Roberto Zazzara’s The Bunker Game is a frustrating addition to the “role-playing gone wrong” subgenre of horror. Joe Lynch’s Knights of Badassdom has more character, while Preston DeFrancis’ Ruin Me—also a Shudder exclusive—showcases better gamesmanship. Though Zazzara’s production designers construct impressive “tunnels” dug under Mussolini’s fascist regime, there’s little substance behind the architectural intricacies or saturating red glow of alarms. At the same time, the screenplay leaves potential commentary about those live-action role players (LARPers) who reenact historical atrocities for entertainment on the table. This is just one reason The Bunker Game hardly scratches—let alone makes a dent in—the surface of this particular horror niche.
In the game’s premise, participants enter a bunker where they hear a post-WWII fantasy where Germany wins, and America starts a third nuclear war that spreads toxic waste across the globe. Experience mastermind Gregorio (Lorenzo Richelmy) has created an underground world where LARPers pretend they’re chosen to repopulate what’s left above, except there’s a traitor in the encampment. Damsel Laura (Gaia Weiss), Nazi Chancellor Andrej (Tudor Istodor), and other company plants keep the theatrics alive as players commit to their fantasies. That’s until a lighting fixture falls during a ballroom sequence and inadvertently injures Laura’s cousin, Harry (Mark Ryder), an incident that causes the roleplaying adventure to abort for safety issues. All but Gregorio and his team leave for hotel rooms, but Laura notices Gregorio is gone—and they’re all locked inside the bunker.
Marco Graziaplena’s cinematography does a good deal of heavy lifting as the camera creeps around rocky corners, silhouetting characters against the pitch-blackness ahead. The Bunker Game shines almost exclusively under dim subterranean lights and blaring redness when tension rises, which Graziaplena paints with artful brushstrokes. Scenes feel claustrophobic despite blown-open dimensions, as echoey chambers start to constrict when Graziaplena focuses more tightly on isolated inhabitants. Zazzara spotlights a musty backdrop of ’50s costumes and World War II command center stations, which all successfully does the time warp. Ironically, this makes the events occuring against this backdrop all the more noticeably lackluster in comparison.
With the disappearance of Gregorio, The Bunker Game presents itself as another workplace slasher of sorts, but it’s never as action-packed. Zazzara and a team of four additional screenplay collaborators blend whodunit mysteries with national trauma—Laura starts seeing flashbacks of a ghost girl during Nazi occupations—and recycled haunted house dynamics. By chasing spirits and teasing the possibility of Gregorio lurking in the shadows, the actual horror is stretched thin between the warring “truths” of what’s actually happening—there’s never a total commitment to minimal slasher vibes nor any true horrors (despite the perfect cavern backdrops). Early character beats go to painstaking lengths when establishing melodrama between coworkers—be it involving pregnancies, casual hate speech or bastard behavior—only to be mostly forgotten once events split the group apart. It’s got all the scenery staples of a nightmare overnight, with none of the implementation wherewithal.
For all the movie’s issues, the performances are mostly blameless. Gaia Weiss imbues Laura with a fiery excitement equally as present when exploring deeper tunnel reaches as in her frustration over the men in her life asserting excessive control. Supporting characters remark about dying for their portrayal of Nazis—genre rigidity sidesteps a much more extensive discussion—while finding themselves stuck between following Gregorio’s presumed rules or fleeing in terror. “Looking the part” only engages viewership so far because characters react appropriately to their predicament—storytelling just never gives the actual demons of The Bunker Game their due on screen.
How is The Bunker Game not a more intriguing confrontation of traumatic exploitation as a weekend getaway or pay-for escape? You could mimic commentary against true-crime podcasts and drive home infinitely more than what’s delivered, which is nevertheless an artfully sharp visual product even as it lacks impact. As a horror tale, there are few screams outside predictable jump scares. As a mystery, it’s slack in suspense. As an overall “game,” the initial chalk blueprint drawn by Zazzara is rewritten and trampled over until only the faintest outlines are left. Maybe there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this one, all fighting for their flavors to be the tastiest of them all. Instead, the viewer is left with a bland homogenization of horrorless haunts.
Director: Roberto Zazzara
Manuela Cacciamani, Davide Orsini, Roberto Zazzara (story and screenplay); Francesca Forristal, Kt Roberts (screenplay)
Starring: Gaia Weiss, Lorenzo Richelmy, Mark Ryder, Tudor Istodor, Makita Samba, Amina Smaïl
Release Date: March 17, 2022 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.