Tak Sakaguchi’s Samurai Zombie (aka: Yoroi: Samurai zonbi) sounds for the world like a concept born out of the crashing together of two words. Who needs any further spiel with a title like that? How offensive is it too; the noble warrior reduced to a stumbling dunderhead. The swordsman’s skills are neither here nor there as his corpse fails to inherit much of them.
Indeed, most of the victims in Samurai Zombie beat the monster to it, either taking their own lives or walking into his blade. Outrunning him is no trouble whatsoever, as the dawdling deadie makes the traditional mummy look like an Olympic gold medal sprinter. He gives a whole new definition to the phrase ‘idle threat’ and this is all clearly one of this comic horror movie’s great ironies.
The film opens with a puzzling sequence that does not initially make a jot of sense. There has been a chronological shuffle as a great chunk of the movie is brought forward, relocated from near the end to the very front. It is a meaningless shift and easy enough not to read as a future part of the coming tale. The film then officially begins with a family outing and a car travelling down wooded lanes; the parents, daughter and son speculating on coincidence and fate. The tune on the radio brought the mother and father together. “If one small factor was missing this family would not exist.” The theme at this stage is laid on pretty heavy.
Then a figure in white, murmuring “I am going to die!” appears in the middle of the road, a gun aimed at the approaching car. He is run down. It is an action worthy of repeat from various angles, and the film complies, the stuntman landing awkwardly several times. He picks himself up and is shot in the back by one of his accomplices in a bank job. The other two robbers, Jiro and Lisa, take the family hostage and order them to drive though a gate onto prohibited accursed ground where the tyres don’t last long and the screens on the sat-nav and mobile phones haemorrhage under the glass.
The father is sent on to Eight Spears village with the instruction to return with either a new tyre or steal a vehicle but come back or his family suffer. He returns, but as a decapitated head, carried by the plodding samurai zombie. The living dead warrior is in no hurry to slay the others, no hurry at all, can barely pick up his feet. The numbers are built up as the man in white is not quite dead and rejoins them, then a pair of comedy cops, Yoshuka and Tateisha, pick up on the roadside evidence and follow them onto the forbidden ground.
Samurai Zombie stumbles more than its zombie star, unsteadily going for cartoonish horror but managing to stay afloat on the good ship entertainment. The film also improves its lot as it approaches its conclusion. Having seemingly trotted along a routine line of people versus zombie, any viewer expectation of one of those dratted twists is put to one side, so when the ‘surprise’ twist comes it is of no matter that it is not original, it still becomes a mild surprise.
The fun horror tone is reminiscent of 1980s’ fare like Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day, and as the three character zombies resurrected include an archer, porcupine backed with embedded arrows – then one might also think of Joseph Mangine’s Neon Maniacs, or Phil Smoot’s The Dark Power. It puts two fingers up at Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (to which there is a small nod), and is certainly livelier than that other supernatural samurai caper Fabrice A. Zaphiratos’ Blood Beat. But neither should you expect the stylistic wild ride of Ryűhei Kitamura’s Versus.
This is a modern film, however, and falls prey to a flurry of flashback editing, a post-production blue soak and piss-poor CGI dismemberment and blood spurts. Cartoon strip invulnerability leads to old school absurdities like characters soldiering on despite the loss of fingers, their intestine hanging out, or a testicle bitten off (mind you, I immediately find myself condoning this in the superior cult caper Dead Hooker In A Trunk).
On the plus side there is attention to character which means that none die without some twinge of regret. Ultimately, the prank falls are bigger than the horror, but there are a couple of huge laughs, and the film runs up against viewer expectations as to who will die and when. I found myself enjoying Samurai Zombie despite its incongruities and faults.