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August 19, 2013

Movie Review: Undertaker (2014, Synapse Films)

With Michigan's first ever Zombie Convention this past weekend, I had a great opportunity to view a Japanese horror movie that won't be released in the U.S. until sometime in 2014 and coming from Synapse Films. The people at Cinema Head Cheese may not know of my love for all Asian horror but what better way to find out than to have me review this flick?

Undertaker is 70 minutes of an interesting, sad, and unique Japanese spin on the zombie sub-genre of horror. It begins with a group of children being evacuated out of an apartment building. It seems the area is to be designated a quarantine zone and they need to get the kids out before it's too late. I guess the adults are expendable.

Ryouichi gets in the van, leaving his mother behind in the dark apartment. We never see her but from her gasping words it's clear she's already doomed. As he settles in for the long ride, his friend, Megumi, naps in the seat in front of him, feverishly whispering for someone to kill her. Uh oh.

Next thing we know the van crashes and Ryouichi wakes up to find the driver dead, the other kids running away, and a dead Megumi shuffling after them. As he tries to avoid her bite, he falls over the guardrail and knocks himself unconscious. Luckily a rather large woman rescues him and teaches him the ways of The Undertaker.

The Undertaker is hired to find the dead loved one of a family, or maybe an enemy, and putting it to rest (aka killing it for good). Bringing back a recognizable body part is proof of a job completed because in this post apocalyptic world it’s too difficult to transport an entire corpse. The remaining family can then bury it, feeling at ease that their loved one is at peace now. It’s a job that no one wishes to speak of, and is looked down upon, but still necessary.

Ryouichi grows into adulthood and his reputation as the Undertaker has spread across the country. He's hired to find the adult daughter, Natsuki, of an older couple because they cannot leave town and get on with their lives until they know she is put to rest. Taking a photograph of the woman with her infant child, Ryouichi travels to the last known area where Natsuki was seen. He is able to find her in a shopping area, her shambling body clutching a precious bundle against her chest. What follows is as hard on the audience as it is on Ryouichi.

Thus is the lonely life of the Undertaker.

Though this movie is just over an hour long, its story and visuals stick a bit in the old brain pan. I can’t seem to push out the imagery of Ryouichi as a boy when he’s drawn into the work of the Undertaker, the rocks thrown at him by a couple of kids, and the absolute resignation on his face when he realizes that this is his life now. Even as a man you can see how lonely he is. During his travels he continues to search for his friend, Megumi, just in case she’s still wandering around out there, suffering in her undead state. And when tensions get high, usually as he’s searching a dark and unfamiliar area for threats, we hear a high pitched buzzing sound, like something you’d hear after listening to really loud rock music. This is where Ryouichi hallucinates that the world is as it was, bustling with people laughing and shopping, living the way they always have. Within seconds, though, reality crashes back in.

Even the zombies are sad and wretched. Some do appear like any others of film and television: moaning, trying to move with missing or broken limbs, munching on bodies. But when Ryouichi enters an abandoned shopping mall to look for Natsuki, he encounters some zombies clinging to actions of their old lives. Two women fight over a dress as an older man pushes a cart around picking up trash. Another man approaches Ryouichi and as he tries to tighten electrical cords around his neck he gurgles, “please kill me,” over and over. It’s chilling to realize that the guy is desperately trying to commit suicide but lacks the strength to put himself out of his own misery.

I think the worst one was Natsuki. Empathy for the undead is a rare feat to accomplish in this particular genre but writer/director Naoyoshi Kawamatsu manages to keep us in touch with their lost humanity even when the characters cannot.

There’s not a ton of dialogue in this movie. Most of the story is propelled with visuals and emoting by the actors. Most Japanese films use imagery and metaphor, not the blatant exposition normally used in American films, to explain plot and motivation. And it works very well in this film even though it drags a bit in a few places. Also the little glowy butterfly that hovers around Ryouichi, a widely used metaphor for transformation and spirituality, is such an obvious CGI component that it feels a bit distracting.

But if you can go into this film with the idea that it’s not going to be a typical gore fest and that the story focuses more on people and how they survive and adapt, I think you will enjoy this film as much as I did.

4 (out of 5) Hatchets

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