Romero Retrospective: Dawn of the Dead

I hope that everyone was able to spend a peaceful and pleasant Ostara this past weekend during the time of the Vernal Equinox, and enjoy the rare “supermoon” that was visible as well.  More than a week has passed since the tragic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the northern regions of Japan’s main island, and the death toll continues to rise.  While the path toward recovery will be a long and slow one, I would venture to say that things have been improving slowly but steadily, and I would like to thank all of those who expressed concern for my wellbeing amidst fears of aftershocks and the worsening situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  I am safe and sound, and working to do my own small part in supporting my current country of residence in this time of crisis. 

In more pleasant news, my review of Yoshihiro Nishimura‘s zombie opus, Helldriver, has been featured on La Carmina’s blog!  Also noteworthy is her sneak peek at one the latest horror flicks to come crawling out of Korea, I Saw the Devil.  Check it out here!

And now, it is time to move on to the second part of my blood-soaked stroll down memory lane with the zombie master himself, George A. Romero.  This time I look back on what is, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, quite possibly the greatest zombie film of all time: Dawn of the Dead (1978).  Like Night of the Living Dead before it, Dawn is a giant among genre films, holding its ground in lists of all-time great classics of cinema, both horror and otherwise.  For anyone who has only seen the subpar remake, this is where the ghoulish greatness began.  This is where Romero truly came into his own as a filmmaker and the movie stands gangrenous head and bloody shoulders above the competition.

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth…

The Good

This section is difficult for me to approach, considering that nearly everything about this film is either generally praiseworthy, or somehow raised the standard for nearly every movie to follow it in the genre.  As such, I’ll simply start out on a more personal note.  Dawn of the Dead weaves the tale of a ragtag band of survivors who attempt to escape the mayhem of a zombie apocalypse by seeking shelter in what is the very epitome of the decadent consumerist culture that has collapsed around them: a shopping mall.  And not merely any shopping mall, but the Monroeville Mall, located right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Having spent my childhood in central Pennsylvania and my college years at the University of Pittsburgh (rival school to Romero’s alma mater, Carnegie Mellon), looking back at Romero’s earlier films is always an exercise in nostalgia.  While the filming was conducted almost entirely in the environs of Pittsburgh, the story follows the four survivors from a news station in Philadelphia all the way to the Steel City, with a brief interlude to observe a group of redneck zombie hunters and military personnel outside of Johnstown treating the entire invasion of living dead as a big lark. 

But back to the shopping center.  The Monroeville Mall was always one of my favorite haunts in my student days for many reasons, not the least of which is its history as the site of Romero’s landmark film.  While little of the interior remains unchanged, there are still locations that you can attach to particular scenes, and it is the site of a regular zombie walk that has challenged (and broken) Guinness World Records for most zombies in a single place.  The mall is essentially a character in and of itself, simultaneously representing both the excess of a consumer society and the crushing emptiness of gratuitous materialism.  What Stephen (David Emge), Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott Reiniger), and Fran (Gaylen Ross) initially see as a utopian cornucopia of consumer delights, ultimately proves to be a dismal prison and, for half of their number, a tomb.  If Night of the Living Dead was an exposition of the anger and rebellion of the late sixties in the face of the Vietnam War, Dawn of the Dead sinks its satirical teeth into the mindless materialism of the late seventies. 

However, departing from the general atmosphere of its predecessor, Dawn is not a portrait of stark realism from start to finish.  The characters are lively and often humorous, and no matter how many times I watch this film, I find myself falling in love with them all over again.  Strong characterization is something that Romero is often credited for, and I believe that much of this owes to the fact that the man has always been known to be an “actor’s director.”  George often writes parts with the strengths of particular friends or acquaintances in mind, and he has always been open to suggestions from his cast and crew.  Ad libs and from-the-hip dialogue spice up the film and make each of its characters real and interesting.  I find myself smiling and sometimes moved nearly to tears in spite of myself every time I watch this film.  The bond between Peter and Roger grows, and is cut tragically short; “Flyboy” Stephen begins as an unreliable yet well-meaning pilot, who eventually develops as a person too, but falls victim to self-complacency and raw emotions in the end.  Fran, the only woman of the group, gives a poignant portrayal of a woman struggling to be seen as an equal, stalwartly bearing the hope for humanity’s future in her womb.

Aside from the sympathetic characters, a very blatant amount of silliness pervades certain portions of the film.  The comic effect of zombies lumbering about the corridors of the shopping center in vain imitation of their previous lives is enhanced in some scenes by a lilting polka-style score that echoes from the mall’s speakers.  When the motorcycle-riding gang of raiders finally breaks into the idyllic manmade paradise, the slapstick goes into full swing as some of the bikers grab pies and smash them into the faces of the walking dead, later spraying them down with seltzer water for good measure.  Such humor is certainly needed, and serves as a balancing counterpoint in a film that is brimming with decapitations, torn flesh, spraying blood, gory entrails, and exploding heads.

