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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.23.14] Japan zombies horror

Written and directed by cult Japanese filmmaker Sabu (Dangan Runner, Postman Blues), Miss Zombie is a curious little film. The plot concerns a quiet and withdrawn family living in the suburbs of a nameless city in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When they are sent a 'pet zombie' in the mail, they decide to give her chores around the garden, but don't count on the disruption her presence will have on their lives. Shot in muted black and white and with an extremely tense and heavy atmosphere, it makes its central points early on and then takes forever to develop the story. I suspect this film could have been a wonderful short, but as a feature it's flawed and frustrating.

We meet husband and wife Teramoto and Shizuko (played by Toru Tezuka and Makoto Togashi) and their young son as they discover a mysterious crate on their doorstep. On opening it to reveal a caged woman with glazed eyes and rotting scars, Teramoto calmly observes, "A zombie? Don't see many of those around these days..." and they read the instruction manual which comes with their new pet. The rules are simple: Only feed your zombie fruit and vegetables, never meat - and if it becomes hostile use the handgun provided. The zombie, Sara (Ayaka Komatsu) is more intelligent and docile than most other zombies, and we learn that she is merely a partially infected carrier of the virus, and therefore remembers elements of her past. As she sits in the family's garage at night, she stares mournfully at a photograph of herself from when she was a normal human.

Over the next few weeks Sara proves herself useful, but is tormented by local children and a gang of cruel street punks who stab her in the back every single day. She collects the weapons they leave in her wounds and places them gently on her bedside table. She attracts the attention of local men, eventually finding herself being used for more than just domestic chores...

The plot is similar in some respects to Andrew Currie's kitschy zom-com Fido, while certain elements call to mind Scooter McCrae's oft-overlooked Shatter Dead (an old favourite of mine) but Miss Zombie is a far more meditative exercise. Komatsu as Sara gives an affecting performance, acting with her eyes and with slow, calculated movements which subtly project her character's sense of melancholy. The entire film seems to have been crafted with a deliberate emphasis on its graceful visual style, as long stretches of the narrative are virtually silent apart from the howling wind and repeated sound of Sara's scrubbing brush on the stone pathway. Sabu keeps things very dark and atmospheric, contrasting light and shadow as he tells the characters' stories with startlingly well constructed scenes, and from this point of view the film is actually very successful. There is - or appears to be - an allegorical subtext to the narrative, with Sara representing the dispossessed foreign worker, robbed of her rights and dignity and powerless to do anything about it. When she begins to connect and even bond with the couple's son, we sense that family and motherhood is what she misses most. The boy's mother notices this, and becomes extremely unsettled. An unspoken rivalry develops.

There is an exceptionally long wait for something to actually develop out of the film's initial set up, and this keeps us very much at arms length, constantly preventing us from engaging with the story. Of course, we want to see Sara fight back. We want her to eat some meat, so that she might get a taste for it and attack her human tormentors. By the end of the film we are in fact desperate for something, anything, to just happen. The days pass and tension slowly mounts, but as it does, so our patience wanes, until we have been ground down to the point of zombification.

It is perhaps unfair to accuse a film like this of not delivering the goods, and indeed Sabu ought to be congratulated for an admirably creative and post-modern spin on the zombie genre, but the film's slow, tedious pacing and simple plot mean that almost no ending can justify enduring the wait. When the last minutes of the film are on screen and we see where the narrative has (finally) led us, one feels more relief that it is about to end than any kind of appreciation for what is happening or how we got there.

Horror and art have a complex relationship. Quite often when combined the result is either embarrassing or boring or both. In attempting to blend elements of socio-political commentary, artistic film design and gory horror, Miss Zombie misses the mark by forgetting that an audience generally need something to keep their attention, and that this is not an unreasonable request on their part. I could list the directors who have succeeded in delivering artistic and entertaining horror, but you already know their names.

Despite its pedigree and admirable intentions, Miss Zombie fails simply by taking 90 minutes to tell a 15 minute story. I admire the visual style and in some ways the audacity of playing it at such a slow tempo, especially when so many other directors can barely keep their trousers on when it comes to telling stories, but it just doesn't work as a feature film. Many people are hailing this as a return to form for Sabu after a string of weaker efforts. I would disagree, and hope that he's saving himself for his next film.

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