As a bilaterally symmetrical species, human beings have evolved the tendency to divide people into two groups — conservatives vs. liberals; Pirates vs. Ninjas; Beatles vs. Stones; Spider-Man vs. Batman; Star Wars vs. Star Trek. (Lemme tell ya — moderates, Vikings, The Who, Superman, and Battlestar Galactica are all wicked pissed that “tripod” is merely off-color slang.) This year, the big divide is between vampire lovers and zombie lovers (Sea monsters are also wicked pissed). And while vampires have taken our culture by storm in the last year and a half, it’s now the zombies’ turn, thanks in large part to the Woody Harrelson vehicle Zombieland.
Don’t get me wrong — I love my vampires … whether they’re smartly realized by their creators (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Let the Right One In) or just awesomely trashy and silly (The Lost Boys, True Blood). But overall, I’m a zombie man. My favorite zombie flicks are films that merge intelligent social commentary with viscera and violence (the original Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, which yes, is a zombie movie even if the “infected” aren’t traditional zombies; feel free to cry foul in the comments, nerds), but at the end of the day, as long as the walking dead are gettin’ exploded and soupy, I’m happy. Even the most hackneyed zombie splatterfest is better than, say, the ludicrous melodramatic “romance” of, oh, I dunno … frickin’ Twilight. One huge advantage zombies have over vampires — you’re not likely to see a romance between a blossoming teenage girl and her overprotective zombie boyfriend attempt to be played for anything resembling pathos, because zombies actually look decayed, and necrophilia is — hello! — gross. I guess zombies are to teenage boys as vampires are to teenage girls. Zombies are punk — vampires are totally goth.
So when my pal Sean responded to my verbal insta-review of Zombieland by telling me that a film called Dead Snow was playing at the UWM cinema, I flipped my lid a little bit because NORWEGIAN NAZI ZOMBIE MOVIE. Apparently, zombies can also be black metal! AWESOME! Because the world delivered me a mainstream Hollywood interpretation of zombies (Zombieland) within two weeks of gifting me with an independent foreign zombie film (awesomely spelled DØD SNØ in the native lingo), I felt that these movies were going to need the ol’ DJ Hostettler Genre Movie Face-Off Treatment.™ So, here we go…
Reanimation Thunderdome: Zombieland vs. Dead Snow! OMG!
Advance warning — this probably won’t be as hilarious as the LTROI/Twilight comparison because in this case, both movies are actually pretty damn good (because they’re zombie movies). Still, let’s check out how each film plays with the genre conventions in order to see which comes out on top, because hell, we’ve come this far.
Slow zombies vs. fast zombies — oh, who the hell cares
Zombie purists are getting damned sick and tired of all these fast-moving zombies all up in our zombie movies. Well, they’re gonna stay pissed for a while — both Zombieland and Dead Snow have some Olympic-level track stars (although thanks to history, we know that no Nazi zombie could ever outrun Jesse Owens). It’s tough to decide which film adheres the closest to a standard zombie mythos; while we at least know via Berlin 1936 that the German undead have physical limits, Zombieland has more traditional zombies in that they, you know, have no logic centers in their brains and thus don’t remember things like military rank or whether or not they’re supposed to eat the Jews first. On the other hand, NAZI ZOMBIES ARE FUCKING RAD. I mean, not that Nazis are cool or anything, but … well, look, when’s the last time you watched an Indiana Jones movie that didn’t have Nazis? Exactly. Advantage: Push
Rule #1: It’s 2009 — play with the damn rules
I’m not gonna lie — Dead Snow almost lost me in the first half with its overly clichéd buildup. Your premise: a group of vacationing youths head to a remote cabin, at which point they are warned by a mysterious, creepy old man that “there’s evil in them thar hills.” Are you god damned serious? Sure, the movie shows a flash of self-awareness when the rote “movie nerd” template asks “how many horror movies start with a cabin in the hills?,” but it’s a hollow bone to throw. Heck, until the mass slaughter gets rolling in Dead Snow, I was actually convinced that this face-off was gonna go to Zombieland in a (har) zombielandslide (sorry). When it comes to actually fighting the zombies, all Movie Buff Dude has to contribute with his cinematic know-how is “don’t get bit.” Great, thanks Ebert. I can’t think of a single mythological creature whose bite results in rainbows, gumdrops and four-hour boners, but hey! You’re the “movie nerd.”
Zombieland, however, realizes that it’s 2009 and that it is the beneficiary of two generations of zombie mythology. It has gleeful fun dissecting its “rules for surviving Zombieland.” The movie takes advantage of its big ol’ Hollywood budget by inserting clever CGI captions into the background whenever one of the rules is utilized (Rule 1 — Cardio. Rule 2 — Beware of bathrooms). While both films are horror comedies, Zombieland is a lot funnier, thanks to its willingness to wallow in its self-awareness (especially during the scenes with the completely unstoppable celebrity cameo). Advantage: Zombieland
Get your vamptastic romantic subplot out of my GD zombie movie
Since Zombieland is a Hollywood production, it’s required to divert from crucial zombie pwnage to waste time on a stupid, pointless romance between dammit-why-are-you-only-20 Emma Stone and “Shit, we can’t afford Michael Cera, let’s hire Jesse Eisenberg” (who I’m guessing would have laid waste to TONS of Nazombies in Dead Snow, I’m just saying). BORING. In Dead Snow, the closest thing to romance is when Movie Nerd gets to nail one of the girls in the outhouse immediately after taking a shit. Like, immediately. From what I’ve heard about German porn, I would have thought the zombies more likely to pull those shenanigans. Advantage: Dead Snow
OK, screw all these useless details. HOW’S THE GORE?
At the end of the day, Zombieland — as legitimately entertaining as it is — looks every bit like a slick, mainstream take on zombies. And as a result, the gore is limited to blood shooting out of heads and the occasional dead dude snacking on human entrails. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that at no point is the viewer legitimately worried that one of the main characters is likely to die (the test audiences most assuredly took care of that). When Dead Snow gets rolling, however, it doesn’t let up. Brains spill, entrails get snagged on trees, and blood gushes out of everywhere like it’s ancient Egypt and the Pharaoh can’t take a hint from Moses. It’s lower-budget, and it’s WAY more raw. And, um, without giving anything away, let’s just say that the main characters aren’t nearly as safe. And because of that, Dead Snow’s a far more thrilling ride, no matter how many roller coasters are in the (completely logic-leaping, but fuck it) Zombieland finale. Advantage: Dead Snow
So there you have it — it’s Dead Snow by a severed nose. For the first half of Dead Snow, I was convinced that Zombieland was gonna surprise me and take it. But I should have remembered a cardinal rule of horror movies: George Romero would never go studio, and indie horror always wins. There’s not a single rule in Zombieland that trumps that.