Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Kenji Matsuda
Ryuhei Kitamura is a young Japanese film maker (born 1969) who made this hyper fast, over the top zombie action horror martial arts spectacle named Versus in 2000. The film takes place in a forest for all the time, I don't think any of the actors are too big of stars, and the behind the scenes footage on the film's DVD shows they had a lot of fun on the set (which is easy to believe after the f ilm), so Versus is perhaps the greatest example of not-too-big budget B level horror cinema with more talent and inventiveness than in most mainstream big buck productions.
Two criminals find themselves in a mysterious forest. They meet a bunch of heavily armed (of course) Yakuza criminals who have some girl as a hostage. No one seems to know what is going to happen and soon the most suspicious of the Yakuza get nervous and fire their guns causing the sudden death of one of the gang members. Things get tense. Nothing had prepared them for the horror they feel when they see their friend stand up soon after his death, spewing blood from his mouth and attacking the living like a flesh eater. I don't know what a flesh eater is in this Japanese zombie film, but at least it is a zombie, and soon the forest is full of them. At this point, the Yakuza remember they have buried many of their unfortunate former victims on that forest so now it is time for the criminals to pay for their sins as the corpses get back to life. The ride of 120 minutes of ultra-over-the-top carnage has begun and what follows is something that would make Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and any Hong Kong director see wet dreams.
The film is easy to categorize as "cool" as everything in it tries to be as cool as possible. The "hero" is a hot young male wearing black leather and naturally he protects the Yakuza kidnapped girl. There are plenty of humorous elements and over acting which is a negative point in my book. I would prefer serious cinema even in a genre like this. It all looks so light and entertaining without any ambition. But fortunately the short scenes of "slapstick" don't come too often and the film concentrates mostly on the furious horror action.
The film has some wonderful editing and cinematography and they used panorama lenses for most of the time, creating a very, let's say, quirky, creepy and hysterical atmosphere for the film. The forest is very beautiful and occasionally reminds me of the forest seen in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's harrowing 1997 masterpiece Kichiku dai Enkai as well as Shinya Tsukamoto's great 1999 surreal masterpiece Gemini and its riverside scenes.
The action is fast and furious with many great camera drives, angles (the camera is twisted or moving for most of the time) and usage of wires to make the imagery even more hysterical and breathtaking. The martial arts is pretty good and the wires are never visible or irritating, as they add to the cartoonish aspect of the film. Some of the angles utilize the huge bullet wounds the zombies (and humans) get in a way that the Italian Antonio Margheriti and his 1980 cannibal exploitationer Apocalipse Domani aka Cannibal Apocalypse would turn to green in comparison (and accidentally, that similar scene in Margheriti's film was the ONLY ONE that was shown in one of the film's Japanese teasers on early eighties!).
The film is also ultra violent exercise in cinematic carnage. Zombies as well as humans get blasted, ripped, shot to shreds, hit and the speed that even the mentioned makers of similar horror comedies Evil Dead (1982) and Braindead (1992) would probably applause. When a guy smashes his fist through a zombie's skull in a juicy (literally) close up and tears its eyes off with his fingers, I don't think anyone can feel upset by that, which was definitely not the intention either. The effects are very good and if the budget was low, it definitely doesn't show in the effects and the color red that dominates the screen.
The film has also a quite unnecessary historical subplot that only confuses things and makes the film run for slightly too long. The beginning in the history, however, is among the greatest beginnings I've ever seen (really!) as it grabs anyone's attention with awesome soundtrack, menacing sentences appearing on screen and the zombies getting closer to some mysterious character in some mysterious place. This really nailed me. The sonic elements, and similarly effective beginning I can imagine can be found in a dark Hong Kong / Korean co-production action thriller Beyond Hypothermia (Johnnie To, 1996) which also filled its first frames with images that didn't leave my eyes and mind alone. Otherwise, the soundtrack in Versus is not anything special and also manages to irritate with its repeated "groovy" electric guitars and techno sounds as they all are as unnecessary for me as the above mentioned scenes of stupid humor and (not creative) silliness, and for the same reasons.
Versus is a great film of its genre, having only few problems mentioned above, and it is indeed on the same level with Raimi's Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 (1987), Jackson's Braindead, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985, USA), Dan O' Bannon's Return of the Living Dead (1985, USA) among the other witty and funny horror comedies dealing with zombies, still these films never forgetting the atmospheric and real horror elements to deliver. And since Versus comes from one of the greatest cinema lands on Earth, Japan, I can't give it less than a bow, a cup of the best sake and 8/10.
Reviewed by: Kelly Kelley