I found myself disappointed by BIO-ZOMBIE, the 1998 Japanese cult favorite from director Wilson Yip. Maybe it was simply a case of heightened expectations, but throughout the film's running time I couldn't help but feel a continued sense of unfulfilled potential.
Proudly declaring itself as the Asian counterpart of DAWN OF THE DEAD, with a healthy influence of RESIDENT EVIL for good measure, BIO-ZOMBIE takes place almost entirely in a Tokyo mall (I realize that at the time of its release the mall-setting was fairly fresh for a homage, but this conceit has cropped up so many times in the two and a half months this blog's been around that I'm quickly--very quickly--growing tired with it). Our heroes are a pair of obnoxious slacker-types, Woody and Bee, who run the mall's video store and come off in the film's first act as a brash, Far East version of Kevin Smith characters--recalling more the lowbrow slapstick of MALLRATS than CLERKS' kinetic verbiage. Woody and Bee accidentally unleash a zombie plague into their place of work when they hit a pedestrian (infected with a zombie virus hidden inside a soda bottle) and stash him in their trunk. Among the others along for the ride are a pair of nail salon girls and Kui, the proprietor of a cell-phone store who could give Ben Affleck's Shannon Hamilton a few lessons in mall-management assholery.
For a zombie movie--not to mention one that draws its inspiration from a film notorious for its splatter quotient--BIO-ZOMBIE is surprisingly restrained. Even after a forgivably slow start, which often feels like the proverbial calm before the storm, the film keeps its zombies offscreen for far too long, focusing instead on the bantering back-and-forth of its principles--which would be fine, if there'd been anything of substance to warrant it--and keeping the gore level astonishingly low. The backstory of the zombies themselves--the virus in the bottle is a biochemical weapon developed by the Iraqis and sold to shady businessmen--also goes unexplored; weren't these guys concerned that their dead-reviving product got loose into the general populace? I kept wondering about their absence in the many pockets of downtime that spotted the last half of the movie.
Yip does devote a fair amount of time to one of his "sympathetic" zombies, a sushi chef that maintains his human compassion, thanks to his crush on one of the nail girls. Why he's the only one who stays somewhat human is never explained, since it's really just a plot device to save the heroes at the end before setting up the movie's unexpectedly downbeat ending. It's that dark third act shift that did me in. Though it wasn't a left-field attempt to be shocking or felt tacked-on, it still felt like a bummer after the zombie-happy chicanery that came before it. I was expecting something a little more triumphant.
Although it didn't let its obvious limited budget get in the way of a well-rendered look and a few stylistic touches, BIO-ZOMBIE needed to push the envelope a little bit more, whether comedicly or viscerally it really doesn't matter, since a more aggressive approach would've helped both. Call me cynical, but I credit this film's underground following to its goody dub-job that anything else.
(Special thanks to Donna Williams for providing a copy of this film.)