Zombies are all well and good but they need a little something to stand out from the crowd – a certain je ne sais quoi if you will. So how does an aspiring film maker change up the formula? Nazi Zombies are a start but they’ve already been done plenty thanks to Outpost and the astoundingly funny Dead Snow inspiring countless knock offs. Luckily for us, director/artist/all-round-genius Richard Raaphorst knew just how to inject the genre with a little innovation. Take a few dozen Nazi Zombies then strap buzz-saws, spikes, and drill bits to their bodies to make Zombots. Throw in a group of actors for the resulting gory horror/sci-fi romp that is Frankenstein’s Army.
As Frankenstein’s Army opens we are given a simple yet important premise. ‘Cameraman’ Dmitri has been commissioned by the Soviet Union to record the exploits of one of the Union’s premiere reconnaissance units as they push into Germany in the closing days of World War 2. What is so genuinely surprising about Frankenstein’s Army comes from these characters, or more importantly how quickly they are characterized without the need for pointless exposition. Less than two minutes is all you need to understand the command structure of the unit along with their respective personalities and friendships.
The movie takes twenty minutes to reach the first Zombot sighting which is a record that stands above contemporaries. Many other pictures from the same genre spend well over half their run time meandering around the interpersonal relationships of characters which frequently backfires as wasted time (for examples, see any film made by the Asylum or 90% of TV ‘movies’). Frankenstein’s Army takes the different direction of just waiting for you to get comfortable in that chair before revealing the first of its many incredible creatures.
Zombies with power tools, that’d be my tagline for these creatures. Each one recieved meticulous detail from Raaphorst to create some of the greatest horror creatures I’ve ever witnessed on screen. For all the wonders CGI can do in other productions, Frankenstein’s Army uses physical effects to create every twisted combination of man and machine. They aren’t quite on the level of Rob Bottin (The Thing 1982), but each creature looks menacing and undead rather than some extra in makeup. Perhaps I’m reading a little too much into this when I say that during the film each Zombot seemed to have its own twisted personality even when they only appeared on screen for maybe 90 seconds each. None of the creatures look like last-minute additions, every one of them holds to the same aesthetic and almost look as though their parts could be interchangeable should an arm or leg be removed.
Let’s just be honest here and speak the truth. You don’t watch Frankenstein’s Army for the setting or deep story. These crazy creatures/contraptions are what entice you into the film. During the first half we are introduced to a number of the heavier monsters. Taking the time to pick apart and analyse each creature individually would be a waste of time and ruin the whole surprise of the film so instead I’ll tell you of one mechanical menace, Mosquito. This twisted creation may not be the largest or most imposing of Raaphorst’s monsters but that makes it no less impressive. Atop four spiked ‘legs’ this Zombot creeps across the screen twitching in anticipation of its next kill. It’s head, adorned with both helmet and mask, comes a point in a drill close to a metre long. Each appendage of the Mosquito ends in a tool of death. Mosquito only appears on screen for two minutes but that’s all it needs to leave a lasting mark in the primeval part of your brain.
Frankenstein’s Army is filmed from a first person perspective. No stop your brain right there, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh look another found footage mess film by the world’s least stable cameraman”, that’s what is currently whizzing around the back of your mind. Do yourself a favour and throw that away. It is filmed from a first person perspective yes but there’s very little in the way of nauseating camera movement, even during the more action-heavy scenes. Where this works best though, is during one of the greatest spectacles of this movie. An ambush deep within labyrinthine tunnels shows just how well directed this was, Zombots appear from the darkness and the unit fights back while fleeing. You might think this means fleeting unclear glances of the features principle attraction but instead we get up close and personal looks at these wonders and feel the claustrophobic terror the characters are suffering from. If that’s not enough, the movie is all present as one take from one camera with no jump cuts or changes of perspective in scenes. The best part though? It all works, beautifully. Nausea only comes in if you’re squeamish so those of us with a sensitive stomach may want to avoid the film, gore-a-plenty is a fitting way to describe the film.
Movies that make us think where we expect a brainless romp often stick in our minds for months, even years. What may surprise you when looking at the name and subject matter at hand in Frankenstein’s Army though, is that this feature gets the grey matter flickering. Several scenes, one of which depicts the Russians pillaging a small village where in the foreground a soldier comedically rounds up chickens while the background serves up scenes of assault on a woman, make you consider who’s the real bad guy in all of this. The Nazis have Frankenstein in their employ yet Frankenstein shows no love for their ways. The Soviets are here on unsavoury terms (something which I will not spoil for you). Frankenstein himself paints a picture close to the end of a man of pure logic, viewed through a funhouse mirror. His ideals seem incredibly sound but stand in stark contrast to his unnatural methods.
If you’re a fan of horror then Frankenstein’s Army is certainly worth your time if only for a little fun. Fans of monster movies should take the dive into this too for the Zombot designs alone. Gore more you thing? Then gorefans (and cannibals) will delight in the wanton eviceration of actors and carts filled with enough severed limbs to open up a branch of FFC – Frankenstein’s Fried Cannibalism. Raaphorst use masses of disgusting creatures and CGI in some low-budget quest for mewling monstrosities or salivating butt demons… Butt demons is a good place to end the sentence. Instead he builds a creature feature using impressive physical effects and an inspired filming method to create a gem of the genre which will stand up to competitors for years to come.