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!

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