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Nazi zombies? Horrors

In the new Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” a group of young medical students on holiday in a remote mountain cabin are besieged by a battalion of reanimated zombie Nazis. When an undead soldier cracks a student’s skull open like a walnut and a pink, vein-laced brain plops out on the floor, the moment needs no subtitles.

“The language of thrills is universal,” said Colin Geddes, programmer of the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Whether it’s a gore scene or a cat-and-mouse stalker scene, you understand it. It’s all the language of visuals. You can sense the rhythms, and you can sense the patterns of terror.”

With the relative crossover success of recent pictures such as the Thai martial arts film “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” or the Swedish vampire movie “Let The Right One In,” international genre filmmaking seems to be gaining momentum with American audiences. This, of course, follows an earlier wave of Asian horror films such as “Ju-on: The Grudge,” “The Eye,” and “Ringu” and their subsequent Hollywood remakes.

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IFC Films, which released “Dead Snow” in Los Angeles on Friday (the film is also available on video-on-demand), has a series of six international genre films rolling out. Focus Features, the usually highbrow distributor of films such as “Brokeback Mountain,” will soon be releasing Korean director Park Chan-wook’s vampire story “Thirst.” That film recently won a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in competition alongside Filipino revenge thriller “Kinatay” and Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To’s crime picture “Vengeance.”

“If you think of English-language action and horror -- adrenaline movies -- a lot of times they are thought of as low filmmaking,” said Tim League, director of the genre-centered Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, where he estimates about 70% of his selections come from overseas.

“There’s such a glut of willfully lazy, bad, cheap American productions,” League said. “And it’s not the same in other countries. I think the ratio of good stuff to bad stuff from almost every other country is higher than what it is in the United States.”

Foreign filmmakers turning to American genres for inspiration is a long-standing tradition, including the western-influenced Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa in Japan, the Hitchcock perversions of Mario Bava and Dario Argento in Italy, and the action heroics of ‘80s filmmakers in Hong Kong.

Yet while rarefied film geeks have long been looking past America’s borders for their movie kicks, many general filmgoers in the United States still see foreign-language films as having a certain eat-your-vegetables quality about them. Tommy Wirkola, director and co-writer of “Dead Snow,” is inclined to agree.

“Norwegian cinema has always been kind of boring, really serious films,” said Wirkola. “‘Dead Snow’ is a very un-Norwegian film. We wanted to make a film like we loved growing up, the film we wanted to see. In Norway, people make films they think the audience should see, not the films they themselves love to see.”

In “Dead Snow” there is a discussion about Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” movies and lines of dialogue from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and the first “Terminator.” These serve in part as signposts to the audience that the filmmakers are working from the same set of reference points, even from half a world away.

“We wanted to go back to that ‘80s feel,” said Wirkola, “where horror movies were bloody but also very funny.”

Wirkola even went so far as to play one of the Nazis. “I like to think of them as Nazi zombies. Nazis first, then zombies,” said the director, who suffered through nearly two hours of makeup so he could be in a scene in which a student perilously hangs off a mountain cliff from an unraveled intestine.

Wirkola, 29, had previously made a “Naked Gun"-style parody of “Kill Bill” called “Kill Buljo,” setting heads spinning with a movie-mad spoof of the famously cinema-besotted director Quentin Tarantino. After that, working again with co-writer Stig Frode Henriksen (who also appears in both “Buljo” and “Snow”), Wirkola knew his next film would continue to explore his own movie-love.

“There had never been a zombie movie made in Norway before, and we wanted to be the first,” said Wirkola, “because I loved that genre growing up. We thought it would be natural to mix in our own war history, that’s really strong in Norway.

“We thought, what is more evil than a zombie? A Nazi zombie, of course.”

Speaking the international language of scares and gore, love for foreign-language genre films is perhaps spreading beyond just the longstanding hard-core audience.

“I think there’s a part of the audience that’s bored with American horror films where the ideas are all pretty much repeated patterns,” said Toronto programmer Geddes. “So to see something new is refreshing. You look at crossover films like ‘Let The Right One In’ or ‘Dead Snow’ and there’s nothing in them which is culturally alienating or mystifying. If they happened to be in English you wouldn’t know the difference.

“The most Norwegian thing about ‘Dead Snow’ is the language and their geographical proximity to dead Nazis.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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