Despite their lurid and sensationalist trappings, I’m not averse to Nazi zombies. Superior Brit chiller OUTPOST and its equally satisfying sequel, BLACK SUN, use them to stylish effect, and outré German horror/comedy DEAD SNOW finds in them an unexpected vein of puerile humour. There’s no denying the balls-to-the-wall bonkers fun of the Asylum’s NAZIS AT THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, or the power of their uncanny iconography to shock and disturb (especially in the hands of exploitation masters like Rob Zombie). Similarly, I have a well-documented soft spot for horror anthologies, an affection which has only deepened followed the release of recent triumphs like the V/H/S franchise and 2011’s THE THEATRE BIZARRE. You might assume, therefore, that an anthology of short horror films about Nazi zombies would be right up my street. Sadly, for every OUTPOST and DEAD SNOW there are a dozen bland and tedious examples of the form (OPERATION NAZI ZOMBIES, HORRORS OF WAR, WAR OF THE DEAD), and the same goes for the portmanteau format. NAZI ZOMBIE DEATH TALES (also known as BATTLEFIELD DEATH TALES) isn’t as bad as some, and its ambition is to be celebrated, but it’s far less fun and fast-paced than its lurid premise would lead us to expect.
The first episode, MEDAL OF HORROR, from writer/director James Eaves, is indicative of the anthology’s failings as a whole. Set (as they all are) during World War II, the story revolves around a young man who works in the typing pool, writing condolence letters to the families of dead soldiers. For reasons that aren’t adequately explained, he writes to his fiancé faking his own death, and, heartbroken, the girl attempts suicide. Also inexplicably, she goes on to be captured by a sadistic German femme fatale, and her father, who happens to be an army bigwig, enlists the clerk to attempt to rescue her (at the same time as cooking up an unlikely plot to subject him to an agonising death). It’s pure hokum, and is played with pantomime silliness. High camp is the order of the day, with lashings of fetishistic gas mask/swastika imagery, wobbly accents, and a goofy, slapstick throwdown between a German and a Japanese zombie. Scenes are infused with a maddening sense of lethargy as they draw on interminably, and it runs at least 15 minutes too long. The spartan set dressing and effects detract from the sense of period, and the story meanders. The disappointing ending is the final straw.
The second instalment – writer/director Alan Ronald’s HARRIET’S WAR – is better, although not by much. The titular Harriet (Lara Lemon), a fast-talking paranormal investigator from London, is dispatched to a small rural town to investigate a murder. Clashing with the hard-line local priest, she attempts to determine if the cause of death was natural or supernatural. While the story is more interesting (and the denouement far more satisfying) than Eaves’ attempt, the lead character is a serious misfire. Lemon is fine in the role, but the character is a carbon copy of Rebecca Hall’s character in Nick Murphy’s 2011 ghost story THE AWAKENING, with all the charm removed. She’s clichéd, condescending and irritating. It doesn’t help that Ronald’s script is clumsy and unconvincing, with dialogue that does its best to sound sophisticated and of the time, but which is clunky at best. It’s less pronounced than last time, but the slapstick humour is still in evidence (the bumbling bumpkin of a local police officer throws up into his helmet, then forgets and puts it on), and remains just as jarring. It’s a shame, as the fortean elements of the story are fascinating.
The final chapter, DEVILS OF THE BLITZ, is far and away the best. Written and directed by Pat Higgins, the story eschews the now-familiar Nazi zombie motif in favour of demons, drawn from the other side by the pain and suffering of the war. The story is stark and serious-minded, without a trace of the inappropriate tomfoolery that marred the previous episodes. The story is clipped and lean, advancing at a brisk pace and generating more tension than the rest of the anthology combined. It refuses to sentimentalise either the characters or the situation, and manages to weave together two disparate narratives into a cohesive whole. The performances, as they do throughout, range from amateurish to halfway decent, but the script is streets ahead of its peers. What lets it down (again, this is endemic to the anthology) is the special effects. The demons look like they belong in a low-budget straight-to-video shocker from the ‘80s. It’s a shame, as it can’t help but detract from what is otherwise a tense and brutal occult/war hybrid.
As with any anthology, NAZI ZOMBIE DEATH TALES is a mixed bag. Sadly, in this case it’s more bad than good. All the filmmakers should be applauded for the scope of their vision (it’s not easy to try and recreate the bloodiest and most devastating conflict in human history on a shoestring budget), and there are elements to enjoy in all of the stories. Ultimately, however, they’re hamstrung by a combination of meandering plots, jarring tonal shifts, irritating lead characters, and shoddy special effects. But fans of the Nazi zombie subgenre will still find plenty to engage them, especially in Higgins’ superior DEVILS OF THE BLITZ.