I mentioned the music above, and it is worth noting again.  While Romero’s US theatrical cut featured a great deal of stock music that, while effective, was not nearly as impressive as the European version.  When Italian director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Phenomena) heard about Romero’s plan for a sequel to NOTLD, he was on board from the get-go, inviting Romero to Rome to write the film and serving as script consultant as well.  Among his vast contributions to the film, it was his nearly limitless rights to edit the film for international audiences that brought about the cut that is most often referred to as the “European Version” (under the title Zombi).  By using excellent music from Italian band Goblin and his own compositions for a larger portion of the film, and also cutting down on some extraneous scenes to tighten up the pacing, Argento created what I believe to be a version of the film that is superior to the US theatrical cut or extended versions.   Each take has its own particular charm however, and I recommend viewing all of them for the full experience of this masterpiece.  The three most common versions of the film were collected about seven years ago in the Saturn Award-winning Ultimate Edition DVD box set.

The Bad(?)

Once again I find myself rather stymied to produce any negative things to say about this film.  While not commonly leveled against this particular work, one often finds criticism of horror movies with “happy endings.”  In fact, George A. Romero initially had a different ending in mind.  With the raiders gone but the zombies closing in fast, Peter puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.  Meanwhile Fran, about to escape via helicopter from the rooftop, finally despairs of life in the face of the ghoulish horde and pushes her own head into the whirling propeller blades.  The credits were to feature the sound of the propellers losing power and eventually stopping entirely, cluing the audience in to the fact that their plight was hopeless from the start. 

This ending apparently existed fairly far into the production stage, as a cast was made of Fran’s head for the effect, but was eventually remodeled and blasted with a shotgun slug for one of the film’s more shocking sequences earlier on.  Personally, I don’t count this decision as a negative one, but I place it here as one of the aspects of the film that may be subject to criticism as a horror film.

Another slightly controversial issue is that of the zombies who, while certainly an improvement from the previous film, still left something to be desired in terms of realism and their “fright factor.”

The Undead

What’s…blue…with your faaace!?!  Okay, let me begin by saying that Dawn has some of the most memorable ghouls in zombie history.  Who could forget the lovable antics of the bespectacled Hare Krishna Zombie?   Or the delightfully mindless ambulation of the Nurse Zombie?  Or the heartfelt, doleful expression of the…Bach’s Arco Pitcairn Zombie?  Special effects makeup artist Tom Savini (who was initially called in for Night before being drafted for Vietnam) truly deserves a lot of credit for creating truly unique ghouls and upping the ante for grotesque effects at the time.  Savini even appears in the film as a biker fond of his machete, a role he later reprised in revivified form in Land of the Dead (2005).

The sheer number of zombies, however, must have contributed to a general spreading out of the makeup used on them, with many ending up as simple gray- or blue-tinted faces with some superficial wounds.  In particular, these “blue zombies” (no relation to the Blue Man Group) were outspokenly criticized by the cast and crew of Zombi 2 (Lucio Fulci, 1979), who are often very quick to quell any suggestions that the film was a rip-off and hint that theirs was a more “genuine” zombie film.  Also, the Technicolor blood (which looks like it came from a child’s finger-painting set) was originally rejected by Savini, but embraced by Romero as adding a more “comic book” feel to the film.  The best makeup effects in Dawn were probably used for the dramatic resurrection of Roger, and his particularly look became more of the norm for ghouls in Day of the Dead (1985).

Despite such minor complaints, the general appearance of the living dead and gore lend what has been called a “dreamlike” atmosphere to the film, and I certainly agree.  Those effects have become an integral part of Romero’s epic, and serve to set it apart from other releases of the time.

And so, in conclusion, all I can say is: Watch this film.  If you’ve only seen one of the three major versions, check out the other cuts.  It will be like discovering new rooms in a familiar old house, and I guarantee that the experience will be rewarding.  If you have only seen the remake, then get thee to Netflix or other viewing mode of choice, as the “reimagining” loses out to the original in every aspect except for its overinflated budget.  If you have seen it, you might think about giving it another view, or sharing it with that friend who liked Shaun of the Dead but never saw any other zombie flicks.  The film still looks fantastic today, and its social commentary was ahead of its time, going to show you that sometimes you simply can’t keep a good zombie down.

Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “HELLDRIVER” – New Trailer!

Twitch has just posted a new trailer for Yoshihiro Nishimura’s unprecedented zombie epic, Helldriver!  This looks to be the same as the Sushi Typhoon trailer shown before the Tokyo premiere on March 4th, so check it out for more outrageous and outré gore from that master of monsters, Mr. Nishimura. 

Check it out on Twitch here!

Romero Retrospective: Night of the Living Dead

Notice

The following post was finished last Friday, almost immediately before the tragic events of the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami.  After much deliberation, I have decided to post it for a few reasons.  Firstly, I believe that in times such as these, it is sometimes necessary to maintain a mental balance by taking our minds off of the horrific images on our television screens and in the newspapers.  The medium of film, particularly horror cinema, has always had the potential to distance us from various issues and let us view them in a different light, allowing us to internalize them further.  Secondly, I want to post this for personal reasons, as it was something I was doing in the peaceful time before the quake.  It’s amazing how different the world here in Japan is between then and now, and this post is a reminder of that difference.  I realize that some may not agree with me in posting this, and so I ask those people to come back to it later.  At any rate, my posts will be infrequent, as power outages and shortages of essential supplies will make survival my first priority.  I will also be doing my own small part in assisting the relief efforts through donations and conservation of resources.  For those abroad who wish to support Japan in this time of crisis, please see my dear friend La Carmina’s blog for some information about charity events.  Also check out my friend Norman’s blog for a report of Friday’s quake as experienced in Tokyo.  Everyone, be safe.

