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by Jay Seaver

"Utter mayhem, which is what this guy does best."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Helldriver" is a Yoshihiro Nishimura film, and he doesn't do things halfway. So how a person reacts to the opening scene (and, I presume, any preview they make for the movie) will likely serve as a pretty good barometer for how they'll feel about the movie as a whole: You're either down for a movie about a schoolgirl who fights horned zombies using a sword with a chainsaw blade powered by the engine that's been grafted to her chest in place of the heart that her mother (who was a cannibal serial killer even before joining the ranks of the undead) ripped out and took for her own, or you're not.

That comes pretty close to covering the movie - an asteroid landed in northern Japan and zombified much of the population, which is only separated from the rest by a wall built across the middle of Honshu. Zombie horns are used to make a new addictive drug, despite the fact that they are really explosive. Kika (Yumiko Hara) and some other criminals are given an opportunity to head north on a Dirty Dozen road trip, where Kika's mother Rikka (Eihi Shiina) awaits.

Believe it or not, when Nishimura was in Montreal last summer promoting another movie he was involved with (Mutant Girls Squad), the Tokyo Gore Police director said that he was aiming to make a more serious movie than some of his other productions with Helldriver. One certainly wouldn't think so to read that description. And yet, credit where credit is due: Nishimura and co-writer Daichi Nagisa do spend a fair amount of time playing with their world beyond finding the shortest distance between gonzo set pieces; a chunk of the plot is driven by a difference of opinion among government ministers about whether or not the zombified have civil rights. And maybe Nishimura didn't intend to talk about poaching horns or equate drugs to an unstable material that will blow up in one's brain, but it certainly feels right. He also does much better than these movies often do in building up suspense (even if, as occasionally happens in this sort of movie, it's not clear exactly where where the opening action scene fits into the story).

For all that he actually seems to put some effort into the screenplay's mechanics, the story is not what one remembers a Yoshihiro Nishimura movie for. Nishimura's specialty is prosthetic makeup and gore, which he pulls off with both bulk and originality. There's red stuff flying everywhere, of course, but Nishimura's zombies don't seem particularly bothered by head trauma (or even decapitation), and the bits lopped off one of the undead attach easily to any other, leading to some truly bizarre configurations. Nishimura come up with some quite demented action bits this way, and while the action isn't quite as well choreographed as when Tak Sakaguchi is involved (Isao Karasawa directs the action this time around), it's some of the most creative mayhem going, with a finale - involving Kika, Rikka, thousands of zombies linked together, and two ballistic missiles - that really must be seen to be believed.

The cast does their job well enough; this sort of movie doesn't necessarily draw Japan's finest actors so much as the ones who can get through it with a straight face. Yumiko Hara is good enough in the lead, not looking ridiculous handling her weapons and playing the vengeful heroine without a hitch. Eihi Shiina is duly monstrous as Rikka. There are some funny (and otherwise good) performances by the supporting cast, too.

I believe that the version screened at BUFF was the longer Japanese version, and it is long and bloody enough to be fatiguing at points (I'm not sure why Sushi Typhoon makes separate versions of movies built for export, other than the opportunity to double-dip later). Overall, though, it is a lot of fun - while I wouldn't be surprised if Yoshihiro Nishimura comes up with crazy make-up and effects ideas first and builds his movie around them, he's gotten pretty good at building that movie by now.

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originally posted: 04/07/11 23:51:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yoshihiro Nishimura

Written by
  Yoshihiro Nishimura

  Yumiko Hara
  Elhi Shiina
  Yurei Yanagi
  Kazuki Namioka

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