Finally premiering more than four years after principal photography wrapped, “War of the Dead” arrived in time to play Toronto’s After Dark fest alongside “Exit Humanity,” another movie placing zombie action in a wartime historical context. The slicker and more expensive of the two, Finn helmer Marko Makilaakso’s English-language, Lithuania-shot bigscreen debut is muscular if a little one-dimensional, without much human interest or scariness to flavor what’s basically one long military shootout. Taken as a straightforward actioner, it’s diverting if unmemorable, with solid prospects for homevid sales in most territories. Theatrical exposure will be spotty.Prologue reveals Nazi “anti-death” medical experiments performed on captured Russian soldiers early during WWII. Two years later, in 1941, allied Finn and American forces are on a mission to seize an enemy bunker on the Finnish-Soviet border. First they are decimated by a Russian ambush (before the U.S.S.R. switched from its tenuous Axis association to committed Allied allegiance); then survivors are further reduced by an attack from the undead, flesh-hungry victims of those experiments. By the half-hour point, only Yank officer Stone (Andrew Tiernan), Finn Laasko (Mikko Leppilampi) and Russian grunt Kolya (Samuel Vauramo) remain to battle the nonstop onslaught. Much machine gunning ensues, en route to and inside the abandoned secret Nazi project’s underground HQ. Protags’ trigger-happy offensive against scores of uniformed zombies (despite the undead’s superior speed, strength and resilience) makes the pic feel more like a “Rambo” movie than like a horror meller. It certainly doesn’t have much in the way of atmosphere, dread or “boo!” moments, despite the polished if undistinctive visuals and score. The testosterone-laden proceedings don’t give the competent thesps much opportunity to develop character, and the script (co-written by Makilaakso with veteran producer Barr Potter) leaves the basic premise undeveloped beyond something on which to hang a series of busy but interchangeable action sequences; simply put, more plot would have helped. Fadeout suggests a desire to set up “War of the Dead” as first in an ongoing horror-combat action series a la “Underworld.” Packaging-wise at least, the end product shows no sign of the numerous production woes the pic purportedly endured, including late changes of cast and funding.
A Little Film Co., Rialto Intl., Lithuanian Film Studios and Media One Entertainment production. (International sales: Accelerator, Studio City.) Produced by Barr Potter, Ramunas Skikas. Executive producers, Alessandro Fracassi, Robbie Little. Co-producer, Marko Makilaakso, Joel Soisson. Directed by Marko Makilaakso. Screenplay, Makilaakso, Barr B. Potter, from a story by Makilaakso.
Camera (color), Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen; editor, Michael J. Duthie; music, Neal Acree, Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Algis Garbaciauskas; art directors, Darius Bastys, Kari Kankaanpaa, Audrius Dumikas; set decorator, Daila Pranckenaite; costume designer, Daiga Rybakoviene; visual effects supervisor, Chad Goei; assistant director, Boris Taskov; casting, Donatas Simukauskas, Laura Munsterhelm. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Nov. 11, 2011. (In Toronto After Dark Film Festival.) Running time: 86 MIN.
Andrew Tiernan, Mikko Leppilampi, Samuel Vauramo, Juoko Ahola, Jouko Ahola, Mark Wingett, Andreas Wilson, Antti Reini, Magdalena Gorska. (English dialogue)