[Spoiler Alert: I discuss the plot of the film in detail.]
Dead Snow does everything a splatter-zombie film is supposed to do. It gathers a group of young people in a remote spot, slowly unleashes an at first mysterious deadly force on them, picks off the characters one by one but backwards from the least to the most significant, and has the requisite number of bloody moments – eyes are squished, intestines are re-employed for interesting external uses, and jaws chomp down on writhing bodies. I haven’t read any reviews or production histories of the film but this polished, well-photographed effort has the flavor of a calling card film. It pleads, “I can put a coherent commercial property together so please hire me.”
All that being said, Dead Snow, along with other recent horror films, such as Drag Me to Hell and the numerous ’70s remakes, raises some interesting questions about the state of horror.
Splatter movies are perhaps the defining interest of many movie geeks (a phrase I’ve come to hate) I know and know about. The genre is the cinematic equivalent of a wheat chaffer, and it separates the high art aficionado film connoisseurs from the rabid fans who essentially reject Hollywood (unless it is Cameron or Fincher or a few other select exceptions) and instead embrace the kind of regional, low-budget, extreme threshold violating strait-to-video style movies celebrated in Stephen Thrower’s terrific book Nightmare USA. The thing I wonder about, indeed have always wondered about even as I enjoy some of these movies myself, is what is the world view of these spectators, of these movies?
But first, let’s go into detail about the plot, perhaps as an entry point into what people get out of this genre.
In two separate cars, four boys and three girls drive to a rendezvous in a Norwegian ski cabin. The girls are Hanna (Charlotte Frogner), her cousin, the squeaky voiced Chris (Jenny Skavlan), and Hanna’s friend Liv (Evy Kasseth Rosten). That’s all we know about them, though it helps to know that Norway is one of the richest countries in the world – as a general background to the kids’ leisure time activities – and that it is the Bethlehem of death metal. The boys are Martin (Vegar Hoel), a medical student with a problematic phobia of blood, Erlend (Jeppe Beck Laursen), the requisite horror movie buff, Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen), who is characterized as the “horniest guy north of the Arctic Circle” though we don’t really see much evidence of that character trait in the subsequent narrative, and who seems to speak a dialect different from the others, and Vegard (Lasse Valdal), the cute one, whose girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) is skiing cross country to meet them all at the cabin. Unfortunately, as we the viewers know from the opening sequence but the characters don’t, Sara is already dead, having been attacked by some unknown assailants with apparent cannibalistic inclinations.
Upon arriving at the cabin, the kids indulge in some snow mobile hijinks, flirt a bit, and then retire to the cabin.
The nature of the horror is first alluded to by a lone traveller who comes into the cabin for a coffee. He is openly contemptuous of the youngsters, and also tells them a campfire story about the menace lurking in the mountains. It seems that during World War II, a German occupying force of 300 men called Einsatz controlled the village of Oksfjord, which was important to the war effort because of its conveniently placed harbor. These Nazis were unusually cruel to the villagers. As the war went against the Germans, the soldiers, led by a Colonel Herzog, raided the houses and stole as much gold and coins as they could find. Finally, the villagers rose up against their oppressors and, using various farm tools, attacked the Nazis, who fled to the mountains of Istind with their ill-gotten gains, and where they presumably froze to death. This narrative is told in that close slow-track-in trick that signifies to viewers that something of great or scary importance is being related. It’s also a story that sets up the classic “dangerous village” premise of so many horror films, An American Werewolf in London and Kill, Baby … Kill! being two varied examples. Not that we ever see any of the village.
This anecdote at the same time explains everything about the Nazi zombies and nothing. We get the notion that they are evil and maybe still around, but we don’t know how, we don’t know what science or metaphysics lies behind such long living evil. Instead, there is just the suggestion that these soldiers were so gleefully evil that this ethereal death force has kept them alive as nemeses to unsuspecting hikers.
The title of the film, which is Dod Sno in Norwegian, is soon revealed to be both irrelevant and illogical, though it is probably meant to be funny. Snow is inert, of course, it is neither alive nor dead; those notions are irrelevant to snow. But you must have the word “dead” in your title or your movie doesn’t qualify as a horror comedy. An example spreads itself fulsomly across Erlend’s chest: he’s been to the movie Braindead and got the T-shirt. This movie nerd who can quote vast tracks of dialogue and lore. Significantly, his eyes are squished by the zombies.
