Friday, 31 March 2017

Post-Apocalyptic Series (Part Three): Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead Review

Well isn't this something: a post-apocalyptic yarn about butch men covered in more leather and metal than a goth in a car accident. Where everyone drives grungy retro-fitted cars and uses bad-ass yet impractical guns to kill their fellow man. But enough about daily life in Australia, this is my review of Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. Chortle.

Given that 2016 played out like everyone was rolling ones on their d20s, and 2017 has sought the challenge of being worse, there's hardly a better time to delve back into the post-apocalypse genre. I'm going to need memories of good movies when I'm hungrily gnawing the flesh off my family members' bones, or working in one of Theresa May's post-Brexit slave camps. The only difference this time is that unlike Fallout, I hadn't seen Wyrmwood before deciding to review it.

Load-up your sawn-off shotgun and reduce your least favourite neighbours to bloody giblets like it's the End of Days. It's zombie apocalypse time.

Despite being made on a budget which would make World War Z snort the scarf off Brad Pitt's character, Wyrmwood can be said to achieve a lot with very little. A quality that can also be applied to myself, ladies. Wyrmwood is a 2014 Australian action-horror film best described as The Road Warrior meets Dawn of the Dead. Combining post-apocalyptic punk trappings with zombies seems highly logical but the only time I recall it being done was Land of the Dead. And my reaction to that film was akin to that of the pot washer after a feast at the Rumination Syndrome Society.

First impressions of Wyrmwood were rather patchy however. It begins in media res with a gang of blokes in cobbled together armour - the sort that looks like Jason Voorhees has had a tumble in an Ice Hockey supply store - fighting zombies and trying to steal a truck. Afterwards the group sit around like a bunch of girl scouts and swap stories. It's almost a game of guess which of these characters will survive as, out of the four men, we see only the backstories of the protagonist and lead support character.

We spend a good twenty minutes of the meagre 98 minute run time exploring the beginning of the zombie apocalypse and how this affected protagonist Barry (Jay Gallagher). Poor bloke: there's an apocalypse and he's called Barry. The problem is Barry's flashback is nothing we haven't seen done better in countless zombie films before. Here's a clue - Barry has a family. A red flag comparable to remembering that, as a child, you met a beloved 70's British celebrity.

Bazza's family are killed off, and Wyrmwood finally kicks up a notch. After euthanizing his zombified wife and daughter with a nailgun, Barry tries to off himself - only to find he is out of ammo (nails?). Delivering one of the best 'descent into madness' screams I've seen, both Barry and the film stop giving a shit. He goes all off the rails like Mad Max Rockatansky: trying to repeatedly off himself, and when that fails it just pisses him off more. Much of the movie from this point focuses on Barry's desire to fight everything, from zombies to his fellow man. It's a bit like that one episode of South Park/real life in which Russell Crowe goes fight-in' round the world.

Once Wyrmwood gets going it's unabashedly old-school: a movie with macho posturing, where character development rides second to one-liners, quantities of beer are drunk, and heads are exploded with reckless abandon. There's a madcap intensity to Wyrmwood, which is embodied by the brooding ruggedness of its protagonist. Barry's something of a turbulent force. Akin to a drunk tramp on the night bus, most of his dialogue consists merely of grunts and angry noises.

The directors, Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, effortlessly meld together traditional zombie horror with the more ludicrous splatter fest typical of early Peter Jackson. A scene early on plays out like something from a Sam Raimi film: a model turns into a zombie during a horror themed photo shoot, and is left furiously swinging from suspended chains all the while adorned in cartoonish monster makeup.

There's nothing in Wyrmwood that's out and out as gorific as Brain Dead's lawnmower scene, but similar to the kid at school who eats worms, Wyrmwood thrives entirely on gruesome spectacle.

It certainly can't be held it by its story alone, because it doesn't have one. Not a good one anyway. Nothing is explained and shit just happens: it's not entirely dissimilar in tone to The Signal. There's a meteor shower, zombies attack, and Barry's sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) is abducted by who have a scientist (somehow hammier than a Herbert West effigy made out of ham) perform experiments on her. Barry's mission to find his sister is what drives the film, though he doesn't know she's been kidnapped or where she's been taken to, so that plot is resolved in a manner I imagine is similar to how you had to meet up before the advent of mobile phones: he just journeys out in a vague direction and bumps into her.

