‘Living Dead Director Dies,’ was how one newspaper chose to report the passing of George Romero, as if finally settling a paradox. Although he made many other films (including one about killer monkeys, apparently), it is this trilogy, in which he single-handedly invented the concept of modern zombies, which people remember. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead set the blueprint for all zombies which followed: an outbreak occurs, infection is spread orally (something Michael Douglas can no doubt sympathise with); and through trial and error it is discovered that the only cure is an opportunistic head shot (I don’t know – Tulisa?). Without these there would be no Walking Dead, no 28 Days Later.
Of course Romero wasn’t content to leave it at that, and, after twenty years of silence, chose to follow up with another trilogy of frankly terrible films. Land of the Dead with its belated discovery, never again referred to, that zombies were sensitive beings worthy of sympathy, featured heavy-handed allusions to the Iraq war. Diary of the Dead showed an embarrassing enthusiasm for the found-footage format which audiences had long realised was rubbish, the screen equivalent of your mate’s dad who likes the Kaiser Chiefs. Survival of the Dead features an elderly Irish man with long white hair, given to saying things like ‘Bejasus, Patrick,’ while drinking from a hip flask. Romero’s bold attempt at rewriting the rule book on the depiction of Irish people on film was possibly too bold a departure for audiences. It is perhaps for this reason that scheduled follow-ups, including Holiday of the Dead, Pets of the Dead and Death of the Dead, never got made. So Romero’s other legacy was this affixing of the words ‘of the dead’ to any abstract noun to give viewers the impression they are watching an adequate zombie film.
War of the Dead is one such film. The blurb for the film – war, zombies – leads the viewer to await a film better than it actually is. Spoiler – the film is not better than it actually is.
The film begins with a written explanation, or justification of its existence. In the early stages of the war, it says, the Nazis were carrying out ‘antideath’ experiments on captured Russian soldiers. (The fact that this was two years before Germany invaded the USSR just serves to advertise the spookiness to follow). The Nazis abandoned the experiment and disposed of the test subjects, but now an elite force of American soldiers have been sent to assist Finnish soldiers in destroying the bunker, for a reason which is so obvious it doesn’t require any further clarification. This text helpfully provides some context, which is useful as the remaining 85 minutes of noise and dim lighting make no attempt to do so.
The Finnish and American soldiers – including Jim Carver from The Bill – get into difficulty with enemy soldiers on their way to the bunker, and on falling back are set upon by a scarier army. The dead have risen again and are no respecters of uniform, Americans being bitten by their fallen comrades. The survivors flee the massacre and bump into a mysterious Russian soldier who has knowledge of what is happening and offers his help.
By this point Jim Carver has disappeared, to an unknown destination. In the bad old days this would have meant to the nearest pub or Wine Rack. Being demoted from CID back to uniform triggered a personal crisis whose solution Jim felt could only be found at the bottom of a bottle, more likely several bottles. Many a time he was turning up to work drunk, to the annoyance of close colleagues who respected him too much to inform on him.
And then there came a strange episode in which he went on a quasi-Shakespearean journey of redemption among Sun Hill’s vagrant community, from which he emerged with a resolution to quit the drink.
Not that this was the end of his troubles. Later on he married one of the Avelines from Bread, in what turned out to be a very volatile relationship, sober Jim Carver falling victim to domestic violence.
The Finn, the American and the Russian move from one dark place to another, while shooting at whoever the enemy are. Into this situation are thrown the added complication of German soldiers, still insistent on fighting their conventional war. ‘Goddammit, we should be fighting these things together,’ the American captain says, and thus an American soldier learns about the futility of war. The Germans beaten, the captain takes the opportunity to fight off dozens of zombies entirely on his own while the others search for the radio room in order to send a message for help.
Once the message has been sent, a call for the destruction of the bunker, the Finn and the Soviet try to make their escape topside, in the course of which the kindly Russian falls to his death among the undead horde. The Finn gets to safety, shortly joined by the American, who has successfully punched a hundred zombies in the face. They witness the bunker being destroyed by some impressively bad CGI, before surrendering to an unidentified army who creep up on them.
Anyone drawn to this film by the last three words of the title – and to be fair, that’s literally everyone who took the time to watch – may feel short-changed by the paucity of zombie action. Battle of the Dead might be a better title. Skirmish, Fistycuffs. Moral: never steal another’s clothes to garb your substandard zombies.