Down to Hell (1996) Movie Review

Much like the feature length movie that would follow it, the Super 8 short “Down to Hell” needs to be seen to be believed. It’s not that writer/director/camera operator/caterer/janitor Ryuhei Kitamura has created something unique and unbelievably interesting, it’s just that, well, it’s pretty inspired stuff. That is, if you’re not turned off by gratuitous violence, nonexistent story, and most of all, the dark and cramped aesthetics of a mini-film shot on Super 8.

Compared to Kitamura’s “Down to Hell”, the Super 8 opus “Dead Next Door” looks cheap and wholly irredeemable. This is doubly so considering that “Door” had, in comparison to Kitamura, the budget to really do something special. “Down to Hell”, a 45-minute movie (if you don’t count that Kitamura tries to sneak in two opening title sequence to chew up time) that is as loosely based on “narrative storytelling” as they come, wins hands down on sure entertainment value. Both films, not surprisingly, involve zombies, a favorite genre of no-budget filmmakers raised on Romero.

As he did with “Versus”, Kitamura has set the tale of “Down to Hell” in an isolated location — a forest somewhere in the Japanese countryside. In our tale, 4 murderous hoodlums have been bringing innocent people to the forest in order to hunt them, playing out their own sick “Most Dangerous Game” scenarios. Their latest prey is a salaryman (I think, because the guy wears a suit, but why he was walking down the street in the middle of the night is a mystery). The salaryman is hunted and killed, but that’s when things start to get weird. Once “killed”, the salaryman returns — this time as an unstoppable zombie!

And that is the entire story of “Down to Hell”. But considering that Kitamura probably never intended for “Hell” to be anything other than a calling card to future investors of “Versus”, it’s a shock we get this much “story” at all. Not a single one of the characters have a name, although eagle eye viewers will notice that the same names pop up under different titles during the final credit sequence.

“Down to Hell” offers up the same kinetic action and style of “Versus”, but on a smaller scale. The music sounds like beats that can be made on one of those cheap electronic keyboards, and the Super 8 aesthetics needs a little getting used to for novices of the nearly obsolete camera type. Still, it must be said that the sound mix is quite good; the dialogue is easy to hear and crisply recorded and could almost past for sync sound. The actors all do good work, literally throwing themselves into the project with abandon. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they’re still feeling the bumps and bruises of some of the stunts they were required to do.

For a film made with such a minor budget, and on such minor resources, “Down to Hell” is quite an accomplishment. The whole thing is definitely short on story, and at one point I wasn’t sure if I should root for the zombie or for one of the mass murderers. Then again, does it matter? I’m sure Kitamura and company probably could care less who won, as long as the whole thing looked good.

It does.

Ryuhei Kitamura (director) / Ryuhei Kitamura (screenplay)
CAST: Masami Miyata, Yoshiro Okamoto