Hitler and The Third Reich's noted interest in the occult has provided inspiration for a myriad of filmmakers over the years, and so the trend continues with Mark Nuttall's debut feature Soldiers of the Damned. Charged with accompanying old-flame-with-secrets Professor Anna Kappel (Miriam Cooke) to co-ordinates behind enemy lines, decorated soldier Major Fleischer (Gil Darnell) is understandably concerned. As his “elite” band of brothers is to be joined by two particularly unpleasant SS officers, and as the mission leads them deep within an apparently haunted forest, Fleischer will face enemies from within his team as well as whatever dangers lurk among the trees.
To his credit Nuttall doesn't focus on zombies, although there is a little playing around with life after death. The Dead Snow films and numerous other less impressive releases have focussed entirely on reanimating soldiers, but Nuttall has taken a different approach, entering the realm of the supernatural rather than that of the undead. Ancient spirits and the existence of a pure Aryan race are foremost in the minds of the SS here, which does make a change from the usual zombies-in-uniforms genre staple. There is also the added tensions created by the blinkered, and satisfyingly unlikeable, SS officers mixing with regular German soldiers. While this sub-plot is not entirely successful, it being a little too obvious at times in its conflict, it gives the film more depth, offering a different dynamic to the usual good versus evil stand-off.
There is also a style to Soldiers of the Damned that gives the film an almost arthouse aesthetic. The woodlands in which the soldiers find themselves are bleached in appearance, giving them an uncomfortably sinister quality generating a haunted atmosphere that seems to linger in the background of every shot. Nuttall also doesn't hold back on the gore when necessary, with effects that are both brutally realistic and flinch-inducingly raw. Blood flows freely but it never threatens to overshadow the film or turn it into a routine splatter movie.
There are issues sadly, and ones that do pull you out of the drama at times. The performances are often frustratingly clunky, with occasional lines of unconvincing dialogue being delivered with unavoidable awkwardness. Some of the characters are also a little stereotypical, almost like a group that auditioned for Inglorious Basterds but didn’t make final selection.
Soldiers of the Damned is generic in its plotting, but with some interesting spins on the familiar, and as a debut film it contains real potential. Nuttall has tackled the subject matter with an enthusiasm that is clearly evident, and if he can refine his obvious talent then it will be extremely interesting to see what the director produces next.
SOLDIERS OF THE DAMNED / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: MIKE NUTTALL / SCREENPLAY: NIGEL HORNE / STARRING: GIL DARNELL, MIRIAM COOKE, LUCAS HANSEN, TOM SAWYER / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 17TH