernatural causes for all-too-earthbound horrors. It shouldn’t be surprising to note that many of the worst excesses of the European witch trials corresponded with the time period of the Thirty Years’ War.9 Two trials that occurred during the years between 1626 and 1631, those at Würzberg and Bamberg in Germany, have been credited with the execution of up to 1,500 people.
The ghosts of witches past would resurface during World War II when the Nazis established a task force composed of members of the SS to research documents relating to these Seventeenth Century witch trials.10 Dubbed the Hexen-Sonderkommando, the two-fold purpose of the research team was to uncover evidence of pre-Christian Germanic religious practices and to seek material of anti-Catholic propaganda value.
This atmosphere of lurking threat, both from bloodthirsty soldiers and imaginary supernatural actors, was exploited by horror filmmakers in the witch hunter cycle of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inspired by Michael Reeves’ ominous 1968 Vincent Price vehicle “Witchfinder General”, the witch hunter theme would be capitalized upon by European directors in pictures including “Mark of the Devil” and “The Bloody Judge.” West German companies financed many of these films in a testament to the country’s continued fascination with its gory past. The witch hunter films emphasize the torture of innocents and the hypocrisy of the religious and political elite to brew a singularly nasty concoction that both indicts authoritarian rule and titillates the audience. Significantly, there is rarely a supernatural component to these stories—instead, the very lack of witchcraft present is a further indictment of power-mad, hypocritical regimes. While most of these films are set against the backdrop of the civil wars of Seventeenth Century England and not on German soil,11 they enjoyed financial backing as well as box office success in West Germany. Was the German fascination with these films an attempt to rewrite the past and lay blame in a place that doesn’t cast citizens as collaborators? Or is latching onto a horror story reimagining simply an attempt to create emotional distance from real actors and actions?
Tommy Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” a bizarro action-horror-comedy hybrid, recasts the titular siblings as tough-talking, straight-shooting heroes hunting cannibal witches in an absurdist version of Germany’s Black Forest. Tonally, the movie shares little with the bleakness of the 70s witch hunter cycle. However, to say that a director like Wirkola, who wears his horror fandom on his sleeve so visibly in “Dead Snow,” was unaware of the witch hunter movies of the 60s and 70s when setting out to make his own witch hunter movie (with “Witch Hunters” spelled out in the title, no less) seems unlikely.
The witches here are supernatural and frequently extremely evil. CGI is employed with a heavier hand than in the “Dead Snow” movies, but there’s still a sense of solidity to the creatures and the fantasy settings. Though I’m generally not a fan of heavy digital post-production, the colors in “Hansel and Gretel” have a jewel-like glow in many scenes, as in the first encounter with the candy-covered cabin of the fairy tale witch. There’s a Boschian delight that was taken in designing the monstrous witches, each of whom has a distinctively misshapen body, hideous face, and demonic wardrobe, drawing visual references from sources as diverse as aboriginal cultures, fetish fashion, and E.C. Comics ghouls. Perhaps my favorite effect in this movie is the troll that is a lovingly-built, guy-in-a-suit effect. Rubber suit monsters are simply never not heart-warming to encounter.
Hansel and Gretel are portrayed in the same vein as stoical but violent Western movie action heroes. Their accents and gun-toting bravado cast them in the tradition of classic American stereotypes like Quincy Morris in “Dracula” or The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Unlike traditional witch hunter narratives, in which a damaged society destroys itself in the paranoid search for imaginary witches, a pair of outsiders comes in with a mission to save a society from the horrors of real witches. This vision of violent but good-intentioned Americans is similar to the portrayal of the Zombie Squad in “Dead Snow 2.”
So far, we’re pretty damn far from “Witchfinder General” and its ilk, but if the preceding several thousand words have taught you nothing, it’s that I’ll get around to making my point eventually. Wirkola directly addresses the brutality of traditional witch hunting narratives with the inclusion of a thuggish gang of authoritarians who have their own methods of finding and punishing women they believe to be witches. Led by the town’s sheriff, these men are portrayed as brutish and uneducated, motivated to implicate innocent people by their own greed for rewards. Rather than pursuing a needlessly complicated “who is the REAL bad guy” plotline that would risk muddying the villainy of the witches, “Hansel and Gretel” eliminates the witchfinder characters in a manner that can be read as a deliberate send-up of traditional stories in this genre. The human evildoers are dispatched by the aforementioned rubber-suited troll, a move that serves to bring the supernatural front and center while both acknowledging and distancing the movie from its thematic predecessors.
