Being the sort of person I am, I was completely unable to resist a film entitled Samurai Zombie. The image of shuffling samurai dragging their katanas along behind them whilst crying out for the brains of lowly peasant folk was just too enticing to pass up. My excitement grew even further when I realized it was directed by Tak Sakaguchi and scripted by Ryuhei Kitamura, respectively star and co-director of Versus which I had loved previously. I’d also really enjoyed the less popular Azumi, which Kitamura had directed and Sakaguchi had played a small role in.
So, as you can see my expectations were riding pretty high for Samurai Zombie. The first thing to say is that these aren’t zombies in the conventional western sense with which we’re all familiar, in that they aren’t zombies of the Romero mould. My shuffling, Katana dragging, loosened topknot image was way off base. I don’t think we actually have a word for this type of ‘monster’, though it’s still a horror movie staple. They are more like demonically possessed dead bodies that exist for a specific purpose which they must carry out until completion. They have all their normal motor functions and the necessary level of intelligence to complete their mission physically, but not planning or speech ability and so on.
Now that we’ve got the slightly misleading English title out of the way, the movie starts off with an everyday family in a car together off for a day out. Their day is soon ruined however when they find themselves hijacked by fugitive bank robbers, eventually being forced into a creepy forest inhabited by a dead but not dormant samurai.
Our central family, the young bank robber couple on the run, another criminal who can’t die and two policemen with a penchant for flagrantly ignoring signs and a definite weapons fetish are the latest potential victims for our undead avenger. If you think this sounds like a bizarre mix, it is; this is meant to be a comedy (at least to a degree) and the over the top humour of the situation plays very well.
It isn’t just laughs and splatter though - there is a decent amount of character depth and development. The couple on the run in particular become interesting very quickly and it’s surprisingly easy to sympathise with them. In fact all the characters are well realized and they’re all given the proper respect when it comes to the chop (so to speak). The film’s final and completely unexpected twist works so well especially because this groundwork has been laid out so precisely.
Somehow though, despite this the film just wasn’t as much fun as I was hoping for. It’s not as wacky as Versus and it just doesn’t seem to have that spark that made said movie so special. It’s still a very entertaining film and it does a lot with the budget that it has, but doesn’t quite move from "cool" into "oh my God that was awesome" territory.
Some of this might be down to the quality of the DVD itself. Disappointingly the film is presented in 4:3 letterboxed widescreen. Considering the DVD was only released in 2010 this is frankly unforgiveable. The video quality is also poor, fuzzy and muddy and just not pleasant to look at. If this wasn’t off-putting enough it’s also got some very odd subtitles that are riddled with syntactical and grammatical errors. In some ways, you could see the sub-par picture quality contributing to the atmosphere, as if you’d stumbled over a lost eighties style camp indie zombie movie that’s been badly copied from VHS and fansubbed by someone whose English is not quite as good as they think it is. This atmospheric submersion is going to be harder to buy into if you went into a shop and paid money for this disc, in which case I’m guessing letterbox presentation on a 2010 disc is just going to annoy you.
I’d still recommend Samurai Zombie for some slightly over the top horror fun; its main fault is not being Versus, which is slightly unfair. It is entertaining but it just fails to come together into something really amazing.