Release Date: May 23rd, 2011
Running Time: 117 mins.
Directors: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Writer: Yoshihiro Nishimura, Daichi Nagisa (Screenplay)
Starring: Yumiko Hara, Eihi Shiina, Yurei Yanagi, Takumi Saito, Kazuki Namioka, Mizuki Kusumi, Yukihide Benny, Asami, Cay Isumi, Maki Mizui,
Splatter film director Yoshihiro Nishimura has one setting: extreme. His creatures designs are extreme. His action scenes are extreme. His use of special effects and blood splashed around on screen is extreme. If you thought that Tokyo Gore Police (2008) and Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl (2009) were extreme, you have seen nothing. Helldriver (2011) is a bone-crunching, head-splitting, and grotesque attempt at a zombie apocalypse epic on a shoestring budget and it is extreme action for its entire near two hour running time for better and for worse.
It begins with Kika (Hara), a beautiful high school girl beaten and bruised by her despicable mother Rikka (Shiina) and a creepy uncle. After seeing her kind disabled father get torched it looks like Kika is next until a meteorite strike takes out her mother’s torso. Alas, mother dearest is so bad-ass and just plain bad she steals her daughter’s heart and the two become crystallised.
Crysallised? It seems that this meteorite is an alien-crafted transporter which blankets the northern half of Japan with a mist that transforms people into zombies and it isn’t long before the people in the south of the country build a giant wall to keep the zed-heads out.
The north is a zombie wasteland where survivors are hunted while the south is an overcrowded and calamitous state where politicians argue about how to deal with the zombies – with aid or violence?!?
One shadowy member of the government retrieves Kika and in a shady operation
implants an engine into her chest to act as an artificial heart and as a power source for a chainsaw weapon. The government choose her to lead a special mission made up of desperate people and criminals formerly on death row to go north of the border and exterminate the newly discovered zombie queen with extreme prejudice and rid Japan of all zombies.
It won’t be simple. It turns out that the queen is Rikka and she has created a zombie country with zombie culture and zombie army.
It’ll be a hard and bloody drive up north to meet Rikka but Kika has the fire of vengeance driving her and a chainsaw to sweep zombies aside!
First things first despite the title, Helldriver, there isn’t as much driving as you might think. Kika doesn’t hop on a big rig and plough through zombies but there are epic fights and a ridiculously long zombie car chase and a zombie vs car fight to make up for it.
This is very much archetypal splatter film fare with a focus on physical effects and gags. It comes from one of the masters of the messy blood-red wave: Nishimura.
As is common with Nishmura’s films there is an attempt at a story and it runs on the same formula he tends to use as a set-up in his other films: life in post (insert disaster)-apocalypse Japan with a look into alternative societies before extended battle sequences and end credits. This time it is zombies and it allows for a few satirical takes on politics and pop-culture from adverts about human rights for zombies, the troubles of integrating with dead-heads, and quasi-fascist leaders with a hard-on for military hardware. The characterisation is slight, reduced to costumes for the most part and tending to veer onto the side of bizarre fetishes when a little more complicated which leads to outrageous fights and corny one-liners. Everything is intentionally simple because it serves as a skeleton to hang Nishimura’s true love: the fully-fleshed out and well-imagined zombie and monster designs and the special effects he has spent an entire career making.
Then he makes them all explode on screen in grotesque gouts of gore and bursts of bile and blood for most of the film.
For the first hour there is a lot of glee to be had for gorehounds and regular cinema goers with open minds and strong stomachs because the amount of imagination used to craft this truly diverse array of undead creatures is impressive. The zombie capital is like a flesh-eating bacchanal with caged humans screaming as they see their zombie captors gyrating to awful accordion music and snacking on flesh, dancing, playing games. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes from your regular run of the mill Night of the Living Dead lumbering types to athletic kung-fu zombies of Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 and a sword wielding ogre who acts as a sort of catapult sending zombie heads showering down on the characters:
The alternative zombie society features more monsters like go-go girls and heavy metallers, salary-men and sexy sword wielding biters geared up in geisha outfits.
These creatures take part in action scenes which are truly awesome and, yes, extreme. A zombie mother chucks her zombie fetus, still attached to an umbilical cord, as a weapon. A multi-armed, multi-legged zombie wields a dozen different katana’s and forks and guns. A zombie chases a car and wrestles with it. These actors in pretty gnarly zombie make-up throw themselves into the scenes with dedication and their performances the creature-effects are created by close-ups on a real actor, a mixture of make-up, physical effects such as a doll and prosthetic limbs, and CG. The whole thing works because editing and camera work is fast and frenetic but the sequences are never indecipherable until the final battle.
These action scenes are numerous. After the initial world-building it is a series of battles like the video game Metal Slug. Rika gets to battle a weird variety of zombies and so do her co-companions and their individual action sequences are cut together in tumultuous spurts of gore and body parts scored to rock music of varying quality. There is little to no downtime. Just when you think you’ll get a chance to breathe the next insane sequence will start and that one will last for ten minutes or so and an insane pace is kept up where battles keep coming. The gag gets worn out by the end.
The final hour is almost non-stop relentless zombie violence scored to some awful rock music and it all gets really tiresome which is my biggest complaint about the film. As much as the over the top action was Nishimura’s intention and what the viewer would have signed up for, by the time the ending came I was at risk of falling asleep and my irritation with the film grew. With the relentless action and the same extreme tone used in every sequence Nishimura’s film becomes tiresome and by the arrival of the zombie rocket fight sequence/zombie invasion (a zombie apocalypse doesn’t get any more extreme than this) I was bored and there was still plenty of the film to go. The finale felt long drawn out and the intercutting between fights, a common Nishimura technique, made the action even more ragged rather than extreme which is bad when you have twenty minutes of the film to go. You really do get the sense that he could have shortened the fights and ultimately the film.
Overall, Nishimura achieves the ultimate zombie apocalypse movie but overplays it. Yes, the multiple zombies are unique and not the generic type lathered in green/blue paint and they get to be showcased with their awesome makeup and the decent special effects but the fights feel like they go on much longer than they should even if the denouements are pretty genius and end in explosions and characters look cool as they pose in slow motion while a fountain of blood fountains up into the air or explosions blanket the sky, this is done to death in a deluge of over-indulgence. If it were shortened and the zombie rocket sequence excised, it would have scored higher with me.