SEX, FETISH, DEATH
Sex is an integral component of the witch hunter narrative, with its combination of sadism, gender warfare, and Black Mass abandon. Wirkola includes a romantic subplot in “Hansel and Gretel,” punctuated by a skinny dipping scene that I’d honestly liked to have seen go a little bit more on the “gratuitous” side of things, since it would be a nice complement to the over-the-top splat moments. On a darker erotic note, the black magic witches are kitted out like a submissive’s dream. They are attired in a fantasia of corsetry, glossy leather, and severe silhouettes. If the intent was simply to portray the witches as evil, that could have been achieved by stopping at “monstrous” and not emphasizing “monstrous sexual feminine” with cinched waistlines, glamour makeup, and mouth-orifices full of sharp, dangerous teeth.
This seems as good a point as any to issue the understatement that both “Hansel and Gretel” and the “Dead Snow” movies don’t portray women in the best of lights. Fortunately, I have no expectation of nuanced depictions of gender relations in splatter comedies so this didn’t put a damper on my enjoyment of these movies.12 While women are Weirdo Magical Others in “Hansel and Gretel,” they are relegated to roles as props in “Dead Snow” and “Dead Snow 2:” girlfriends, sidekicks, or delicate creatures that get overwhelmed with fear. This is in keeping with the overall thin characters in these movies—it’s just that dude-characters get the opportunity to be assholes who have motivations. It’s refreshing to see full-on villainess characters in “Hansel and Gretel,” as the demands of the plot require more developed, if still cartoonish as is only appropriate, female players.
There is a direct link between sex and death in “Hansel and Gretel” and the “Dead Snow” movies in much the same way that the erotic urge led to deadly results in the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s. In fact, the circumstances of this sex-leading-to-death in Wirkola’s movies are built on slasher movie clichés: the previously mentioned skinny dipping scene in “Hansel and Gretel” prefigures one character’s death and a young couple in a cabin (properly speaking, the outhouse outside the cabin, but roll with me on this) meet a disastrous end in “Dead Snow.” Flipping this sex-then-death link on its head, the closing moments of “Dead Snow 2” find a character engaged in vigorous backseat sex with a recently resurrected zombie in some seriously perverse circle-of-life symbolism.
In addition to being a component of many horror stories, sex is also a central theme of Nazi exploitation stories. Dating back to postwar American men’s pulp magazines and carried through Italy’s infamous sadiconazista cycle,13 the image of the black-clad S.S. torturer mixes menace with sadomasochistic sexual arousal in a manner so visceral that it continues to be reused today, even in mainstream fare. Characters recently portrayed on-screen that fit this mold include Captain America nemesis Red Skull and arch-villain Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Clichéd portrayals of Nazi villains fall into a few categories, but exploitation movie enthusiasts will likely have spent the most time with “the pervy general” shown in the clip below:14
Beyond the direct depictions of sex in the “Dead Snow” movies, there’s sadomasochistic imagery in the way that head zombie Oberst Herzog is portrayed. Take another look at the Nazi Generals sketch above and observe that there are a number of easily recognizable Nazi burlesques that the creature designers working could have relied upon, but the depiction they selected is the one most closely linked with perversion and sadism. Herzog is the Pinhead of Nazi zombies, more Clive Barker than George Romero: a sleek, leather-clad exterminator whose imposing physicality marks him as an arch-villain.15 The way in which the character is filmed looming over the Norwegian landscape in both “Dead Snow” and “Dead Snow 2” resembles nothing so much as Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog:” a would-be master of all he surveys. I realize the theory of a sexualized Nazi zombie may be a bit of a hard sell, but when was the last time you saw a movie in which a zombie is shown shirtless and flexing to show off his scarred-but-buff physique, sort of like Dalton in “Roadhouse” when sewing in his own stitches? This is a thing that happens in “Dead Snow 2” and I’m pretty sure I’m still not over the weirdly coded sexuality of it.
