April’s installment of Kevin Geeks Out is delving into the many faces of Old Nick, the Adversary, the Lord of this World: THE DEVIL! On Thursday April 28 at 9:30pm at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, I’ll be joining comedian Kevin Maher and filmmaker Paul Murphy for a look at the Satanic Panic, feminist witches, on-screen devils, and the beliefs and rituals of modern-day Satanists.
2016 has certainly started with a bang, and February holds some really exciting developments that I’m looking forward to sharing. For those of you looking for a handy run-down of what I’ve been up to, you’re in luck!
January’s installment of Great Moments in Historical Sluttery, my monthly column at Slutist, is probably one of my favorites so far. Roman Empress Messalina is a fascinating figure whose scandalous reputation continues to titillate audiences looking for tales of sexy intrigue. Short of the whole “getting executed for treason” thing, it’s pretty amazing to think that one’s insatiable sexual appetites would continue to be a topic of conversation two thousand years after one’s death. May we all be lucky enough to be the namesake of a German strip club. Read the article here.
On a completely different but also-controversial note, I reviewed Feral House’s spicy new release, The White Nationalist Skinhead Movement: UK & USA 1979-1993 for Heathen Harvest. SPOILER: Many people are punched; little is ultimately accomplished. This was a challenging read from a very different perspective than the majority of writing on the subject, though its 600-plus-page run length makes it a book geared towards the VERY curious. Of all of the exhaustive details, I think my favorite anecdote was the fact that Ian Stewart of Skrewdriver was used as a bogeyman to convince his friends’ kids to behave themselves.
Lastly, but absolutely not leastly, my Art Coven sisters Becky Munich and S. Elizabeth brought together amazing artists and authors for their just-released Occult Activity Book and invited me to participate. If you’ve ever wanted Elizabeth Bathory paper dolls and Suspiria color-in pages, then boy howdy it is your lucky day! I’ve got my filthy hands on a copy of this and it is a creepy, cheeky good time. Purchase your copy here!
Dirge Magazine continues to let me ply my trade in bizarro cinema. November saw my peek into the kinky world of The Unknown, a circus-set Tod Browning thriller starring Lon Chaney as a murderous performer who carries a torch for smoldering young Joan Crawford.
I’ve also written a two-part exploration of the films of Jean Rollin, the first of which posted recently and covers the director’s use of symbolism. Well, symbolism and bucketloads of sex. The sex is pretty important, really.
OH AND! Should you be in the NYC area this Sunday December 6, I will be manning the Heretical Sexts table at the St. Vitus Holiday Flea Market. I have brand new holiday cards as well as new prints, and the remaining copies of Die Mensur and all HS zine titles.
There are an almost infinite number of enticements I could use to convince you to watch Henrik Galeen’s 1928 screen adaptation of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ decadent occult romance novel “Alraune,” but for the purposes of brevity and impact, I’ve selected the five GIFs below to plead my case. While the film departs from the source material in several particulars, it retains much of the cruelly humorous eroticism while adding in a tension-filled train ride and an extended circus interlude. Those are both terrifically Weimar Era touches to which I simply cannot object.
Backing up a few paces: the novel “Alraune” tells the story of a woman created by a scientist through artificially inseminating a prostitute with the seed of a hanged convict (deftly harvested during the criminal’s death throes) that the resulting child might take on the magical characteristics of the mandrake (alraune) root. This daughter brings both incredible luck and tragic misfortune to every person who attempts to get close to her, from bewitched fellow students in her convent school though besotted men who bend to her whims.
The English cut of the film adaptation glosses over Alraune’s conception, though for Those In The Know it’s all pretty much there, opening as it does on a fantastically moody gallows with lurking figures beneath. What the film does maintain, though, is the novel’s overarching spirit and (spoiler alert for an almost-100-year-old movie based on an over-100-year-old book) while the ending is significantly more upbeat, there’s something deliciously subversive about transforming a tale of a born-and-bred femme fatale into a redemption arc.
With that, I’ll proceed onto the facts of the case.
FIRSTLY: “Alraune” features an actual “train going into a tunnel” cut to indicate two characters having sex. That’s fucking terrific.
SECONDLY: Have you ever wanted to see Brigitte Helm, Maria from “Metropolis,” performing an adorable calisthenics routine? Then I admire the specificity of your tastes and will inform you that this is your film, friend.
THIRDLY: There is a beer-drinking bear.
