Fantastic Fest Review: DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS DEAD Is The Same, But Different

“I’ve seen a thousand zombie movies, and this isn’t in any of them!”

I was not an enormous fan of Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 film Dead Snow. It wore its influences too prominently on its bloodied sleeves, its characters were irritating, and its slapstick gore failed to make me laugh. Plus, it fought an uphill battle against the fact that not just zombies, but Nazi zombies, had been well played-out. Five years later, the sequel suffers from all the same issues, but largely overcomes them with bold new modifications to the zombie mythos and a story that’s bigger and more ambitious than the original, if still pretty stupid.

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead picks up exactly where the first film left off - before it left off, actually, as a “previously on” segment recaps all the relevant and/or gory moments you might have missed. It’s a clear effort to make the sequel - with its higher budget, and thus higher risk - more accessible to newcomers, a thread that pops up throughout the movie.

Dead Snow’s sole survivor Martin finds himself in a hospital, where doctors have reattached the zombie arm he had earlier severed. At first this only brings about yet more groan-inducing Evil Dead 2 “homages,” but Wirkola extrapolates life with a zombie arm to genuinely original places. And that’s not the only trope he goes deep on. While Nazis as butts of jokes are thoroughly done, here the Teutonic zombies play a role more rooted in the supernatural than the historical. The developments leading up to the Braveheart-esque final confrontation are smart, simple twists on zombie lore that once again revitalise a genre that seemed drained of innovation - much in the way that [REC] 2 did a few years back. The central plot device - the powers imbued in the zombie arm - continues to pleasantly surprise even into the final scene, which while predictable and not entirely supported by the rest of the movie, offers a satisfying emotional conclusion to the story. Really!

The story follows four separate but intertwining threads: Martin, on a quest to destroy the Nazi zombies that killed his girlfriend; the Nazi zombies, on a quest to finish the mission Hitler assigned them decades ago; a pair of cops, whose role in the story is far slighter than their screen-time would suggest; and the Zombie Squad, a group of American wannabe zombie-fighters trying valiantly to make the movie more accessible to American audiences.

The Zombie Squad are straight-up the worst thing about this movie, coming away slightly less developed than the comic-relief zombie sidekick who deteriorates gruesomely over the course of the film. Martin Starr plays The Martin Starr Character, but with marginally less enthusiasm than he normally does. Ingrid Haas is given little to do other than light banter with the other characters. And Jocelyn DeBoer, bless her, does the best she can with material that includes at least one on-the-nose Star Wars quote in every scene. Clad in an “It’s A Trap!” T-shirt, her character’s “deal” is that she can’t stop talking about Star Wars. There’s even a brief argument about Star Wars versus Star Trek. It’s cringey, unrealistic, and unfunny. References by themselves aren’t jokes.

Luckily, the movie does contain actual jokes as well. They’re all broad, and though the character comedy too often falls flat (again, the Zombie Squad are largely to blame here), some of the gore sequences are truly spectacular, fun-filled uses of internal organs that I’d never even dreamed of. There’s a scene involving gasoline that is so wonderful it’s a shame it’s over so quickly.

Dead Snow 2’s greatest asset is its ability to spread its wings a little, with a higher budget and a director fresh off the underrated Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Trading the first film’s tired cabin-in-the-snow setting for Norway’s expansive, rugged valleys is a superb move, allowing the film to stand apart visually and to indulge its bigger ambitions. Where the first movie was limited by its small cast and budget, the second sees literal armies of zombies brutalising each other as fistfights occur on moving tanks. It’s a visual expansion that matches those of the narrative and conceit, and it shows that this sequel was made with energy and a drive to do better.

So while it’s got its fair share of problems, Dead Snow 2 is an easier recommendation than the original. And for people who avoided that film because they hate subtitles, half of this movie is even in English. Fancy that!