Splatter matter

A few days ago, Dead Snow 2 was released on video in Norway, again throwing zombie Nazis at us, with a good portion of humour – and gore. It’s a fun and silly film, but also an important one.

Let me once again remind you that the horror movie scene in Norway, and the entire Nordic region, is very small and very young. Among the few horror movies that have been made, even fewer are splatter films. And between those, almost none are shown in theatres to a bigger audience. Actually, I can only think of three Nordic splatter films that have been in mainstream cinemas, and one of those had only a limited screening. So basically, only two splatter films remain. Those two are Dead Snow (2009) and Dead Snow 2 (2014). To be even more specific, they are “horror comedies” like Braindead – so strictly speaking, no homegrown hardcore, dark, filthy splatter films ever had theatrical distribution that counts in the Nordic region. We’ve not had any Hostel or A Serbian Film yet.

That says a lot. And it also means that Dead Snow 2 is an important film, for various reasons.

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Reason one
In the small Nordic film business, most people are aware of eachother’s projects, and many artists, technicians and creators alternate between small arthouse dramas, mass-produced crime thrillers, children’s comedies and the occasional genre movie (when they are not making TV or commercials or flipping burgers). Only a few specialized artists and craftsmen can make a living of things like prosthetic effects, open wounds, zombie make-up, exploding heads, bodies cut in half, etc. To have a big budget Norwegian splatter film like Dead Snow 2 spearhead Nordic gore is therefore essential in creating a local spirit of professional competence and skills. If you look at the special effects of Nordic movies in the 70s and 80s, they were most of the time either strikingly bad or made by experienced crews from other regions, for example the UK. There were very few “special effects movies” before the 80s up here, and even with genre movies such as Ronja the Robbersdaughter (1984) and Orion’s Belt (1985) practically none were horror related. The Visitors (1988) had some cool effects, but it was a family friendy ghost comedy, not a local Army of Darkness. Not only were budgets generally small, but movies were for several decades playgrounds, testing sites and exceptions for everything from visual effects via make-up to CGI, until production houses started to get work in genre films in the 90s and 00s. The Nordic region has come a long way in the last 15 years, and now we the possibilities to create everything in our own backyard, including the most complex CGI. Still, that does not mean than we produce a lot of genre films. The entire horror output for one year can be counted on one hand, even if you combine all kinds of horror from all the five countries. Splatter and hardcore horror is still virgin territory up here; as mentioned above, we’ve had two or three theatrical entries in the genre, and maybe five or six more movies from the low budget independent world, and that’s stretching the definition of splatter. The “problem” with indie productions is that they rarely or never employ professional effects houses, which means that they do not contribute to an environment of development for the business as such. Bigger productions, like Dead Snow (2009) or Let the right one in (2008) or comedies like The Centenarian Who Climbed Out the Window and Vanished (2013) depend on those technicians and artists who jump from commercials to children’s drama and TV crime, and some of those people are not even from the Nordic countries. Splatter films like Dead Snow 2 (2014), or in the Nordic context; Dead Snow 2 specifically – as it’s pretty much the only one of its kind – is an important step, not only in maintaining skilled crews, but also for showing that excellent homegrown gore can be made on a big budget for a mainstream audience, and thus inspiring other movies to follow suit. This is of course still a valid point even if some of the effects people on Dead Snow 2 were American crews on movies like Men in Black, Looper, Total Recall and Prometheus – these foreign guys only confirm that skills and experience still need to be built locally, and their presence in Nordic productions contribute to the education of and inspiration for Nordic EFX engineers, designers and artists.

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Reason two
While the first Dead Snow was a surprise and an exception, the sequel was not only expected and grew popular fast, it is also the most expensive horror film made in the Nordic region (almost 50 % more expensive than Let the right one in). It’s also getting wide and mainstream media attention, a theatrical release, disc distribution by a major company, and great foreign sales. It could very well be the locomotive that pushes Nordic horror to the next level, beyond copies of American slashers and ugly forest creatures. Splatter is uncharted territory, and we need those movies to expand the local horror palette. We’re fortunate that Dead Snow did not turn into an exception, like so many other Norwegian films; the exotic adventure Pathfinder (1987) was nominated to an Oscar but did not spawn other adventure films, unless you count the pirate actioner Håkon Håkonsson (1990), which was made for young teens. Orion’s Belt and Etter Rubicon (1987) were alone in the club of great action thrillers until Headhunters (2011). The Polar Bear King (1991) was the only Norwegian fantasy film of the entire 90s. And so on and so on. When the Norwegians kickstarted the Nordic horror wave in the early 00s with Dark woods (2003), nobody could really tell what would follow, since the creators of that movie headed into an area for which no map existed. It was not a surprise, however, that the “teens slashed in the backwoods” genre became the most prominent product, with Cold Prey (2006 + sequels) and one-offs like Manhunt (2009) and Detour (2009). Only the indie scene produced a steady, albeit small stream of dirty exploitation and creature features, like The whore (2009), The thrill of a kill (2011) and Thale (2012). Movies that too few people saw. For Norway to maintain the small but good horror reputation it managed to carve itself in the 00s, Dead Snow 2 proved that we could deliver major horror films outside the two niches we had done some work in. Sweden had their Let the right one in and Denmark their Antichrist (2009), which both were “blockbusters” in a Nordic scale, and neither slashers nor troll tales. Scandinavians need to show that we can supply horror fans with mainstream splatter like the remake of Evil Dead or Saw (and other types of horror for that matter), or else the Nordic horror scene will grow stale. It already did, for a while, until Dead Snow rescued the genre. We’re still lacking more than exceptions to ghost stories, supernatural phenomena, haunted houses and other subgenres, so there’s plenty to dig into if one wants to broaden the types of movies made up here. Dead Snow 2 is a solid  step in the right direction.

