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Plot: comrade Ivan will have you for breakfast… and today he’s very hungry.

Back in the Golden Age of exploitation the bootleg remake, imitation or sequel was an art form mastered almost exclusively by the Italians and the Filipino. In times like these it’s nigh on criminal that Russia is so hermetic and that so little of its cinema penetrates mainland Europe and North America. Never officially released outside of the homeland and now available to everyone thanks to the magic of YouTube (albeit without subtitles of any kind) D-Day (День Д or Den’ D back at home) is exactly what you think it is. This Crimean take on Commando (1985) has spawned a legend of its own. Never as over-the-top insane as Onna Ramboh (1991) nor as sexy and funny as Bring the Head of the Machine Gun Woman (2012) or as deliberately tongue-in-cheek and inherently self-aware as Commando Ninja (2018), D-Day is just big dumb Soviet fun. Here’s a good excuse as any to set aside your prejudices and assumptions about Russian cinema.

Never underestimate the little guy. The creative force behind D-Day is Crimean slab of professional beef and former boxer Mikhail Porechenkov (Михаил Пореченков). Inspired by the larger-than-life story and amiable personality of Austrian oak Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was the life-long dream of comrade Porechenkov to pay tribute to his uncontested cinematic hero. Porechenkov, always more Lou Ferrigno than Dave Bautista, rose to fame as FSB Agent Alexey Nikolayev on the series National Security Agent (1999–2005) and as Major Vitaliy Egorovich Krechetov on the miniseries Liquidation (2007). Porechenkov’s filmography runs gamut of genres and budgets, with military action and sports movies being a recurring theme. At some point it would become inevitable that comrade Porechenkov would want to direct his own. In summer 2007 that happened with D-Day which Porechenkov willed into existence on a modest budget of 5 million rubles (invested by Mikhail Grigoryevich Bolotin from machine building company Concern Tractor Plants – CTP), some actor friends and a lot of hard work in the Krasnodar Territory and Black Sea coast. And what better way than to reproduce Schwarzenegger’s iconic Commando (1985) almost verbatim some 23 years later and with some Soviet nationalist jingoism and patriotism? If you thought The Asylum and TomCat Films were the only bootleggers, think again.

Somewhere in the wilds of Mount Kholodilnik retired Airborne Major Ivan Vanya (Mikhail Porechenkov) lives a peaceful, secluded life of quiet contemplation with his precocious 10-year-old daughter Zhenya (Varvara Porechenkova). One day his life in his remote taiga hut close to nature is upset by the arrival of a formation of helicopters. From the vehicle disgorges Colonel Makarov (Boris Polunin) signaling that comrade Ivan’s days of peace and reclusion are over. Makarov informs comrade Ivan that somebody is systematically eliminating the former members of his old Spetsnaz blue beret squad. The Colonel leaves two guards at the premises but as soon as he has left the cabin is assaulted by the forces of former VDV paratrooper Oleg Pavlovich Filippov (Sergei Sosnovsky) and his insane underling Gelda (Bob Schrijber, as Bob Schreiber – with the voice of Vladimir Antonik). Filippov’s men kidnap Ivan’s daughter and he’s coerced by a group of insurgent nationalists led by the Estonian (Victor Verzhbitsky) to assassinate the president of Estonia for the crime of erecting a monument for a Soviet soldier in the center of Tallinn. In Vladivostok he’s put on a Tupolev Tu-154 by the sleazy Stasik (Mikhail Trukhin) and Urmas (Maxim Drozd). Instead he sneaks into the cargo bay, parachutes down and once back on the ground he strong-arms feisty flight attendant Aliya (Aleksandra Ursulyak) into helping him. In cahoots with the Estonian nationalists is a Japanese general (Mikhail Vozumi) who trades in illegal fishing in territorial waters, but dreams of nothing but returning the Kuril Islands to his native country. With only 10 hours until his flight touches down in Estonia and with no intentions of killing the electoral head of state comrade Ivan and Aliya vow to stop at nothing to rescue little Zhenya from Filippov and the quite insane Gelda.

