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DEATH TRENCH – ***
Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Carrick, Luke Humphrey, Ted Atherton. Horror/Action, Canada, 87 mins, Cert 18.
The movie is called DEATH TRENCH, the poster shows zombie-esque soldiers in World War I uniforms - we know what we're in for here, right? There have already been countless WWII-set Nazi zombie movies polluting the direct-to-video release schedules for years now and, one or two exceptional titles aside, they all follow pretty much the same template and live or die on how convincing the more-often-than-not cheap CGI effects are.
However, despite the poster and the preconceptions it brings, DEATH TRENCH (a.k.a. TRENCH 11) takes a slightly different approach and not just with which conflict it is set in, because the movie would have been very easy to set against the backdrop of WWII and stories of Nazi experiments. But DEATH TRENCH isn't a zombie movie, instead being a tense and claustrophobic horror tale about infected soldiers trapped in an underground maze of tunnels that should have been destroyed by the German soldiers who operated there after something went wrong but somehow the dynamite didn't go off. Before the Germans can go back in to reset the explosives and unaware of what is in there, a small band of allied soldiers - led by the strict Major Jennings (Ted Atherton - MAX PAYNE) and guided by expert tunneller Lieutenant Berton (Rossif Sutherland - RIVER) - break into the compound hoping to try and find something to aid the war effort but instead they become targets for the infected and mutated soldiers roaming the underground tunnels, which would be bad enough but a squad of German soldiers - led by the psychotic Herr Reiner (Robert Stadlober - ENEMY AT THE GATES) - are on their way in the finish what they started.
So it's a slight variant on what we have come to expect but it is enough to make DEATH TRENCH a little more interesting and engaging than yet another OUTPOST or DEAD SNOW sequel. Making the setting WWI, and therefore eschewing the Nazi angle, gave the writers the scope to add a little more depth to the German soldiers - well, only one if truth be told - and the focus is less on the mutants lurking in the shadows and more on the characters trying to do their jobs, so much so that you never really get to the bottom of what the mutants are infected with, only that once the host is dead the virus is still active, which we see with some creepy worm-like effects that evoke Rob Bottin’s squirmy gags from THE THING.
Restricted by its budget, DEATH TRENCH feels a little undercooked when it comes to getting the most out of its ideas but the fact that those ideas are bodes well for director/co-writer Leo Scherman in future projects. The mainly practical special effects are relatively sparse for a film that is structured and framed as a zombie movie but when they are used they look fantastic, with huge machine guns and loaded blood squibs scratching the itch for action and violence while the slithering wormy creatures and an expertly executed autopsy scene provide the gore, but there is also a feeling of creeping dread that permeates the scenes in between the action set pieces, highlighted by an intense confrontation scene between twisted scientist Herr Reiner and British medic Dr. Priest (Charlie Carrick - ANGELIQUE'S ISLE).
Surprisingly engaging for such a short and clearly limited production, DEATH TRENCH is likely to slip under the radar of many by being overshadowed by the bigger budget visual thrills of OVERLORD but there is actually more going on in the script of this movie thanks to the tight direction and solid performances from all the actors. Despite the excellent effects the limitations of the budget can be seen in the scenery, which is basically the same wood-framed tunnels shot from different angles, and the make-up jobs on the mutants are never kept in shot for very long for obvious reasons, but what you come away from the movie with is the feeling that, if given a decent budget to work with, Leo Scherman would be more than capable of putting together a movie with as much visual flair as it has ambition. DEATH TRENCH may not be the most original horror movie released this year and it may not make any Top Ten lists come December but it is certainly more than what you think it is going to be, and if nothing else it shows a lot of promise for its creators.
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