Dead Snow: Interview with Tommy Wirkola
Part One of a Two-Part Zombie Exposé
Monday, June 22, 2009
"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." That was the way George A. Romero explained the sudden rise in reanimated corpses on the planet back in 1978. Right about now hell must be bursting at the seams because the undead are invading every corner of our pop culture and even spreading out into the mainstream. When respected sources like NPR and the New York Times start using terms "zombie banks," you know the invasion has gone full scale. So why are zombies so popular? (Here's Part One of my Zombie Exposé, check out Part Two on "Pontypool.")
George A. Romero didn't invent zombies but his 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead" provided a mythology that's held fast in our popular culture. You can find zombie movies in every decade and in dozens of countries. Hence Japan's "Yoroi: The Samurai Zombie," India's "Bollywood Zombie," France's "Zombie Lake," Italy's "Zombi," Pakistan's "Hell's Ground," and now Norway's "Dead Snow."
Kevin Workman is an IT architect and an XSanguin organizer of an off-site zombie bash during the time of this summer's Comic-Con. He says zombies have lasted so long because they "are the clay directors work with. The first zombie movie, the first post-apocalyptic zombie movie was 'Night of the Living Dead' by George Romero and that was a big pointed conversation about racism and classism. And then George went on to do 'Dawn of the Dead,' which had to do with a mall and had to do with consumerism. All then you even have something as recent as 'Dead Set' out of the UK that was all about obsession with celebrity. And as individuals I think we can respond to it because people are drawn to post apocalyptic movies. They fantasize, well if there were no laws and there was no structure I could go to the mall and wear every pair of shoes I wanted and go to the electronic store and have every piece of equipment. It's a fantasy about what if."
For horror screenwriter Kirsten Elms, zombies are particularly apt at this moment in time because they're "an analogy for the way people are feeling right now. So many people have lost their jobs and lost their money that they feel like the walking dead."
And zombie fan Trent Reid agrees, "people are in crisis mode, in survival mode, and the zombie genre appeals to people because it shows that people can unite in a crisis and overcome it."
So zombies bring us together for a kind of undead Kumbaya moment? Well in a sense, yes. It just also happens to be a really, really bloody and gory moment of community bonding. And that brings us to the latest entry in the zombie genre and the first ever zombie film from Norway, "Dead Snow," and it's undead horde of Nazi zombies. That's right the dead are rising and they are all members of the Third Reich. According to Trent Reid, "zombies are the perfect villain and that's why we see this subgenre of Nazi zombies. You get to kill them in the most ridiculous ways. [It] doesn't matter what you do because they are not alive.
If you play video games then you are probably aware of the Nazi zombies you can kill in ridiculous fashion in Call of Duty: World at War. But what you might not know is that Nazi zombies are nothing new. There were Nazi zombies back in 1977's "Shockwaves," and even underwater Nazi zombies in pursuit of naked French girls in "Zombie Lake." But "Dead Snow" takes Nazi zombies to new heights… or depths depending on your point of view. Tommy Wirkola grew up on 80s horror and was particularly impressed by the films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. In films such as "The Evil Dead" and "Braindead" (aka "Dead Alive") zombies, gore and humor came spilling off the screen in equal measure.
For Wirkola's "Dead Snow," the filmmaker mixes in other horror elements of the 80s most notably "Friday the 13th" and its premise of a bunch of young kids isolated in a cabin and coming under attack from some deadly, unstoppable force. But instead of Jason in his hockey mask they uncover undead German stormtroppers and these particular reanimated corpses move fast like the infected people of "28 Days Later."
Like "Friday the 13th," "Dead Snow" opens with a group of young people planning a fun weekend out in the middle of nowhere. In the case of the Scandinavian youths, they meet up with an old guy who tells them of an old legend about something evil lurking in the snowy woods, an evil that has its roots in history and the Nazis. Of course the kids laugh it off but in no time at all, the cabin comes under siege from some ruthless flesh-eating creatures. The kids rely on their movie knowledge and whatever weaponry they can find around the cabin to try and fight off the attackers. At one point there's even a sight gag involving the fact that the weapons chosen are a hammer and a sickle. Of course a chainsaw is also employed as a homage to Bruce Campbell in "The Evil dead" films. The carnage that follows is excessive. There's a particularly nice point of view shot from one of the zombie victims waking to find her (I think the victim was female but with all the blood and guts stewn about I've forgotten) own entrails being pulled out. If you're a horror fan you will be quite pleased by this – everyone else is sure to be disgusted.
