Review by Erik Myers out of the 2013 Stanley Film Festival: There’s nothing scary about Nazi zombies. It’s not even that zombies themselves have been completely hashed out. The Nazi zombie is just a flawed concept. The Nazi as a villain is frightening because of his brain, the way he organized with his fellow Nazis, ascended to power and immediately began implementing their demented vision of society. The zombie as a villain is frightening primarily because it wants to eat you. In the generic sense, it has no brain to speak of. Honestly, what makes a Nazi zombie scarier than a plainclothes zombie? A helmet on his head and a swastika on his arm?
Richard Raaphorst understands this, I think. He is a visual thinker, credited with over a decade of work as a conceptual and storyboard artist, including two Stuart Gordon films including Beyond Re-Animator. A mind like his knows that Nazis were, well, creative (Triumph of the Will anyone?) And he must know all those rumors of Hitler engaging in occult magic could fuel a concept much more wild than simply bringing the dead back to life. Enter Frankenstein’s Army, his first full-length feature that rides on a concept so genius it’s amazing no one thought of it before: Using body parts, scrap metal and a variety of industrial tools, a Nazi scientist has constructed an army of monsters to use at his disposal, a seemingly last resort in the final days of the Third Reich.
The film follows a squadron of Soviet troopers as they advance into Germany. Accompanying them is Dimitri, a filmmaker producing what will undoubtedly be his best propaganda film yet. It’s through his camera lens the film unfolds. Some will be bothered that such an awesome concept would be bottled into a found footage film, and their concerns are understandable. The camera is frequently shaky and sometimes used as an excuse to dodge or blur action. But I hesitate to call it a flaw. Frankenstein’s Army, after all, isn’t just wonderful colorful violence – it has a few quiet moments of eeriness amplified by the technique, particularly in the beginning when the squadron comes across bizarre malformed corpses and strange beeping figures in the distance.
Things get pretty crazy once they venture into a small hamlet with a terrified populace who are haunted by the creations of the aforementioned Nazi scientist, Viktor Frankenstein. One could spend hours chewing over the buffet of industrial beasties that attack and pursue the soldiers. A few have a distinct Silent Hill aesthetic, but most are original works of art. My friend and I felt compelled to pick our favorites, mine being “Hans.” Karel Roden is deserving of attention too as Viktor Frankenstein. He’s the guiding force of film’s third act, sweating craziness as he calmly shares his philosophies on science, careers and politics. “Everyone’s sick,” he says. “You just have to cut the sickness out.”
The brutality of war is certainly felt in Frankenstein’s Army, even when the man-machine monsters are off-screen. There’s a foreboding sense of collapse here, seen in the panicked German citizens who, despite their uniforms, don’t quite feel villainous, and, of course, in Frankenstein’s bloated creations as they lumber down hallways and chambers. Raaphorst clearly knows what’s scary and what isn’t, and he’s succeeded in creating a fun and creepy midnight monster romp that every horror fan will appreciate.