I’ve been struggling lately. Since the birth of this website, I’ve routinely busted out three reviews a week. Most people would think that I would run out of movies to review at that rate, but I’ve seen a lot of god damn movies and many of them I feel are worthy of high praise. However, since the birth of my daughter, it’s been harder and harder to do this, even though I write most of these reviews piecemeal between site updates at the office. I have no excuse. Not even the two seasons of the Simpsons I bagged for twenty cents and certainly not the release of Bioshock for the 360, both of which are taking up what slivers of free time I have at home while Delilah sleeps.
I’m very suspicious of j-horror these days. Around the time this movie started making the festival rounds, Japan and it’s horror movies was an entirely new world to me. I’d flirted with anime over the years but just couldn’t get into it. Most pre-Ringu j-horror bummed me out due to its hang up on cruelty and degradation but the new wave of horror out of that country in the earlier part of the decade was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, it quickly became standard fare that Japanese horror featured scary little girls with their hair in their faces. Wild Zero was a nice change of pace offering a cultural spin on zombies that is pretty unique even in Japan. Featuring the feedback driven Japanese garage rock band, Guitar Wolf, Wild Zero plays like equal parts Dawn of the Dead and Rock and Roll High School.
Ace’s favorite band is Guitar Wolf and it’s not surprising since these guys put on a heavy show. Feedback fills the space between chords and lightning shoots out of guitars and sends stage happy fans flying back into the crowd. It’s all smoke, blood and crazy wailing guitars. Guitar Wolf, himself, yells away on the mic about a rock and roll license and jets. Shit is flying everywhere and the camera cuts to Ace in the crowd, caught in the throes of rock and roll ecstasy. This is quite possibly the greatest live show ever put on by a rock band. Guitar Wolf are an actual band, you see. Three guys from Tokyo who play extremely loud garage rock combined with an ultra-cool Ramones aesthetic. As far as I know, their real live shows never involved anyone getting struck by rock and roll lightning, nor do they have brain seeking, laser guitar picks, but they’re still pretty cool.
Ace has a plan. Despite the fact that he is not once ever seen playing any sort of instrument in the movie, he’s going to confront the club owner tonight and become the next rock and roll legend like Guitar Wolf. However, Ace busts into the owner’s office to see him grilling Guitar Wolf on the death of rock and roll. Ace’s intrusion buys Guitar Wolf enough time to peel some caps, and the ensuing gunfight costs the club owner, the extremely effeminate Captain, a few fingers. As payment, Guitar Wolf cuts Ace’s hand and his own and combines their blood to make them rock and roll blood brothers and then supplies ace with a dog whistle that will summon Guitar Wolf if he’s ever in trouble. Cut to the countryside the next day.
From out of the bushes comes a screaming man, struggling to keep his pants up. He’s quite upset about something. Slowly following him as he takes off is a cute Japanese girl looking both bummed and confused. She begins the long, lonely journey back to civilization and finds her way to an abandoned gas station around the same time some working dudes, a couple that does nothing but yell at each other and their frizzy haired psycho friend who produces two knives and proceeds to rob the place for no discernable reason. With impeccable timing, Ace shows up, throws open the door and smashes Masao, the frizzy haired psycho in the face. In a panic, Masao runs from the store, making Ace the hero of the day.
In the meantime, radios are announcing that a meteor has crashed in neaby Asahi. What the public doesn’t yet know is that the meteor came with a surprise, a zombie inducing alien race that has turned everyone in Asahi into the walking dead. The first unfortunate victims are a gang of Yakuza out to meet an arms dealer for guns. When they stop to check out a car crash, they are surrounded and killed. The arms dealer, tired of waiting for the Yakuza who will never show turns tail and heads back home. Back at the gas station Ace meets the abandoned cute girl, named Tobio, and falls head over heels for her after thwarting Masao’s robbery. He has to hit the road, though, if he plans to make it to the next Guitar Wolf show. Masao, Hanako and Toshi have retreated and are chilling out in the relative seclusion of the woods, but it’s not long before Masao is eaten by zombies. Ace runs into a some zombies as well and decides to book, but a sudden Guitar Wolf hallucination commands him to go back and rescue Tobio for rock and roll’s sake. The arms dealer is also accosted by the living dead while in the shower, but a conveniently placed fire arm buys her escape. Inevitably, everyone converges on the gas station, including the arms dealer in her humvee covered in zombies.
