Written By Zak Attack
A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
Why Did I Watch This?
I think there is a time in every b-movie fan’s life where they discover the world of cult Japanese films. Stuff like Hausu, Tetsuo the Iron Man, and the entire oeuvre of Takashi Miike are going to end up one’s radar after enough time is spent on the fringe of cinema. The absolutely crazy setpieces, nonsensical storylines, and outlandish production values will immediately attract the type of person who likes watching movies that provide uniqueness above all else.
This week’s Why Did I Watch This? column is about Helldriver; a 2010 zombie action/comedy from director Yoshihiro Nishimura, whose major claims to fame are the beautifully over-the-top gore effects in genre favorites like Suicide Club and Meatball Machine.
How Did I Watch It?
This movie is unavailable on DVD and was about to expire on Netflix Instant Watch. I watched it all alone on a particularly hungover Sunday.
What Did I Watch?
The monsters in this movie are some really strange zombies. They have horns which look kind of like insect antennae that come straight out of their forehead. It’s the first of many signs that this will not be your typical zombie movie.
Helldriver with a man sitting on a wall that separates zombies from the regular populace, while decapitating and harvesting their heads. As it turns out, he is harvesting them because crushing up and snorting the horns gets people high as a pitch pipe. Now it’s hard to explain because this is a world without physics and gravity as we know it, but as he’s doing this, a bunch of zombies end up in a World War Z-style “zombie tower” and fall on the non-zombie side of the wall. Out of nowhere, a young woman named Kika (Yumiko Hara) comes to the zombie horn poacher’s rescue. Then the movie starts to really get weird (at only seven minutes into the movie).
After she lobs off most of the zombies’ heads with her chainsaw-katana, she approaches a zombie that’s taller than the rest. He is taller because his spine is roughly twelve feet tall and visibly protrudes from his shoulders to his head. She, of course, jumps onto his neck and the music changes to a face-melting guitar riff. Then she starts pole dancing on the monster’s spinal cord, complete with booty-shaking and colored lights. She cuts off the spinal cord zombie’s head, stares at the camera, and the movie has clearly announced itself.
Helldriver simply defies description and I don’t know if I can get into a true synopsis without sounding clinically insane. Now that we have traversed through the ridiculous intro that has little to do with anything else, I’ll do my best to be brief in explaining the crux of the story . The movie cuts immediately to a flashback of Kika as a schoolgirl coming home to her Nazi cannibal mom and uncle, Rikka (Audition‘s Eihi Shiina) and Yashushi (Kazuki Namioka), respectively, standing over her murdered father. It looks like Kika’s going to be next but at the last minute a meteorite flies clean through her evil mother and she’s saved… or is she? Just like Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her, her mom isn’t quite dead yet despite the smoking hole in her chest. She shoves her hand bloodily into Kika and preforms an amateur heart self-transplant in order to keep going. It doesn’t quite work as planned, however, because Rikka grows those zombie horns we saw earlier and is encased in a yellow cocoon which starts to squirt a black ash cloud into the sky, thereby turning much of Japan into zombies. Oh, lordy… I’m still only sixteen minutes into the movie.
Let’s see if I can hurry this crazy journey up: Kika is rescued by some scientists who bring her back to life as a badass zombie killing machine. Much later, she befriends two goofy zombie horn poachers and a cowboy sheriff named Kaito with a car made out of knives (the eponymous Helldriver). This ragtag group is then recruited by the government to wipe out Rikka the zombie queen, who has recently been released from her cocoon. It’s speculated that killing the queen will kill the rest of the zombies as well and all will be good in Japan. There is a car chase where one of the cars is made entirely out of zombie body parts and one of the poachers makes a (kind of racist? maybe just tasteless?) kamikaze joke before destroying it by driving it over a cliff. At one point there is a zombie with ten arms shooting eight assault rifles at Kika while, in another room, a legless zombie just shoots vicious babies at the other heroes. Zombies, knives, guns, blood, etc etc.
