Opstandelsen: The Resurrection

According to a widely-quoted recent survey, the Danes are overall the happiest people on the planet. If Casper Haugegaard's Opstandelsen (The Resurrection) is anything to go by, this means the rest of the world is completely screwed.

The poster for Opstandelsen — an archaic-style pen drawing showing a gigantic, decayed hand reaching up from underground to clutch at an old church, with the title displayed in blackletter above — seems to promise a return to the Gothic style of zombie movies... or possibly a throwback to the pioneering films of Carl Dreyer or Benjamin Christensen. The movie even sustains that impression as far as the opening shot, which slowly pans up to reveal a Danish country church from underground... accompanied by the howls of the dead, who are screaming to get out of their coffins.

But the impression doesn't last very long. This is a very modern zombie movie, both for better and for worse. The good news is that Opstandelsen is a serious horror film: intense, claustrophobic, emotionally involving and at times brutally gory — all good things in a zombie flick. Also, it's beautifully shot. The bad news? Well... the film does lapse into a couple of genre clichés that threaten to interfere with the momentum of the story. It's fortunate that most of the action is gripping enough that you're unlikely to be bothered by the lapses while you're sitting immersed in the movie.

The entire action of Opstandelsen is set within that isolated Danish church. That's where the funeral of a young man is being held — a young man named Simon, whose personal demons caught up with him far too early. The camera merely passes over most of the mourners, but we get a clear enough glimpse of the dead man's mother Ruth, his brother Johannes and his younger sister Esther... and the three of them are too deeply immersed in their own private hell to be concerned about the passing of Simon's soul.

Ruth is a harridan. Clearly Simon was a tremendous disappointment to her and her whole family, and now it's young Esther who has to bear the brunt of her ferocious disapproval. Esther, whose spirit has been thoroughly crushed, sits quietly, cradling a little girl of about six in her lap... her little cousin, Maria. But neither the presence of the sleepy little girl nor the solemnity of the funeral can keep Ruth from spitting her venom at Esther, even at the risk of interrupting the ceremony.

Ruth then shifts her eyes to the other side of the aisle. She freezes when she catches sight of a prominently-empty seat. Johannes, sitting nearby, catches her eye and nods. It's time to go confront the other black sheep of the family: Simon's twin Peter... who is off in the men's room snorting cocaine out of a hymnal.

Simon and Peter had both tried to escape from their family by turning to booze and drugs. No wonder: we find out from the priest's eulogy for Simon that their father Christian had died young, leaving Ruth all the responsibility to take care of the young ones. And oh, what tender care that must have been...

Let's take a break for a moment from these people, none of whom bear much resemblance to their Biblical namesakes, and consider the priest. There's another often-mentioned survey that reports that the Scandinavians are also among the least religious people in the world. One look at the priest, and you can understand why the Danes have fled the church: his ideas, like his vestments, haven't changed much in 500 years. His is a grim and ascetic faith that emphasizes sin and damnation (which suits Ruth just fine). His "eulogy" for Simon quickly turns sour: having absolutely nothing good to say about the young sinner, he moves on to remarking how it's not the poor, pious Ruth's fault the boy is now damned to hell for all eternity. The priest's obvious next subject? The Day of Judgment and the Resurrection. "All our evil deeds shall come to light," intones the priest, "and we shall be punished!"

In the meantime (while the priest talks about the day wild beasts shall be let loose upon the earth to devour us sinners), Johannes has gone off to confront Peter. Has Peter learned nothing from his brother's death? cries Johannes, bouncing his barely-coherent brother off the tiled walls. Well, one thing's for certain: when Peter finds himself repeating Simon's fate, neither Johannes nor Ruth will lift a finger to help him.

Peter lifts a finger in reply.

Johannes storms back to the funeral... which is fine with Peter, who goes back to snorting coke from the pages of the hymnal.

The fact that he's opened the page to hymn number 666 is probably coincidence.

Following the lead of recent End of the World flicks like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil and TV's The Walking Dead, Opstandelsen removes its protagonist from the action as the apocalypse begins. This is a little disappointing, but in context it makes sense: Peter is so groggy from the drugs that he can barely make sense of what he sees. As he stumbles out of the bathroom into the church, the zombies have already made short work of the mourners. Since we see things through Peter's eyes, the action is distant and unclear. We get only a brief, shocking glimpse of the carnage before Peter goes backpedaling into the toilet.

