Written by: Yoshihiro Nishimura, Daichi Nagisa
Directed by: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Starring: Yumiko Hara, Eihi Shiina, and Kazuki Namioka
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Do you know how painful it was giving birth to you?"
I know I’m always complaining about the rampant overexposure of zombie movies, but I figured if anyone could give this genre a good goddamn kick in the butt, it’d be Yoshihiro Nishimura, the effects maestro that's been at the forefront of Japan’s splatter movement in recent years. And if his participation wasn’t enough to guarantee that, surely the logline for Helldriver—which promises everything from cannibals to incest in addition to the undead—provides more than enough insurance. Both are well-founded assumptions, to say the least, as Helldriver definitely emerges from the zombie horde, if only via its sheer, batshit force of will.
Finding an entry point is difficult because the film hurtles right out of the gate and immediately begins flinging stuff (mostly body parts) against the proverbial wall to see what sticks. Most eye-catching here is the introduction of Kika (Yumiko Hara), a girl who has apparently become a supreme zombie hunter. After coolly dispatching an entire mound of the undead, she begins to relate her backstory to the audience: only a year ago, she was a normal schoolgirl living with her father until her mother (Eihi Shiina) and her uncle pay a visit. It’s far from a congenial family reunion because the two siblings are lovers embarking on a cannibalistic killing spree. Fortunately, their reign of terror ends when a giant meteor descends from the sky and reduces the mother to a crisp.
The bad news here is that the encounter leaves Kika without a heart and in a coma for a year. During that time-period, a plague also happens to descend on Japan that turns its victims into rabid, infected creatures, and…well, let’s just stop there and leave it at that. You’ve no doubt witnessed the “coma patient emerges dazed from a hospital into a zombie apocalypse” bit enough times by now, and Nishimura seems to be keenly aware of this and the other inherent clichés. When he’s ruthlessly hurling them at viewers, it’s done with a bit of a wink—here’s everything you expect from a zombie movie delivered at a hundred miles-per-hour with reckless abandon. As the absurdity continues to mount, you feel as though you’ve seen enough for an entire movie in about 45 minutes—and then the opening title card hits, where the film is forcefully branded as Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Helldriver.
By that point, it no doubt is just that. Anyone familiar with Nishimura’s brand of splatter should consider this to be some kind of comfort food. With J-horror, it often feels like feast or famine in terms of gore, and this one’s a whole buffet of outrageous effects work. Despite a nearly two-hour run-time, the plot (which isn’t complex so much as it’s just bountiful) somehow becomes incidental to the torrent of bloodshed. I’m not prone to wildly declarative statements, but I’m quite sure Helldriver is the most gore-soaked movie I’ve ever seen, at least as it pertains to sheer volume. Between its gushing crimson geysers and its freely splattering extremities, the film’s viscera quotient makes Evil Dead and Ichi the Killer look like wholesome entertainment. It quickly piles up to ludicrous levels: within the first five minutes, it’s clear that Helldriver is to be a wild exercise in absurd, splat-stick filmmaking.
On that level, the film is a success. Nishimura is one of Japan’s finest and most prolific effects artists and has even garnered comparisons to Tom Savini, so it comes as no surprise that Helldriver excels in this arena. Most of the gore effects are practical and weighty, with the only distractions occurring whenever Nishimura goes really big with some digital augmentations. He does so rather often since he’s constantly staging insane, over-the-top sequences, each more ridiculous than the last. The second half of the film especially lends itself to several instances of crazy set-pieces, as Kika and a band of fellow zombie-hunters are charged with conducting a raid on the infected queen (her mother, naturally) as part of a wacked-out game-show (imagine Running Man with thousands of zombies). Even the occasional dodgy effect works with the general aesthetic, however—Helldriver owes as much to comic books and Looney Tunes as it does any of its zombie forbearers.
It’s Nishimura’s commitment to that spirit that sets Helldriver apart. Uber-gory splatter movies are a dime a dozen, but few carry themselves with such cock-eyed glee. Eventually, it begins to feel like Nishimura and co-writer Daichi Nagisa committed themselves to just bouncing ideas off of one another in an attempt to outdo themselves with each scene. When Kika has her own House of Blue Leaves sequence (where she violently dispatches zombie after zombie), it feels like a logical climax…until a later scene finds the undead horde merging together into a giant, kaiju-sized mass that makes everything before it seem quaint. Remember that unsightly, digital horde of zombies in World War Z? Imagine that, only magnified to Godzilla levels. Oh, and it wields nuclear missiles. I can't imagine what it must be like to live in Nishimura's head. My nightmares aren't even this weird.
Weirdly enough, there’s still a smart, affecting core in the center of this insanity. Hara is charged with the tough task of injecting some pathos into the proceedings, and she does so with ease—Kika may be without a heart, but she provides the film’s soul. Nishimura is also interested in brains, too, and somehow finds the time to dabble in satire: when the zombie outbreak first occurs, the Japanese government refuses to dismiss and destroy the undead, choosing instead to label them “infected” and preserve their rights. The result is a country divided against itself, with the uninfected walling themselves off against the living dead. I don’t know if Nishimura ever comes around to any profound realizations (it all feels very Romero-lite), but he does find a fair middle ground by ridiculing the bleeding-heart sensibilities and the comfort some manage to find by keeping their infected loved ones around.
Admittedly, such quiet moments are scarce. Helldriver is mostly preoccupied with being totally fucking bonkers, almost to the point of exhaustion. It rarely relents, and it’s a credit to Nishimura that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. So many similar efforts come off as trying too hard in their attempt to serve up ungodly amounts of splatter, but Helldriver never really gives you a minute to consider this. Instead, it straps you in and starts force-feeding you until you’re on the verge of bursting—and then it just keeps stuffing viscera in your face. You might feel like tapping out at times, but you’re too curious about the next course to really consider doing it. Buy it!
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