Saturday 22 February 2014

Nazi Zombie Death Tales

Directors: James Eaves, Alan Ronald, Pat Higgins
Writers: James Eaves, Alan Ronald, Pat Higgins
Producers: James Eaves, Alan Ronald, Pat Higgins, Laura Tennant, Debbie Attwell
Cast: Tina Barnes, Lara Lemon, Jess-Luisa Flynn
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: unfinished screener (Safecracker Pictures)

[I have been asked by one of the film-makers to point out that this is (as usual) a detailed review which may contain spoilers. - MJS]

As I write this review, the web is full of negative comments about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, released just a few days ago. Not because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t (and could never) live up to the ridiculously high expectations that people have built up for it.

My cinematic tastes and interests are, as you may have gathered if you’re a regular reader, somewhat different to most people’s. So although I’ll probably go and see Prometheus, I’m not really too arsed about it. On the other hand, I can sympathise with these people because I feel very much the same way about the motion picture formerly known as Battlefield Death Tales. If you were to stop me at random any time in the past few years and ask which films I was most looking forward to, high on my list would be (a) the next Jim Eaves movie, (b) the next Pat Higgins film, and (c) whatever the next thing is that escapes from inside Al Ronald’s mind.

These three gentlemen previously collaborated on Bordello Death Tales, one of the first in the current vogue for horror anthologies and a corking trilogy of tales which was even better than the sum of its parts. Separately, Jim made The Witches Hammer and Bane; Pat made TrashHouse, KillerKiller, HellBride and The Devil’s Music; and Al made Jesus vs the Messiah. Having enjoyed their initial collaboration, they decided to switch from the horrors of sex to the horrors of war and set to making three new half-hour shorts that could be bolted together. Unlike Bordello DT, there is no framing story, although there is a very brief narrative cross-over between Al’s tale and Pat’s. I like a framing story in an anthology personally, and one of the previous film’s strengths was that Madam Raven was actually relevant to all three tales rather than being just a detached narrator. But for Battlefield DT, each story is separate and complete and the only connection is a Second World War setting.

We kick off with Jim’s Medal of Horror, which starts with British Captain George (David Wayman: Death, The Dead Inside) in a bar watching burlesque fan-dancer Daisy (Jeanie Wishes). Clever editing moves the story forward through his seduction of the young woman and her receipt of a letter confirming Captain George’s death. Starting the film with a full five minutes of dialogue-free narrative is a brave move, rendered even braver by the subsequent scene of Captain George, very much alive, reporting to a US Army Major (Paul Kelleher: Spirits of the Fall, The Demon Within, Simon and Emily). What follows is ten minutes of two men in a room, one sitting, one standing, just talking. Some casual viewers might turn off after a while, wondering when we’ll get to any Nazi zombies, and I’m not sure that Medal of Horror wouldn’t be better as the middle segment.

The major does introduce the Z-word in an apparently unrelated anecdote about a dead US soldier who returned to base and took a great deal of effort to subdue. But mainly he is castigating George for being a shit by sending a fake condolence letter to Daisy, who turns out to be the Major’s daughter. And who has been captured, for no obvious reason, by the Germans. Specifically by “Hitler’s high priestess of the occult” Jezebel (Tina Barnes: A Day of Violence, Bane, F).

George sets off on what is effectively a suicide mission to rescue Daisy and on the way has some rather random encounters including a German soldier in a dark blue greatcoat who exemplifies one of the films’ main problems: costumes. With a big budget, a film can afford to hire lots of historically accurate WW2 uniforms and create/adapt any additional ones required. But when shooting on a shoestring, you take what you can get. I’m no military historian but none of the uniforms on show in any of the segments really convinced me. George’s greatcoat for example has no Captain’s pips. Jezebel, when we meet her, is wearing black leggings below her smart, black SS jacket. Some of the background British soldiers seem to be wearing outfits that are distinctly post-WW2. And this particular German soldier has a coat that might pass for a French uniform in World War 1 but doesn’t look like anything warn by any German troops ever.

