The great thing about the new wave of wild Japanese splatter cinema is its real sense of collaboration and teamwork, with pretty much everyone involved working with each other and directing their own opuses. The latest to emerge is “Samurai Zombie”, an excellent concept if ever there was one, which was directed by Tak Sakaguchi (who starred in “Versus” and provided the choreography for recent genre highpoints “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl”), and was written by none other than Ryuhei Kitamura (director of “Versus” and who has since gone Hollywood with “Midnight Meat Train”). The presence of such luminaries is obviously enough to make the film a must see affair for fans, and thankfully it doesn’t disappoint, offering up exactly the kind of wackiness expected. It now arrives on Region 2 DVD thanks to MVM, as a bare bones release, not that it is the kind of film which particularly cries out for in-depth extra features.
The plot is pretty basic, following a vacationing family who run into a group of bank robbing desperadoes in the isolated woods near the deserted Eight Spears Village. The criminals take the poor saps hostage, though they are soon forced to pool their resources when a fearsome undead samurai rises from the grave and starts hacking his way through their ranks. Meanwhile, a couple of bumbling cops show up in pursuit of the hoodlums, only to fall prey to the bloodthirsty zombie, who seems to have drawn his victims to the location for a sinister purpose.
Although not exactly high budget, “Samurai Zombie” certainly has better production values than most of the other new wave Japanese splatter films, and it benefits from having a much slicker and more professional feel. A decent soundtrack similarly helps lift it a couple of notches, and though some of the computer effects a little cheap, it generally avoids most of the pitfalls and shabbiness that have made a number of its peers less effective. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film quite closely resembles “Versus” in look and feel with its misty woods and outlandish gangsters, though this of course is no bad thing, and the locations are more enjoyable than the usual factories and warehouses. Tak Sakaguchi proves a competent director, and though the film doesn’t have the same kinetic energy as most of Kitamura’s outings, it is atmospheric and entertaining, being played for campy horror rather than action.
Kitamura’s script may have a wafer thin premise, though it does put some vague effort into its characters and their development, and this makes the film far more engaging than some of its grating brethren. The zombie’s rampage is all the better for having no explanation until its weirdly karmic final note, with the ghoul simply rising from the dead and cutting a swathe through the cast. The fact that it doesn’t really make much sense is entirely beside the point, and it’s hard to imagine the intended audience complaining. The film wins extra points for being ruthless and relatively unexpected in its despatching of characters, and though it is overtly comic in places it shows a dry sense of humour that actually makes for some pleasingly funny moments. Most of these involve the two policemen, whose gun envy scenes are offbeat and amusing, though their frequent addressing of the camera is a bit strange.
In terms of gore, the film is surprisingly restrained, and though it does have plenty of head and limb chopping and a few gross out scenes, there really isn’t anything too nasty or wild. A few random killings aside, most of the action doesn’t start until the halfway mark, though the remainder of the film is exciting and packed with fun. The film’s greatest assets are the samurai zombies, which are wonderful creations, being impressively relentless and making for fine movie monsters. The costumes are excellent, and they do give the film a different feel to the usual pasty faced shuffling ghouls, getting plenty of screen time and chances to show off their fearsome talents.
“Samurai Zombie” really is in many ways a cut above, and it comes along at just the right time for Japanese splatter fans who might be starting to feel a bit short changed by some of the cheaper and shabbier outings that the genre has seen of late. What it may lack in craziness or perverse excess, it makes up for with solid handling and by avoiding most of the pitfalls of the form, with Tak Sakaguchi and Ryuhei Kitamura combing to good and entertaining effect.
Tak Sakaguchi (director) / Ryuhei Kitamura (screenplay)
CAST: Mitsuru Fukikoshi