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Reason three
One of the reasons why splatter films have not become a staple in the Nordic horror scene is that major movies usually need government funding, as the local market is too small to support private budgets. Splatter movies are niche films, and while the worldwide potential is huge thanks to nondiscriminating audiences, few private backers are willing or able or brave enough to take the chance. A 10 million dollar flop could ruin any Nordic film company. So, public funding is needed, but that is not possible as long as horror films in general and splatter films in particular are regarded as second rate cinema. While some horror movies do get public funding, those are the most mainstream ones. Dead Snow 2 did not get any public money for its production (it got a small amount for marketing) as it was probably not deemed “worthy” enough, and here we arrive at the core: Speculative cinema has never been rated high by public funders in the Nordic region, and at the same time they have failed to see the importance of and the art in splatter films. Public money has typically been given to art films, socially important dramas, children’s film, crime thrillers and in later years, to action films and other light genre projects – because these have “a message” or a function, the action thriller Nokas (2010), about the robbery of public money. Dark horror and splatter has not been recognised as serious cinematic art, but with Dead Snow 2 this might change. It’s not that the film itself is highbrow art like the works of Ingmar Bergman or Lars von Trier, but splatter films can actually have messages, depth and social functions. In health care, exposure therapy means that if you are afraid of something, expose yourself to it if you want to treat your phobia. Open up the terror, put it on display, show the world what it is. If you keep something locked down, you will never truly understand it, and your mind will enlarge unfounded consequences. But what has this to do with splatter films? Well, in splatter films you open up stomachs. You hack skulls in two. You pull people apart with horses and cars so that bowels and intestines and blood make the ground slippery. And what is being slayed? Zombies, werewolves, vampires, serial killers, political extremists… Basically, any bad guy you don’t want your daughter to marry. The gutting of a zombie or the head crushing of an inbred backwoods cannibal is equal to exposing the fears of both individuals and society, since it’s about showing what is inside. In the very act of mayhem, the threat is annulled. In Dead Snow 2, the target of destruction is zombies, specifically the more extreme Nazi zombies. In a psycho-sociological context, those Nazis could very well symbolize Norway’s big trauma, our September 11; the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who in 2011 killed 77 innocent people (most of them teenagers) in two cold blooded and well planned attacks within a couple of hours. The court deemed him sane, and his actions were politically motivated. As a right-wing extremist, he’s been called a Nazi sympathiser. Breivik was thus not a madman, at least not judicially; like the Nazis of World War 2, he was well organized and achieved his terrorism through planning. In the wake of his attacks, it became clear that right-wing extremism had to be exposed in order to be fought. Like trolls, extremists “explode” if taken out in the light. This was a new idea in Norway, which until 2011 had experienced almost no terrorism, just like we had not experienced a full-on splatter film until 2009’s Dead Snow.

Herzog and some of his undead men.

In other words, the squashing of Nazi zombies in Dead Snow 2 could be an allegory for the importance of exposing extreme views and opinions, in order to make them harmless. Similarly, the gore of other splatters films could have messages about other types of social or political issues. If more film industry bureaucrats realized this, they would perhaps grant more money to splatter films, as there could be something to learn from blood and brains.

One of the functions of horror movies in popular culture is to push limits, transcend borders and challenge rules, and to analyze problems in ways that could not be done in comedies or kitchen sink dramas. Horror films can be used to reach people who don’t watch heavy art films about mental illness, and even if some of those fans may not be looking for social commentary in the red stuff, that does not reduce the potential or importance of the genre. Horror films have been the subject of academia in both the Nordic region and elsewhere for some time now, and we’ve had a steady supply of genre films for a decade, so it’s about time that more money was put into the genre, especially when we have shown that we can make great horror, splatter and exploitation films up here. With Dead Snow and its sequel, we’ve even proved that these movies can be financially viable and profitable.

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Dead Snow 2 might be written off as just another exploitive exception, but to have spearheads like this, including its director Tommy Wirkola, is important for the Nordic horror scene, for its expansion internationally, and for Nordic films in general; the times are over when we were only known for personal dramas or mass-produced crime. When you ask global audiences about Nordic cinema now, they mention The girl with the dragon tattoo (2011), Troll Hunter (2010) or Antichrist – which are good examples – but freezing stale at that point is not an option for an industry and an art form that needs and wants to movie on.

More gore, please!

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One thought on “Splatter matter

  1. Pingback: Review: Gisela – Blut und Leder | The Nordic fantasy movie site

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