War Of The Dead (2011)

JANUARY 5, 2013


I almost always watch the end credits for a movie, though I don't read every name - just sort of taking it in and seeing if anything pops out. That said, I do usually read all of the special thanks names, because it's pretty often I see something puzzling (or the names of pals - a lot of my more prestigious horror writers have been thanked numerous times). Such was the case with War Of The Dead, which had a thanks for Stan Lee (who I later learned suggested the new title over the previous one: Stone's War) and... James Van Der Beek?

This one I had to investigate, and that's when I learned that Dawson was originally cast in the lead role (a guy named Stone, which would have made the title fit his legacy: Dawson's Creek, Stone's War...), back in 2007 when the film was first starting production. Obviously that didn't work out, and the role of Stone was filled by 300's Andrew Tiernan, and while shooting still commenced that year, it didn't get finished until 2011, where it premiered in Toronto and is just hitting US Blu-ray/DVD now courtesy of eOne. So the next time you complain about, say, the Carrie remake being delayed a few months, remember that some movies take YEARS to get their release after being shot.

I can't imagine the frustration for the filmmakers in such cases, and thus I'm kind of bummed I didn't like the movie more, because then I could offer up "It was worth the wait!" and such things, but for all that time and energy, it's a rather anonymous, Syfy original-esque zombie movie that seems assembled from concepts and ideas from a bunch of other movies: soldiers on a mission to a bunker that holds some dark secrets (hell, one of them - Devil's Rock - even has a trailer on the DVD), warring sides forming an alliance against a supernatural threat, a frightened, lone woman who has SEEN THINGS (and barely speaks), etc.

And all that would be fine if the characters in this incarnation of the story were interesting, or even if the action was spectacular, but neither is the case. For whatever reason, writer/director Marko Mäkilaakso wipes out nearly all of the soldiers in the first half hour, so only three (and that girl) remain to take us through the rest of the story. The DVD offers a blurb that compares the film to Band of Brothers, and I can only assume that he was drunk or saw an entirely different cut of the film, since that series was loaded with strong characters that you cared about, whereas here I barely even got to know the ones who made it to the end, let alone the anonymous grunts that are killed in the first reel or so. One has a dead wife, that's about all I can tell you about any of them, but it's been eight years since I watched BoB and can still tell you that Nixon fancied bacon sandwiches (and that the Bastogne episode is one of the most harrowing things I've ever seen on television).

The action also doesn't quite deliver - it's definitely a quantity over quality approach here, which means you're treated to endless out of nowhere bits where a bunch of zombie soldiers will appear out of nowhere (one of the characters even says "Where do they keep coming from?" - too bad the movie never really answers him) and attack our heroes, but since there are only three of them left these scenes never carry much suspense since there's still a lot of movie to go and they're not going to reduce it further anytime soon. There's a somewhat tense bit where one of them is fighting off undead while another gets a car going, so it carries the possibility the guy in the car might leave him behind, but it was resolved before I even finished considering the possibility.

Worse, Mäkilaakso shoots in lighting that would have Len Wiseman squinting, so not only can you not really make out what is happening, it's sometimes difficult to even tell who's a zombie, who's a hero, and who is just an enemy soldier. I even rewound a key scene early on (the first zombie one, unless you count the prologue that tells us right off the bat that they're the product of Nazi experimentation) because it was so dark and geographically confused that I honestly had no idea of what was happening. And keep in mind, I'm an occasional defender of Michael Bay and the like, so I'm not usually one of those folks complaining that the editing/action choreography was incoherent. Maybe there's some sort of "In war you don't know what's happening" but come on, even the average Call of Duty skirmish isn't this bewildering. And the darkness also keeps us from ever getting a good look at most of the zombies; I'd have to see behind the scenes photos or action figures to know what (if anything) was unique about their design.

But I'm not a fan of the Underworld movies either, and many people are, so they'll probably dig the flick as it shares its visual aesthetic as well as its penchant for trying to establish a complicated mythology alongside constant battles. It's never boring, that's for sure - once the zombies appear they come along every 5 minutes or so, and the whole movie takes place over like 12 hours or something, which keeps everything moving along. There's a built in "timer" to the 2nd half where the bunker is going to be destroyed, so that's always good for some minor tension even if we know they'll be OK (though to be fair I figured one character's fate would go one way and it went the other, so there's something).

Also, it's not funny! And I don't mean "the jokes suck" I mean it's not trying to be funny, at all. Been a long damn time since I've seen a professionally made zombie film that wasn't trying to make us laugh, which baffles me. Ask anyone what the greatest zombie movies are and they'll probably say Night, Dawn, and/or Day of the Dead, and maybe one of Fulci's for good measure. Not that there aren't "zom-com" classics as well (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, maybe Re-Animator though that's more of a straight up Frankenstein type with a few zombies to intensify its finale), so it's strange that so many opt for the laughs rather than play it straight. Do they just fear being compared unfavorably to Romero? If so, do they honestly think that they can do better than Wright or Fleischer? I don't buy it. Anyway, if you're looking for a serious zombie flick with some actual production value behind it, War of the Dead should at least scratch that itch temporarily.

For a movie with such a lengthy production, it's a shame that there isn't a commentary or making of piece about it, since it would probably be more interesting than the finished product. Sadly, all that's here is the trailer, though again I'd like to point out how much I love the seemingly now standard practice of bundling a DVD with the Blu-ray - I can give a copy to a non-Blu owning pal and keep my high def disc! Also, they don't take up any additional room (and Blu cases are already smaller than DVDs), so it's win-win for everyone. Also, not that I'd ever watch this again, but it's kind of comforting to know that if my Blu disc got scratched or cracked, I'd still have a backup.

I tweeted after that I had no real use for the movie, and while I think it's the first time I've said it aloud (well, via a tweet), it's something that I've felt more and more lately, that there are certain horror flicks that I've just sort of outgrown. I'm sure I would have loved this if I was 14 and didn't care much about strong characters or unique story hooks, and mostly cared about the number of bodies hitting the floor. If you're into the Underworld or Resident Evil movies (and by that I mean you watch them numerous times, or out of desire and enjoyment, not "I want to have a review up" like I do) or merely seek some close to nonstop action, I'm sure you'll dig this. Everyone else - stick to the somewhat similar Outpost movies, which offer a little more meat on the bone.

What say you?


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