On paper and poster, Soldier of War is what you’d get if an author like Robert McCammon wrote First Blood. An undead vet who doesn’t know World War II is over wages guerrilla war on the local police with a knife and sticks. In execution, it’s not quite the sum of its pulpy parts.
Helmed by experienced producer and first-time director John Adams (I Am Vengeance 2018), who also co-wrote the script with his father, Peter Adams (The Magnificent Eleven 2013), Soldier of War starts off on the right foot.
Two teenage boys carelessly hunt rabbit in the woods until they stumble upon a hatch hidden in the underbrush. Once the usual dares to go first are sorted out, they climb down into a startlingly well-preserved bunker from a time when Churchill posters were all the rage. Slightly less well-preserved is the zombified soldier who’s been waiting for someone to pop the cork and let him out.
It’s deliberate, suspenseful, and slathered with the perfect amount of Unmotivated Fog. When the unluckier of the two boys is dragged off into the dark, I started nodding my head. This is what I came for. When the survivor flees the forest and gets plowed by a passing car, in a moment as startlingly loud as it is comically abrupt, I stopped nodding.
By the time that kid’s medically induced coma becomes an artificial roadblock for the police and the other kid’s murder is rendered confusingly pointless because the zombie only kills those it mistakes for Nazi soldiers, my head was mostly unoccupied.
The gravest sin of Soldier of War is that it tries to fill an 80 minute bag with 30 minutes of plot. So for every handsomely shot investigation at a remote farmhouse, we get two Deaths By Turning, where nameless characters make the fatal horror movie mistake of not noticing anything behind them and spinning on their respective heels to get stabbed in the chest by an unseen and totally silent attacker. The MO of the undead soldier – taking out the police because their militaristic modern uniforms make them look like SS invaders – is clever and, either by intention or accident, says something about what happened to Fascist fashion.
But because you can only kill so many doubting detectives, there’s also a hapless couple making out in a car that meets an ambitiously brutal end. Points to the filmmakers for having someone stab through the roof of a car. Less points for the ugly explanation, which is revealed on a screed hanging from the woman’s dead, naked body – the soldier assumed the plain-clothed man was a Nazi and she was fraternizing with the enemy.
War is hell, but it can only be so hellish when the enemy is Rambo Of The Living Dead. With books like The Wolf’s Hour (about a British werewolf fighting Nazis in World War II) and The Night Boat (about an unearthed U-boat of Nazi zombies eating the Caribbean), Robert McCammon is a horror writer who knows how to walk the line of grounded absurdity. Not a joke, but also not a eulogy. Unfortunately, he had nothing to do with the making of this film. Soldier of War never quite finds that footing. The unusually sweet final confrontation is an admirable touch, but somewhat undone by the sight of character actor royalty John Rhys-Davies hugging a guy in a zombie mask.
To its credit, Soldier doesn’t squander its VOD-mandated Famous Cameo With A Name Over The Title. Rhys-Davies is mostly kept to nursing home cutaways during the first hour, but he gets to do some capital-A Acting by the end and sells the hell out of a respectable Quint speech. It also includes a sizable, practical explosion, which surprised and delighted me.
Unfortunately, much like the ill-fated counter-terrorists in the third act, Soldier of War falls for plenty of other VOD booby traps. All violence is augmented with CGI gore, including an instance of spilled guts that would’ve earned eyerolls on the PlayStation 1. The horror half of the movie isn’t woven in so much as cut to, when the talky police procedural slows down too much. The killer never arrives, sneaks, or hunts, but rather appears, standing still, in the next shot. At least one POV shot should’ve put him in plain view of the victims-to-be he’s watching. And that title. Technically speaking, just about every soldier counts as a “soldier of war,” and the original title, Aux, sells a different kind of movie entirely. It’s vague, easily confusing, and sounds like half a dozen other movies.
Which is a fair assessment for Soldier of War itself. No moment better sums up the gap between what it wants to be and what it is than the promise of thermal-vision. Helicopters sweep the woods. Ranks of heavily armed soldiers show up as a fiery dotted line in the dark. But little do they know their prey is a walking corpse that’d only have a heat signature if you set him on fire first. It’s a juicy setup for some Predator hijinks between the trees.
But the zombie sits it out, hiding in his underground bunker, until morning.
A creative swing. An underwhelming miss.