What’s worse than a murderous zombie? A murderous Nazi zombie! This feeble joke went nowhere five years ago in the Norwegian horror-comedy Dead Snow, and it takes on no new dimensions in the sequel, Red Vs. Dead—they’re still just standard zombies dressed in coal-scuttle helmets and jackboots. All the same, the second film is a notable improvement on the first, thanks to a bigger budget for gore effects, a couple of moderately inspired ideas, and the presence of American ringer Martin Starr (Freaks And Geeks, Party Down), who’s been imported to provide an actual character and some discernible comic timing.
Directed, like the original, by Tommy Wirkola (who made his poorly received Hollywood debut, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, in between), Red Vs. Dead picks up at the precise instant that the previous film ended, though Dead Snow’s sole survivor, Martin (Vegar Hoel), now inexplicably speaks only English, along with everyone else in Norway. Having previously removed his own right arm with a chainsaw after being bitten by a zombie, Martin escapes from the undead Nazi general, Herzog (Ørjan Gamst), then awakens in the hospital to find that the doctors have surgically attached Herzog’s right arm to his elbow, since they found it next to Martin (it had been torn off during a struggle) and naturally assumed that it was his. Among other goofy powers, this gives Martin the ability to raise the dead, which comes in handy when it’s revealed that Herzog is amassing a zombie army with the intention of slaughtering an entire small town that had fought back against the Germans during World War II. What could possibly defeat an army of murderous Nazi zombies? An army of murderous Russian zombies!
Since WWII-era Soviets don’t even have the benefit of a distinctive uniform, this grudge match plays like a generic zombie free-for-all, though Wirkola now has the money to shift from a chintzy Evil Dead homage to an elaborate Dead Alive homage. As in that early Peter Jackson effort, the violence here is so incessant and extreme that it crosses the line into slapstick; there’s an over-reliance on humor involving intestines, but many of the kills are giddily inventive, and the film shows no mercy, merrily obliterating children, the elderly, and the disabled. Hoel (who also co-wrote the screenplay this time) remains a limited actor, but he has fun with his Nazi arm, which he initially can’t control (à la Ash in Evil Dead II); the best sight gag has Martin attempt to give CPR to a little kid that the arm has tossed out a window, with unfortunate results. Wirkola has even improved a bit as a director since 2009—this time, it’s always clear where we are and what’s going on, which was decidedly not the case in the original.
Still, how much one enjoys Red Vs. Dead will largely depend upon one’s reaction to the Zombie Squad, a trio of American nerds (Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, and Ingrid Haas) who’ve spent years preparing for a zombie outbreak and immediately fly to Norway to provide tactical assistance. While it’s nice to see an effort at diversity, the two women don’t bring a lot to the party—Haas is merely excitable, while DeBoer’s character is stuck responding to everything with Star Wars references, a lame running gag that gets more tedious the more desperately it’s repeated. Starr, however, injects a welcome degree of self-confident idiocy, posing for photos with zombies he’s killed and constantly getting annoyed when events don’t match the expectations he’s formed from other zombie movies. The first Dead Snow included a salute to the classic Sam Raimi gearing-up montage, with its quick cuts and abrupt zooms; it was a cute nod, but nothing more. Red Vs. Dead does the same thing, but concludes the montage with a long, static shot of the Zombie Squad watching as the cash register at the hardware store churns out an endless receipt for all the tools they’ve purchased. That’s an actual joke, which is what the first movie lacked.