Johannnes, Esther and the little girl Maria seem to be the only other survivors of the attack — though Maria has been severely wounded and looks like she's not going to last very long. Johannes is the only one of the four who's in any condition to think clearly, so he's the one that locks and barricades the bathroom door... and goes looking for a way out. Surprise! There isn't one. But there does seem to be a place to hide: there's a trap door leading to the cellar. Johannes tries to drag Peter down with him; but Peter, feeling the cellar is a death trap, resists. Unfortunately for him, the shock and the drugs are too much for him, and he falls unconscious.

When Peter comes to, he's pissed to find himself stuck in a hole with no place to go.

So: we've got a group of bickering characters stuck in a dimly-lit basement... with a little girl who's about to die and transform. Now, in a modern zombie movie, there's only one word you can use to describe this situation: homage. There's absolutely no way any film-maker could hope to lift this iconic setup from the original Night of the Living Dead and not get called on it, so we're forced to conclude the resemblance is intentional. Fortunately there's more to this scene than its setup: while Peter and Johannes go on bickering, Maria bleeds to death — quietly, graphically, realistically — in the helpless Esther's lap. You can probably guess at the mayhem that follows. But immediately after the crisis, there's a perfectly-judged moment: a long, subdued interlude, during which the movie regains its own identity as a study of a family that had been eating each other alive long before the zombies arrived.

Much of the remainder of the film is typical "running through dark corridors" zombie action. Still, the church basement makes a great location, since it seems as extensive and trap-laden as any video game level. The hand-held camera photography is more effective than normal, since it's being used purposefully and not as an irritating stylistic touch. The gore is vivid and nauseating, as it should be. And the pent-up rage that's been building within the family does get a gruesome catharsis, in a scene involving a sledgehammer (and in that scene's immediate aftermath, with is equally horrifying).

If only the movie hadn't used as its climax the inevitable meeting with the dead loved one...

We've known from the very beginning it was only a matter of time before Simon got out of his coffin and did a little gut munching of his own. Still, I have never believed, and will never believe, that people who'd survived the initial zombie onslaught would stop in their tracks and drop their weapons when they saw their re-animated loved ones standing in front of them. That's what one character does here; and while it's only a momentary lapse, it's practically the only gesture in the movie that rings false. When you've been chased up and down by walking cadavers that want to kill you... when you're covered in the blood of the people closest to you... and you suddenly see the foul, stinking, lethally-dangerous thing in front of you dressed in the skin of someone you care about, it seems to me that not only self-preservation but simple human decency is going to make you want to put that zombie down post-haste.

Especially if your "loved ones" are as thoroughly fucked-up in life as these folks are.

Recently, amid the glut of poorly-made zombie films crowding the market, one production has come up for special commendation: Frank Darabont's TV series The Walking Dead has been hailed as one of the best of its shambling, moaning kind. Its depth of characterization is usually brought up, and its realism in dealing with genuine human reactions to crisis. Well, why shouldn't The Walking Dead be deeper than your average zombie movie? It's a miniseries, not a seventy-five minute direct-to-video cheapie. It has time to burn. It can afford to spin a story over a longer span. It can develop its characters without needing to resort to the primitive movie shorthand low-budget film-makers usually rely on (and, ahem... just because it doesn't need to cut corners doesn't mean it always takes the high road: take, for example, the "character-building" dialogue at the beginning of Episode 4, which is as contrived and groanworthy as anything in an Uwe Boll film).

If you admire The Walking Dead for its relative depth, then you should find plenty to like about Opstandelsen, which makes its impact in only 50 minutes — including credits. Opstandelsen outlines its characters in swift, broad and certain strokes, and then allows the quality of the actors' performances to help us fill in the rest.

