Friday, October 17, 2014


Zombies are a great resource for deep, philosophical discussions.  The original Dawn of the Dead is infamous now as a critique of mass consumerism.  They've been used to represent "dangerous" new ideas becoming popular to the masses to the dangers of increasingly alienating political structures that push away their base or attempt to hold on to outdated values and ideas.  They've represented a basic natural disaster, simply being background dressing for deep personal dramas, and they've represented an entire class of people separated by a wide chasm from the increasingly rich upper class.

However, not very often does a movie tackle the idea of death itself in a meaningful way.  Helldriver, a Japanese film by Yoshihiro Nishimura (creator of the infamous cult classic Tokyo Gore Police), takes time to examine the moral and ethical dilemmas of millions of people being "infected" with something that drives them to feast on the flesh of the living.  If they show signs of life, are they really "dead?"  If they show intelligence, organization, and understanding of concepts such as bartering and power structure, are they still "human?"  What if they show a knack for using tools or recognizing specific people?  Is attempting to wipe out beings referred to as "infected" a violation of human rights if they can instead be contained?  What if containment could lead to an entire nation's economy and social structure crumbling?  Does the needs of the "normal" override the needs of the "not normal?"

While not really providing many answers to these questions, Helldriver does go above and beyond your standard zombie film by actually being willing to address these issues.  A priest's soapbox movement calling for mercy for family, friends, and loved ones who are infected and a politician's refusal to pass a bill that would exterminate the infected, calling it "a murder bill" are balanced against cries from a populace already forced into cramped housing with limited food resources, struggling to stay alive when they're refugees in their own country.

Oh, and it's also the most insane movie I've ever seen in my life.

Helldriver's plot boils down to "a meteoroid plows through the chest of a girl's (Rika) insane mother, allowing her to be taken over by a strange starfish and transforms her into a zombie queen.  The mother rips out the heart of her daughter, but the daughter is saved both by brief contact with the meteoroid's powers that seal her in a cocoon for a year and the construction of a mechanical engine/heart implanted into her chest that also powers a chainsaw mixed with a katana."

That is the least insane thing about this movie.

Allow me to rattle off for you just a sampling of a few of the bigger things in the movie that had me sitting slack-jawed in disbelief:

A zombie with dozens of swords sticking out of him has a sword fight against a man driving a truck covered in swords.  That is to say, he sword fights the truck, not the man.

The title sequence and credits come into play 48 minutes into the film, which isn't even halfway since the movie is two hours long.

A female zombie uses a baby still attached to the umbilical cord as a throwing weapon.

A law passed to enlist criminals on trial is named the "Gogo Yubari" law.

The zombie queen transforms all the zombies around her into a giant mass of zombie flesh, catches two rockets fired at her, and then shifts the form into a jetliner to take off into the sky.

Somebody looked at the helmets worn by guards who patrol the wall and act as a strike force and thought to themselves, "not enough Pyramid Head."

That isn't to say I 100% enjoyed this movie.  In fact, saying I even really "enjoyed" it would be kind.  It's pure spectacle, pushing itself harder and harder every minute to make things as insane as possible while still leaving room for things to get even stranger as the film progresses.  Small things, such as an instructional safety video explaining that the "horns" on the zombies can be ground up into an illicit drug, but the horns are unstable and explode if misused (leading to drug-addled heads exploding sometimes) is just one small thing that keeps the momentum going.

There are also scenes that are extremely difficult to watch.  About an hour and seven minutes in, for instance, is a sequence involving a character with no name (named "No-Name")'s younger sister that I found myself almost shutting off the movie halfway through.  It felt needlessly cruel and graphic, and shifted the tone of the movie from "wacky, violent, crazy, blood-exploding Japanese horror movie" into something I felt was just unnecessarily dark and cruel.

I was still pondering turning it off when the movie then promptly distracted me with a lead in to a sword fighting involving this:

Let's try to talk acting for a moment here.  Most of the characters are pretty forgettable outside of a few.  Besides our lead heroine and lead villain, there's the girl's completely insane (and perverted) uncle who becomes a zombie "second in command," a man whose father tried to take in orphans after the plague spread and now collects zombie "horns" for an illicit drug trade, "No-Name," and a young gunman who manages to take out a swarm of flung zombie heads with a single shot, causing a chain fireball reaction.

There's also some politicians involved, including one who eventually becomes Japanese Hitler.  I'm not kidding.

For the most part, the acting is completely over the top and ridiculous.  Several characters, such as the horn collector and "No-Name" manage to provide some pretty subdued roles (at least until later in the film), but I want to talk about Yumiko Hara, who plays Rika.

Pictured: three interesting characters and one awesome hat.

Somehow, despite having an engine block shoved into her chest and spending most of the movie sword-sawing zombies in half, Yumiko brings a lot to the character to be interested in.  She has a natural beauty, of course, but doesn't flaunt it like in Oneechanbara.  She's also providing Rika a lot of depth and emotion at key moments, making her both a solidly strong protagonist, but not afraid to show a more vulnerable side when she's trying to figure out everything new in this world she no longer recognizes (a lot happens in a year).  In the end, I found myself more engaged with Rika as a character thanks to all this, and she was not only more interesting to me as a character, but somehow managed to even be more attractive as a character than the characters in Oneechanbara.  It leaves me actually wanting to see the actress in a role that gives her more to work with than a storyline that sounds like two small children constantly trying to "one up" each other while telling a joint story.

Granted, we're not talking anything that would impress people enough for an academy award, but along with the looks into society once zombies show up and the debates that arise from it, it was something I truly didn't expect from a film where a Hitler mustache is used as "subtlety."

The movie makes unapologetic references to everything from Jurassic Park to (I think) Dragonball Z, the special effects are so cheesy that it's almost (ALMOST!) impossible to be offended by them, and if you can accept the standard Japanese film fact that there's twenty gallons of blood under pressure inside a standard human body just waiting for a paper cut to let it burst forth like a fire hose, you can sit through most of it without flinching.  Again, there was that one part that had me so bothered I almost quit.

Can I recommend this movie to anybody?  Oh, heck no.  Hang out with some friends, play a board game, volunteer at an orphanage, learn to make pasta from scratch, rake leaves for an elderly neighbor, do something productive with the two hours you'd spend watching this.

However, can I recommend people not watch it?  Not really, no.  It's by no means a good movie, and is in many ways terrible, but there's enough brief glimpses of questions that I'm still pondering once the movie completes (which probably says more about me than the film itself) and enough stuff that I can solemnly swear I've never seen in a movie before that if someone said "I want to experience this film, what do you think?" I might have to say "well, it is certainly an experience."

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