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Plot: journalist investigates mysterious going-ons in a remote village.

Viy (1967) is the quintessential Russian folkloric horror that every serious fan of the genre at least should have a passing familiarity with. Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol’s novel Viy served as an inspiration to Mario Bava for his classic gothic horror The Mask Of Satan (1960) (with Barbara Steele) and continues to resonate with audiences, domestic and abroad, to this day. That Viy (1967) has been remade, retold, and reimagined several times in the ensuing decades since should surprise no one. The most memorable of these reimagining was probably A Holy Place (1990) that was made in Serbia (then still Yugoslavia) some 23 years later. This Balkan horror was more of a liberal retelling rather than a loving direct remake. It followed the basic contours of Gogol’s beloved story but added enough new elements to become a distinct entity of its own. It probably also didn’t hurt that it was directed by Đorđe Kadijević or the man behind the first Serbian horror film The Butterfly (1973).

Between that and this Russian-Estonian reimagining lie just a comperatively meager 16 years. Ведьма (Vědma, or Witch – released as Evil in North America and internationally as The Power Of Fear) was directed by Oleg Fesenko and it’s somewhat of an anomaly as most of his filmography seems to consist of historical war dramas and the occassional blockbuster. Then there was the South Korean anthology Evil Spirit ; VIY 마녀의 관 (2008) from Park Jin-Seong that used Gogol’s story as a basis for its three segments. Almost a decade and a half later director Oleg Stepchenko got the brilliant idea of expanding upon Evil and turning into a franchise. Thus the world got Viy 2: Journey to China (2019) and Viy 3: Travel to India (2023). On the small screen there’s the Gogol trilogy of fantasy horror films of Egor Baranov consisting of Gogol. The Beginning (2017), Gogol. Viy (2018), and Gogol. Terrible Revenge (2018). The tripartite chronicles the alternate history adventures of Viy writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol. While all are servicable in their own right none are required viewing. A Holy Place (1990) merits interest moreso than the contemporary Russian reimaginings of the story because it actually tries to do something with the central premise. Evil is certainly good for what it is, but it isn’t exactly brimming with new ideas. The only new thing that Evil does is setting the story in contemporary times, and nothing else. Interestingly in crucial moments it echoes The Butterfly (1973) more than Viy (1967).

Ivan Berkhoff (Valeriy Nikolaev) is a hard-drinking and womanizing reporter for an unsavory tabloid. One morning he gets a rude awakening when he wakes up not only with two naked girls in his bed but also to an angry phone call from his boss. Apparently Berkhoff has been missing for the past two days and he’s ordered to investigate supernatural events in the remote village of Castleville. Judging from the clippings on his wall Berkhoff is on his way to the Pulitzer Prize but to put food on the table he also covers important cultural events as the regional Miss Boobs contest. Ivan dislikes the prospect of being far away from civilization but begrudgingly accepts his assignment (but not without an honest fight and some resistance) and hits the road. In a nearby town he stops at the local cantina for food and drink. There he meets geriatric priest Father Touz (Jaan Rekkor, as Ian Rekkor) and wheelchair-bound Mr. Patch (Arnis Licitis) who are having a philosophical debate about the nature of faith and spout cryptic warnings about the undead. That night Ivan experiences car trouble during a torrential rain on an abandoned road. He braves the storm and seeks shelter in a nearby old and decrepit mansion. There he’s welcomed by an old woman (Ita Ever, as Ira Ever) and seems to disappear into thin air almost immediately after. At the strike of midnight Ivan is lounging in bath when he’s approached by an attractive young woman calling herself Marryl (Evgeniya Kryukova). Just when passion starts to ignite the maiden turns into an old hag. Berkhoff fights and strangles the hag and flees the mansion in sheer mortal peril. The next morning he finds himself dazed and confused next to a truck. When he discovers the cadaver of Father Touz inside he deducts that the clergyman was heading for Castleville too. He assumes the old priest’s identity and insinuates his way back into town. There he’s met by the sheriff (Lembit Ulfsak) who informs him that a young girl was murdered the night before. As a possible witness or suspect the lawman interrogates the young priest about his whereabouts and the identity of the girl. It dawns upon Ivan that the sheriff is the girl’s father. Being the priest he’s expected to pray for Marryl’s immortal soul for three consecutive nights in the village’s massive gothic church. Will Ivan be strong enough to withstand the unholy forces of evil?

By placing the events in contemporary times and in what we’re led to believe are the American hinterlands (but is actually Estonia) sets Evil up for a whole host of new problems. That’s not even mentioning the opening scene that recalls, of all things, The Witches Mountain (1972) as it sends its hapless journalist on a supposed scoop. First and foremost, there’s an immediate and subtle difference between how this and the 1967 original choose to name themselves. Вий or Viy/Vii roughly translates to “spirit of evil” whereas Ведьма or Vědma means “witch”. The distinction is important as Evil gives Marryl more vampyric properties than that of either a witch or a spirit. There certainly is a component of witchcraft that’s true to the title but nothing comes from it. When Ivan braves the storm he seeks shelter in a palatial, sarcophagal mansion where an old lady and beautiful maiden dwell, just like The Witch in Love (1966). Viy, both in print and in the earliest adaptation, was a period piece and a morality play and both of those elements are, were, and remain key to its enduring relevance. All of the characters were morally ambiguous and compromised in some way. Second, Ivan is not a clergyman and his faith (or lack thereof) is never of any importance. Once Marryl reappears after their nocturnal tryst as the deceased girl he’s expected to pray over for three nights we’re supposed to believe that the godless materialist Ivan turns to faith in mortal fright to ward off the evil that she embodies. If this is supposed to convey the message of finding relief in your belief something went terribly wrong. Lastly, and more damningly, on the third night Marryl does not summon all the horrors of hell and the mighty beast Viy does not even appear! Which is strange because the demons, ghouls, and the living dead were the highpoint of the original. It speaks volumes when a movie some forty years older did the conclusion more convincingly with practical in-camera effects and old school parlor tricks than this inane phantasmagoria of CGI.

Viy (1967) was, is, and remains, a Soviet classic that has withstood the test of time. It was a victory of art and storytelling over budget and practical limitations. It harnessed that ephemeral and intangible quality that can only be described as atmosphere. In contrast this loose retelling tries it darndest to be cool and edgy, but effortlessly fails on both counts. Wicked tongues claim that the advent of affordable CGI has made filmmaking easier. That may very well be true, but the lost art of practical stunts and in-camera special effects is something we’re staunch proponents of and something in which Evil, outside of some very select wirework, comes up sorely lacking. The biggest issue is that Evil tries to pass itself off as a modern day vampire film more than the atmospheric gothic horror that Viy (1967) was. Valery Nikolaev (Валерий Николаев) is amiable enough and Evgeniya Kryukova (Евге́ния Крю́кова) is, of course, beautiful but she can in no way, shape, or form compete with the iconic performance of Natalya Varley (Наталья Варлей). Nikolaev and Kryukova can act but there’s no chemistry to speak of between the two. Like so many Russian horrors Evil too is a thinly-veiled propaganda piece for the Eastern Orthodox Church and its doctrines. As such it comes with all the heavy-handed religious iconography and proselytizing you’d expect. Ultimately the 2014 remake is truer to the spirit of the 1967 original while this liberal reworking is more faithful to the word. None of which changes that both this, the later remake, and the 2008 South Korean remake in between, are dubious at best and completely unnecessary at worst. In the end this is to Viy (1967) what Vampyres (2015) was to Vampyres (1974). Even Vurdalaki (2017) was better.

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.