TFW Reviews: Helldriver

Once again, we dove into the insane realm of Japanese horror, but unlike his previous entry, the manic and very tongue-in-cheek Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, director Yoshihiro Nishimura paid homage to one of his greatest influences, George A. Romero with this ultra bloody addition to the zombie horror genre, Helldriver.

Making a name for himself with his audacious and brutal Tokyo Gore Police in 2008, Nishimura goes for absolute broke with this endeavor, combining wickedly profane mutations, massive bloodletting, and a biting social satire to create a solid entry in Japanese horror.

THE SETUP

Kika was just an average girl trying to live an average life.  But soon she and her crippled father are living on the run, trying desperately to stay hidden from the psychotic canniablistic duo of her mother Rikka and her uncle.  One day, Rikka and her brother catch up to them and brutally murder her father and just as Kika is about to meet a horrific end, a meteor comes out of the sky, rudely interrupts the gory family reunion and changes the face of Japan forever.

The space rock releases a strange black ash cloud that kills and mutates whomever breathes it into near mindless, roving zombies.  Roughly six million people are infected, sprouting a strange horn from their foreheads, before the cloud dissipates.  This outbreak prompts the government to build a wall to contain the undead, dividing the country into North and South sections.

Because the zombies can’t spread their infection with bites, the horde can be contained, but the Southern population is again divided as half of the country wants to destroy the infected and retake the North while the other half desires to maintain what they believe to be the undead’s natural human rights while they search for a cure.  The South is on the brink of civil war, made all the worse by the rampant spread of a new drug made from powdering the severed horns of the undead.

Enter Kika, who survived the encounter with her mother, the pair being directly affected by the meteor’s effects.  Rescued by the government, Kika maintains life despite her grievous wounds, inspiring the government to repair her and create a living weapon to fight the undead. 

Armed with a chainsaw katana, super strength and reflexes, and a psychic connection to her mother, who has now mutated into the Zombie Queen, Kika teams up with a ragtag group of survivors to take on the Horde, destroy the Queen, and vanquish the living dead menace once and for all.

Directed by: Yoshihiro Nishimura

Starring: Yumiko Hara, Mizuki Kusumi, Eihi Shiina, Yurei Yanagi, Marc Walkow

Written by: Yoshihiro Nishimura, Daichi Nagisa

THE GOOD

Helldriver is zany, wacky fun with some of the best practical effects I’ve seen in years.  That is no surprise considering director Nishimura is one of the hottest and most demanded special effects artists in all of Japan.  His zombies exhibit everything you can expect from the walking dead and more making for some awe-inspring visuals.  Add in the usually strange and macabre tendency for Japanese horror to constantly push the boundaries, Helldriver makes for one entertaining film.

The action is another great reason to see Helldriver.  Fast-paced, bloody, gory, and brutal sequences showcasing the destruction of the undead in any physical way possible (also of note is that these zombies can only be killed by severing the horn on their heads, nothing else will work).  Dismemberment, disembowlment, decapitation and any other insanely twisted scenario plays out on the screen as the heroes battle to survive the onslaught.

It is also the fantastic tongue-in-cheek moments (an assault by a battery of raining Zombie Heads, the Zombie Bar, and even the maniacal Zombie Car driven wildly by Kika’s uncle) makes for some serious laugh-out-loud and cringe worthy moments.  Toss in the classic Japanese blood spray and you’ve got zombie ass-kicking paradise.

And of note is the wild portrayl of Rikka by legendary actress Eihi Shiina from Takashi Miike’s Audition.  Shiina throws herself wildly into the role of the psychotic mother of Kika, relishing the depravity and violence she wreaks upon everything in sight.  It’s always great to see Shiina work because she is never afraid to act, her choices both inspired and terrifying to watch.

THE BAD

While their are many good things about Helldriver, it does make a few hurtful misteps.  First and foremost was the acting on behalf of everyone with the exception of Eihi and Yumiko is, for lack of a better term, exceptionally bad.  Though not to be taken seriously in any stretch of the imagination, there is something to be said for subdued and subtle reactions.  But here everything, and I mean everything is blown beyond proportions including the casual reaction to something relatively simple.  Too much over the top gets old really fast.

Also, the overall reach of the film ultimately hurts it.  While Nishimura strives heavily to attain every goal he sets in the film and he very nearly accomplishes every one of them, it’s the presence of so much that truly diminishes the effect of the film.  Brazenly jumping from one plot point to another (Kika’s crazy family, the government siding with the zombies, the shadowy conspirators trying to destroy them, the drug dealers, the global ramifications, the Zombie Queen, etc.) it all just ends up being too much.

Though it is admirable Nishimura desired to throw everything he could at audiences, often it was overwhelming and served only to break the suspension of disbelief as it was difficult to digest each section quickly and Nishimura just keeps shoveling more at you before you’re fully ready.  In Helldriver, less would have been more, allowing the teams to focus more heavily on the stronger sequences.  While the film is still enjoyable, this aspect largely hurts it.

THE SCORECARD

Acting: Aside from the efforts of Yumiko and Eihi, really subpar performances.  Extreme over the top acting just doesn’t sit well when the rest of the film is extreme and over the top.

Directing: Once again, superb direction from one of the greatest practical effects magicians in the world.  Combining his natural creativity, imagination, and inspired energy, Nishimura nets another solid one for his resume.

Writing: Par for the course.  Once the set narrative is established in the first ten minutes, you really have no need to focus heavily on anything else but the action.

Visuals: The classic gory, blood spraying, stylized murder sprees of Nishimura are all here and in terrifically detailed splendor.  Splatter horror fans will not want to miss this one.

Sound: The strangely manic, fast cut music and sound cues are still strange to American ears, but longtime fans of Japanese film style will feel right at home.  Anatomical sound effects are so on the money you can practically feel the arterial spray.

OVERALL

A great accomplishment in visual effects and zombie narrative, Helldriver is one of the better horror flicks to cross the Pacific in some time.  While not the greatest by far and certainly not the best by Nishimura (I highly recommend Tokyo Gore Police and Mutant Girls Squad) the film does stand on its own and is worthy of a watch.  Notably, the film is deeply personal to Nishimura as its release coincided with the current devastation in Japan caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami.  Speaking through his translator at the Q&A, Nishimura said:

“The scenes of a separated Japan, the widespread devastation, the influx of refugees into the southern cities is strangely similar what is happening in Japan now.  I felt a remarkably sadness when this occured because this odd coincidence connected me in a deeper way to the tragedy.  I think others may be connected as well in ways they would never expect.”

I give Helldriver a 7.5 out of 10.

-Jarod