One More For The Road – Movie Critique: Wyrmwood – Road of the Dead

Wyrmwood coverTitle: Wymwood (AKA Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead)
Genre: zombie, horror, action, comedy, road movie
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner
Studio: Guerilla Films
Original Release: 12 February 2015
Running time: 98 minutes


Synopsis:

“After meteors fall over Australia, Outback mechanic Barry, his aboriginal friend Benny & their companions must battle flesh crazed zombies, non-combustible & a dwindling beer supply in order to save Barry’s sister Brooke from the clutches of a rogue army and the insane Doctor.”


Review:

When people think of Australian cinema, the first film they tend to think of, more oft than not, is Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior). It wasn’t the first Australian genre film but it certainly set the benchmark for all those that followed -more so since it was more popular than the respectable Aussie releases of the era, such as Picnic At Hanging Rock. It was Mad Max 1 & 2 (& to a lesser degree, Mad Max [3] Beyond Thunderdome) That set the template for Post-Apocalypse genre from then on, with their crazed, leather clad raiders, insane & inhuman villains, wasteland setting & off-ya-face car designs & chases. They became the stable, & then the cliche, of so many Post-Apocalyptic forms. That was until the zombie genre gained a resurgence & took the throne. Yet, what would happen if you were to blend the tropes of the Mad Maxes & (over-indulged) zombie genres? The result would be the Aussie zombie road movie Wrymwood: Road of the Dead.

What makes Wrymwood instantly different from the hundreds of other zombie films out there is it’s very Aussie sense of humour. It’s dry, laconic, sarcastic, caustic & very self aware of how stupid the scenario is but it doesn’t give any knowing winks to camera. It plays the silliness straight & the actors –whilst not entirely brilliant– take it all very seriously so you can suspend your sense of disbelief. It’s very much more like Peter Jackson’s classic take on the zombie flick Braindead than George A. Romero’s genre launching flick Night of the Living Dead. The directors kept the trick of never letting the audience getting a proper rest to digest anything. It’s not non-stop action but the plot moves at a quick pace, yet still fitting in times for reflections upon the End of the World & a few beers to pass the time.

At first the narrative is chronologically disjointed. It begins with armour glad men trying to get a truck into a mechanic’s garage whilst fending off a ravenous hoard (well, cluster) of the Undead before cutting to Benny (Leon Burchill) telling his unseen (on screen) companions about how he & his two brothers, Tony & Mulla, were out hunting when they witness a meteor shower. The story sticks with Benny for a bit, with him telling the audience-surrogates how next day, Benny’s brother Tony has turned into a zombie who just slowly followed Benny around until Benny got the courage to put him down with a good old double barrel shotgun to the head. It’s a very good way to open such a cliched story, since it neatly tells you how the zombie outbreak began & how quickly it spread without getting bogged down in needless dialogue or rapidly intercut scenes of the news & global/local panic like so many other movies tend to do. It’s a very sedate start, lulling people in before it ramps up. The narrative then jumps back in time & between two characters, Barry –builder & family man– & his sister Brooke –alternative & tattooed artist-type.

Whilst doing a zombie inspired photoshoot, Brooke’s friends are turned into zombies & she is forced to kill one of them. This shows some very creative use of camera & actions –which very typical of early Aussie genre films with lots of Dutch Angles being used to give a sense of tension & make up for a lack of technical knowledge & budget. Brooke’s chaotic fight is juxtaposed with the serenity of Barry’s domestic life, with his wife & daughter settling in for the night. When their home is invaded by zombies, Barry must do all that he can to save them. The intersection of these two plots comes together when Brooke calls Barry to warm him of what’s going on, followed by Barry & family’s hectic escape from town -mowing down zombies who leap for them in their car.

What follows does come straight out of the zombie flick playbook –with Brooke being kidnapped by evil military people & given to a mad scientist, who is simply called The Doctor (played with utter relish by Berynn Schwerdt) & Barry dealing with the zombification of his loved ones (not really a spoiler, since it’s so obvious it was going to happen)– yet how the playbook is handled is what really pushes Wyrmwood above the usual grind(house).

Is everyone ready to. . . dance?!
Is everyone ready to. . . dance?!