More important, though, is the film’s take on the nature of evil, if “evil” is really the right word. The Nazi occupiers were bad men who exploited their hostages. Fleeing, they became even more powerful, even immune to death, it seems, and lodged in an isolated territory that they continue to dominate. They seem to be killable, in that if parts are hacked off or they are buzz sawed or shot they appear to die. But in the tradition of recent horror monsters they are implacable foes who move swiftly and seem to anticipate their victims’ thinking processes when they seek to escape.
These zombies are publicized as evil, but is that really the term? When they were alive, these Nazis would probably have been defined as evil, since they were exploiting others for personal gain, but on the other hand, they were probably ideologically driven people with a view of their Norwegian subjects as inferior beings, not a pleasant idea but from their own viewpoint not evil. The more I try to think about the term the more I wonder just what it is that is supposed to be “evil” in horror films. Help comes in the form of Cynthia Freeland’s book The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, one of a handful of academic studies of the horror genre that tries to grapple with its psychological allure. Her discussion of the conflicting Whale and Branagh Frankensteins is intriguing, because it is clear that our notions of evil are played with by the filmmakers, as in the original novel, though differently. The doctor has hubris and the creature is a tortured being set on revenge. As newer horror movies have come along they have grown cruder, crueler, with “evil” presented unambiguously, and with those trick ending codas where the seemingly vanquished evil rises again to finally triumph. These codas probably got their started with Boorman’s Deliverance, where it was a dream sequence, and which was borrowed by De Palma for Carrie. But in later films, especially those of Wes Craven, the coda tends to undermine everything that has gone before. The filmmakers may think that they are portraying the face of evil, but the result is so freed of ambiguity as to be rendered a cartoon. The struggle against evil is revealed to be useless.
Freeland raises the question of why people would willingly want to be scared, but the Craven Coda also raises the issue of why people would enjoy a movie that preaches the unconquerability of evil. In daily life, “evil” ranges across everything from the engineers of the Holocaust to bad bosses or the guy who steals your girl. In movies, or at least bad movies, evil is simply something that scares you or is presented as a monster. To me, Sigourney Weaver is civilization personified; to the Alien she is baby food. Most stories put goals in opposition, and there is the good goal and there is the bad goal and we are encouraged in commercial cinema to root for the person with the good goal. But there is a perverse part of us that seems to like evil. Some horror films are explicit about their alignment with evil, such as the Hellraiser series, a precursor to the so called “torture porn” genre in which the leather gear of the villains links them with a playacting S&M take on good versus evil. It was kind of cool in the ’70s to like the suave, confident bad guys better than the milquetoast good guys in thrillers, and Hitchcock exploited that impulse. But since then there has been a rise in villainy or evil to the point that in recent G. I. Joe movie the bad guys “win” through about 90 per cent of the movie and then again in the last sequel-whoring 30 seconds. It’s a story structure borrowed from professional wrestling – don’t let the good guys win too often. The popular culture’s enlarged interest in evil almost seems to be sexual, especially when manifested in the technically unnecessary leather outfit Sienna Miller wears in G. I. Joe.
I like violence in movies and a hot chick in leather as much as the next guy, but I don’t like despair, and I fear that despair is the ultimate philosophy hidden behind splatter films. The problem with a calling card film is that the motivation is cynical, the motivation of both the characters in the movie as puppeteered by the writers, and the exploitational motivations of the moviemakers. If the filmmakers really don’t care about the ideas and implications of their story, then they only feed the fear and biases of their viewers.
So what are the splatter freaks getting out of this movie, or any gross, gory horror story? In some crazy way it might be a sense of justice. People in these movies are being punished for minor infractions. Take Drag Me to Hell. Allison Lohman is presented as a basically good person with a streak of ambition. This is a sin for which she must pay, even when the cause of the curse she receives is unfair. For the viewer the pleasure seems to reside in the spectacle of seeing someone helplessly twist and turn in a trap and pay for bad behavior so that in the real world isn’t even a venial sin. Monsters and demons! There’s no way to win with these people!
It turns out that the Nazis do have a goal, which is to get their gold back, the money being hidden in a box in Sara’s cabin. The discovery and then the opening of the box by the frivolous youths seems to lure the Nazi zombie cannibals, led by Colonel Herzog (Orjan Gamst), to the cabin, and anyone pocketing the coins risks attracting a specific attack. This leads to the coda, in which the final, surviving human being finds, on the brink of escape, that he has one of those coins in his pocket. It’s an uh-oh moment that is cynical and dispiriting – only the filmmakers don’t seem to know it because in their cynicism to construct a commercial enterprise they are inadvertently mocking human endeavor and hope.
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