1.5 out of 5 stars

There are occasional suggestions something wry and self-aware is struggling to poke through the dullness of Roberto Zazzara’s feature debut The Bunker Game, and indeed the plethora of credited writers (only one, Davide Orsini, with a substantial track record) hints at changes and compromises.

Perhaps this was, once, going to be a film having fun with the idea of artifice; perhaps the female lead’s inexplicable shower was a dig at genre convention, perhaps the black guy pretending to be an implicitly white Nazi and talking about “our race” was a parody of colourblind casting, perhaps the dyed red hair beneath the blonde wig (layer upon layer of deception…) meant something.

But if so, it’s lost in the tedium of a horror movie which is hardly ever suspenseful, let alone horrifying; a film that fails primarily because of its clunky dialogue, paper-thin characters asking each other questions so the audience can get answers, and a complicated setup which turns out to be barely necessary at all.

The Bunker Game seems to start with Nazis, but we soon realise they’re not real ones: instead, they’re participants in a live-action role-playing game (LARP) in the present day. The premise of said game is that the Nazis won World War II, but were then attacked with nuclear bombs by the Americans in the 1950s, so it’s now 1958 (in this story-within-a-story) and the LARPers are Nazi survivors, holed up in a bunker, waiting for the radiation to subside so that they can start to build a Fourth Reich.

The LARP itself is held in a small part of a huge tunnel network at Bunker Soratte near Rome—a real German HQ, and the location for filming of The Bunker Game—and is in stupendously bad taste, most notably when the pseudo-Nazis “execute” a man in a gas chamber for sabotaging their eugenics programme.

Unfortunately, despite the plans of presiding genius Gregorio (Lorenzo Richelmy) for a grand conclusion, the game has to be brought to a premature end after problems with the power supply and a part of the structure collapses. The players are duly sent home, and only a few staff remain to clean up: Gregorio, the film’s heroine and Gregorio’s kind-of girlfriend Laura (Gaia Weiss), her cousin Harry (Mark Ryder), the slightly sinister Andrej (Tudor Istodor), wheelchair-bound Marcus (Makita Samba), non-binary Robin (Felice Jankell), and Yasmine (Amina Ben-Smail).

Before long, Gregorio disappears and the others find themselves inexplicably locked inside the bunker. Inevitably, they’re soon having to cope with disquieting phenomena as well as tensions in their group, and the film (having spent a half-hour on the LARP itself only to render it irrelevant) spends the rest of its running time on their travails. Despite the vintage uniforms, then, The Bunker Game isn’t really Nazi-horror in the manner of Overlord (2018), it’s just another trapped-in-a-haunted-house exercise. 

“I’ve never felt alone in this bunker,” says Laura, and it isn’t giving too much away to say that—completely unsurprisingly—there is a presence. But this is where the writing of The Bunker Game starts to show its limitations, as the more we learn about the presence, the less anything makes sense, and the more this film comes to feel like a succession of random horror scenes strung together. For instance, several characters meet grisly fates (again, unsurprisingly), but while it’s difficult to accept them as accidents, they also don’t fit with any obvious agenda that the supernatural presence in the bunker might be following.

There’s a lot of talk, much of it rather plodding (“I can’t let you hurt yourself—I’m asking you to stop, now!” / “No-one made you follow me!”), and it all leads up to a ridiculous and uninteresting climax.

Of course, poor writing can sometimes be saved by decent performances (and vice-versa), but that’s sadly not the case here. While Samba’s Marcus and Jankell’s Robin at least hold the attention for a while—the former carrying some unspecified tragic weight, both of them seeming they might be hiding something intriguing, even though it turns out they aren’t—the others are fatally lacking in interest, and one’s initial assumption that their flimsiness is a meta dig at the artificiality of the LARP proves sadly unfounded.

They act without depth because the characters simply don’t have any. Smaïl’s Yasmine, for example, is merely a vehicle for lines and there’s no discernible person there. Ryder signals the nervous jealousness of Harry too early and too often, but what else could he do when the character consists of little more than those traits? Richelmy, meanwhile, is every bit as bland as he was in the title role of the otherwise excellent Netflix series Marco Polo (2014-16).

With so little to recommend it on the narrative front, it’s only the setting and the photography by Marco Graziaplena—presumably much influenced by director Zazzara, himself a former cinematographer—that makes the movie watchable at all. Though the high-gloss digital sheen of some scenes can detract from the dark, grubby claustrophobia, at many other times the visual appearance of The Bunker Game does far more for its atmosphere than the story manages, with effective use of filters including lots of hellish red. The bunker itself is fascinating, too, filled with evocative paraphernalia and unnerving waxwork-like effigies (you can’t help watching them for movement), and gross-out fans will appreciate a great shot of a maggot-filled can of beans.

Umberto Smerilli’s score, too, is slightly more imaginative than many others in the low-budget horror genre. But while these contributions might have done much to enhance an average movie, the writing and performances of The Bunker Game are so unforgivably weak that behind-the-camera skills can’t save it.

ITALY • FRANCE | 2022 | 95 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Roberto Zazzara.
writers: Manuela Cacciamani, Francesca Forristal, Davide Orsini, Kt Roberts & Roberto Zazzara.
Gaia Weiss, Lorenzo Richelmy, Mark Ryder, Tudor Istodor, Makita Samba &
Amina Ben-Smaïl