The other day I passed by an independent theater in New York’s Greenwich Village that was advertising a film called Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead on the marquee. The title piqued my interest and after a little research I learned that it was the sequel to a horror/comedy film from 2009 that has already achieved cult status. Still curious, I found it on Netflix and ultimately this weird little film more than exceeded my expectations of mindless entertainment.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 zombie gore-fest Dead Snow without getting some very skeptical looks. Admittedly if all one hears is the plot, it sounds like something that should have been immediately banished to the dregs of the Walmart bargain bin; a group of medical students on a ski vacation in the mountains of Norway find themselves under attack by frozen zombies frozen—Nazi zombies. The plot never goes any deeper than that, either. There’s no plot twist. There’s no complex political allegory. The kids fight the zombies. There’s a lot of blood. It’s delightful.
It defies logic that the experience of viewing a horror film can be so fun. Being scared isn’t supposed to be a pleasant feeling, yet in the right context it’s a real thrill. Some of the oldest, most primitive functions of our brains kick into high gear in response to danger (or at least perceived danger), and these functions were quite useful on the plains of sub-Saharan Africa but are rather obsolete if one is sitting on their couch in rural Connecticut. The number one purpose of horror films is to trick our animal brains into thinking we’re actually in danger. Suddenly our pulse is racing, adrenaline rushes through our limbs, and our muscles tense up ready for a fight. Even though all our survival instincts are running at full speed, all it takes is to hit the pause button, flick on the lights, and we’re safely off the ride. Horror films let us play with those fear reactions from a position of complete safety.
Most cinephiles consider horror the basest genre of film because frankly horror films usually aim pretty low. Production value, performance, story, dialogue, and everything else that characterizes a movie as “good” are secondary to shock value. Plot only exists to put human bodies in a position of danger. With a few exceptions most horror films have dropped any pretense of serious dramatic storytelling and have embraced the fact that being scared is just good fun, and that’s what Dead Snow does best. Dead Snow is not the film that’s going to keep you up at night or make you sleep with a nightlight on. Dead Snow wants you to be scared, and then start laughing.
What makes Dead Snow such a delight to watch is that it has sincerity and personal touches that are often lost with films of a higher budget. Although it was shot for less than a million dollars, it makes up in personality what it lacks in refinement. At times, it’s unapologetic in its absurdity in a way that’s incredibly refreshing in a world of sterile Hollywood blockbusters; it never tries to be anything more than it needs to be. One gets the sense that director Tommy Wirkola is making exactly the film he would want to see: a silly, raucous gore-fest. The fact that it’s honest and self-aware gives the film a green light for all its absurdity because there’s a sense it’s all in good fun. Even at its bloodiest and goriest, it’s too absurd to be taken too seriously. Its tone perfectly navigates the boundary between horror and comedy; it’s playful enough to be funny without forgetting to be scary. It’s an exploitation film that doesn’t stoop to the audience’s level, it invites them on board.
Most of all, what comes across in Dead Snow is joy. There’s a joy in using the treads of a snowmobile as a zombie killing weapon, there’s a joy in seeing undead Nazi hands bursting out of the snow, and there’s a joy in every nod to horror film clichés. Everyone in the film seems to be having a great time (especially Wirkola who has a cameo as one of the zombie soldiers) and that energy is infectious. The film constantly ramps up the intensity, always one-upping its own craziness until the climactic fight scene that leaves the main characters bathed in blood and the audience cheering for more. All the while the film earnestly wants the audience to be entertained, and to give them just the right dose of that primal fear sensation they came for in the first place. What comes across is that this is the work of someone who loves movies, and wants us to love movies too.