In case it wasn’t clear from the above summary D-Day is pretty much a carbon copy of Commando (1985) with only the slightest tweaks to accommodate the times and place. Screenwriting duo and brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov re-enact all the classic set pieces (albeit smaller or slightly altered) and prerequisite one-liners but manage to make a few interesting choices along the way. While D-Day follows Commando (1985) quite slavishly (or faithfully, whichever you prefer) a few things stand out. First and foremost, why does a brick shithouse like Porechenkov parachute out of the plane? Is he admitting that he’s just as human as the rest of us? For shame, Mikhail. “Schwarzenegger would’ve jumped” remarks one astute bad guy acknowledging the patent absurdity of the entire scene. The flight attendant character is not played a minority demographic but rather a Soviet ice queen.

Aleksandra Ursulyak sports the Tatyana Vedeneyeva hairdo that was popular at the time. Instead of a shopping mall Ivan follows Stasik through a luxury water resort which at least is a valid excuse to put Ursulyak in a bikini. The hotel/warehouse scene is condensed and combined and the subsequent fight is disappointing as there are no torn down walls, impalements or busty Russian babes to gander. Apparently Russian equivalents to Ava Cadell such as Olga Fadeeva (Ольга Фадеева), Masha Dushkina or Karina Zvereva (Карина Зверева) were in short supply that week. After stocking up on an arsenal worth of arms Aliya doesn’t blow up a police vehicle with a bazooka (explosions cost rubles), Stasik is thrown off a construction site and not a bridge and Gelda closer resembles a tattooed and bald Udo Dirkschneider rather than Vernon Wells’ Freddy Mercury. Apparently sleazy grease ball Stasik is in the habit of constantly spouting vile jokes. Whereas Commando (1985) was a straightforward actioner the music in D-Day clearly plays up the comedic aspect, even though the actual comedy is fairly limited.

This leaves the question of why comrade Porechenkov inexplicably peters out in some crucial areas and during iconic moments yet otherwise went above and beyond in recreating Commando (1985) as faithfully as possible. It’s unbelievable how modest and restrained everything is. It’s instructive what kind of production D-Day is when Ivan pursues his enemies on a Ski-Doo snowmobile instead of a regular vehicle. Later he punches down the chair in Aliya’s car instead of simply tearing it out the way Schwarzenegger did. The fight with Urmas in the hotel is handled poorly and has none of the swagger of the corresponding Sunspot Motel brawl with Bill Duke. Ivan’s final confrontation with Gelda follows the contours of the original but replaces the lead pipe with a knife and the “let off some steam, Bennett” line with something befitting the demise. Notable is how D-Day whitewashes love interests and villains. In Commando (1985) Arius and Henriques were Latin American, Cindy the flight attendant was of Chinese-Cherokee descent and Bill Duke is an African American. In D-Day everybody is white for convenience’s sake. Who did they use in the “why do they call him Boy George?” scene and what was the punchline? Which is a good time as any to discuss how D-Day falters (not to mention, disappoints) in its single most important action set piece: the final massacre.

Whereas the hacienda massacre takes a good 10 minutes in Commando (1985) and unfolds in four distinct stages (landfall/gearing up, barracks, the shed, lawn and hacienda) with the lawn shootout as the ultimate crescendo. Here things go tits up pretty much from landfall onward. Those hoping to get a good glimpse of Porechenkov’s oiled up torso and biceps better look elsewhere because even Cross Mission (1988) did the “gearing up” scene better and more convincing. The barracks are blown up better than expected but it’s inexplicably preceded by a scene that sees comrade Ivan spinning around like a madman on a Ural 650 motorbike with sidecar. The actual massacre is rather brief and the bloodshed does not nearly possess the same zest and flow. Nor does it have the same peaks and valleys in terms of tension and release. The massacre never reaches the levels of gore of Commando (1985) and there’s no equivalent of the shed kill. Expect no impalements or extremities to be severed here. D-Day clearly steers clear of that sort of thing. The action is solid enough for what it is but there are no extended scenes of Ivan mowing down waves of goons. When Ivan does finally reach the fortified hacienda he kills Gelda first, another guy ends up in a big vat of red caviar for cheap and easy laughs and the Estonian is quite offhandedly killed as a pre-end credits joke. On the plus side, the “leave anything for us? Just bodies” joke remains funny in any language.

