Yet another debut feature landing on Shudder in the early stages of 2022, Roberto Zazzara’s supernatural thriller sadly wastes a rather intriguing premise. A group of actors are left behind in a World War II bunker in Rome in which they’ve been the staff at a live action role-playing game. A series of accidents leaves the venue unsafe and the game’s mastermind vanishes. The players are shepherded out and the actors remain to search for their colleague. Their presence awakens something linked to the bunker’s past and it begins to pick them off one by one.
Ostensibly a haunted house movie, The Bunker Game, like all entries in the genre, succeeds or fails on its location, and unfortunately the latter is the case here. Yet it starts promisingly enough, setting up the world of the game nicely – an alternate-history post-apocalyptic scenario in which the Axis powers won and the US unleashed a nuclear attack in retaliation. It sets up the interesting ethical moral idea of people LARPing as Nazis, and also an antagonistic triangle between the game’s creator Gregorio (Lorenzo Richelmy), his lover Laura (Gaia Weiss), and her cousin Harry (Mark Ryder), one of the game’s players who holds a tragic torch for Laura. While the low budget Zazzara had to work with is evident and the acting is largely lacklustre, these are hardly uncommon elements of the genre and as such aren’t deal-breakers, even Ryder’s snivelling Harry, who is one of the worst characters in any movie for some time. The production design is actually fairly impressive and the limited budget works in favour of establishing the aesthetics of the game itself.
Zazzara’s hand really wobbles on the tiller once the supernatural activities begin in earnest. The absolute gift of the location (the Bunker of Monte Sorratte) is simply squandered. There is no sense of claustrophobia, or indeed any atmosphere of dread at all, which is unforgivable in an environment that should absolutely drip with tension and disorientation. There is also never a true idea of the bunker’s layout. The action mainly takes place in a few rooms, to where anyone can easily return no matter how far they’ve wandered and into how many dark recesses.
The Bunker Game also fails to address the interesting ethical question it seems to pose at its outset. Is getting to cosplay as a Nazi a controlled way of indulging in darker impulses? As the supernatural force at work is, inevitably given the location, tied to a bloody incident from the war itself to what extent should it be mined as entertainment at all? Instead, a more prosaic reason is given for the vengeful spectre which feels like yet another missed opportunity. There are also half-hearted nods towards issues of representation such as having a non-binary character. Again, however, none of this is addressed in any meaningful way. Instead, another possibly interesting thematic strand is dismissed with a ham-fisted line about Robin (Felice Jankell)’s preferred pronouns.
A frustrating fumble given the rich resources at its disposal, The Bunker Game not only waters down some chewy thematic possibilities into thin gruel, it then takes itself too seriously to engage as a bracing blast of exploitation. But its cardinal sin is its failure to be even remotely creepy. If one wishes, there are tours of the bunker itself available. Once suspects that they would be a far more effective way of prickling the hair at the back of the neck.
Available to stream on Shudder from Mon 17 Mar 2022