Yumiko Hara (Kika), Eihi Shiina (Rikka), Yurei Yanagi (Taku), Minoru Torihada (Yasushi), Mizuki Kusumi (No-Name), Kazuki Namioka (Kaito)
Zombies Caused by Space Ash
“On May 15, a strange ash suddenly enveloped Hokkaido. From there it spread across the Tohoku region. For those without gasmasks… inahling the ash caused them to become infected. They fell comatose immediately. After an hour… antler shaped tumors sprang from their foreheads. They began attacking and eating people. An estimated six-million were stricken. Thirty-six hours later… it drifted into the Sea of Japan and dissipated. What remained in Japan were six-million infected human beings. To contain the problem, a wall was built from the Pacific to the Japan Sea. It ran along the borders of Tokyo, Chiba, Yamanashi, Saitama, Ibaraki and Niigata. Japan became divided. With people evacuating Tohoku… Tokyo exploded. The city became overcrowded. Life became hell for the residents. A bill to consider the infected as dead didn’t pass. The infected still maintained human rights. Families of the infected formed human rights groups. They fought to protect the infected. That was a year ago.” – expository narration.
Drink ‘em if you’ve got ‘em folks, because this week we’re tackling a J-sploitation movie. What is J-sploitation you ask, hypothetical reader who knows nothing of the world? Why J-sploitation is a particular strain of exploitation movie made by and, ostensibly, for the Japanese. Examples include *deep breath*: Meatball Machine, Machine Girl, The Big Tits Dragon, Visitor Q, Versus, Dead or Alive, Dead Sushi, Robogeisha, Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Mutant Girls Squad, Battlefield Baseball, Wild Zero, Yo-Yo Girl Cop, Tokyo Zombie, and more artsy endeavors like Ichi the Killer, Battle Royale, Audition, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Imagine if a number of film-makers watched Story of Ricky and said, “I want my entire film career to be composed of films like that!”
They’re not bad films by any stretch, but they are pretty much the textbook definition of an “acquired taste.” They’re weird in that uniquely Japanese way that the internet loves shaking its head at, they’re that particular flavor of trashy that only fans of sleazy stuff like Troma and Full Moon can fully appreciate,they usually look (and are) cheap, and they are in a foreign language which turns off people who are too lazy to read and watch at the same time.
To love this sort of movie, you have to be a viewer who fills that small portion of the venn diagram that includes:
• Not offended easily (or at all)
• Willing to read subtitles
• Accepting of weird cultural quirks you won’t understand
• Really into cheap and sleazy movies
Helldriver is a pretty easy gateway to this sort of thing. It’s weird, but just on the right side of the tipping point to not be especially off-putting to someone unexposed to this sort of movie. But it’s so full of the things that push people away from these movies that it will serve as a litmus test to prove whether J-sploitation is “for” you.
We open on a man riding a bicycle up to a giant ominous looking wall. He climbs up to the top of the wall and begins throwing body parts to the ground on the other side, luring out a number of zombies with large Y-shaped horns growing out of their foreheads. The man uses the grappling hook attached to his belt to begin pulling the heads off of the zombies, pulling their horns off with a pair of pliers, and throwing the horns in a box. This goes well until a zombie with its spine pulled up all the way out of its neck surprises him and causes him to fall amongst the undead.
Suddenly, a pick-up truck barrel rolls through the air and lands amidst the revenants. A young woman steps out and begins dispatching them. This culminates in her doing a pole-dance around the aforementioned telescopic-spine zombie’s “neck.” This scene seems to have no continuity to the rest of the film and exists as more of a tease of the insanity to come than any cohesive part of the story.
We now step back in time and find Kika (the woman from a moment ago) in a pre-zombie time as she comes home to find her cannibalistic serial killer mother (Audition‘s Eihi Shiina) and uncle (Minoru Torihada) eating her father’s legs (like you do.) As her mother runs outside to celebrate how awful she is, she’s hit by a meteor that tears a neat circular hole through her torso. She tears out her daughter’s heart and places it in the hole, where it’s attached by sinews. Then, a giant starfish puppet anchors itself onto the back of her head. Mother and daughter are then covered in a strange amber material as a black ash envelopes Japan and turns a large number of residents into Y-horned zombies. A large wall is built to keep the zombies out while Japan’s still-living citizens argue over whether the zombies have rights or not.