Romero Retrospective: Night of the Living Dead

As I mentioned in my previous posts, February 26 – March 4 saw the Tokyo International Zombie Film Festival, a sanguinary parade of some of the greatest undead to ever shamble onto the silver screen.  Due to scheduling conflicts I was only able to make it for the grand finale, the Tokyo premiere of Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Helldriver, and so I decided to clear away the cobwebs from my vault and take a look back at some of the classics of zombie cinema.

And where else to begin but with the “Grandfather of the Zombie” himself, George A. Romero?  And so, my next few posts will take a look back to my homeland, particularly my home state of Pennsylvania and the city of my alma mater, Pittsburgh.  In this “Romero Retrospective,” I intend to take a brief look at each of his major zombie films, and express some of my thoughts and opinions on their standing in the world of zombie cinema, the first being his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968).  There is little to say about these films that hasn’t been said before, so I intend to look at them from a more personal perspective as a fan of the genre and the director himself.  I hope that these hastily scrawled posts might also serve as an introduction for those who may have missed some of these bloody gems among the cluttered ossuary that the zombie genre has become today.  Please rest assured that I consider the viewing of almost all of these works to be indispensable toward a holistic understanding of zombie film, and horror cinema in general.

Now, before I begin, I have to make a small disclaimer that will apply to all of my posts, past and future.  I am most certainly not a filmmaker.  I have taken several classes on film and its analysis at university, and I have a slight background in drama/theater, along with a deep and abiding respect for the people who bring the films I love to life (or back to life, as the case may be).  Perhaps my only other qualification is a steady diet of all things dark and scary since my childhood, and my sole purpose here is to introduce these works and my thoughts on them for your enjoyment.

With all that out of the way, follow me into the crypt for the maiden article of my zombie retrospective. Take off your shoes, because you’re about to step onto (un)holy ground as we take a look at the first of George A. Romero’s Living Dead films, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.

The Good

It almost seems an exercise in futility to try to explain just how important this film is in the history of horror cinema.  Chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” Night of the Living Dead goes beyond B-movie horror to achieve status as a true masterpiece of cinema, frequently being cited in “Best Movies of All Time” lists by various publications.  Romero took the ideas of Richard Matheson’s famous novel I Am Legend, and appropriated them into his stark tale of social breakdown, where seven survivors stranded in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse fend off hordes of the ghoulish creatures that feed on human flesh.  Filmed in black-and-white 35 mm film, the entire experience is one of pseudo-documentary realism and superb pacing.  Taking up this film and watching it again, I was floored to find that I still found myself on the edge of my seat.  The plot, atmosphere, camerawork, and chiaroscuro lighting all work in together beautifully and build up flawlessly to the shocking and nihilistic conclusion.

Although originally panned by some critics for its graphic content (it slipped into theaters almost immediately before the MPAA ratings hit the scene), the reaction was generally positive, and praise of the film only accumulated as it went to further acclaim and financial success around the world.  When I first saw the film, I was struck by the fact that the lead (Ben, played by Duane Jones) was African-American – quite a bold move for 1968.  The tragic ending of the film echoed strongly in the context of recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and the grainy newspaper reels and scenes of military and police action surely must have brought visions of the ongoing Vietnam War into the minds of American viewers of the time.  Also, taboos such as matricide and cannibalism were presented unflinchingly for one of the first times on the silver screen.

One of the things that I truly respect about Romero is that he really stuck to his guns.  Before the film’s release, he was urged by several people to tone it down and edit some of the film’s more gruesome scenes.  His refusal resulted in rejection by some distributors, but the ultimate effect of his staunch, uncompromising attitude was something that altered the landscape of horror film forever.  Later zombie films, such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985) can trace their roots directly to this masterpiece, to say nothing of the slasher genre that took many of its cues from Romero’s classic.  Its long-lasting effects on our culture are undeniable, being referenced or outright parodied in everything from The Simpsons to South Park

The Bad

There really aren’t a whole lot of negative things that I can say about this film, and that is a testament to the magnificent vision of its director and everyone involved.  If I would have to say one thing, I might bring up one criticism that is frequently leveled against NOTLD involving the character of Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and the two other main female characters.  A hysterical basket-case through most of the film, Barbra is often cited as being a typical, and somewhat misogynistic, portrayal of women in horror cinema.  Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman)  is a disgruntled yet submissive housewife, and Judy (Judith Ridley), like her boyfriend Tom (Keith Wayne), is basically a cardboard cut-out.  The real dramatic action occurs between the two rival “alpha males,” and Barbra ends up as a snack platter for the ghouls, including her undead brother.  This is really a minor complaint though, and something that was later corrected in the remakes of the film (particularly Tom Savini’s 1990 version).

The Undead

Field Reporter: Are they slow-moving, chief?

Sheriff McClelland: Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.

