Helldriver: Berlin Review

A mindless schlock horror action flick with wacky creature designs.  

Japanese director Yoshihiro Nishimura offers up too many fight scenes that are shot up-close at nauseously fast speed, with super-saturated, grainy texture that makes 'Grindhouse' aesthetics seem fancy by comparison.

Night of the Living Dead gets put in a blender with Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Helldriver -- a mildly rib-tickling and heavily stomach-churning dish cooked up by Nikkatsu's "Sushi Typhoon" project to feed the Asia-themed genre geeks taste for exotic schlock. Yoshihiro Nishimura who's done mutants (Tokyo Gore Police, Mutant Girl Squad) and vampires (Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl) now turns to zombies as his subject.

He gives traditional movie zombies a complete image makeover and raises the bar in his own aesthetic of ugliness. This is the most watchable aspect of Helldriver. The film will rip through Fantastic film festivals as well as fetch the same buyers who picked up Nishimura's past work as directorial or effects director for Noboru Iguchi (Robogeisha).

Nishimura is incontestably a guru of gore effects but as a director, he is not refined at narrative technique or building atmosphere. This time, he is lazier than usual in these aspects. Even for a genre film, the storyline is negligible. The action choreography is run-of-the-mill. Edited for sensory overkill, too many fight scenes are shot up-close at nauseously fast speed, with super-saturated, grainy texture that makes Grindhouse aesthetics seem fancy by comparison.

Eighteen-year-old Kika (luscious Yumiko Hara) has her heart dug out by mother Rikka (Audition's Eihi Shiina), when some mysterious ash fell from outer space to Hokkaido and turned Rikka and her brother into zombies. The siblings were already cannibals before their transformation (Kika's dad being their 20th meal) so they become proprietors of a snack joint (of live humans) to cater to the 6-million-strong zombie population, partitioned from the uninfected South by a wall. Kika is reconfigured as a chain-saw-wielding android, and teams up with three other men to destroy the zombies.

Whereas, the first half piles on hordes of zombies in often blurry shots of blood-jets, it is only an hour on that the visual experience and thrill factor pick up through a series of one-on-one combats where the creature designs can be seen in full detail. It's obvious that Nishimura put tender loving care into image and costume design. His zombies are not the riff-raff B-movie zombies in rags with unrecognizably decomposed flesh. Even "walk-ons" have distinct facial features and expressions. Their wardrobes are full of panache, tailored to reflect warped personalities.

They undergo all kinds of arabesque mutations, the most inventive being one with deformed little arms growing out of her cheeks holding a knife and fork (as if ready to devour humans with proper table manners). Nishimura even slipped in an homage to the Yubari Fantastic Fest where Helldriver premiered, by giving zombies horns that look like melon (Yubari's famous fruit) stems. A subplot about a government coup parodies political tussles in the Japan Democratic Party, but it's nothing more than a gag.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival
Sales: Nikkatsu Corp.
Nikkatsu presents the Sushi Typhoon release of a Something Creation production
Cast: Yumiko Hara, Eihi Shiiina, Yurei Yanagi, Kazuki Namioka, Kentaro Kishi
Director-screenwriter-editor-character designer: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Screenwriter: Daiichi Nagagisa
Producers: Yoshinori Chiba, Hiroyuki Yamada
Executive producer: Akifumi Sugihara
Director of photography: Shu G. Momose
Production designer: Nori Fukuda
Music: Koh Nakagawa
No rating, 105 minutes