Kika is given an artificial heart that uses her blood to power a chainsaw katana, attached to her with a tube. She’s dropped off at the wall where she discovers her ass-kicking potential and saves the lives of two men collecting horns to sell on the black market. (In addition to being extremely explosive, the zombies’ horns can be ground down and used as an illicit drug.) These men are No-Name (Mizuki Kusumi) and Japanese Morgan Freeman (Yurei Yanagi).
The trio begin harvesting antlers in earnest as tensions on the safe side of the wall grow. A bomb is placed on the wall as the prime minister delivers a press conference in front of it, and he is eaten by zombies freed by the ensuing explosion. Kika, No-Name, and JMF get arrested for selling horns. As the prime minister recants his stance on the zombies, the title card pulls up and the opening credits begin. This movie has been on for an hour now.
Kika, No-Name, and JMF are Snake Plisskened out of their executions by the state if they agree to go into the infected zone and kill the zombie queen – who just so happens to be Kika’s mother. The new Prime Minister, who very unsubtly resembles Adolf Hitler, kits them out with a vehicle and sends them in to complete their mission. What follows is a love-letter to excess written by the hand of a madman. The movie keeps one-upping itself with an escalating series of over-the-top set-pieces. We have a barrage of flying heads, a zombie spider made of human arms wielding katanas, a pick-up truck sword-fighting with a zombie, and a finale so absurd that I won’t even hint at what it entails.
This movie has splatter for days, and the gore gags are entertaining even when they’re not particularly adept (lots of bad CG is used in lieu of a budget) but unfortunately sometimes too much is just too much. At parts, the movie just goes a bit too over-the-top and the winking self-awareness of it all becomes a bit annoying. Helldriver is at its best when it’s taking itself semi-seriously and playing its more hokey elements completely straight. Somewhere under all the kooky special effects and bad-taste jokes is a fairly solid dramatic arc involving an abusive mother and a daughter who is done being treated as property, but it generally gets lost in the shuffle.
There is something to the whole debate about whether the zombies are alive or dead and if they have rights, but much like in The Dead Next Door the movie’s stance on that subject is obviously well beyond decided. It’s just a weird little detail added to give a bit of depth to the world and a bit of padding to the plot. Speaking of padding, this movie has it in spades. Helldriver has the heart of a 70-minute cult gem in the body of a bloated 116-minute action-horror epic.
It is a shame that so much time is wasted on B-plot, as Kika’s arc is compelling, and the character is effortlessly cool, while still seeming vulnerable and tragic. It’s hard to gauge the strength of line readings in a language I don’t speak, but Yamiko Hara has a very expressive face and her time as Kika represents the most interesting portion of the movie. Unfortunately, she shares an equal amount of time with the rest of the characters and her story doesn’t even really get going properly until the second hour of the film.
Eihi Shiina is the other reason why the narrative’s sluggish disinterest in its main plot is a shame. Shiina has been lauded, deservedly so, for her turn as the villainess in Audition. Though this movie is the polar opposite of that movie’s restrained potboiler sensibilities, she’s delightful as the cackling evil leader of the zombies and looks genuinely frightening in the make-up. The same cannot be said of her cinematic sibling; Minoru Torihada is suitably creepy but he’s a bit to anime-ish to properly take seriously as a villain, even in the campy context in which he is presented.
If Helldriver could dial back the crazy a notch or two, focus more on Kika and Rikka’s plot, and shave a good half-hour of extraneous bullshit off its run-time it would be a nigh-perfect ridiculously action-horror film. As it stands, Helldriver is only an above-average look into the window of what J-sploitation can be, giving a sample of both its best and worst qualities.
Your own mileage may vary given your tolerance of this sort of movie; Helldriver is still a lot of fun and it may soften you to this subgenre if you’ve been disinterested in the past. If you have a fetish for esoteric Japanese horror comedies, this is one of the better ones and you should definitely check it out. I would say that as long as you aren’t just absolutely turned off by this sort of movie then it’s a soft “yes” for you.
Helldriver is available as a DVD, a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack, or on Amazon instant rental. You could also try haunting your local Big Lots, where I picked up my DVD/Blu combo of this for the thrifty price of three dollars.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“You think you’re tough for eating beans every day? There’s half a million scarecrows in Denver who’d give anything for one mouthful of what you got.”