"Dead Snow" offers a contrast to the recent Canadian zombie film "Pontypool" (more on this tomorrow in Part Two of the Zombie Exposé), which is restrained in its depiction of gore, saving the effects for essentially one gruesome but effective scene. "Dead Snow," like a video game, is all about the carnage and how to kill the Nazi zombies in the most brutal and ridiculous ways possible. And unlike "Friday the 13th" or even the blood-soaked "Braindead," "Dead Snow" has the lovely white canvas of the snow-covered Scandinavian woods on which to splatter its sticky red blood and guts. So style points for the new locale.
Wirkola is no social satirist like George A. Romero. He's more like Raimi, a horror humorist with a knack for splatstick – a kind of yuk-yuk gorefest that finds a horror equivalent to slipping on a banana peel to elicit laughs and painful groans. Wirkola's "Dead Snow" reinvigorates the zombie genre in a playfully over the top manner and with an eye toward history. And like "Shaun of the Dead," it plays best to fans of the genre who will get all the inside jokes and references. I had a chance to speak to Wirkola who was in Norway and still in the midst of promoting his film, which opened in New York on Friday. The film opens in LA on June 26 and is currently available On Demand via IFC in Theaters. I recommend seeing "Dead Snow" on the big screen but if you can't, definitely check it out On Demand.
What made you decide to make "Dead Snow"? Where did this idea come from?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: It was a mix of things because this is the first zombie film made in the whole of Scandinavia. And we wanted to be the first ones to make a zombie film there and we wanted to combine it with the eighties feel of horror that we loved growing up that seems to not exist at least in Europe any more. So we wanted to bring that back and of course we needed something extra so we thought what is more evil than a Nazi zombie. So that was kind of it.
Now why do you think it took so long to get a zombie movie made in Scandinavia? Were George Romero's zombie films popular there?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: Yeah they have always been popular but Norway has been really slow in making genre movies. Maybe the last eight to ten years have genre movies been starting to pop up. Especially horror films and some of that so we just haven't had a culture for it and we made serious films always dramas and comedy-dramas, always a drama in there somewhere. So it's just recently that genre movies have been popping up. And this was just the natural time for it.
What made you want to combine Nazis with zombies? There are also a couple video games like Call of Duty: World at War where you can unlock Nazi zombies to kill. What makes that work?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: We needed something more evil than a normal zombie and we thought a Nazi zombie. And in Northern Norway we have a strong war history. The Nazis occupied us for five years, no four years, and in northern Norway especially there was a lot of important docks for Germany allowing special forces up there and a lot of war ships so there have always been stories about Nazis and the Occupation so I thought it was just a cool way to incorporate local history into the zombie films. There's just something special about Nazi zombies, they are just really, really evil and cool.
What did you find was the most difficult thing about making a zombie film?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: Well it was without a doubt the weather. We shot on location most of the time out in the mountains where we had to get some snow mobiles every day and it was just a huge amount of snow falling and we had to cut a few scenes from the schedule because of the snow and a lot of the days we had to start the day, there had been so much snow that we had to dig out the props and equipment before we could start shooting. So the weather and the cold were hard on us. Our blood kept freezing up, we used syrup blood we wanted to keep it all natural but it was impossible because the blood kept freezing up on certain days that's why we have some digital blood some places in the film. So zombie make up and zombie special effects and all that stuff combined with cold and weather was a big, big challenge, [it] was a problem that we never thought about. And not only the blood but the mechanisms that were supposed to shoot the blood and the brains and all that stuff. Everything is more complicated in horror when it's minus fifteen degrees and wind.
What do you think is the lasting appeal of zombies? Even before Romero there were zombie films but more of a voodoo kind. What do you think the appeal is that keeps filmmakers and now a lot of authors who are writing zombie literature returning to them for stories?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: That's a good question, I'm sure there are a lot of answers but in some ways they are almost the perfect bad guys in a film. That's the fun part when we wrote this was thinking about ways for zombies to die. Nobody ever feels sorry for a zombie especially a Nazi zombie. For a film you can really do whatever you want with them with a clear conscience.
