These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different. As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival. So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen. The second difference is that these are going to be short. I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid. I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Deep in the forest between Finland and Russia, scientists at a Nazi research facility subject the locals to horrific ‘anti-death’ experiments. Instead of creating an unstoppable super soldier, the process creates living-dead monsters, and the facility is abandoned.
The film picks up a few years later, in 1941, during the conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland (called the Continuation War). At the height of the hostilities a mixed Finnish and American group of Commandoes presses against the Russians to reclaim lost territory, only to find the dead rising to fight anew.
For the finale of zombie appreciation night, Toronto After Dark screened the world premiere of War of the Dead. Of all the undead themed movies at this year’s festival, War of the Dead was the one I was most looking forward to, so my own anticipation (and expectations) may be partly to blame for why I didn’t like it. Added to this, the film was advertised as a ‘Nazi zombie’ flick and truth be told, it really isn’t. There are some Nazis in the prologue, but most of the movie is spent fighting Russian zombies. That might be nitpicking, but when you’re pumped up to see some Nazi zombies meet brutal justice at the end of a submachine gun, Russian zombies just won’t do.
I was looking for Weird War Tales, or at least the Howling Commandoes meet Dawn of the Dead. What I got was a mess of bad direction and bad writing that had the audience laughing (myself included) at inappropriate moments (the kiss of death for serious irony-free horror – an approach I was all set to embrace, had it been good).
In much of the movie, the lighting is too dark to see anything. That might work in a thriller or suspense film, but for an action movie like War of the Dead you need to be able to see what’s going on to get excited about it. In other films I would point to the overly dark scenes as a dead giveaway the director was trying to cover the imperfections of a low budget, but it was obvious from the few bits that were visible (lots of explosions, pyro, and great zombie makeup) that the money was there – and apparently wasted.
In spite of the straightforward plot (I’ll give a rare kudos to director Marko Makilaakso in this critique for keeping it moving at an exciting pace), there are some nagging inconsistencies that left me feeling like parts of the film were missing. Over and over again, our attention is drawn to a certain mysterious MacGuffin, whose ultimate function is way too mundane for the focus it was given (plus, it doesn’t make that much sense). I’m convinced there was more to it and the big reveal was either left on the cutting room floor or is being saved for a sequel.
Even with all these problems, the film could have been redeemed with some bloody zombie action and spectacular kills, but War of the Dead also failed to deliver on this front. After the first twenty minutes, during which time the platoon is winnowed down to the ‘main characters’, the zombies conveniently stop biting people and start punching them instead. I can forgive not including a shot of the zombie horde tearing into and chowing down on a freshly made corpse (yes it’s in almost every zombie movie, yes it’s still a classic). I cannot forgive a ten minute long fight with the ‘boss’ zombie where the monster doesn’t even try to gnaw on the hero once (I’d use the word blasphemy if it didn’t seem so inappropriate in reference to the absence of cannibalism). By the end of the film I felt as though the zombie in Monster Brawl – a wrestling movie – did more biting.
War of the Dead is not recommended. Completists and those who have been waiting since 2008 for this film (its release was plagued by delays and recuts) are probably going to see it anyway. To them all I can say is I warned you (and maybe you can better explain the MacGuffin to me).
In spite of what I thought about the film’s execution, there is still quite a lot of role playing ideas to take away from War of the Dead (which shouldn’t be surprising as that’s one of the points of the It Came From… series).
One of the elements of the film’s plot (don’t worry it’s not really a spoiler since it takes place in the first ten minutes) that I think adapts very well to rpg games is how War of the Dead introduces zombies into the action. The main characters are already involved in a war, when suddenly something supernatural shows up and becomes the real focus of the plot. This format works great for introducing ‘normal’ PCs to elements of weirdness in games like Call of Cthulhu, D20 Modern, Beyond the Supernatural and Nightbane. The best part is (if anything good can be said of war), that there’s always a war going on somewhere, so no matter what time period your game is set in, you still have a memorable and smooth way to start the campaign. I can vividly picture a game that takes place in modern day Afghanistan, where the PCs are a small squad of U.N. soldiers (which gives a lot of PC flexibility as it can include non-military characters like journalists and civilian engineers) fighting insurgents in the mountains when suddenly the zombies/aliens/chthonians show up and everything goes to hell.
You can also use this approach in fantasy rpgs, but since most fantasy settings have supernatural elements as de rigueur, it takes something special for the weirdness to have an impact. If you wanted to do some genre bending and add some sci-fi into your campaign this could work (the mechanical invasion of the sheen from the pages of 2e era Dragon and the Tales of the Comet boxed set come to mind). I can imagine starting a campaign with a re-creation of the battle of Emridy Meadows (a historical battle site in the Temple of Elemental Evil module in the Greyhawk setting) and having a massive alien spacecraft crash smack in the middle and start spewing out killer robots that annihilate friend and foe alike.
For all my ‘punching zombie’ hating, the interesting thing about the film’s undead is that they retained enough of their former lives that soldiers turned into zombies were more of a threat than your average villager turned shambler. In game terms, that’s a great example of the application of a monster template, which I think is a far better way to simulate a PC’s transformation into a zombie than simply replacing the character with a generic ‘undead spawn’. The new monster will have familiar powers, which really drives home the disturbing nature of fighting a former ally. To that end I present the Romero zombie template (even though the zombies in War of the Dead were fast zombies) for Gamma World (though it works just fine with 4e D&D too).
For a more generic zombie for the PCs to fight (and get bitten by) check out the Romero zombie in my review of Exit Humanity. For the details of the zed virus that can turn a PC into a zombie see my review of Deadheads.
Adding Templates to Monsters in Gamma World
A template is a guideline for transforming one creature into another. This can be used to simulate a creature’s actual physical transformation (such as being turned into a zombie or a cyborg), or to represent a tougher variant of the base monster (such as the chieftain of a badder tribe or the mother of all soul beshes).
A template lists changes to a monster’s statistics and grants it some new powers and abilities. In general, if a template does not alter a certain statistic, that entry does not appear on the list. A template’s listed hit points are added to (and do not replace) the base creature’s hit points.
Each template lists any prerequisites for adding it to a monster. The modified monster retains all its normal powers and abilities except those that overlap or conflict with those bestowed by the template.
Since a template adds powers rather than substitute them, the new monster is more powerful and is considered an elite opponent worth twice as much experience as the base creature.
“She’s not your mother anymore”
Apply this template to a monster or PC that succumbs to the zed virus. These creatures rise from the dead as animalistic, barely sentient, shadows of their former selves. Although the zed virus reanimates enough of the brain to preserve the base creature’s attack powers, all the creature’s goals and personality are subsumed by the desire to consume flesh and spread the virus. Romero zombies rely on their bite attack, but will use other powers in the pursuit of food, especially if they immobilize or move their prey into melee range.
“Romero zombie” is a template you can add to any humanoid creature. Optionally, the zed virus can also affect animals and beasts. Rumors persist that the zed virus affects creatures with the extradimensional and extraterrestrial origin in bizarre and unpredictable ways.
Although this template alters a creature’s ability scores, don’t recalculate the Romero zombie’s defenses, initiative or attack bonuses.