After the initial zombie experience at Nippon Connection, I ended up revisiting Helldriver on home video in its full uncut glory not once, but twice. And, strangely, was left up with different feelings both times.
Bargain Apocalypse: A CG-Hampered Zombie Epic
Sayonara Japan! A zombie epidemic breaks out. Japan is divided in two, with the North populated by the living dead, and the south turning into slums due to overpopulation. To solve the crisis one girl with chainsaw sword and artificial heart is sent to end it all. Japan’s most celebrated gore maestro Yoshihiro Nishimura’s messy but ambitious zombie epic wipes its ass with its mini budget.
While incredibly bloody, Helldriver also stumbles with frequent and disappointing use of CG in explosions, backgrounds, vehicles, sometimes even gore. Strong horror and genuinely grueling scenes are missing in favor of goofier approach, even with some badly fitting classical pieces on the soundtrack as additional comic relief. Nevertheless, most of the gore is made with practical effects, the soundtrack kicks ass, and the ride never ceases to entertain.
Welcome to Zombie World: Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Helldriver
Nishimura’s goofy zombie splatter is an epic to be enjoyed in the right state of mind. Z-Grade CG and the lack of true horror must be overlooked. But, overcoming these flaws Helldriver can be a hell of a ride indeed. The practical special gore effects are charming, Nishimura’s make up artistry often insanely imaginative, and Koh Nakagawa’s score bad-ass beyond belief. In addition, despite being a thoroughly ugly film there are bits and pieces of strange, gory beauty.
Even in all its messiness Nishimura’s vision of a zombie world is a fascinating one. Human rights become a political game, cities turn slums, and the no-go area a wild west where semi-intelligent zombie leaders command the dead troops and enslave the living. CG is mostly used for elements that strike the mental insanity meter through the roof and leave the viewer breathless: the climax must be seen to be believed. Plus, you gotta love a film that slaps its blood soaked title card only after 48 minutes of non-stop action. Flawed and over-packed Helldriver may be, it’s still a truckload of gory fun to serve multiple viewings.
117 Minute Bloodbath
The very first festival print and Japanese theatrical cut, which sadly was later replaced by an interior International Version, is now finally available to foreign audiences via home video editions. This version restores some 12 minutes of footage. All of the additions are to the film’s benefit, adding nasty old school splatter, welcome characterization with fan favorites Asami and Takumi Saito, and even some additional moody and satiric bits. The main additions include:
– School girl cannibalism at the zombie bar. This is an excellent addition which extends a scene that is found in both versions, bringing some unsettling brutality to a film that in general is a bit too lighthearted to function as real horror. Victim: AV-star Rui Saotome.
– Asami and Takumi Saito as hyper police (the armored mercenaries). Saito appears briefly in the International Version, too, but his partner Asami was edited out. Here they have a some brief dialogue scenes, with both actors doing good job establishing likable characters in very limited screen time, as well as some additional fight-splatter. The gore storm at the end feels more satisfying when it is preceded by a couple of quiet moments and the characters have been introduced to the viewer.
– Romero / Day of the Dead esque side plot concerning a priest (Kanji Tsuda) with zombie sympathies. Greatly enhances the film’s satiric edge, and adds some moody bits, handmade gore, and Nishimura’s daughter as zombie (very beautiful!)! In addition to this side plot, there are other satiric bits added to the film, including more footage concerning the politicians and the slums.
Conclusion: the International Version appears to be designed to attract more casual festival viewers who might be scared off by a two hour running time. In terms of quality the shortened version is nonsensical: it removes some of the film’s best scenes, corrects none of the flaws, and retains the exact same pacing by removing an equal amount of action an characterization. The film is essentially one feature film long action scene – no doubt an overkill for some, but whether it runs 105 minutes or 117 minutes makes almost no difference at all.
Spin Off x 3
Following the tradition of accompanying feature films with spin off short movies (something that started back in the Versus days and has continued ever since) Helldriver features three spin-off short stories. They were directed by Nishimura’s assistant director Jun Shiozaki, lighting director Hiroshi Ota, and Sushi favorite Yoshiki Takahashi.
Shiozaki and Ota’s efforts, titled Helldriver dokata and Catch Me if You Can, suggest these two gentlemen would better not leave their day jobs right yet. Helldriver dokata is the comeback of the giant but sympathetic machete zombie that was loading the sky with severed heads in the main feature.
A “drama-comedy” with martial arts and cleavage, it starts promising, but the joke runs dry soon. Style is lacking and potentially entertaining elements do not receive the treatment they deserve, but come out clumsy and dull. Still, it’s got a few moments that potentially make it a passable time killer for 11 minutes. Director Shiozaki previously helmed the Tokyo Gore Construction Worker short film (for Tokyo Gore Police extras) and Helldriver dokata continues very much in the same vein but with less success. Comes with: zombie “cameo” by horror blogger John Skeleton.
Catch Me if You Can fares even worse – it’s a CG-packed imitation of Nishimura madness, but without much gore, catchiness, or style. It features the “upper torso zombie” from the end of Helldriver (the one that says “hello” to Gadarukanaru Taka) chasing people. The hyperpolice also make an appearance, but without Asami or Takumi Saito. Like Helldriver Dokata, Catch Me if You Can recycles music from Helldriver, but never manages to be more than a pale imitation. Comes with: zombie cameo by Norman England.
Yoshiki Takahashi’s entry, Bailout, is by far the most interesting of the three spin off movies, and not only because Takahashi is the screenwriter of Sono’s Cold Fish and the graphic designer for Sushi Typhoon. Bailout comes out an unexpectedly ambitious 19 minute feature, setting its fully independent storyline into post-apocalyptic future that shares very little with Nishimura’s film.
Bailout follows two men traveling in the deserted “dead land”, and two women hiding in an underground hideout. It’s a moody and genuinely scary horror piece that somewhat resembles the cyber-punk films of Shozin Fukui. Whether Takahashi has what it takes to direct a feature length film remains unclear, but this is certainly a promising effort. A feature length V-Cinema project might be an interesting next step. Comes with: boobs.
Behind the Splatter
Sushi Typhoon Tokyo Invasion is a 21 min feature directed by Norman England (who also does a cameo in the film). In Japan Helldriver, Alien vs. Ninja, Yakuza Weapon and Deadball were released simultaneously as “Sushi Typhoon Matsuri” (Sushi Typhoon Festival) event. Ginza Cine Pathos in Tokyo was decorated with blood and guts, and Noburu Iguchi hosted the three week even during which the films were screened countless times. Mr. England captures much of the fun (and these people are always fun live), even though the feature does get a bit repetitive towards the end.
The best extra, however, is the 43 min Making Of documentary, directed by fan favorite Demo Tanaka (he’s the man in the cage, whose arm gets chopped off by Honoka). This documentary is an absolute must see for fans of Nishimura, capturing the extremely difficult filming process and demonstrating the special effects work as well as the hell the actors had to go through with Nishimura completing approximately 300 shots per day (leaving him almost no time at all to sleep during the two week shoot).
As usual with Nishimura’s movies, it’s necessary for fans to own two home video editions of the film. Before it was Japanese DVDs (for spin offs, extras and soundtrack CDs) + and Western Blu-Rays (for technical presentation) but with Helldriver US + UK Blu-Rays would seem sufficient, since they combined have the approximately same set of features as the Japanese DVD release. Tokyo Invasion and the Spin Off films are on the US release, the Making Off documentary and Japanese trailer (both in high definition) are on the UK Blu-Ray.