Eventually, the movie reaches its finale where Rikka commands a Godzilla-sized giant made out of zombies and tries to make her way to major city centers to feast on the innocent Japanese citizens. Kika finds her way up there, where she kills her mother by ripping out her heart (to be fair, it was originally Kika’s) and chopping off her head. Then, uh, the giant zombie Destructicon explodes and the end credits play over some oddly gorgeous shots of the evil zombie queen’s decapitated head floating through space.
What can I say? Nishimura made something absolutely out of this world that defied the laws of nature as well as filmmaking. Not only is this a movie where a woman has baby hands growing out of her face, but it is also a movie where the opening credits and title card show up roughly 45 minutes late (seriously). Helldriver is hardly a piece of narrative entertainment. It is a big-budget puppet show put on by a particularly morbid and imaginative 6 year-old playing with action figures. Nishimura attempts to shoehorn in a satirical edge with a sequence where it’s revealed that some people think the zombies are being treated like second class citizens. But overall the idea is played for obvious laughs and an excuse for repetitive bloodshed and campiness.
Here’s Helldriver in a nutshell: Probably the least successful action scene is the one that would seem to be the money shot, since it’s the only time Nishimura pays off on the titular car. One of the obstacles the heroes encounter is a zombie made entirely out of swords. There is a humanoid in there, but he is speared by at least 30 or so sharp objects, effectively making him into an extra deformed Super Shredder. Kaito is getting ready to face off with him. He revs his engine. The porcupine-zombie takes off in a sprint. Kaito guns it at him… and then the car gets on its back wheels and the car itself gets in a swordfight with the zombie. It’s cartoonish enough to be a fun little moment, but the effects and mind-boggling unpredictability fell pretty flat. When a car starts to awkwardly pivot on its back tires and clang metal with a guy, it needs rules or physical presence to feel at all real or interesting. The fact that this was in the same scene with the aforementioned ten-armed, baby-shooting zombies just exacerbates the problem. When you take into account that a lot of this was executed with overly kinetic camerawork (just like every other scene), it makes it even less enjoyable.
When they first meet Kaito, the group of zombie fighters (plus a couple of unimportant characters) are driving in a van through a field. All of a sudden, detached zombie heads start raining down on them. As the heads land on people they latch on with their teeth and even end up instantly skeletonizing one woman! It’s funny and stupid and crazy in all the right ways. Unlike the “Helldriver” scene, they pull it off.
The best detail is that one zombie is standing there with a big Soul Calibur-esque sword while intensely obedient zombies walk up in a line and walk up to the front lines. As they kneel in front of him, swings the sword like a baseball bat and catapults their heads into battle. This was one of the few moments where the humorous absurdity really worked.
It might sound like nitpicking to talk about plot holes in a movie like this, but one thing really pissed me off so hear me out: The opening scene shows Kika show up to the wall that protects humans from zombies while she’s driving the “Helldriver”. But the Helldriver isn’t even her car. It’s Kaito’s car (Kazuki Namioka), who she doesn’t meet for the first time until the plot is halfway resolved. Almost immediately after they join forces, the whole group of them is arrested for poaching. They aren’t released until after the wall has already been destroyed. It can’t take place after the conflict is resolved and they have rebuilt the wall because when the movie ends all the zombies are dead! The use of the car isn’t really the “lowpoint” of the film, but instead a pretty prime example of the thoughtlessness behind this weirdo flick.
Was It Worth Watching?
If the wild scene descriptions above tickle someone’s fancy, then I’m sure they would seek this one out regardless of how well it’s reviewed. However, I want you to know there are much better batshit, ultraviolent, and offensive Japanese movies out there. In fact, there are a lot! The similar films of Noboru Iguchi (The Machine Girl) and Tak Sagakuchi (Battlefield Baseball) are far superior. Even Nichimura’s own Tokyo Gore Police is a more fun time than this one. It’s just that the utter lack of logic and disregard for physics can sometimes be a little overwhelming. I would even argue that Helldriver is too ambitious. Once I saw a poorly CGI-ed kaiju made entirely out of smaller zombies riding a rocket to Tokyo I found myself asking to see some smaller stakes and more palpable carnage. There is something to be said when scenes actually sound better when someone describes them than they are during actual movie-watching experience.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
All images courtesy of Nikkatsu