This sort of historical inaccuracy takes one out of the film, as do a number of very obviously modern locations. But it really is all down to budget. At this level of film-making, beggars can’t be choosers and if you know someone with a military-looking outfit that might pass muster if the viewers don’t look to closely and have never seen Where Eagles Dare, or a hall big enough to film in that’s empty for a few days, you say thanks very much. Those of us who love B-movies have to rely on the energy, originality, enthusiasm, excitement and generally daft scary fun of the movie to gloss over such things, as they assuredly do. But it would be remiss of me not to note their existence.

Anyway, George’s most random encounter is with the zombified Red Baron. He comes across a crashed scarlet triplane in the woods; a frankly dodgy model shot to which, honestly, my initial reaction was: “What is a radio-controlled model aircraft doing in a 1940s-set story?” Once again we must asume/hope that the viewers have not even rudimentary knowledge of military history, because of course Manfred von Richtofen was not shot down in a wood, and both his plane and his body were recovered. However, in this alternate history, the bright red Fokker Dr.1 has somehow remained undiscovered, and in extremely good condition, for more than 20 years.

As George stares at this, the Red Baron himself (Eaves regular Sam Smith) leaps up from the ground, although it’s not clear whether he has just been hiding there or whether he too has lain undisturbed since the last war. Clad in a red flying outfit that matches his plane, even down to a red eye-patch, and bearing absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the real von Richtofen (or indeed any German pilot!), this is very much a cartoon character. We must regard him as a character called ‘the Red Baron’, inspired extremely loosely by the legend, rather than the actual Red Baron himself.

But because a cartoon zombie WW1 flying ace isn’t weird enough, a karate-kicking Japanese zombie then appears and fights the German zombie, with both seeking to attack George if the other will let them. Quite what a Japanese soldier, living or dead, is doing in Northern Europe defeats me. Although it is worth noting that if this zombie is also meant to be a WW1 veteran then his fight against the Kraut is valid because the Japanese were on the Allied side during the 1914-18 war. On the other hand, his headband suggests he perhaps is supposed to be a kamikaze pilot, which would make him a WW2 airman and hence part of the Axis forces. While the two colourful undead tussle among the ferns, George makes his getaway through the woods and this utterly random weirdness is left behind.

In a bunker, he finally locates Jezebel and a single extraordinary German robot soldier, plus Daisy herself. Tina Barnes hams it up in her SS uniform and clearly had an absolute blast filming her extended death scene, although I can’t honestly say that I was convinced by her accent, whch at times seemed closer to Melbourne than Munich.

Medal of Horror runs about 35 minutes and, like the two stories which follow it, seems somewhat constrained by the format. I don’t know if there’s a feature here but it just doesn’t seem to fit the half-hour(-ish) restriction, especially given how slow most of the first half is. It seems a curiously disjointed tale. Fun, undeniably, but not totally satisfying.

Alan Ronald has the ‘golfing story’ slot with his tongue-in-cheek Harriet’s War which is completely different to the announced story. When the three plot synopses were revealed in January 2012, Al’s tale was called Monsters of the 4th Reich and went like this:

“Harriet Price tracks down monsters for the British Government. Armed with an array of inventions and contraptions she deals with everything from ghosts, demons, werewolves, vampires and once, she claims, even Churchill's Black Dog. But, along with her newly assigned partner; the cross dressing gunslinger 'Trixie Antoinette', this latest investigation will bring her face to face with the greatest monster of all... Hitler himself.”

The title may have been changed to avoid confusion with forthcoming British Nazi-zombie film The 4th Reich, but that’s just cosmetic. In fact, all that remains of this synopsis is Harriet Price herself, beautifully played by Lara Lemon in a costume to die for. She was in Al’s as-yet unreleased second feature Chinese Burns, which was written by and stars Julian Lamoral-Roberts - who was in Al’s Bordello DT story Stitchgirl and here plays the local vicar. Cy Henty turns up as the befuddled local copper, wearing an extraordinary policeman’s helmet and an even more extraordinary moustache.

Harriet Price is some sort of Government operative who visits the cosy little village of Chapelton to investigate a mysterious death, reporting to her superiors via a glorious sort of steampunk dictaphone. A young man has been found, dead and with multiple swastikas carved into his skin, while his girlfriend has disappeared (but later turns up in a similar condition). We saw in a prologue that they were killed by an apparently supernatural, German soldier with similar scars and a swastika blindfold

This is probably the simplest and most coherent of the three tales, let down only by the revelation of what is really going on, when Harriet suddenly proclaims to the plod and the priest, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, the name of the only other significant character. Nevertheless, I think this is my favourite and it has that mannered surrealism that we have come to expect from Al’s work. Still, one can’t help wondering whatever happened to cross dressing gunslinger Trixie Antoinette...