I'm not even going to complain about the fact that Opstandelsen's zombies are the vicious, fast-moving kind that have become the norm for today's undead. It's true, I don't particularly care for this kind of zombie. This is partly because I'm an old fogey ("Hey, you kids! Get under my lawn!"). What was good enough for Lucio Fulci, goddamn it, is good enough for me. But more to the point, I find that the most of the new-fangled zombies don't scare me very much. They certainly don't haunt my dreams, the way Romero's or Fulci's zombies do. I tend to think that once you speed the zombies up, they stop looking like the walking dead and start looking like extras covered in stage blood. Your movie stops being a horror flick and turns into a bad action movie. I prefer my undead to be recognizable as walking corpses, ghastly things that don't move or respond like living people. "They're dead; they're all messed up," said one character in Night of the Living Dead, and that's the way I like it. Still, that's only my personal preference.

I will complain about this, though: the numerous zombies in Opstandelsen look a little too fresh to be the fruit of an isolated Danish country church. Yes, they're all mottled and grimy... but they're surprisingly intact. Unless there's been some sort of epidemic recently, I don't understand how there could be so many whole, meaty cadavers ready to spring into action. Another problem with the relative freshness of the zombies is it becomes difficult to tell them apart from the zombified funeral guests, after they've all been splashed with blood. I guess that doesn't matter so much: apart from our protagonists, no attempt is made to differentiate between the other guests, or even give us a good look at them.

Perhaps the zombies look the way they do because they have been re-animated and reconstituted by God, as the signal of the End of Days. We have no other explanation. All the hints in the story, including the name of the movie itself, point to the zombie uprising as being part of the broader Christian Apocalypse — not that the film is implying any sort of moral to its story, or trying to bleat some kind of evangelical message. So John of Patmos had the right idea, shrugs the movie. Fuck it. We all knew we were doomed; what difference does it make what shape our doom comes in? Anyway, considering the sheer level of misery in this family, the zombie apocalypse is just a distraction. Later in the movie, there's a black-hearted, black-humored scene in the bell tower that proves the movie really isn't interested in Christian redemption.

Yet this brings me to another quibble about the movie:

I don't really care that we're never given an explanation for the rising of the dead. After all, the "explanations" we're given in zombie movies — whether they're vaguely scientific (radiation, a virus, tainted wine, chemical spill, glandular implants, sonic pest control gone awry) or supernatural (voodoo, Satanic ritual, Egyptian amulet, the family curse) — are all pretty inadequate. But zombie movies of every type and quality agree on one point: it's not easy to kill something that's already dead. George Romero's solution, to shoot the zombies in the head, is so elegant and logical that in hindsight it seems like (you'll pardon the expression) a no-brainer; but regardless of the method, most zombie movies insist that it's difficult to get reanimated cadavers to lie back down again.

That's not the case here.

The zombies in Opstandelsen may indeed have been called back from the tomb by God Himself, but all you need to do to stop them is... kill them again. Use any method you like: impalement seems to work pretty well. Maybe it's just decades of zombie cliché preventing me from appreciating a new gesture, but I can't help but wonder why a mere stomach wound would kill a ghoul. One poor fellow who's had his brains — his brains! — pulled out and eaten still manages to come back for a quick bite; yet after resurrection, any major bodily injury is enough to put a zombie out of commission.

But enough of the criticism. Opstandelsen does a superb job of stranding its audience in a hopeless, blighted hellscape. And then it turns into a zombie film! Sheer relentless despair had rarely been so entertaining.

The Danish DVD fills out its running time with an earlier Haugegaard short film, Kaeldermenneske. Only half as long as Opstandelsen, Kaeldermenneske is an even more highly-concentrated dose of human misery in the guise of a horror film.

If Opstandelsen had a few momentary lapses, Haugegaard's earlier film has none. It's the story of two young men who get lost and start arguing on their way to a wedding. Eventually tempers flare: one man loses control and goes for the other's throat. Suddenly the two-man show is reduced to a solo, and the survivor has to figure out what to do with a corpse.

The result is a slice-of-death drama that's both harrowing and bleakly funny. Having made one fatally-bad decision on the spur of the moment, our protagonist keeps on making bad decisions... But the film casts no judgment. It simply and matter-of-factly shows us a man dealing with a momentous yet still utterly meaningless act. Like Opstandelsen, it features some brutally grisly moments. But it's far closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Eli Roth, and all the better for it.

Scene from 'Opstandelsen'

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