Running time: 85 minutes
Last week's news of AMC's in-development spinoff of The Walking Dead excited some people, but, for this lifelong zombie movie fanatic, the reaction was merely a groan. As much as I appreciate The Walking Dead, does the world really need another zombie-heavy TV show? Why must every popular horror trend get run six-feet into the ground? We've seen it happen recently with vampires, no thanks to Twilight and True Blood, and now it's looking like those in-vogue reanimated corpses are on the verge of overexposure. When imagination-free producers decide to bastardize George A. Romero's classic Day of the Dead (1985) with a second sure-to-be-abysmal remake, you know it's time to worry.
Which explains my initial trepidation to spend 85 minutes with Miss Zombie here at Fantastic Fest. But, alas, my predilection towards fictional walkers compelled me into the theatre, anticipating very little from Japanese actor-turned-filmmaker Sabu (recognized by his country's government as Hiroyuki Tanaka). Even the plot synopsis sounds anticlimactic, if not Snooze City: A doctor, with his wife and young son, receive a mysterious box, in which there's a twenty-something aged member of the living dead. Zombies are as commonplace as gardeners in this faux version of Japan, though, so there's no cause for alarm. In fact, they immediately put her (or it?) to work outside, washing their concrete walkway every day. How exciting does that seem? About as enthralling as watching grass grow in a cemetery.
Well, color me incorrect. What could very well end up being Fantastic Fest's most pleasant surprise, Miss Zombie is the best undead horror flick to come around in years. Much like how Jim Mickle's profoundly slept-on Stake Land (2011) breathed new energy into the vampire motif, Sabu's black-and-white horror-drama takes the zombie template and subverts in intelligent, fascinating ways. The titular servant girl, played terrifically by actress Komatsu Ayaka, harkens back to the aforementioned Day of the Dead's "Bub," Romero's obedient and endearing ghoul. With its limited dialogue and hypnotic repetition (the characters' daily routines rarely change throughout the film;s first half), Miss Zombie slowly lulls the viewer into a trance, with Ayaka's zombie acting as the magician's ticking clock. Unable to say anything, Ayaka's performance is all in the eyes, those seemingly lifeless pupils through which she channels sadness, helplessness, and, once Miss Zombie inevitably veers into violence, muted rage.
Sabu's hook is an interesting one: How far can people be pushed before they snap, even if they're, you know, dead? The no-pulse protagonist is constantly treated like a second-class citizen—neighborhood kids throw rocks at her, juvenile delinquents regularly plunge sharp objects into her shoulder to see if she'll ever react. The real disturbance, however, comes from what could be a horror movie first: zombie rape. Compliant to men's demands because, well, she's incapable of thinking freely (being brain-dead and all), the eponymous girl gradually becomes a sexual plaything for several men. It's through that narrative wrinkle that Sabu delicately sends Miss Zombie into the pantheon of women-revenge cinema, sharing space with movies like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981). Unlike the vengeful ladies in those films, though, Ayaka never loses her sympathetic nature—it's evident that her retribution is just as painful for her as it is for the victims.
Film festivals are a gift and a curse for movies like Miss Zombie. Explanation for the former is obvious—with countless press members and distribution company buyers in attendance, events like Fantastic Fest are launching pads for independent movies to either receive positive online reviews or land at companies that will eventually give the filmmakers VOD and/or theatrical exposure, or both. But what about the numerous films that don't get bought yet are just as good as, and sometimes even better than, the ones that do? Sadly, their fates often don't extend past "Remember that great film we saw last year—whatever happened to that?" It'd be a damn shame if Miss Zombie follows that unfortunate path.
Sabu has done something special here, tapping into the inherent humanity found within zombie fiction without neglecting the horror genre's need to unsettle. The film's final scenes are deeply disturbing and tough to shake off. There's no commercial break or Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick to downplay the trauma.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)