FOURTHLY: I direct you to GIF Left, in which there is a woman wearing a monocle. The monocle was frequently donned by cosmopolitan German women who wished to indicate their lesbian identity, in a supreme gesture of elegant sartorial BAMF-ery.
FIFTHLY (and perhaps most importantly): “Alraune” features some of the best exchanges of Significant Looks ever captured on film. The smoking! The gazes! The cheekbones! It’s more than the heart can stand.
And with that, I leave you to watch “Alraune” (aka “A Daughter of Destiny”):
It’s that time again: here’s some stuff I’ve watched recently that you, too, can view on your streaming service of choice.
The Sisterhood of Night (2014)
As the one woman my age who was not enchanted with “The Craft,” I really wanted the recent teen witch outsider movie “Sisterhood of the Night” to satisfy my yearning for an occult thriller that fully exploits the nightmarish hellscape of American high school. I feel like younger viewers will probably get more out of this modern-day “Crucible” story of ostracization, mania, and eventual redemption than I did. Director Caryn Waechter does a fine job eliciting memorable performances from her cast of young woman actors, and Georgie Henley plays lead witchy-chick Mary with a fine balance of charisma and vulnerability. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this movie is seeing teenage girls portrayed with a degree of nuance and realism not usually seen in movies (god, being a teenage girl was horrible–I DO NOT RECOMMEND the experience to others).
Night Watch (2004)
This tale of warring factions of Russian supernatural creatures is like being inside someone else’s migraine for almost two hours. Frenetic, inscrutable, and with far more mythos-building than any movie about monsters punching each other deserves, it does have a beautiful handling of animated, artistic subtitles in the US release going for it.
Stonehearst Asylum (2014)
Holy cow, was I charmed by this adaptation of Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Father.” I went into this suspicious of any adaptation of that story, which had already been done with psychedelic bombast in 1973 by Juan Lopez Moctezuma in “Mansion of Madness.” Fortunately, the movie doesn’t chiefly turn on Poe’s famous twist ending–this same twist does appear early in the movie but it’s used to set the stage for further convolutions of the pleasantly gothic variety. Directed by Brad Anderson (who’s also responsible for haunted asylum-themed cult fave “Session 9”), “Stonehearst Asylum” balances the darkness of gothic fiction with a pleasant dose of the cheekiness that can also be found in that source material, but is often overlooked by modern adaptations. Hell, even Kate Beckinsdale (star of the “Underworld” franchise, speaking of movies with way too much backstory to their monster-punching) is a delight in this.
London in the Raw (1965)
The Mondo well must have been running dry at this point, as the big gore/surgery setpiece involves a man getting hairplugs. Thanks, but I’ll take the mensur fencers and Grand Guignol in “Ecco!”
Another marvelous thing introduced to me by a friend is the 1980 Japanese horror action epic “Samurai Reincarnation.” The story of a Christian martyr who renounces his faith in order to work hideous black magic for revenge, this has everything you could possibly want in it: swordfights, nudity, glittery costumes, and martial arts movie legend Sonny Chiba. I wrote about this classic of bonkers world cinema for Vintage Ninja–read about it here.
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.
This Sunday, April 26 2015, I will be manning the Heretical Sexts table at Brooklyn Zine Fest. As an attendee of the event since its first year, I’m delighted to be participating on the vendor side of the table this year! BZF is a FREE EVENT that takes place from 11am to 6pm at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and full details on panels, artists, and writers involved in the Fest are available on the website here:
There is a completely different set of zinesters on Saturday and Sunday, so be sure to check out both dates to see everything this creative line-up has to offer.
In addition to Forever Doomed, My Dream Date with a Villain, buttons, stickers, and swag from Heretical Sexts contributors, I’ll be premiering the newest HS zine titled Witch Women. Everything on the Heretical Sexts table is five bucks or under–that’s about the price of a beer. There’s no reasonable way you can say no to stopping by! The Witch Women zine is an exploration of the many facets of the relationship between femininity and the occult. The zine features original art and essays ranging from the esoteric to the humorous.
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^
I’m excited to announce that my latest project is now available from Heretical Sexts. Forever Doomed is a collection of my essays and art that explore the theme of DOOM in movies, music, and literature. Most of the content has never been published before. Within these pages lurks:
-The heavy metal mid-life crisis in “Black Roses”[new essay]
-Adventures at Maryland Deathfest
-Erotic Rites of the Nazgûl [new comics]
-Dennis Wheatley: Unlikely Icon [new essay]
-Style lessons from “Curse of the Crimson Altar” [new essay]