Now your zombies move fairly fast. At what point did you know what kind of zombies you were going to create? Which zombie rules you were going to go by?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: Well the biggest reason that they run instead of walk – it's pretty simple – if you have a young kid escaping zombies in two meters of snow and the zombie walking in that snow is slow, it's going to be a really slow chase and it's not going to be that scary. I mean we had to have them move fast in the snow. I mean since they are Nazi zombies, what do you think when you think Nazis, you think fast, efficient, organized. So we tried to incorporate that in our zombies you know, what do we think about when we think Nazis. We even had one zombie say a word, a command. So we really didn't bother too much about the rules. And there have been running zombies before, in the "Dawn of the Dead" remake and in "28 Days Later" if you can consider those a zombie film. So I saw there was a big discussion on Ain't It Cool news, I think it was, about walking or running zombies but we had to go with the running zombies because of where we shot it. We went for the old-fashioned ones where they're cursed. For me there are two types of zombie films: the curse and the plague or virus. So we wanted ours to be like a ghost story mixed with Indiana Jones.
Was there also a certain appeal of doing a zombie film in the snow where you have all that beautiful white snow with all that potential to splatter blood all over it?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: Yeah, actually the first title of the film, the working title was Red Snow. And yeah we wanted to combine the beautiful scenery of northern Norway with carnage and blood and gore and zombies and as far as I know it's the first zombie film with a snowy landscape and that a cool thing even if it's a small thing, it's a new thing in the zombie genre. So we wanted to make the best out of the scenery and use it in full. The area we shot was right next to my parents' cabin where I spent summers and winters. So I knew that area pretty well and I knew what I wanted to shoot and what I wanted to use so we had a lot of that in mind when we shot it.
The George Romero zombie films always mixed horror, comedy, and social commentary. Probably more so than the Sam Raimi films. Did you feel you used your zombies to make any kind of social statement?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: No, I wouldn't say that at all. Romero did it but we followed more the Raimi approach and we just wanted a really fun, fun film. That's it. Maybe people can interpret different things from it but no we didn't have any deeper ideas in our head when we wrote it.
One of the scenes that was inspired was the point of view of one of the characters being disemboweled. I thought that was fun and clever. How did you come up with that?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: I've always been a fan of the point of view shot. Sam Raimi used it a lot in his films and it's a really cool effect in horror films to use the point of view shot. And we wanted something new with a death scene. And we wanted to show a person dying from their point of view and a little fun in that as well. Originally it was not going to be as blurry as it was it was going to be clear cut but the scene was really gruesome without the blurring going in and out so we had some fears about censorship because of that scene so that's why we put the blur on there. In horror films you gotta try to do some new things and that was one of the things we tried to do, to do Sam Raimi but in a new way.
How has the film been received in Norway?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: It was very well received. A lot of people were really skeptical before it came out because there hasn't been made a film like this in Norway before. So in cinemas 140,000 tickets were sold, and in Norway if a movie comes across passed just 100,000 sold tickets it's a big success. So we're really happy with that. And it got good reviews overall. That was kind of our biggest worry because young people in Norway, 16, 17, 18 years olds, normal, not a movie buff, but a normal 18-year-old don't know about Raimi and don't know about "Braindead." They are not used to this kind of horror film where you are supposed to laugh as well as be scared so there were some concerns but it was a hit and a lot of young people really love it.
Do you hope your film inspires these younger kids to seek out films like "The Evil Dead" and "Braindead," that they might not have known about?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: Yeah I hope so, that's my hope. It's something that we wanted. That's why we put so many obvious hints in there as well, calling out, speaking out movie names and all that. Like I said in Norway a lot of the younger people, they don't know Sam Raimi, they know him from "Spider-man," but not from "The Evil Dead" films. Hopefully we can get them to check out those "Evil Dead" films.
Do you have any future plans for doing more zombie films or taking the Nazi zombies to another country?
TOMMY WIRKOLA: Well we actually have an idea for a sequel. Now we have established the guy who kind of survives it. We don't know if he survives it but he's grown into a kind of character we might want to have fun with him in a sequel. And we want him to do more with the Nazis and not just in the mountains. Maybe bring it up a notch.
Companion viewing: "The Evil Dead," "Braindead," "Fido," "Shaun of the Dead," "Zombie Lake"
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