Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Issei Ishida, Shintaro Matsubara, Airi Nakajima
Directed by Tak Sakaguchi
Distributed by MVM Entertainment
Fans of Versus will likely feel right at home within the first ten or so minutes of Tak Sakaguchi’s Samurai Zombie – a wildly entertaining but occasionally unsteady dose of Eastern splatter. Written by long-time Sakaguchi collaborator Ryuhei Kitamura (director of Versus and The Midnight Meat Train), Samurai Zombie follows a collection of characters – a vacationing family, three feuding gangsters and the cop duo trying to hunt them down – as they find themselves under supernatural threat from a recently risen undead samurai warrior. With the shambling swordsman busy gorily dispatching our protagonists in order to raise his zombie cohorts (the blood from each impaled severed head raises another from the grave), the ever-diminishing group seek to figure out just what unknown force has brought them here – and why?
While he struggles to reach the same kinetic heights, Kitamura’s influence can clearly be seen in Sakaguchi’s direction as he lines up repeated stylish camera movements and quick-fire editing. Another influence, which will have most zombie fans grinning ear-to-ear during the title sequence, is that of the 70s and 80s Italian zombie maestros – not least of all Lucio Fulci. When the wonderfully endearing synth score kicks in after the first beheading (literally within the first two minutes of the film), those appreciative of the flesh-eating greats should find themselves fighting off giddiness.
The tone of Samurai Zombie remains predominantly humorous with quite a few laughs to be had, including the stereotypical old codger who turns up only to shout “You all gonna die!” repeatedly (this, however, is turned on its head quite well later on); the pair of cops trading stories about how they got their hands on progressively bigger pieces of weaponry stored in the trunk of their car and one gangster who takes so much punishment he decides he must be immortal! A few nice touches of unease manage to drip through, such as the family’s satnav and cell phone screens distorting and filling with blood, and some of the death scenes pack a less blatantly funny tone than others.
The main attraction here being zombies and beheadings, how does the gore stack up? The answer: very well indeed! Samurai Zombie is unapologetically over-the-top, yet avoids becoming grotesque. Laced with humour as it is, in that great Eastern style almost every severed limb or decapitated noggin leads to an unbelievable geyser of arterial spray, and Sakaguchi’s camera captures it lovingly. When one particular supernaturally-led sacrifice leads to a rain of crimson awakening the samurai slasher, the scene is set with such knowing confidence (as is the atmospheric opening scene) that you would never believe this was only Sakaguchi’s second time in a feature film director’s chair. The zombie makeup and effects are likewise excellent with the best of the lot remaining the original samurai (look for the teeth – a nod to Fulci’s Zombie?).
So, what exactly is it that makes the film unsteady? Well, the main culprit is the second act. Once the group arrives at the ghost town, Samurai Zombie almost grinds to a halt. It isn’t that nothing happens, but after the quickened pulse of the first act, you’d be forgiven for letting your mind wander when things level out for slightly too long. Secondly, the tonal shifts tend not to work as well as they ought to. Some scenes and kills elicit laughs while others provoke sympathy. Some of them do both in literally the space of seconds; and for a film as gleefully irreverent as it is, Samurai Zombie’s finale finds itself moving squarely into some real emotionally effective horror. It’s a strange mix and doesn’t always come off as well as you would think.
The film also tends to get bogged down with its overuse of the theme of fate and destiny. The second time someone mentions it, you get the picture. There’s no need to keep pounding the audience over the head with it even after the big reveal has been made. In true Dread Central tradition it would also be prudent to warn some viewers that Samurai Zombie, from the opening moments, has absolutely no qualms in breaking the fourth wall.
In the end it’s a fun, stylish and gleefully gory piece of genre cinema that displays a wealth of confidence and some excellent horror imagery – but it’s just not as good as it could have been. Don’t be afraid to give it a whirl, though. Sit down with a few like-minded friends, break out the beers and enjoy. There’s no denying you ought to have a blast.
MVM’s release of Samurai Zombie comes saddled with only a selection of trailers as extras. Boooo!
3 out of 5
1/2 out of 5
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