Everyone loves Nazis. Hmm, better rephrase that. Everyone enjoys a good Nazi, right? Nope, that’s still not sounding any better. What I’m trying to get at here is that there is a very clear vogue for Nazi-themed horror and sci-fi movies at the moment. I don’t know what has caused this, but suddenly if you’re a prop house with a stack of Schmauser machine guns and swastika armbands, you’re quids in.
Let’s be absolutely clear. I’m not belittling the atrocities committed by the Nazis before and during World War II. That period of history may be receding into the distance but it was a real time when a lot of real people suffered appallingly. People died in concentration camps, people were rounded up and gunned down, people were blown to pieces on the beaches and battlefields of Europe, people drowned and froze as ships went down. The Second World War was not entertainment for those who lived through it, which is not to say that some awesome war films haven’t been made over the years.
One way to make sure this sort of thing never happens again, to prevent those who cling to these ideals from ever again assuming power, is mockery. The Mel Brooks approach. Actually it goes back to Chaplin, doesn’t it? Some people will always see poor taste in the Nazi as a figure of fun, but often such comedy is not done for cheap laughs but to make a satirical point. And satire, my friends, is a potent weapon.
Horror is, in many ways, the cousin of comedy. They both exaggerate, they both seek an emotional reaction. So it is no surprise that horror filmmakers (and to some extent, sci-fi filmmakers) have used Nazis - both 1940s and contemporary - in their movies. You know where you are with a Nazi. There’s a shorthand there. We’re not asked to like them, we know that they are evil shits and we cheer when they die. (It should be stressed that there is a clear difference between ‘Nazis’ and ‘Germans’ or even ‘World War 2 German soldiers’. Service in the German army did not necessarily indicate a devotion to fascism.)
The most high-profile of the recent Nazisploitation movies is Iron Sky, in which a secret Nazi colony on the Moon plans an attack on Earth in 2018. This was announced somewhat controversially as playing cinemas for one night only so I went to the local Showcase on that Wednesday night and watched the film in a packed auditorium. I noticed that, because of pressure from the filmmakers and their global legions of supporters, the film had actually been kept over for late-night screenings on two more days that week. This is the sort of detail that it’s useful, as a writer about such things, to file away in one’s memory. I have no doubt that in years to come there will be books and magazine articles which assert that Iron Sky played cinemas for one day but it actually played a few more dates. Accuracy matters.
Anyway, Iron Sky is GREAT! You may have read some reviews that said yes cool concept, yes great design, yes impressive visual effects, but otherwise: meh. Pay no heed to such people. Iron Sky has great characters, a smart script, fine direction and strong performances, as well as satirical swipes at politicians and some serious points about the futility of war. And it has non-Germans’ two favourite German actors: Gotz Otto and Udo Kier. Freaking Udo Kier, man! When has there ever been a bad Udo Kier movie?
Well, okay, calming down for a moment, Udo Kier has made some appalling stinkers in his time but even in the worst of them the one good thing is Udo Kier. I actually met him once and he was just wonderful: professional and polite and dignified and exciting. He has laser beams for eyes. I should write a whole blog on Udo Kier at some point. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Nazis. Iron Sky started life as a Finnish production and ended up as a Finnish/German/Aussie co-production (a fine example of international collaboration, which is so much better than killing each other). It received hefty amounts of funding from hefty numbers of fans who all chipped in a few krone/euros/dollars because they wanted to see the movie finished. Remarkably, Iron Sky has even spawned its own The Asylum mockbuster - Nazis at the Centre of the Earth!
There’s another great Nazi/sci-fi film that almost no-one has ever seen, a communist-era Czech production from the late 1970s with a title that is variously translated as Tomorrow I’ll be Scalding Myself with Tea or Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea or some such variant of the whole tea/scald/tomorrow thing. It is, as you may guess from the title, a time travel movie in which future Nazis plot to help Hitler win World War 2 by taking a small atom bomb back to the 1940s. Unfortunately, they arrive a couple of years too early so their offer of 'This device will help you win the war' is met with the response 'But we are already winning the war, danke schoen.' Tomorrow I’ll etc was shown once on British TV in about 1980 and has since passed into legend. There are various reviews on the web so there must be copies out there. Watch it if you ever get a chance.
Nazi-themed science fiction is all well and good but the current vogue is for Nazi undead. Zombies + Nazis = ultimate bad guys you can really, really hate. This isn’t a new idea of course. No less than Peter Cushing starred in Shock Waves back in 1977, playing an ageing SS officer in charge of a ‘death corps’ of zombies designed to be able to fight anywhere, including under water. Utterly daft but with a veneer of respectability from Cushing and John Carradine and an utterly iconic poster/video sleeve. A young Fred Olen Ray was the stills photographer, fact-fans.