This is where I discuss the OH MY GOD!  What’s wrong with your faaace?!?  Ahem, this is where I talk about the rotting revenants who (usually) serve as the primary antagonists of the film.  If it weren’t for those lovable, re-animated pus-bags, it wouldn’t very well be a zombie film, now would it?  As mentioned above, the work was attacked by film critics of the time as being wantonly gruesome, and while it is indeed true that this movie helped bring about an era of “splatter films,” it is certainly quite tame by today’s standards.   In fact, the poor sap you see here may not even be one of the ghouls at all, simply a farmhouse owner who met an unknown but gruesome end before the beginning of the film.

While the “raccoon eyes” and mortician’s wax may not be frightening anymore, one must realize that, until NOTLD, zombies were only imagined on film in their more traditional sense of being the slaves of a Voodoo witch doctor, controlled by potions and black magic to do his bidding.  Standing at the head of such early zombie films are, of course, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), its sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (1936), and I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943).  It was Romero however, who blended the idea of ghouls with Matheson’s vampire-like creatures and developed the flesh-eating resurrected corpses (the word “zombie” is never used in the film) that have come to be called zombies today.  The head-shot rule was likely first introduced here, and the image of shambling, slow-moving dead remains the standard for the genre, in spite of the recent deluge of films starring the so-called “sprinter zombies” (popularized by the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead).

In conclusion, all I have to say is that, if you haven’t already (or even if you have), go out and see this film.  You won’t regret it.  Thanks to some copyright blunders it’s public domain, kiddies, so you don’t have any excuse.  Check it out on YouTube below.  They’re coming to get you, Barbra…

These are dark times

As most of you already know, the horrific earthquake that devastated northeastern Japan on Friday has left in its wake an estimated death toll in excess of 10,000 in Miyagi Prefecture alone.  The aftershocks continue in what is now said to have been a temblor measuring 9 on the Japanese seismic scale, making it the largest in recorded history.  The nuclear reactor in Fukushima is unstable, and nearly 150,000 people have been evacuated from the surrounding areas to escape possible nuclear fallout. 

Japan’s situation truly is like something out of a movie.  Store shelves are bare, trains have been halted, and electricity and water are a luxury some are unable to enjoy even in the Tokyo metropolitan area, to say nothing of the areas closer to the epicenter.  I am, at least, happy to say that all of my dear friends in Japan have escaped the damage unscathed, and while Castle Skeleton was shaken up a bit, my area has remained largely unaffected.  Even so, it was an overwhelming experience to watch the images on the television broadcasted live on Friday afternoon, literally watching people die before my eyes on the screen.

My heart goes out to all of those who have lost loved ones in this tragic disaster, and my friends and I will do what we can to aid in the ongoing relief efforts.

Swag from the “HELLDRIVER” Premiere + NOH8 in Tokyo!

I hope that everyone enjoyed my review of Helldriver!  I would be very glad if, despite my small gripes about the editing, the overall tone was positive and conveyed even a small portion of the gut-wrenching delight that was imparted to me by the film.  Yoshihiro Nishimura is a maverick filmmaker and FX artist who is worthy of all of the attention that he gets (and he deserves even more).  Please support his work by checking out the films when they come to a theater near you!

Before I get into any more reviews, I thought I would show off some of the goodies that I picked up at the Helldriver premiere in Shibuya.  Unfortunately, to my knowledge there are no official goods from the film available at the moment, but I managed to make off with some fun swag nonetheless!

  1. Tokyo Gore Police “Gore Edition” DVD.  I picked this up when it was first released, but now it’s been signed by the director himself!  Thank you, Mr. Nishimura!
  2. Hand towels featuring Pabaan, the image production group that includes Nishimura Eizo Co., Ltd. 
  3. Tokyo Gore Police mini-notebook!  The front says “Tokyo Police Corporation,” while the back features the TGP logo.  The silhouetted figure on the front cover is probably meant to be a loose parody of the actual Tokyo Police mascot character, Pipo-kun.
  4. Ultimo mondo cannibale (1977), better known in English as Last Cannibal World, directed by Ruggero Deodato.  The precursor to the director’s more notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1979), this film is apparently one of Nishimura’s favorites, and thus was available at the booth as one of his recommended titles.  While I saw Cannibal Holocaust ages ago, I recently viewed this one for the first time, and so I may post a review of it at a later date.
  5. A pair of signed bromide photos featuring Maki Mizui and pole dancer Cay Izumi (collectively known as Izumizui), both of whom graced the screen as undead in Helldriver and are frequent collaborators with Nishimura and company.
  6. Limited edition Helldriver chewing gum!  This was a special little gift handed out personally by Mr. Nishimura and his staff.  From what I could tell there were three different zombie designs.  Mine features Maki Mizui’s “spider zombie” happily flipping the bird, while the back is printed with the blood-dripping logo of Nishimura Eizo Co., Ltd.
  7.  The logo in the form of a cell phone strap, complete with a zombie horn/antenna.
  8. The ticket stub, backed by Mr. Nishimura as featured on the cover of Metropolis magazine.

On a more random note,  my friend and Gothic Lolita blogger LA CARMINA  is helping to bring the NOH8 Campaign to Tokyo later this month.  This certainly may seem to have little or nothing to do with horror, but as a U.S. citizen living in Japan I find this campaign to be an important movement with a positive message, and I would like to express my support.  We children of the night are often some of the most open-minded and individualistic people one could have the pleasure of meeting, but we sometimes come under fire for our interests and lifestyles due to prejudice and ignorance.  As such, I think that NOH8 may resonate deeply with such members of the “Addams clan.”