One way is how the characters each react to the zombie apocalypse or have circumstances pushed upon them. Barry is both grieving & stoic but shows a vile temper simmering beneath the surface that he is all too happy to unleash upon some shambling flesh munchers. That temper is echoed in Brooke, who is subjected to torturous experiments by The Doctor, which seem to have no purpose other than to make Brooke suffer & for the camera to angle down at her cleavage. Yet she remains utterly defiant, even whilst tied up. She has the ability to fight, as seen in her earlier scenes, & is smart enough to learn when to wait. Other characters try to cling to some sense of (Australian) normalcy. Mainly by doing those little rituals that keep you human & keep you sane. This includes the character Chalker always toking on a joint, Frank & his mate doing a BBQ for Barry & Benny & keeping their sense of humour about them.

One thing that I do applaud the film makers for doing, something I’ve been saying all zombie media is stupid for lacking, is putting their characters in protection.

It might be made of plastic but it gets the job done
It might be made of plastic but it gets the job done

Early on they learn they zombies get you by biting you, so they quickly figure out that the best way to survive is to go all Ned Kelly & armour up. It doesn’t make them invincible or destroy the tension but it helps bridge the credibility gap that so many zombie things fail to grasp (looking at you The Walking Dead).

The other little clever twist that the directors add in is that formerly combustible fuels –such as gasoline & methylated spirits– no longer combust, so they can’t use their cars. What our heroes do discover is that the zombies produce a gas that can be turned into fuel, giving them a zombie powered road machine. So the zombies become both predator & prey for Barry & his mates. Since they need to escape the zombies but also need them to get away.

There are some other little nice genre twists but going into them would spoil the film somewhat.

Aside from the subversions of genre establishment, the other thing that Wyrmwood really has going for it is the very very Aussie sense of humour. There is lots of swearing –“fuck” & all its derivations are pretty much used as punctuation & sentence joiners– but it feels natural as an aspect of the Aussie vernacular (for the part). It plays on some lost tropes of Aussie humour, such as irony & understatement. Even though it does have a very Aussie flavour, I don’t think it would be alienating to international (at least English speaking) audiences.

The special effects & design also stand out. With a lot of time seemingly spent to get the zombie makeup just right & the gore everywhere. The film does overindulge in the old claret but it fits with the nature of genre films –where more blood than a body can hold has to spray out everywhere. It’s beyond cheesy but it’s done with love -mixing practical old fashion blood effects with CGI to fit bullet wounds. The action is also very well shot, with a clever & low grade fight scene at the end being a stand out. It can’t really compare with something out of Hong Kong or Hollywood but the fight choreography shows a love of genre & a working knowledge of how a scene should be shot without losing any sense of character, place or perspective (something which so many Hollywood fail to do these days).

Another note to add is that the film was made on a very limited budget ($160,000) with backing from  foreign investors -with the cast & crew saying that they won’t take any payment until the film sees a profit. So this is one film that I implore people NOT TO PIRATE! It’s rare to see a good Aussie genre film these days & it had a very limited cinematic release in Australia, so if we want to see the promised sequel we need to support it as much as we can.

In the end, if you are feeling jaded by the whole over saturated zombie genre but still can’t get away from it, Wyrmwood is the film for you. It may not be entirely original but it does so much that is new & interesting that it does breath new life into an (un)dying genre. & it’s good to resurrect a local industry once powerful, now near death.

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Ghoulishly Good – Anime Critique: Tokyo Ghoul

Tokyo-Ghoul-Horror-Anime-TanekiTitle: Tokyo Ghoul (Tōkyō Gūru)
Format: TV anime
Genre: horror, supernatural, angst
Series Creator: Sui Ishida
Series Director: Shuhei Morita
Studio: Pierrot
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 3 – September 18, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Ken Kaneki is a shy college student who meets a woman named Rize Kamishiro at Anteiku, a coffee shop. They share an interest in literature and plan a date. While walking Rize home, Ken is attacked by her. Rize reveals that she is a ghoul, a human-like creature that hunts and devours human flesh. As she is about to finish him off, she is crushed by a falling platform. Kaneki is taken to the hospital in critical condition. The doctor decides to transplant Rize’s organs into Ken. He then must deal with life as a half-human/half-ghoul, including interacting with ghoul society and its conflicting factions, while striving to keep his identity secret from other humans.


