Essays · Movies

Exclusive: Tommy Wirkola Talks ‘Dead Snow’

By  · Published on June 24th, 2009

The appeal of Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow can be summed up in five words: Nazi zombies in the snow. Now in limited release and available on IFC On Demand, the Norwegian film adopts a classic genre premise ‐ five spoiled, dumb friends spend the night in an isolated cabin, besieged by zombies ‐ and imbues it with the lighthearted, playful spirit of the Evil Dead movies and other B grade classics. In an exclusive interview, Film School Rejects spoke to the director, now hard at work on Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters for Will Ferrell’s and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions.

What made you want to make a zombie movie, and set in the snow covered mountains?

In Scandinavia ‐ Norway, Sweden, Denmark, all those countries ‐ there’s never been a zombie film at all. So we wanted to be the first to make a zombie film in Scandinavia. That was one goal. And also [to] do an ’80s feel type like [the early films of] Sam Raimi, to ultimately combine horror and humor. But also we wanted to do something fresh, to give a fresh look to the zombie film. I’m from the north of Norway, I grew up in that area, so we thought, “Ok, let’s put it in the middle of the mountains.” Combine the Nazis, the snow and the blood, we just thought it’d be the perfect combination.

Why have there been no zombie films made in Scandinavia before now?

In Norway particularly, not until the last six or eight years have there started to pop up genre films. In Norway before that [it was mostly] drama[tic], serious films funded by the government. In the last six, eight years horror films are popping up…Norway’s been really slow and really old-fashioned in moviemaking, but things are starting to pick up. Young people are demanding other types of films and things are changing…It’s old-fashioned, but starting to get better.

What changed eight years ago?

Eight years ago there was the first horror film made in Norway for 50 years. 50 years. That was a big hit. I was studying back then, but everybody knew that it would be a hit if a Norwegian horror film came [out]. [We thought] young people [would be dying to] see that, so it’s amazing it hasn’t happened before. Then people started noticing that, “Ok, it made a lot of money. So maybe we should try to do that.”

What was your goal in making Dead Snow with an ’80s feel?

You have to understand that in Norway I would bet that 8 out of 10 young people between 16 and 22 haven’t seen Evil Dead. They don’t know who Sam Raimi is. So our goal was not only to go back to the ’80s feel that horror can be fun, but also hopefully get people to [learn about the classics of the period]. We have [characters] talk about the Evil Dead movies and [wear] the Braindead T-Shirt because a younger person in Norway doesn’t know about these films…In Norway, as well, it’s been frowned upon to make American types of films. I never hid the fact that I love Hollywood movies. That’s what I want to do. And I opt to make those types of films. Dead Snow was a big hit in Norway, so young people want to see [them] as well. A lot of directors in Norway will say they love Hollywood movies, and our gang has never hidden the fact that we do.

Were there any lines you refused to cross in the gore?

I don’t think we have any lines. Our goal was that even when you see a guy’s head split in two and the brains fall on the floor, that would be a funny thing, not a horror thing. We just felt if we kept that tone, that sense of humor, it would never feel insulting, it would never feel like we’re trying to [be] like Saw or the Hostel movies. It would never feel that realistic. It was supposed to be a fun adventure movie. But I actually notice a couple of reviews are saying the violence was horrible, but I just can’t see…I imagine the humor in there, and the tone of it all, because in Norway when the head was split open people laughed.

What are your thoughts on the Saw and Hostel franchises and “torture porn” in general?

I watch those films as well. I’m a horror buff, so I watched them, and I think the first Saw was a really good movie. But of course when a movie is just about how gut-wrenching it can get the audience to feel, I always felt that’s a good thing if you can get the audience to experience that, but if you can in the same movie get them to feel that and jump in their seat and also make them laugh, that’s a much more whole experience. That’s what Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi were so good at, bringing all those things together…I wanted to go back to that feel. In Norway the horror films that have been made there are really classical, like Friday the 13th, those types of films [about] young people. That’s our film as well at the start. We wanted our film in the first 20 minutes to be like every other classical horror movie. We wanted the audience to feel safe and [think], “Ok, we know where it’s going.” And [at] the point where the head gets split open in two we wanted the film to take another direction. Some people like that the film changes directions so abruptly, but other people think that it doesn’t fit. That was always our goal.

Why make the villains Nazis?

When we thought about the idea we didn’t know there were other Nazi zombie movies, but we actually found out [there are]…First, we wanted to be the first in Scandinavia to do a zombie film and then we thought, “Ok, we’re in the north of Norway, why not make it a Nazi zombie movie because we have such a strong war history in Norway?”…We thought “Ok, if we’re going to make a zombie film, what is more evil than a zombie? A Nazi zombie of course.” So we thought, “Ok, what separates a Nazi zombie from a zombie?” The one thing, of course, there’s been discussions about it online, is if they run or walk. But I mean, you can’t have a walking zombie if it’s in the snow and also [the movement] should reflect who they are. Nazis are known to be fast and efficient and work in teams. So we thought that should be reflected in the zombies in the movie, and we actually have a zombie shouting an order, which hasn’t been seen that much.

Can you talk about Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters?

It’s Hansel and Gretel fifteen years later, when they’ve grown up to become merciless witch hunters. The guys producing it are Gary Sanchez Productions, which is Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, but it’s not a comedy. It’s an action adventure horror film. I’m just finishing up the first draft…It’s definitely an R rated film. It’s going to have a lot of stuff in [it]. It just takes what I’ve been doing so far to another level.

Dead Snow is in limited release and on IFC On-Demand now.