LA CARMINA X NOH8

The NOH8 campaign began as a protest against Prop 8, and now has a larger message of fighting inequality.  Photographer Adam Bouska has taken over 10,000 photos of people wearing white, with duct tape over their mouths, including celebrities: Adam Lambert, Tori Spelling, Ashlee Simpson, Gene Simmons, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.

The NOH8 campaign will be in Tokyo in late March, with an open photo shoot on March 27 (1-5 PM at New Lex Roppongi.)  Click here for full information in English.  Click here for full information in Japanese.  If you support the message of this campaign and would like to come out and have your photo taken to support the movement, please drop by the New Lex Roppongi on March 27 and spread the word!

Hell of a Good Time – Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “HELLDRIVER!”

Yes, the time has come, and I am now going to attempt to give my honest review and appraisal of Yoshihiro Nishimura’s latest foray into the world of cinema, Helldriver.  I must preface this review by explaining that I am an avid fan of Mr. Nishimura and his work, and I will be evaluating his latest film on the basis of its value as a work from this visionary director, as a film in the zombie genre, and as a piece of general cinema.  Any errors are my own, and the opinions expressed are based on the screening of what was apparently an “international version” of Helldriver on March 4, 2011 in Shibuya as a part of the Tokyo International Zombie Film Festival.   I have a lot to say, so make yourself a cup of tea and sit down for the ride!

All Hell Breaks Loose

So where to begin?  First and foremost, Helldriver is Nishimura’s self-professed bid to create the ultimate Japanese zombie film, and in many ways, I believe that he succeeded.  High school girl Kika (Yumiko Hara) is tormented by her deranged uncle (Kentaro Kishi) and demented and murderous mother, Rikka (Eihi Shiina, star of Tokyo Gore Police and Audition).  After a meteor blasts a gaping hole in Rikka’s chest, one might think that Kika’s problems were finally over.  Of course, we find that they are only just beginning, as Rikka tears the still beating heart from her daughter’s chest and grafts it into her own body, eventually being taken over by the starfish-shaped alien that descended with the meteor and used as a host to spread a mysterious ash that turns everyone who inhales it into mindless flesh-eating zombies.  Kika miraculously survives, and is equipped by the government with an experimental artificial heart, which also happens to power a chainsaw katana that would make Bruce Campbell turn green with envy.    Japan is thrown into chaos, and a vast wall is erected to separate the zombie-plagued northern regions from the relatively safe southern half of the archipelago.  Kika is recruited by the government to hunt down Rikka, who is now the zombie queen and source of the infection, and together with a few other road warriors she meets along the way, she sets out for an explosive mother-daughter showdown of apocalyptic proportions. 

What’s Wrong With Your Faaaace?!?

Of course, since this is a zombie film, it would be remiss of me to neglect mentioning the makeup effects first.   Before the screening, Nishimura decried the general practice of applying a bit of white powder and some superficial wounds to create one of the living dead, as often happens in low-budget films.  Nishimura’s revenants, on the other hand, are truly something to behold.  It is clear that Nishimura took great pains to ensure that each and every one of his rotting corpses was shocking and memorable, and this is where he truly raises the bar for zombie films.  Not relying heavily on digital effects, each individual zombie is uniquely grotesque, even down to minute differences in their antennae.  Antennae?  Yes, that’s right.  One of the side effects of the strange plague is that victims sprout a T-shaped horn from the center of their foreheads.  Not only is this their sole weak point (not the brain, mind you), these horns allow the zombies to be remotely controlled by the zombie queen. Oh, and did I mention that they are highly explosive and harvested for their narcotic effects by uninfected humans? 

This is just one of the new and inventive concepts that Nishimura has brought to this film that set it apart from others in the genre.  The antennae also serve as what is possibly the first visual pun of the film, where a shot of several severed zombie horns is transitioned into the image of several Yubari melons with their famous T-shaped stems.  Yubari, a mining town in Hokkaido and home of the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, is one of Nishimura’s favorite spots, and the town itself plays an important role in the film. 

This kind of self-referential humor runs rampant throughout the work, so much so that if you blink you might miss it.  The Sushi Typhoon sushi stand (named after the film’s distributor), an explosive device inexplicably labeled with the girl’s bar advertisement from The Ancient Dogoo Girl movie, and a cartoon version of Nishimura himself in a government public service announcement, are only a few of the small things that fans of the director and his crew will be delighted to discover.  As a side note, Norman England (film director, Fangoria writer, and extra in the film) provided some very clever English subtitles, which also kindly point out some of these minor references for those who are not as familiar with the Japanese language.

I think I hardly need mention that, once again, Nishimura has pushed the boundaries with his trademark over-the-top action gore.  I believe it would be a shame to spoil anything that isn’t explicitly shown in the preview, so I will simply say that if you are expecting to see massive eruptions of gore, blood by the bucketful, and more decapitations, eviscerations, and general mayhem than you can shake a severed limb at, then you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

While I loved the intensely visual style of the film and its cinematography, in the above statement one can also find my biggest problem with the film.  No, I’m not going to say that Nishimura went too far, or that he got a little carried away with some of the visual gags.  I think that, as a follow-up to his previous works, this film carries on his bloody tradition in good form.  No, my issue lies in the more technical aspects of the film, namely, editing.  The question that must be asked here is: “Can you have too much of a good thing?” 

