So, you want to enjoy a rip-roaring zombie romp? Well, guess what? Director Tommy Wirkola wants to give you exactly that in Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. Sounds like a perfect match, except for one small thing: intentions do not always equate with results. For all of its strenuous efforts to entertain, this sequel to Dead Snow feels as if its' running on adrenalin rather than real energy; it's like a lagging athlete relying on steroids to boost a weak performance. Or to put it another way: it's a bit like a zombie jolted with artificial life: no matter how fast it moves, it feels like lifeless. Which is not to say there is no fun to be had, but it's only about half as much as intended.
Perhaps taking a cue from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, Wirkola turns Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead into much more of a comically over-the-top gore-fest than its predecessor, emphasizing comic carnage rather than genuine scares. The plot has Martin (Vegar Hoel), sole survivor of the original, wake up to find that his severed arm has been replaced by doctors, who did not realize they were giving him the arm of Standartenführer Herzog (Ørjan Gamst), leader of the Nazi zombies. The arm is difficult to control at first, killing just about anybody who comes in reach, and the film generates a small amount of entertainment by gleefully breaking taboos: one of the victims is a cute kid, and Martin's attempt to perform CPR crushes his chest - it's presented as a big joke, but the laughs are not as big as intended.
It more or less goes without saying that Martin is not pleased with this situation, but the audience couldn't care less about his feelings of guilt because we know the powers bequeathed by the arm will eventually help him defeat the undead menace. In particular, Herzog's arm allows Martin to resurrect his own zombie army, a group of Russian soldiers slaughtered by Herzog's men in World War II. This leads to a crazed melee that should have been the climax but which instead fizzles out while the film tries to surprise us by dragging out the conclusion.
Along the way, there are some funny bits, including a hapless zombie that is destroyed and resurrected on multiple occasions, each time the worse for wear. Most amusing is the American zombie-hunting team that Martin calls in for assistance, who seem perturbed by their inability to purchase guns in Norway ("What the fuck's the matter with this country?"). Unfortunately, even this bit is undermined by the decision to portray the zombie hunters as film nerds living in their parent's basement (an apparent nod to American fans of the original Dead Snow). That fact that one of them continually quotes Star Wars references is supposed to be hysterically fun. It is not.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead fills in some gaps left open by the original, explaining more fully what motivates Herzog's zombie soldiers (they want to complete a mission from the war). Strangely, the film seems so pleased with this spin on zombie lore that it pauses to pat itself on the back, when a the leader of the zombie-hunting squad declares that these walking dead represent a whole new genre (conveniently ignoring that the zombie Nazis in Zombie Lake previously displayed human motivations).
If you're willing to overlook the failings and the self-satisfied aura, Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead provides plenty of zombie mayhem, but it is executed with more enthusiasm than skill. The third-act "Nazi vs Commie" zombie confrontation is loaded with stunts and gore effects, but Wirkola is focused on the individual bits that he forgets to orchestrate them into an overall battle. There is no sense of tides shifting in favor of one side or the other until a rather arbitrary conclusion is served up in order to bring the whole thing to a stop so that the film can careen off into another direction: instead of building to a climax, the film simply serves one more thing after another until the adrenalin finally runs down.
The gore effects are spectacular but repetitive (entrails are extracted more than once, but there is no attempt to spin a variation on the gag - it's just the same thing over and over again). The makeup is variable; in particular, the Russian leader wears an awkward headpiece that suggests the Frankenstein monster, for no particular reason. The fight scenes feature some memorable sight gags: at one point, Herzog throws Martin up through the ceiling, and then Martin rolls back down the stairs for more punishment. But you can only sustain this stuff for so long before it (a) starts to look like generic stunt fighting instead of a battle between the living and the dead and (b) leaves us wondering why the living (in the case, Martin) can withstand so much punishment from a zombie with the strength to kill a human instantly. Clearly, we are not supposed to worry about these things, but filmmakers should not depend upon our indulgence; they should earn it by executing their (deliberate) nonsense with such fantastic style that we embrace the nonsense for the sheer fun of it. That's just not happening here.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead is a film that wants to make you like it, but succeeds only in making you wish you liked it more. A second viewing only confirmed this for me: the deluge of giddy gore never sweeps me up in a wave of hysteria that matched the excesses of Evil Dead II. If you're a fan of that kind of tongue-in-cheek splatter, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead may serve as a stand-in pinch-hitter when you're looking for something similar. But it will never be a true replacement.
For The Record:
- Like Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead was filmed simultaneous in two languages (in this case, English and Norwegian).
- (SPOILER) A post-credits scene suggests a sequel is planned: Herzog's head (which had been blown off his body by a tank's canon) is seen opening its eyes.