As a West European it’s difficult to gauge the talent Porechenkov has surrounded himself here. From the looks of it, it all seems very respectable. On the writing front there are brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov or the men behind the comedy Playing the Victim (2006), the horror Lost Seat (2018) and the Valeri Popenchenko (Валерий Попенченко) biography Mister Knockout (2022). Besides the usual stuntmen and bodybuilders there’s Alexandra Ursulyak (Александра Урсуляк), a regular on the Russian small and big screen as well as theater. She rose to prominence with the series Station (2006) and has remained very active as a stage actress for the Moscow Drama Theater. In more recent years Ursulyak could be seen on Dancing with the Stars (2016) and now a decade removed from this cinematic sewage as lawyer Alisa Filippova in A Good Wife (2018) or the Russian The Good Wife (2009-2016). Mikhail’s daughter Varvara Porechenkova (Варвара Пореченкова), a product of his marriage to Ekaterina Aleksandrovna, hasn’t acted since and accumulated quite the impressive academic – and professional resumé. Not only does she speak English, French, Dutch and Russian but in 2015-2018 she earned her BA, or Bachelor of Arts, in Theater producing from the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater. In 2016 then 18-year-old Varvara made national headlines with her posting of intimate photos with her boyfriend Georgy Demyanenko on social media. As recent as 2021 she holds a BS, or Bachelor of Science, in Communication and Media Studies from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Varvara is currently employed as a CRM Marketing Intern for Bunq in Amsterdam, the Netherlands according to her LinkedIn profile. Mikhail Porechenkov is remembered around these parts for the demure gothic horror Vurdalaki (2017).

If there’s such a thing as Russian exploitation the question is how representative D-Day is of it. What does remain certain is that this is somewhat of an anomaly in Porechenkov’s otherwise solid filmography. In the decade-plus since Porechenkov has been slowly working his way up the food chain and carved a respectable career for himself on the big and the small screen in the homeland. That probably goes a long way in explaining why this was the only Soviet Schwarzenegger bootleg. For the lack of a better term, this was a vanity project, a labor of love on Porechenkov’s part. And it makes you wonder: is there a market on the fringes of Russian cinema for stuff like this? Sadly, comrade Mikhail never saw it fit to grace the world with Soviet bootlegs of other often imitated Arnie classics as The Terminator (1984) or Predator (1987). If Albert Pyun could do it in the nineties and Bruno Mattei in the late 1980s, what's stopping him? Whatever the case, D-Day is pulp of the finest sort – and comes recommended as such.

Plot: resurrected vampire lord vows to cover the world in darkness…

Vurdalaki (released domestically as Вурдалаки, in most of Europe as Vamps, and in North America as Ghouls) is probably the closest a contemporary gothic horror has come to the mid-sixties model. Also not unimportant is that Vurdalaki is a loose but surprisingly faithful adaptation of the 1839 novella The Family of the Vourdalak from Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy. Vurdalaki harkens back to the halcyon days of monochrome when atmosphere reigned supreme, and bodice-ripping, blood-drinking, bosom-baring vampires were something solely existing in the fevered and over-active imaginations of viewers, directors, and producers alike. Sergey Ginzburg has imbued his Crimean gothic horror throwback with an incredible sense of modesty, perhaps relying on digital effects a bit too much where practical effects would have worked far better. That being as it may, Vurdalaki is an inoffensive gothic horror offering – although it sort of makes you wish it tried a little harder. For all the things it does right, it’s often too modest for its own good.

In 18th century Russia the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna sends her government secretary godson Lyubchinsky Andrej Vasilevich (Konstantin Kryukov) and his aide Paramon (Roman Madyanov) to a remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains near the border with the Ottoman Empire. They are ordered to collect exiled monk Lavr (Mikhail Porechenkov) at the Spassky Monastery and bring him to the capital of Saint Petersburg under the guise of urgent government business. When Andrej is rebuffed by Father Lavr on grounds that the village needs him more – and that whatever business the Empress Elizaveta has is none of his concern. Andrej and Paramon prepare for the month-long journey back to the capital. Before they depart Paramon spots a virginal young shepherd girl bathing in a nearby lake, but is injured by said girl before catching a glimpse of her. Milena (Aglaya Shilovskaya) promises to take Paramon to the family farm to treat his injuries. There Milena lives with her parents Gorcha (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Mariki (Yuliya Aug) as well as her older and younger brother Georgyi (Konstantin Milovanov) and Misha (Ivan Shmakov). As Paramon recovers and Andrej spents time on the farm he falls in love with Milena.