I believe that, in this case, the answer is yes.  (The following paragraphs will address specific scenes of the film in some detail. Those wishing to avoid spoilers should skip ahead to “Art (and Gore) from Adversity.”)  Let me take up a specific example.  In the preview you may witness a few outrageous images of a high-speed car chase across northern Japan involving a modified pickup truck and a go-cart cobbled together out of human flesh.  Honoka (Machine Girl, The Ancient Dogoo Girl) cuts an imposing figure as a busty, kimono-clad zombie wielding a samurai sword, and we have all the elements of another classic Nishimura action sequence.  Unfortunately, the only weakness of the scene is that it simply drags on for too long.  The raging rock-inspired soundtrack, the roar of the engines, and the incessant screams and laughter of the characters create a perpetual cacophony that only emphasizes the fact that the scene really did not have to be stretched out as long as it did.  The actual action that took place could have been condensed rather than repeating multiple shots of the same event, with perhaps even more impact.  Another issue I had with the scene involves continuity.  The vehicles seem to be traveling at speeds of around 60 miles per hour, and yet they never seem to get anywhere against the dull, computer-generated background of forests,  fields, and grey skies.  This is not a problem in and of itself, but at one point we are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the truck in an open field approaching a cliff that seems to be about 100 yards ahead.  The sense of crisis is immediately deadened as we see the action on the vehicle continue for another few minutes, during which there are several forward shots showing trees in front of the truck, rather than a deadly ravine.  The film then cuts to a shot that seems to be exactly the same as the previous one, with the ravine still about 100 yards ahead. 

Now, I’m not going to get nitpicky about physics.  We are dealing with a film whose internal logic justifies the fact that a motorized vehicle can be created exclusively from human body parts and maneuvered by a severed hand holding onto the steering wheel, so I’m not about to split hairs over little things (or a lot of big things, for that matter).  However, to me it seems that this was the result of rushed editing, and the excessive action came from a desire to give foreign audiences more of what they crave, at the expense of good pacing.  Another example can be found in an earlier scene, involving a sword fight between an amorphous creature bristling with poles and other sharp objects, and the pickup truck (using a massive hood-mounted blade to parry the attacks).  At the same time, Kika is fighting a “spider zombie” (Maki Mizui) and two other characters are involved with a zombie mother (Cay Izumi) and her undead fetus (still attached to the umbilical cord).  Each of these sequences is interesting and inventive in and of itself.  However, when included in the film simultaneously, the inherent mechanics of the respective fights makes pacing them difficult.  The skirmish between Kika and the spider zombie, which is probably the most complicated, unfortunately set the pacing for the truck vs. zombie battle.  Loud and furious, the clashing blades of Kika and the spider seem to end up in a loop with the truck sequence.  And so, the audience is subjected to repeated shots of the same grainy computer-generated movements, with little or no development.  When the novelty of such a scene wears off (which happens more quickly once one has caught on to Nishimura’s style), things need to be shaken up fairly frequently to maintain the viewers’ interest.  

In Tokyo Gore Police, also written, directed, and edited by Nishimura, the action seems to cut off at just the right moment, sometimes immediately before it has the chance to become dull through its sheer excess.  The film is also balanced by some fairly quiet and atmospheric scenes, complemented by a quirky and innovative soundtrack (the subway groper scene and its lead-up come immediately to mind).  In Helldriver, however, it seems that the nearly endless action involving the walking (and sometimes driving or flying) dead superseded a lot of the potential to explore the unique world that the film presents.  The social satire also remains, but I felt it somehow less poignant than that of TGP.

This is where editing can really make or break a film.  The issue calls to mind the classic film Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985).  In its initial cut, the film ran for more than two hours, and included even more scenes of violence and grotesqueries.  At that point, it hadn’t even been decided whether the film would be a serious treatment or a black comedy.  Enter the editor, and the film was cut down to around 90 minutes, with some of the gore excluded.  Had it been done differently, perhaps according to the director’s original intent, Re-Animator may have ended up only as a sad reminder of what could have been, rather than the cult classic it is today.

I must temper these criticisms by stating that the version of the film that I saw was ostensibly the one shown for international audiences.   Despite Nishimura/Iguchi regulars Asami and Takumi Saito (RoboGeisha, The Ancient Dogoo Girl movie) being listed in the credits, they are hardly in the film (in fact, I missed them completely).  I was informed that they are there, but several of their scenes were cut out.  Whether this will be changed in the rumored director’s cut (when the film is released officially in July) is yet to be seen.

Art (and Gore) from Adversity

Photo by Norman England

In spite of all this, the film certainly does not fail to impress.  Completed on a shoestring budget of approximately $200,000 (according to Metropolis magazine) and shot in about 2 weeks, the solid makeup effects coupled with relatively unobtrusive digital sequences make this film a testament to the skills and devotion of a dedicated cast and crew.  Conditions like this seem to be the standard for Japanese cinema these days, and so it takes a clear and strong vision to bring about something memorable and lift it out of the morass of mediocrity that the industry has been swamped with in recent years.  As a favorite reviewer of mine so rightly said of another film, there is a lot to be said for the idea of “art from adversity.”  These films are a labor of love, and by watching the “making of” features, hearing the cast and crew speaking about the films, and meeting them personally, one can sense a genuine sincerity about what they are doing.  Many of the people involved have been working together for years, and there is a distinct sense of camaraderie.  The director and actors all had stories to tell about the hardships on the set and the grueling schedule, but also the joys of seeing the bloody vision congeal into a cohesive whole at the end of it all. 