The 'because it's cool' mantra is definitely applied throughout Wyrmwood: such as the scene where Barry and the other survivors neck beers from a cooler that's got a zombie mate in it, armour up to resemble rejects from Lord Humungus' gang, and then the mad bastards retrofit a truck with a harpoon launcher. A weapon which is wholly inefficient for dealing with the undead hordes, and yet utterly cool - it's the sort of thing you'd get if you merged a Bond villain with a redneck who enjoys those Cabela Big Game Hunter video games.

To truly appreciate Wyrmwood's insanity you need to understand two things: the writers fully enforce the Crazy Australian trope, and a large portion of the plot takes place during the first day of the zombie apocalypse. It's almost as though the populace of an insufferably hot country - a people who descended from criminals and have turned drinking beer into a national pastime - are just itching for the apocalypse to start so they can knock ten bells of shit out of each other.

I don't even recall any of the characters pausing to actually assess the situation: a few choice assailants show up, everyone calls it a zombie apocalypse, and the characters gleefully start the killing. They stop only to posture or drink beer, and then carry right back on again. Though I think that's just how social occasions go in Australia. I'm not even exaggerating about the beer. There is a scene in Wyrmwood in which survivalist Frank (Keith Agius), fatally bitten by a zombie, opens a first aid box that's full of beer and cracks open a cold one.

Perhaps the reason for the frantic approach is that Wyrmwood is at its worst when it slows down - this is especially true of the final act. So the film constantly has to up the ante and keep an intense pace, like Keanu Reeves when he ran over that paparazzo with his Porsche. I was going to go with a Speed reference but I do enjoy reminding people that famous people are dicks.

As a zombie movie, Wyrmwood is one of the most original since Fido. It seems like the perfect marriage between the new and old school: during the daytime scenes the zombies are mere shambling corpses, but when it turns to night they charge forth with the bloodthirstiness of a feminist at a dick measuring contest.

Wyrmwood's zombies also have blood with unusual properties. When it's day, the zombie's blood is combustible and as such can be used as a fuel. This comes in handy as, for poorly defined reasons, all conventional fuel suddenly became unusable the very moment the apocalypse started. Naturally the zombies end up wired into the car and, for lack of a better word, 'milked'. Clearly a clever reference to Blair's Oil Wars, amirite?.

Speaking of poorly defined explanations, which make up ninety percent of Wyrmwood's screenplay, there's the issue of Brooke. For example, we are never given an adequate reason as to why the doctor shoving objects down Brooke's throat, and injecting her with zombie blood, enables her to control zombies with the power of her mind. Brooke's telepathy does provide Wyrmwood with several of its best sequences, however. The big finale, in particular, utilises Brooke's latent abilities effectively: Brooke sics an armada of zombies against the evil soldiers in a manner reminiscent of an internet personality setting their rabid fanbase after anyone who dents their overinflated ego.

Overall Wyrmwood is a strong effort from Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner. Not a perfect film by any means but a decent zombie movie for the budget. There's a lot of bloody carnage and the practical effects are largely convincing. The zombie make-up isn't up there with the likes of The Walking Dead but it's serviceable, and the fact that even low budget films can pull off visceral zombies shows how far movies have come since Night of the Living Dead.

What lets Wyrmwood down is that the directors couldn't quite decide what kind of movie they wanted to make. All signs point to leading to a Mad Max spiritual successor: Barry goes down the deep end, pushed forward only by a singular objective, and only becomes involved with people through chance even when they clearly piss him off (such as Benny, played by Aboriginal actor Leon Burchill, a highly entertaining yet annoying one-liner machine). It's even got car combat, and the sort of Fury Road style grunge with zombies hooked up to Barry's car - their blood-fuel serving to power it. 

But the film takes a turn at the end which left a sour taste in my mouth. Just when you think the directors are about to put the final pieces into place to set up a The Road Warrior style sequel, Wyrmwood changes course and focuses on Brooke's psychic silliness. The way Wyrmwood ends pretty much quashed my enthusiasm for a sequel as, while a cool set piece to close with, it suggests a hypothetical Wyrmwood 2 would be very different from the one I'd want.

It's as cruel a bait-and-switch as thinking you're about to enjoy a nice mug of Yorkshire Tea only to find it's actually that piss water they call Lipton Tea instead.

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