Along those lines, THIS is the French DVD cover for “Dead Snow 2” and not something I created (although I wish I did):
Fictional stories with their roots in history hold a funhouse mirror up to the past, influencing the way we look at events from previous generations. Conversely, through these movies we can come to understand how our relationship to events from the historical record has changed over time and how cultures have come to interpret their legacies. By mixing primal human fear and sex responses into these stories, exploitation movies create a heady concoction of the recognizable and the visceral. This makes these movies, to a certain degree, a form of coping mechanism that allows us to manage the terrors of the past by transforming them into fantastical, supernatural caricatures. Cartoonishly evil Nazi zombies and cannibal witches provide a comfortable distance from complex realities of collaboration, persecution, and real-life horror.
2 Friend of the Empire Kevin Maher is New York’s foremost expert on Nazi zombies and, without him, this part of the essay wouldn’t be nearly so coherent. I owe Kevin a debt of gratitude for helping get my thoughts and facts in order! Return^
3 The discussion of Nazi occultism is a murky one, as scholarly and non-sensationalistic sources are (perhaps unsurprisingly) difficult to come by. Nicholas Goodring-Clarke’s “The Occult Roots of Nazism” (1985) is an academic investigation into the cults whose beliefs bore striking resemblances to what would become Nazi thought, should you be interested in pursuing the topic. For our purposes today, I’ll point out that the symbolism adopted by Himmler’s SS, with its appropriation of pre-Christian runes and warrior-cult iconography, is some of the most prominent evidence of the Third Reich’s direct connection to esoteric belief systems. Return^
4 The majority of video games and direct-to-streaming movie titles are American, and the “Outpost” series is British. Return^
5 This is a story where a simple summary just simply won’t do justice to the craziness of what actually went down, but it’s an under-discussed wartime episode. The Norwegian-produced TV miniseries “The Heavy Water War” aired in January 2015 and appears to do a creditable job of telling this tale—let’s hope this makes it States-side at some point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_K3Ry2K4yNE Return^
6 The essay “The Past that Refuses to Die: Nazi Zombie Film and the Legacy of Occupation” by Sven Jüngerkes and Christiane Wienand, published in the 2012 essay collection “Nazisploitation!” does a thoughtful job of unpacking the symbolism of “Dead Snow.” Return^
7 The character has been revised to have the proper SS title of Standartenführer, but I’m going with Oberst here because that’s the listed name in the credits of the first movie and also it is far easier for me to type. Return^
8 The Soviet zombies in “Dead Snow 2” are at no point depicted as villains and in fact were victims of the Nazis during life, but American fiction has a history of marking Soviets/Russians/Communists as cartoonish “bad guys,” as anyone who lived through the 1980s will surely recall. Return^
9 Properly speaking, the first of the major German witch trials took place in Trier from 1581 to 1593, predating the start of the war by numerous decades. The pattern of Catholic/Protestant conflict had become established, and it is this same religious conflict that would set the warfare that took place beginning in 1618 into motion. Therefore, while the Thirty Years’ War cannot be said to have set off the witch trials, the same factors contributed to the setting-in-motion of the witch trial pattern that also created the environment of the warfare. Return^
10 Scholarship on the organization and purpose of the Hexen-Sonderkommando was initially undertaken by German historian Gerhard Schormann, and is detailed in the English-language essay entitled “Nazi Ideology: Redefining Deviants: Witches, Himmler’s Witch-Trial Survey, and the Case of the Bishopric of Bamberg” by Hans Sebald that appeared in “New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology: Volume 6: Witchcraft in the Modern World.” Return^
11 “Mark of the Devil” is set in Austria and features a cast of Austrian and German actors. Return^
12 If someone DOES want to make a Nazi zombie movie with all kinds of weird genderfuck stuff in it, I’ll gladly help you with the screenplay. I am full of Ideas. Return^
13 Don’t watch twelve of these movies in a week, as I once did while working on an article. It will change you forever. Return^
15 Oberst Herzog is not cinema’s only sexualized Nazi zombie, and is actually only the second-sexiest Nazi zombie. The title of sexiest Nazi zombie belongs to Kroenen from Guillermo Del Toro’s “Hellboy.” Return^