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New Release Review - SOLDIERS OF THE DAMNED (DVD)

A group of Nazis come unstuck in a haunted Romanian forest.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Mark Nuttall

Starring: Gil Darnell, Miriam Cooke, Lucas Hansen, Tom Sawyer




"There’s clearly an indiscriminating market for this sort of thing and, with Soldiers of the Damned, completists can fill their stern leather boots. However, for the rest of us, the trope may be losing its impact."



At what point in time does real life atrocity become appropriate source material for fictional entertainment? In the case of the Second World War, it took about a generation before exploitation cinema artlessly folded the events of the holocaust into its grimy canon. The notorious likes of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and Love Camp 7 (1975, 1974) created a paracinema unsurpassed in its bad taste and provocative treatment of its subject matter. Around the same time, using similar iconography and inspiration, one of horror’s oddest subgenres shambled from the bubbling mire of history and grindhouse; the zombie Nazi film, with two of the most notorious examples of this weirdly persistent genre being released within four years of each other, Shock Waves (1977) and Zombie Lake (1981). While the Nazisploitation genre childishly used the ramifications of the Third Reich as part of its snotty and absurd taboo baiting, the use of the regime in horror cinema is more telling; the transparency of history had perhaps suggested that it is not the traditional archetypes of the genre –the man wolves, the vampires- that pose threat: any documentary on the Extermination camps render men who can turn into bats unconvincing, unscary and rather quaint in comparison to actual human monsters.
Additionally, the depiction of Nazis as shifty zombies provides a comfortable distance from their reality, as if subsuming their evil within the context of genre works toward invalidating it - the abiding principle of genre is that it has rules, after all, and rules mean there will always be a conclusive method to vanquishing the monster, and that the comforting shibboleth of good triumphing over evil usually abides (moreover, zombies have to be the easiest of all ghouls to impair).  And so today, the bizarrely popular Outpost series is on its third instalment, while its Norse synonym Dead Snow has notched up two Nazi-Slasher-Zombie extravaganzas. Shambling forever forth like an animated corpse in SS regalia, the Nazi-horror subgenre shows no sign of stopping, and occasionally throws up curios like Frankenstein’s Army (worth seeing for the wonderful designs of the monsters), but is sadly mainly party to run of the mill fare such as Soldiers of the Damned.
The scene is set in occupied Romania, 1944. The German Axis are about to have their arsch handed to them by the encroaching Red Army, a situation the film suggests is aggravated by the antagonistic factions within the German forces; the army, the SS, and the Ahnenerbe, a real life division set up by occult nut Himmler in order to research the archaeological and cultural history of the Aryan race. Soldiers of the Damned sees the three parties forced to work together to retrieve a mystical article from a haunted forest behind enemy lines…. Trying their best to stay alive and complete their mission, the German army, led by Fleischer (Gil Darnell, adding a touch of gruff class to proceedings) are nominally the good guys - the Red Army are shown to be rapists, the SS robotic bullies that make Arnold Toht look the model of restraint, and the Ahnenerbe’s sole representative (Professor Kappel, played by Miriam Cooke) is not to be trusted… Handily, to avoid audience confusion in this uncertain moral universe, only the villains speak in geographically accurate Germanic/Russian accents, with the good guys speaking in salt of the earth cockney tones.
No, Soldiers of the Damned isn’t subtle. It’s a film about Nazis and haunted woods and black magic, after all. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. There is an aerial attack at the start that is impressive, and the ensuing gore once the team are deep in the forest is accomplished. However, the problem is, that film is never quite entertaining or daft enough: even though the forest is a tesseract, where time and space fold in itself, giving the hapless Nazis a sort of Groundhog D-Day of recurring attacks, creepy kids in bad eye makeup, and mopey recriminations about the nature of conflict. Perhaps there is some kind of comment here on the cyclical nature of violence, but, also like the war itself, the film itself is at times senseless and confusing, with there being no rhyme or reason to the weird stuff that occurs (at one point, out of nowhere, it transpires that Fleischer and Kappel have a romantic history, a development that is forgotten almost as soon as it is introduced).
Judging by the pervasiveness of the Nazi themed horror film, there’s clearly an indiscriminating market for this sort of thing and, with Soldiers of the Damned, completists can fill their stern leather boots. However, for the rest of us, the trope may be losing its impact, and the process of using historical conflict to provide escapist pleasure may need an upcycle: Night of the Viet-Dead: Damned in ‘Nam, anyone?



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