REVIEW: “Valley of the Dead” (2022)

Zombie movies come in all shapes and sizes. To further prove that glaringly obvious point, just look at the Spanish film “Valley of the Dead” which recently premiered on Netflix. Now while its name may sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill zombie horror title, a first glance of the movie teases something quite different. It starts off resembling like a heavy war movie. Shortly after it starts to play like a comedy. But ultimately things get serious when the dead come alive and begin feasting on the living.

“The Valley of the Dead” is co-directed by Javier Ruiz Caldera and Alberto del Toro. It’s an adaptation of the novel “Noche de difuntos del 38” by Manuel Martín Ferreras. It premiered at 2020 Sitges Film Festival but had its official release delayed until this year due to COVID-19. Now Netflix imports it to their platform, adding to their already large collection of international features.

While this may be a hard film to read initially, it quickly begins to reveal its identity. It’s a zombie flick for certain. But it’s also very much a war movie, a survival thriller, at times a black comedy, and a sharp critique of human division and how we cling so tightly to our differences. When it’s all put together it may not be the most innovative or groundbreaking concoction. But there’s enough action, cool period production design, and good character work to make this a pretty entertaining stew.

The story is set in 1938 and unfolds during the Spanish Civil War. It opens with a Nazi convoy pulling up to a wedding party in a small Italian village and brutally gunning them all down. A Nazi officer puts on a gas mask and then tosses a canister among the dead bodies. A blue gas pours out engulfing the deceased and then the camera cuts. And just like that you have a good example of who is ultimately behind what we are about to experience.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

From there we’re introduced to Captain Jan Lozano (Miki Esparbé), a perpetual troublemaker who finds himself on the brink of being executed for the third time (this time for head-butting a judge who happened to be the cousin of Francisco Franco). Just as the firing squad is about to shoot, Jan’s high-ranking uncle stops the execution. He has convinced his superiors to spare his nephew’s life. But in return, Jan will have to carry out a suicide mission. One that will take him across no man’s land to the other side of the Sierra.

Jan is assigned a 17-year-old driver named Private Decruz (Manel Llunell) and the two head out into the wild. Their first obstacle comes while checking out a downed fighter plane. The pair are surprised and taken captive by a squad of enemy rebels. But before the adversaries can sort out their predicament, they have their first encounter with the undead. Yep, it turns out the battlefield is littered with flesh-eating zombies. And if they want to survive, the Nationalists and the Republicans will have to put aside their politics and work together…if possible.

It’s not hard to see where things go from there. It becomes a story of ‘who makes it till the end’ as the band of survivors fight battles from within and without just to stay alive. There are some fun action sequences as well as some entertaining encounters between characters. There are pinches of black comedy which keep things light early on. But later, the critique of war and politics along with the divisions they cause is addressed in a number of interesting ways. For much of the film, the greatest threat to the group’s survival lies within them, not the undead.

While “Valley of the Dead” takes a few ambitious swings, ultimately it follows a pretty familiar path. You won’t have any problems figuring out how things play out. There’s actually more mystery in guessing who makes it out than how they do. Still, the period wartime setting, the variety of character types, and some genuinely fun zombie action makes for a movie with a little more to offer than you might think. “Valley of the Dead” is streaming now on Netflix.


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