It was presumably the bad guys in Raiders of the Lost Ark who created the early 1980s vogue for Nazis in fantasy horror exploitation. Jean Rollin made Zombie Lake in 1981, reinforcing the idea that Nazi zombies always come up out of the water. And dear old Jess Franco got in on the act that same year with Oasis of the Zombies which, in the tradition of Jess Franco movies, has about 20 other titles. This had German and American treasure hunters competing to find a lost shipment of Nazi gold in the desert, where it was guarded by - hey! - Nazi zombies. Or zombie Nazis. Actually if there’s a difference between these old films and the more recent batch, it’s this. One gets the impression with the older pictures that someone had, in some development meeting, come out with: 'Hey man, what if these zombies... are Nazis?' Whereas the more recent films suggest that someone, during some Skype conversation (or whatever it is they have nowadays) suggested: 'Dudes, how about if these Nazis... are zombies?'
Probably the best known of these early ‘80s Nazi fantasy horror films is Michael Mann’s The Keep, filmed in the UK and adapted from a novel by F Paul Wilson. The problems this movie faced during production, the critical drubbing it received and the small but passionate fanbase that strives to keep its memory alive (not to mention the Tangerine Dream score) are probably all more than it deserves. Of course there have also been several infamous non-fantasy Nazi horror films but I’m really not interested in them and would look slightly askance at anyone who is. The likes of Gestapo’s Last Orgy, The Beast in Heat, Love Camp 7 and SS Experiment Camp were all included on the famous DPP ‘video nasties’ list of banned films and, let’s be honest, could stay there for all that anyone really cares. A handy rule of thumb is that any feature set in a concentration camp that doesn’t star either Ralph Fiennes or Dyanne Thorne is probably not worth bothering with.
In 2002, The Bunker arrived in tandem with another British war-horror mash-up, Deathwatch. The former was about Germans in World War II, the latter about British Tommies in World War I (so not really germane to our theme here) and both featured a spooky fantasy enemy. But, like The Keep, that’s ‘Nazis vs spooky horror stuff’ rather than the Nazis actually being the spooky horror stuff. There was also something called SS Doomtrooper which was made for the Sci-Fi Channel in 2006. But I would be misleading you if I suggested that anything I could write here about that film didn’t come straight from IMDb or Wikipedia.
The modern resurgence in Nazi zombies probably originates with Dead Snow, which garnered quite a lot of attention just for being Norwegian. It’s a decent film with some startling images but at heart it’s a bog-standard zombie siege with reanimated Nazis seeking the return of treasure that some students have picked up from a cave. There’s a couple of other titles that I have spotted recently on the shelves but can’t comment on in detail. War of the Dead is set in the 1940s and stars Andrew Tiernan from the Quatermass Experiment remake as the leader of an American squad who team up with Finnish soldiers to fight SS zombies. According to the IMDb, this is a Lithuanian-Italian-American co-production but the director is Finnish (I won’t try to spell his name) and we know from Iron Sky that the Finns have a penchant for Nazi weirdness. (Or just weirdness in general: remember when they won Eurovision?) And Horrors of War is an American indie B-movie which, for its British release, has been retitled Zombies of War. According to the IMDb it’s got a werewolf in it too!
I’m not trying to be definitive with this blog and there are other titles that could be included, right back to 1943’s Revenge of the Zombies, the first ever Nazi zombie movie. This should not be confused with the 1936 picture Revolt of the Zombies which features scenes of zombie soldiers fighting in the Great War but, uniquely, these are French zombies fighting against the Germans. I do however want to highlight a couple of new British entries in this sub-subgenre. The trio of directors behind Bordello Death Tales- Jim Eaves, Pat Higgins, Al Ronald - have reunited for a second anthology, filmed as Battlefield Death Tales. This has been picked up by Safecracker Pictures, who released Bordello, and retitled. Initially it was going to be Zombie Death Tales - presumably because ‘zombie’ in a title is a stronger marketing proposition than ‘battlefield’ - but after realising that all zombie films are by their very nature ‘death tales’, the Safecracker guys have gone for Nazi Zombie Death Tales. I have a screener of this sitting on my TBW pile and will be watching it the moment I’ve finished typing this.
And finally, a word on Outpost, an absolutely terrific British film from 2008 which is often mis-categorised as being a Nazi zombie film, even by people who worked on it, but is strictly speaking a film about mercenaries in present day Serbia (or thereabouts) locating a Nazi bunker protected by ghosts who exist in the fourth dimension thanks to some old machine. Or something. Anyway it’s great and the filmmakers have made two sequels to it, neither yet released. So watch out for Outpost: Black Sun and Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz. Your guess is as good as mine on that one; it’s certainly not a word mentioned in the first film. But actually, if you want to see Outpost Black Sun right now you can, because a dual-language disc has been released - in Germany of all places. With a sticker on the sleeve promoting Iron Sky.
Since when did the Germans get to see our Nazi horror moves before us?
MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.