Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
Someone way smarter than me said “war is hell” – and I don’t think they were wrong. Being placed into life-or-death situations where it’s often kill or be killed is certainly no walk in the park, but war literally becomes hell in some of horror cinema’s best takes on armed conflict. Forget the traditional haunted houses and abandoned summer camps and join me on the field of battle as we look at some of the best military-based horror films of all time in honor of this week’s DVD debut of Outpost: The Rise of Spetznaz.
What do you get when you mix the now ubiquitous Nazi zombies, Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, and Ray Stevenson? You get Steve Barker’s surprisingly excellent low-budget chiller Outpost.
Stevenson and his team of soldiers uncover an old Nazi bunker, but it turns out the base isn’t as empty as they might have expected. Nope, there are undead Nazi supersoldiers still walking these halls, and they don’t take kindly to trespassers. Stevenson and his team are forced into a fight for survival against an enemy who shouldn’t even exist in this creepy tale of WWII science run amok.
While Outpost isn’t the greatest Nazi-zombie flick of all time (a title I think belongs to Shockwaves), it’s definitely in the top five. The criminally underrated Stevenson shines here, and the atmosphere is effective.
British soldiers take on werewolves in Neil Marshall’s cult classic Dog Soldiers.
Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd lead an excellent ensemble cast into the fight of their lives when they encounter a band of werewolves roaming the Scottish countryside. Marshall’s film pays homage to other classic genre efforts at regular intervals, but the director makes them feel organic to the film’s plot as opposed to attempts to simply prove his genre cred. The result is a fantastically entertaining battle royale between man and lycanthrope that’s sure to appease horror fans and military folks alike.
Day of the Dead
George Romero’s third zombie film finds mankind teetering on the brink of complete disaster, and maybe the only humans left are a group of scientists and soldiers hiding in an underground bunker.
While the majority of the films on this list feature the soldiers as heroes, they’re not in Romero’s bleak vision of the end of world. The soldiers in Day are unpleasant and rigid, and are perhaps more of a threat than the teeming hordes of the undead shambling overhead. They’re inflexible, and ironically enough not even very good at killing things – but Romero uses them effectively as yet another tool to comment on society.
Like all of the first three Dead films, Romero’s making a commentary on human nature – and this one isn’t particularly subtle. The military in Day of the Dead is an outdated remnant of the old world order; one that has to change if humanity has any hope of survival. If you know Romero, you can kinda guess how that all works out in the film.
R-Point is a piece of land located on an island roughly 150 km south of Ho-Chi Minh City. It's an unpopulated jungle of spectacular beauty, and has served as a staging point for soldiers during several different historical conflicts. The French, who were once stationed there, were so impressed by the site that they built a hospital on the land. Unfortunately, R-Point isn't all jungle beauty and bucolic scenery—the land is cursed. Over the decades, numerous platoons of soldiers have entered R-Point never to be seen again.
It’s a search-and-rescue mission into this dangerous locale that provides the genesis for this moody and creepy Korean genre effort. Things are not right inside R-Point, as a group of South Korean soldiers are about to discover firsthand. The question is, what will they find – and will they need rescuing themselves?
It’s really a shame more folks haven’t seen this film. It’s got atmosphere in spades, and it’s genuinely unsettling. That it’s incredibly well made is just a bonus.
The Devil’s Rock
On the eve of D-Day, two Kiwi soldiers are dispatched to the Channel Islands to disable a very large artillery gun. The likable soldiers set about doing just that, but when Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) hears screams coming from inside the compound, he and his partner set out to investigate.
What they find are the horrifying remnants of a Nazi occult experiment gone wrong. The lone surviving SS officer, Colonel Klaus Meyer, enlists Grogan’s aid in stopping the succubus the Nazis have summoned to turn the tide of the war. What follows is an intense character-driven occult chiller featuring a sexy demon (Gina Varela), some supernatural esoterica, and some really great practical effects work courtesy of directo Paul Campion’s former colleagues at WETA.
Campion’s film proves that you don’t need a big budget or fancy sets (or even lots of weaponry) to make an effective military horror film. The Devil’s Rock is a small and intimate feature that’s sure to appeal to anyone who loves all the various theories about the Nazi’s fascination with the occult during World War II.
Speaking of Nazis and the occult…
Michael Mann took his own stab at Nazi-themed military horror with his adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel The Keep back in 1983. The film, which tells a tale of a demon freed from a Romanian citadel during WWII, was not an easy production (it was delayed by intense rains, and the finished film was trimmed from roughly three hours down to just over 90 minutes) – and yet, it’s still one of the coolest military horror films of all time.
Boasting an excellent cast (Jurgen Prochnow, Ian McKellen, Scott Glenn), an awesome ambient score from Tangerine Dream, and Mann’s signature style, The Keep has certainly earned its cult-classic reputation.
World War II has been fertile ground for horror cinema, but Michael J. Bassett’s 2002 film Deathwatch takes us back to the first World War.
As Deathwatch opens, we see the soldiers of the British army’s Y Company charge from their trenches and navigate a battlefield littered with barbed wire, German sharpshooters and deadly gas. It’s the kind of horrific, sure-to-end-in-death charge that were staples of war in the time before missiles and smart bombs. Somehow, the team survives, but they wind up lost behind enemy lines. While trying to get their bearings, they stumble upon a German trench and take it as their own. The only problem is, the lone surviving German soldier is muttering that the land is cursed.
What follows is a spooky fright flick wherein the ragtag group of soldiers is forced into confronting an enemy beyond their comprehension. Deathwatch doesn’t always work as well as it could have (the characters are largely archetypes, and the ending is a bit on the nose), but it does enough things right to make it worth a recommendation to fans who really want to see good battle evil. I wish more filmmakers would make movies set in this historical era.
And after that brief foray into a different era, we wrap things up with more WWII.
David Twohy’s Below is one of the more underrated genre efforts to emerge in this century, a supernatural chiller set on a submarine patrolling the Atlantic in 1943. When the sub is called upon to rescue survivors from a torpedoed British hospital ship, things start to go off-kilter. I can’t really say more about it than that, because unraveling the mysteries of Below is really what makes it so compelling.
The film has a great pedigree. Twohy directs, and Darren Aronofsky cowrote the script. Bruce Greenwood and a young Zack Galifianakis are part of the cast. It’s really surprising that this film hasn’t found a bigger audience given its pedigree.
That being said, it’s a really good film – especially if you’re into supernatural horror in claustrophobic spaces. If you’re curious, you can currently check it out on Netflix Instant Watch.
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