This leads me to believe that the recent films by Yoshihiro Nishimura, Noboru Iguchi, and others, have truly established a “brand” for themselves, particularly overseas.  The directors, actors, and crew members form a creative network from which imaginative and unprecedented works are spawned.  These people truly enjoy doing what they do, and that really comes through in a film like Helldriver.

And so, when all is said and done, I must say that I really do love this film.  Despite minor complaints of editing, pacing, and atmosphere, I think that this film truly accomplishes what it set out to do: give audiences a genuinely original and sincere “made-in-Japan” zombie film that can hold its own on foreign soil.  The well of gore has yet to run dry, and Nishimura still knows how to go all out and paint the town red.  When it reaches a theater near you, take a look at Helldriver…if you dare!

Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “HELLDRIVER” Tokyo Premiere!

Last night I had the wonderful opportunity to see the latest film from one of the most sought after special effects artists in the Japanese film industry with, as one interview put it, “talent to burn.”  Yes, I could only be talking about the “Tom Savini of Japan,” Mr. Yoshihiro Nishimura.  The director who in 2008 brought us the outrageous violence and social satire of Tokyo Gore Police, Mr. Nishimura has struck again, this time with his explosive attempt to create a Japanese zombie epic, Helldriver.  Expect a full review soon, but for now I would like to discuss my experience at the premiere in Tokyo.

Helldriver had just been shown before a packed audience at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, and was set as the last film in the Tokyo International Zombie Film Festival 2011 (Feb. 26 ~ Mar. 4) held at the Human Trust Cinema in Shibuya.  The festival itself featured many restored versions of classic zombie films by such legendary directors as George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), Lucio Fulci (Zombi 2, The Beyond), and others. Mr. Nishimura’s work was the only Japanese film scheduled to be shown, and expectations were running high for his latest cinematic endeavor. 

With Yoshihiro Nishimura

Arriving at the venue an hour in advance, I ran into model, actress, makeup artist, and frequent Nishimura collaborator Maki Mizui, who was setting up the goods booth to promote her latest film, Never Ending Blue.  Just as I was about to strike up a conversation, who should appear, but the man himself!  Yes indeed, it was my immense honor to meet the Japanese director and special makeup artist that has captivated the world with his unrelenting, blood-soaked visions.  Ever since Tokyo Gore Police I had been waiting for the time when I would be able to meet him, and that time had come.  There is even photographic evidence!

Meeting a visionary director like Mr. Nishimura was truly an extraordinary experience.  Surprisingly unassuming and a perfect gentleman,  it was readily apparent that he genuinely cares about his fans and wants to be sure that they enjoy the experience of seeing his films.  His passion and enthusiasm are infectious, and his dry humor made the talks on stage before and after the screening even more memorable.

With Maki Mizui

The guest talk before the film featured Mr. Nishimura and Sushi Typhoon founder Yoshinori Chiba, focusing on the director’s vision for the film.  He discussed the dearth of any memorable Japanese zombie films in recent years, and lamented their half-hearted approaches to the genre.  Citing Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985) as possibly his favorite zombie film, Mr. Nishimura expressed his wish to revivify the rotting corpse of the Japanese zombie genre with Helldriver.  He also explained how difficult it was to plan for the extremely short two weeks spent on the film, telling the audience that he actually made over 6,500 drawings to plan each and every shot of the film.  “I felt like I was working for Studio Ghibli or something,” said the director, adding that he wouldn’t recommend making a film in that way to anyone.

Guest talk

 

The discussion after the film brought out many of the film’s stars, including, from left,  Ju-on director Takashi Shimizu (extra), Yoshihiro Nishimura (director, writer, editor, character designer), Kentaro Kishi  (Kika’s uncle, in full zombie makeup), Yumiko Hara (Kika), Mizuki Kusumi (Nanashi), Kazuki Namioka (Kaito), Yuya Ishikawa (Kika’s father), Maki Mizui (spider zombie), Cay Izumi (zombie mother), Norman England (extra, also responsible for the English subtitles), and Marc Walkow (promoter for Sushi Typhoon). The cast gave anecdotes about the film, which was made for a budget of about $200,000, a tiny fraction of the amount spent on most Hollywood films.  But, as they say, a little goes a long way, and the sincere efforts of the cast and staff came together to create something very unique and exciting.   Look forward to my review of the film itself, coming up next!

Helldriver cast

More cast and crew

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl

This first post is actually a “reprinting” of a review I did for La Carmina’s Blog one year ago.  The film that comprises its subject matter, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, is co-directed by my personal favorite Japanese director, Yoshihiro Nishimura.  I hope that this review will serve to whet the reader’s appetite, since I will soon be posting a review of his second latest blood-drenched foray into solo directing, Helldriver.  Enjoy!