Finally we have Pat’s tale Devils of the Blitz. This is the least comprehensible of the three stories and, truth be told, without having read the synopsis I don’t think I would have had a clue what was going on. Jess-Luisa Flynn (Adele in The Devil’s Music) plays the sister of a serving soldier with Liza Keast (The Witches Hammer) as her concerned mother and Geoffrey Sleight (also in The Devil’s Music) as her intolerant, rationalist grandfather. There are some sort of monsters in their house, grandly portrayed by rubbery puppet things instead of that modern CGI nonsense, and there is a subplot about the brother/son (Paul Cousins) being seriously injured which must have some connection to the main story but I couldn’t work out what.

As with Medal of Horror, this feels like it has been compressed to fit the format at the expense of explanation. It also suffers from being set during the Second World War’s quitest, gentlest air raid. Although we are told that the bombs are dropping outside, little can be heard and the house never shakes; a curious repetition of the silent off-screen gun-battle in HellBride.

Battlefield Death Tales is a fun little film but it’s not, in my opinion, as good as its predecessor. However, I’m in two minds about whether I’m being objective in this assessment (in a subjective way) or whether my disappointment is coloured by my high expectations. In one sense, I got exactly what I expected, because once again the segments are individualistic and identifiable. With a Jim Eaves film I expect action and startling imagery. In a Pat Higgins picture I expect strong characters and relationships. And when Al Ronald sits in the director’s chair I expect off-beat ideas and that thing I have mentioned before: mannered surrealism. And hey, I got all this from Battlefield DT. Never, in the field of indie horror movies, has so much scary fun been created by so few.

What I didn’t get was neat little vignettes of horror - and that’s what people expect in an anthology like this. Each of the tales in Bordello DT was ‘high concept’ but the stories here are more complex and none of them really succeed completely in what they set out to do.

There is also the question of the title. When the film was picked up for UK distribution by Safecracker, who had recently released Bordello DT, it was renamed Zombie Death Tales, with Amazon and other etailers mistaking promotional artwork for a finished DVD sleeve and listing it as The Red Baron in Zombie Death Tales. I can see that ‘zombie’ in a title has more marketing cachet than ‘battlefield’, and this matches the similar retitlng of US B-movie Horrors of War as Zombies of War by UK distributor Point Blank a couple of years ago. But of course, all zombie films are ‘death tales’ so that title didn’t really work and it was swiftly amended to Nazi Zombie Death Tales, which is what was on my screener. [The film was subsequently released in the USA as Angry Nazi Zombies and in Germany(!) as Nazi Zombie Battleground, meaning it now has more titles than the average Jess Franco flick. - MJS]

But here’s the problem. So far as I can tell, there are no Nazi zombies in this film. There are Nazis, and there are zombies, but no actual Nazi zombies. And truth be told, both Nazis and zombies are in short supply. Nazi-wise, there’s Tina Barnes as a sort of latter day Ilsa, there’s that briefly seen soldier in the blue coat, and there’s one more character who provides the explanation for the blindfold thing in Harriet’s War. There are no zombies at all in Al’s and Pat’s stories and although there is one zombie bite that sets up the climax of Medal of Horror, the only other possibly undead characters are those two bizarre figures who fight in the forest.

These two feature on Safecracker’s sleeve alongside the Nazi robot thing, and they have cheekily photoshopped a swastika badge onto the ribbon around the Red Baron’s neck. But in the film that ribbon supports an Iron Cross and the character is devoid of swastikas because of course he is a remnant from the First World War.

Nazi Zombie Death Tales isn’t really a zombie film, unless you’re ultra-completist. And while putting ‘zombie’ in the title may shift more units, I can’t help feeling it will shift them to people who will be pissed off when they find that they have bought a film with few if any zombies in it. Mind you, none of the stories are set on a battlefield either...

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 7th August 2012

Postscript. I did go and see Prometheus. It was shit.

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