Review:

Let me begin with an aside: Pop Culture is always confused as to what zombies are. Properly, a zombie is a mindless automaton of formerly living flesh. Yet Pop Culture sees zombies as mindless devourers of brains & human flesh who spread infection through their bites; which, in truth, is semi-based on what a ghoul is supposed to be. I blame George A. Romero for spreading this misconception & infecting Pop Cultural like the proverbial zombie. This is all illustrated because the titular ghouls in Tokyo Ghoul aren’t like their folkloric counterparts, being near-mindless monsters haunting burial places. The ghouls within this series are more akin to the traditional views of vampire in the Slavic Balkan tradition, who eat flesh & organs to sustain themselves but maintain some semblance of intelligence.

Son, I am disappoint. . .
Son, I am disappoint. . .

This is merely said because I can be a tad pedantic in terms of folklore & mythology as well as terminology & the origins of things. It’s something to keep in mind, especially for later articles.

Anyway, let us continue:

Coming to this series only knowing the general outline of the original manga (which recently finished its run at 14 volumes, which will soon be released in the West), I had nothing in the way of expectations for this series. So I was nicely surprised at how much I really got into it & enjoyed it. That is to say, right up until the end but will speak about that later.

Cue emo-ness
Cue emo-ness

On the surface, Tokyo Ghoul seems like a story that we’ve seen more than a few times before: a normal boy comes into possession of a dark supernatural power that removes him from humanity & threatened to overwhelm/destroy his everyday life. Yet where Tokyo Ghoul differs from many other narratives is its intense focus on the personal, moral & social struggles of enduring trans-humanism & finding yourself being neither one thing nor another but being forced to consist via means that you once found utterly abhorrent.

It symbolises his social isolation upon turning half-ghoul. Very subtle.
It symbolises his social isolation upon turning half-ghoul. Very subtle.

This is the situation that Kaneki Ken finds himself in after miraculously surviving an attack by the powerful ghoul Riza, also known as The Glutton because of her insatiate appetite, but fatally wounded. He has Riza’s organs transplanted into his body, with the surgeons thinking that they were both in an accident together, which begins Ken’s downward spiral into re-examining the morality of what it means to not just live but also survive.

& you thought your ex's were crazy.
& you thought your ex’s were crazy.

In the universe of Tokyo Ghoul, ghouls can only survive by eating human flesh (although they can eat other ghouls but find the taste abhorrent). All human food is tasteless to them as well as builds up as a poison in their system. Human flesh also doubles as a fuel source for ghouls’ kagune, which are strange growths that come out of their back & can be used in battle in various fashions. The flesh that they consume can either be alive or dead but has to be human in origin (so no substituting it with animal flesh). If a ghoul doesn’t eat for a certain period of time, they lose their minds, turning feral & attacking the closest humans that they can find so they can feed.

After Ken is turned into a Half-Ghoul, he finds that he loses the ability to eat any human food & is almost driven insane by his need to survive. This brings him into contact & conflict with the hidden ghoul population of the city, many of whom compete over kills or dead bodies in order just to get by. This also brings in territories, based upon the Ward system in Tokyo, each of which has a strong hierarchy that can be enforced or disrupted by high level ghouls such as Rize. Ken’s strong moral bent of never doing any harm means that he cannot bring himself to eat human flesh because he believes that it will strip him of all that makes him human. Yet without the flesh, he’ll die, so vicious teenaged ghoul Kirishima Tōka (also spelt Touka) forces him to eat flesh after saving him from an attack by Nishio Nishiki, who is looking to fill the power vacuum left by Rize’s disappearance (the ghouls don’t know that she died attacking Ken). She then takes him to the café Anteiku (where he used to go with Rize), which is actually a front for ghouls who refuse to kill but need to be provided with flesh to survive. In exchange for flesh, he must work at the café, learning what it means to be a ghoul in the face of brutal reality.