“The human body contains over 12 gallons of blood, sometimes more, under high pressure.”
- The Laws of Anime

While it may not be anime, this maxim certainly holds true for Naoyuki Tomomatsu and Yoshihiro Nishimura’s no-holds-barred, ultra-violent gore-fest Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, a film that is guaranteed to have viewers alternating between winces and belly laughs for the whole, twisted ride. This should come as no surprise, considering the kings of Japanese splatter-camp and gonzo gore who assembled to bring us this all-out sensory assault. Nishimura is already notorious among international film festival circles for his directorial work on Tokyo Gore Police and special effects on Machine Girl, and TGP’s Taku Sakaguchi provided fight choreography. Throw in Machine Girl’s Tsuyoshi Kazuno on visual effects and an appearance by Ju-On director Takashi Shimizu, and let the fake blood pour down like rain.

And pour it does in this tale of a high school love triangle, which leaves all sanity and reason at the door and never looks back. Transfer student Monami (Yukie Kawamura) gives her classmate Mizushima (Takumi Saito) a (literally) bloody Valentine’s Day chocolate, which initiates his transformation into one of the living dead! As it turns out, Monami is a vampire with her sights set on Mizushima, but unfortunately, our high school stud is already reluctantly involved with Keiko (Eri Otoguro), a hotheaded Lolita who is used to getting her way. Enter Keiko’s Kabuki-clad mad scientist father with Frankensteinian ambitions and a host of outrageous characters, including the Wrist Cutting Club and a gang of blackface Ganguro, and you have the sanguinary formula for a head-splattering, gut-wrenching, bone-crunching battle for love and the lust for blood.

In the midst of this deluge of spraying hemoglobin and low-budget effects, there is some decent narrative going on, and a bit of respectable acting as well. Yukie Kawamura plays the part of the somewhat coquettish vampire effectively, but seems to be overshadowed by Eri Otoguro’s intense performance as the schoolgirl equivalent of old Victor’s Monster. Eihi Shiina (Tokyo Gore Police, Audition) makes a cameo as Monami’s mother to do battle with a historical personage whose identity is too good to spoil here. Mizushima’s narrations seem intrusive and out of place at first, but their presence serves to add just the right turn of the screw at the film’s bloody conclusion.

On the other hand, the visuals are good for laughs but often little else, and while they serve to drive the film forward stylistically, they don’t seem to bring anything new to the table or manage to match the bizarre and grotesque vagaries of Tokyo Gore Police. In the end, however, the film accomplishes what it sets out to do quite admirably. Blatant continuity issues? Complete and utter lack of regard for even the most basic laws of physics? These are just par for the course for Nishimura and his crew. If you find yourself wondering how a severed forearm screwed to a person’s head can serve as a propeller to fly up to the observation deck of Tokyo Tower, take the advice of MST3K, and “think to yourself, ‘it’s just a show’…you should really just relax.” VG vs. FG is terrible in the best ways possible…see it with friends, you won’t regret it!

And You Will Face The Sea of Darkness…

“There is a beast in man that should be exercised, not exorcised.”

These words, spoken by Anton Szandor LaVey, have a particular resonance in the world of horror in film and literature.  Described in more academic terms by Howard Bloom as “the Lucifer Principle,” the idea of the Current of the world as inherently hostile and adversarial, but at the same time always driving toward betterment and enlightenment, is one that permeates books and cinema across many different genres. However, the only genre of fiction to regularly take up this concept of the universe’s hostility, or worse, indifference, toward mankind, is that of horror. 

Horror is the one genre that truly has the courage to gaze into the Nietzschean abyss and, in turn, to be gazed at.  Whether it be vampires or zombies, psycho killers or ghosts, the beings thought to induce horror and revulsion often turn out to be the most accurate mirrors of our own existence as individuals, and of human society itself.  Horror does not coil back in fear from the beast that resides in man.  It takes the beast, sets it free, and shows the world that, while the beast must be respected, it does not need to be feared.  After all, the beast is us.

This may seem a very serious way to begin a blog, and so please allow me to informally introduce myself.  My name is John Skeleton, born and raised in Pennsylvania, a state abundant in beautiful countryside scenery and the setting of more than a few notable zombie films.  All my life I have been attracted to the dark and the Gothic in film, literature, or any of its other manifestations.  After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Japanese Language and Literature and a minor in English Literature, I found myself inexorably drawn toward the Land of the Rising Sun.  Now in Japan I live deep in the mountains and continue to pursue my enjoyment of all things horrific.

In this blog, I will attempt to use my unique perspective as an American living in Japan to discuss my views of horror on both sides of the Pacific.  While I may occasionally take the scalpel to various works and examine them from a serious philosophical or critical standpoint, for the most part I will try to give a more lighthearted account of certain items that I find to be particularly dark and delightful, and simply introduce the variety of eldritch curiosities that I may be interested in at any given time.  The underlying thread throughout this blog will, I hope, be a thorough appreciation of horror as a genre, particularly that of film and literature.  As I reside in Japan, one may expect some coverage of more obscure Japanese films and elements of culture that I hope will be enlightening.

The genre of horror is like a vast and immeasurable ocean, and so I hope that you will join me as I turn to face this “sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored.”  I can guarantee that we will have a bloody good time!