For a zombie movie, there is an awful lot going on. While everyone is running into zombies, the now eight fingered captain has sworn revenge on Guitar Wolf. Guitar Wolf has played another insane live show involving microphones that belch flames. The Captain, tired of rock and roll, auditions a cute j-pop girl who sings a song called Love Love Beam and then hits the road, fully armed, to find Guitar Wolf.
Ace and Tobio manage to break out and take cover in an abandoned building. With some downtime on their hands, Love Theme From Wild Zero plays, Tobio is suddenly naked and Ace takes a long, slow, look, tracking down the smooth body until he gets to the hidden treasure. Tobio’s terrible secret is suddenly revealed! I won’t ruin it, though. Ace, understandably freaked out, hauls ass and seals himself up in a room where another Guitar Wolf hallucination strikes him and reminds him that love and rock and roll have no boundaries and that he should probably just get over it and “DO IT!!!” Which he does. Tobio, rejected again, hits the streets heartbroken while Ace busts out his room armed with a crowbar and goes apeshit on the zombies in one of the funniest scenes of the movie.
Back at the arms dealer’s warehouse, Hanako, Toshi, the band and the arms dealer arm themselves. The Captain has arrived in Asahi and everyone prepares for the final confrontation, or something like that. At this point it becomes evident that a music video director wanted to make a feature movie and their experience with the short form medium has hindered their ability to tell any kind of story in the long form. There are some guns, a lot of shit blows up and Guitar Wolf winds up striking another awesome pose, produces his guitar on a rooftop and rocks the shit out of a giant flying saucer when he pulls a sword out of the guitar neck and cuts the ship in half. Also, some zombies find love and Ace and Tobio are happy at last.
There are times when I watch a movie that is crazy to such an extreme degree but I don’t realize it until it’s too late and I’m either summing it up in person or on the internet. Looking back at the above paragraphs, I look like a lunatic telling you about some movie I made up while waiting for medication to be refilled. I assure you, this is how the movie goes down. What it lacks in terms of rational sense it makes up for with buckets of cool. Wild Zero never takes itself seriously and never asks you to. Most of the time, Guitar Wolf and his band are combing their hair or striking poses as if being photographed for an album cover.
I frequently go back to Wild Zero in spite of its madness because everything is so likable. Ace is a great comic character and funny scenes that would be groan inducing anywhere else wind up working because of his ability to put on a goofy face and try too hard to be cool. Even Tobio and The Captain are memorable enough to stay with you.
Thank god for the Tokyo underground. I’ve always been a fan of samurai and Godzilla flicks, but over the years I never spent much time checking out anything else. Around 2000 I got into what was happening in a contemporary sense and movies that I thought were art school flukes, like Tetsuo The Iron Man, turned out to be a small part of an interesting, extreme underground culture in Japan. Aside from super serious avant movies, there is a good deal of punk rock tomfoolery happening and it’s this subculture that brought us Wild Zero. Japan’s underground seems particularly intense as many of their more deviant avant/experimental offerings are a wicked reflection of their ordinary society. I can’t tell which is a more disturbing expression of their wide-spread cultural repression. Is it wildly nihilistic movies like Naked Blood or Kichiku or is it the cell-phone fetishizing hordes of salarymen who invent new and easier ways to take upskirt photos of teenage girls on the train? Their normal society is kept so firmly in line that the only appropriate form of rebellion is a subculture that is often as intense as the sexually frustrated men populating every high rise in Tokyo. Wild Zero lands on the softer side of rebellion but it’s a solid introduction of the vital of counter culture of Japan.
For a long time it was extremely difficult to track down an affordable, subtitled copy of this movie but thanks to the fine people of Synapse, there is a now a widely available version in Region 1 DVD. Anyone with a taste for zombies, Japan and rock and roll are urged to check it out.