Meanwhile, resurrected vampire lord Vitold Bishteffi (Andrey Rudenskiy) and his loyal servant Turok (Igor Khripunov) have taken up residence in the former’s old castle. According to Bishteffi’s calculations in three days from now a constellation that happens only once every 150 years will occur and grant him untold powers. With the blood of a specially selected virgin he will be able to live in daylight. When he does he and his breed will subjugate mankind and restore vampires as the dominant class. Vitold orders Turok to bring Milena to the castle for a black magic rite but when he finds opposition from Andrej and Paramon more draconic measures are required. That night Bishteffi unleashes his imprisoned vampires to devour the village and expand his army of undead fiends. The force is too overwhelming and Milena does fall into enemy hands. Now with an army big enough to mount a counter-attack Vitold launches an all-out raid on Spassky Monastery. Will the combined forces of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr be enough to repel Bishteffi’s legion before they overrun the world?

Like the classic Italian, Spanish, and Latin American gothics here too religion (Orthodox Christianity) is an integral part of the proceedings and there’s no shortage of religious iconography. Vurdalaki is pretty secular for the most part and initially introduces Father Lavr as a cynical clergyman wary of government interference. The aide Paramon is in the midst of a crisis of faith and completely useless for most of the first two acts. The three-man team of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr and with Milena acting as the sacrificial virgin Vurdalaki at times feels like a Slavic riff on The Day Of the Beast (1995). Even moreso when Lavr starts reciting Revelation 21:1 during the wurdulak raid on the farming hamlet and the monastery. And just like in that movie Paramon regains his faith after the shared experience of warding off the undead horror.

Anybody weaned on, or familiar with, vintage gothic horror will recognize a few classic scenes. Vitold Bishteffi’s resurrection is lifted straight out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Just like Hélène Rémy in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), Lyla Rocco in The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), and Barbara Hawards in The Monster Of the Opera (1964) Milena too hears the voice of blood, although she can’t immediately place it. Bishteffi performs a rite just like in Terror In the Crypt (1964) or Twins Of Evil (1971) – and like Damien Thomas in that Hammer classic he’s far from an imposing vampire lord. The vampires in the dungeon is something straight out of The Monster Of the Opera (1960). Even though Vurdalaki adheres by much of the classic tropes, it couldn’t be much more of an antithesis of what the genre used to thrive on several decades ago. This largely stems from this being a Russian production, and Russia (although constitutionally secular) is staunchly and devoutly Orthodox. Vurdalaki is filled to the brim with religious iconography and leans heavily on the religious aspect.

The reason to see Vurdalaki is model Aglaya Shilovskaya. Back home in Russia Shilovskaya is a television personality and singer. She had a spread in Maxim Russia (January, 2017) and presented the sixth season of The Voice Kids in 2019. The closest comparison we can think of is probably Nicola Posener. Director of photography Andrey Gurkin manages to capture Shilovskaya from various flattering angles, but those hoping Vurdalaki would get some bare flesh and bounce out of Shilovskaya will be sorely disappointed. She gets exactly one semi-revealing scene during the bathing in the lake, but that’s as far as it goes. On the whole Vurdalaki tends to gravitate more towards a bog-standard action movie than a straight-up horror. Arrowstorm’s five-part Mythica (2014-2016) saga amped up the horror more than Vurdalaki ever does. And that’s a sad thing because this could have been an excellent throwback to the horrors of yore. Instead director Sergey Ginzburg keeps everything respectable and modest at all times. The Love Witch (2016) oozed sensuality from every pore. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale (2016) was tenser. This is about the farthest from Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Black Magic Rites (1973), The Dracula Saga (1973), and Nude For Satan (1974) as you can possibly get.

As is pretty much the standard these days and no matter how much we might hate it digital effects are the order of the day – and Vurdalaki, sadly, is no different. Everybody is impeccably clean for the times too, and not a single soul has a speckle of dirt on them despite this being primarily set in a farming hamlet. On the plus side, the action direction, cinematography, and choreography is better than it has any reason to be. The scimitar duel between Andrej and Turok especially is a fine piece of action filmmaking, moreso because Ginzburg refrains from using the maligned shaky-cam and the editing is not nearly as frantic as is the norm these days. It would probably have benefitted from old-fashioned practical effects, and tends to etch closer to Underworld (2003) and Van Helsing (2004). This is a far-cry from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or any of the Latin American and Mediterranean European vampire flicks that inspired it. Which is really an elaborate way of saying that Vurdalaki is a vampire movie without any bite. If this is in any way representative for the general state of Russian horror, it looks like you’re not missing much of anything.