Do you like zombies, jaunty tunes and that special brand of gory Japanese madness? If so, strap in, turn off the part of your brain that annoys you when something makes no sense, and um, helldrive, in Helldriver. (Hope you already turned your brain off.)
Japan, 2010, Yoshihiro Nishimura
Helldriver, despite the cool car-related title, is essentially a zombie movie, though there is a sweet car. A super virus has spread across Japan and the infected are going around killing people and being all zombie like, and it’s up to a well-equipped few to save the day. It’s a simple premise, which leaves plenty of room for batshit insanity, which is both the film’s strength and weakness.
The film opens strongly by pulling a common move found in Nishimura’s films and flash-forwarding straight into a kick-arse action scene. An upbeat tune plays as the protagonist, Kika, goes on a neon-soaked zombie decapitating spree, ending with a pole dance on a zombie’s elongated neck. It’s the kind of ridiculous action that I could watch all day, but it doesn’t keep up, because plot has to happen, though I use that term loosely, because apart from the cause of the zombie outbreak, no other part of the story is told coherently.
As soon as the film moves back to the present, confusion sets in. Kika’s dad is being tortured by her domineering sister and neo-nazi brother. Why? I’m not sure. Kika’s aunt and uncle are the primary antagonists of the film and they overact a storm, but without proper motivation, they set the story off on the wrong foot.
The zombie outbreak begins when the crazy aunt gets hit by a meteor, leaving a big hole where her vital organs should be. Naturally, she grabs Kika and tears her heart out, putting it where hers should be. This sequence of events spreads the zombie virus around Japan which is explained with a big info dump montage, and that’s about as coherent as the film gets.
There are a bunch of subplots introduced in this section that don’t really go anywhere. There is a conflict between those who think the infected people are still human (led by a priest) and those who think they are monsters who should be killed, which is actually a decent idea, but isn’t fleshed out. There’s also conflict between the Prime Minister and other ministers about this topic, and Japan gets split into an infected half, and uninfected half, which indicates to me that the film is trying to make some sort of statement. And then the PM dies and is replaced with a guy who dresses like Hitler but acts nothing like him, and I think that it’s more of a matter of throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Of course, one does not watch a film like Helldriver for its political satire. What you’re here for is action, and for the most part, it delivers. Kika manages to survive getting her heart ripped out and gets an artificial one put in that makes her a zombie killing machine. At the walled border, she joins a fellow zombie hunter called Taku and his silent buddy No-Name (really), and goes on a zombie killing spree with a katana/chainsaw hybrid. Chainsaws appear often in this film, including a scene where a group severed hands attack with chainsaws. Taku hunts zombies, because the zombie’s horns (which resemble the top of a Kabuki helmet and are their weak point) can be ground and snorted like cocaine and therefore fetch a high price. Apart from a good gag showing that the drug and make users explode, it’s underdone like the other subplots.
The zombie killing team is completed by a cowboy who has an armoured car and a special gun that makes bargain basement explosion effects happen. He’s a silly character, and explosions follow him wherever he goes.
As good as the action is, it is sometimes let down by some dodgy CGI. Sometimes it works, such as with the cowboy’s explosive shots, but other times, such as when CGI mixes with practical effects, it just looks shoddy. I don’t want to be the guy who harps on about practical effects, but Nishimura just needs to look at his earlier films to see what works better.
When the crew is doing the zombie killing thing, the film is a good time. If Helldriver was just zombie killing with signature Japanese wackiness, such as the zombie party with an accordion player or zombie boxer that was defeated by a backhand from Kika, it would be a consistently fun film. However, it is bogged down by an incoherent story, flashbacks and a commitment to the evil aunt and uncle as antagonists.
Then again, there is a section of the film that intercuts between a fight between a car and a big, spiky zombie, a man fighting baby zombie and Kika fighting a naked zombie with arms on her face. Then they fight the zombie uncle on a car made of severed zombie limbs.
Basically, if that last paragraph sounds good to you, give Helldriver a go. If not, drive on.
Availability: Helldriver is available on DVD and blu-ray for cheaps on Amazon