In such a narrative world, one would think that ghouls, despite being in relatively low numbers, would be at the top of everything. The clever conceit of Tokyo Ghoul is that not only are ghouls petty & territorial -seldom able to work together because of their basic need to survive- but they are also hunted by humans with the skills to fight them on near equal levels. These are the Special Anti-Ghoul Investigators, also referred to as The Doves by ghouls, who fight with weapons called cinque, which are harvested from the kagune of the ghouls. With their cinque & intense training, Doves can stand against even higher tier ghouls. Their very presence in a ward constantly drives ghouls underground in fear because many of Doves are pure murderous sociopaths who don’t believe that ghouls have any form of morality or are capable of displaying any sort of human emotion &/or affection.

Toko disapproves of many things. Mainly your tiny penis.
Toko disapproves of many things. Mainly your tiny penis.

This juxtaposition of living & survival to illustrated in the merciless nature of the Doves against the Anteiku desire to live as a close approximation to normal human life as they can. The Doves believe that all ghouls are evil, because many of them are, whilst the Anteiku group simply want to live a life free of the fear of basic, animalistic survive. They don’t want to integrate into regular human society, merely not have to be terrified for their lives because of the Doves or more vicious ghouls like the utterly psychotic Jason (how they refer to him in the series, referencing the character Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13 II onwards) or the twisted Gourmet -who seeks flavour to enhance life rather than belittling himself with just subsuming ghoulish existence on human flesh. To add to this quality of “who is the real monster”, the primary Doves Mado & Amon are actually named after folkloric demons whilst they give many ghouls dehumanising nicknames to identify them if they hide behind masks or can only be known by their scenes of slaughter -such as Riza’s gluttonous behavour.

Through this new & treacherous world, Ken must navigate but, unfortunately, he’s a bit of a twat. Trusting, stubborn, self-conscious, piteous & oft times frustrating in his weakness. Usually these traits would have me so vexed by the way they are rendered within Ken make him a more grounded & relatable character. He is constantly trapped is human morality & his emerging ghoulish instincts. Yet his basic moral flaw doesn’t allow him to hurt others, even if it will do damage to him. The explanation for this trait is painful, pitiable & poignant that it brings almost everything that has come before into sharp relief. Unfortunately, having such a passive & weak belief leaves Ken vulnerable to the brutalities of the awakening world around him. He is also too trusting of people -again, to do with his inability to harm others- which often leads him into dangerous situations -ones that not only threaten his body but also his very sanity. His journey is to overcome these situations, strengthening his body & resolve but at, ultimately, what cost?

This series is very dark; in terms of its brutality but also in its visuals. Because it is filled with a high level of blood & gore, often a lot of the scenes have a dark filter places over them to censor out the offending material. This will later be remove for the home releases but it does somewhat mute the impact of what we are experiences -especially the savagery of Ken’s new situation. Apart from these patches of self-censorship, the rest of the series is exceptionally beautiful. The combat scenes are smooth & clear yet frenetic, hefting with the weight of each impact. The rendering of the kagune, which are often neon bright, is also exceptionally well done; contrasting well with the often darken backgrounds (since a lot of the action occurs in hidden locations or at night, away from prying human eyes).

The OP theme unravel by the artist Toru “TK” Kitajima from the post-rock group Ling Tosite Sigure has also garnered a lot of fan attention of late as well. This is because it is a layered affair, beginning with weak almost emotionally tortured vocals that then explodes into something so much more. As seen here:

My one great criticism of the series though is that it just ends.

Not that there will be no more of it. It simple ends without resolution & at a climatic part of the story-arc. This lack of settlement bothered me exceptionally, even with the realisation that there will be another series of it next year. It’s that annoying sudden kick of someone taking something away from you that you’ve been really enjoying & you know that you still have a hankering for -like an older sibling stealing your dessert to use a slightly tortured allegory.

In the end, this was an exceptionally deep series that speaks to so many different allegories for many different social issues. It speaks to racism -especially attitudes towards Half Japanese people- not to mention ideas of brutality & the basic need to survive vs. the desire to be part of a larger social group. There are many messages that you can get from it upon many viewings. I really hope that they bring out the 2nd series sooner than later but, in the meantime, I can still read the completed manga series & look at the recently release spin off sequel.

Have you heard about our Lord & Savour Jesus Christ?
Have you heard about our Lord & Savour Jesus Christ?