Times are tough all over, especially if you're a zombie.
Though Miss Zombie has obviously been made with skillful intent, the film's dry, art house flavor mutes any horror impact from its premise. And that appears to have been an intentional move on the part of writer/director Sabu.
Sabu is the creative 'pen name,' as it were, of Tanaka Hiroyuki, who acts under his given name, and here I must admit to a limited familiarity with his work, which has been largely limited to the international festival circuit. But one doesn't need to be intimate with his prior films to recognize his ability to frame and stage dramatic action with arresting style.
Miss Zombie begins with the delivery of a very large package to the home of a prosperous doctor and his family. When the package is uncrated, it reveals a cage -- with a living dead person sitting peacefully inside, along with a slim instruction manual -- "do not feed meat - will become feral" -- and a revolver, just in case human life is threatened. The zombie, (formerly) a woman, is described as "almost human" by the standards that have evolved after a "zombie virus" swept ... Japan? The world?
Such details are not germane. What is relevant is that "Miss Zombie," played by Komatsu Ayaka, does not utter a sound and appears to be quite docile, satisfied with eating rotten fruit and vegetables, and endlessly scrubbing an outdoor patio that never seems to get any cleaner from her bent-over labors on hands and knees. It's not exactly clear what purpose she is serving; the doctor claims that the zombie belongs to a former employee who will soon collect his property, but as the days pass by, it seems that the doctor has ulterior motives in mind.
Meanwhile, his wife seems pleased with a new household servant, and his young son seems quite fascinated by having a zombie in close proximity. Frankly, poor "Miss Zombie" is a pathetic sight. She's been facially disfigured by the virus and is plainly of the traditional 'slow walker' variety, shuffling through town and past a group of kids who never fail to throw stones and hurl epithets at her on her daily rounds. She also suffers at the hands of certain despicable adult men, who take advantage of her inability to defend herself or call out for help.
She may no longer be able to express herself verbally, but she harbors deep feelings about her own family, and those feelings well up when the doctor's son is fatally injured, and "Miss Zombie" is called upon to perform a chore that is not mentioned in the instruction manual.
Miss Zombie is a film that's easier to admire or analyze than to enjoy. Daisuke Soma's cinematography, presented in black and white, is starkly effective, which fits a story that plays out for much of the running time within one chord of emotional expression. For horror movie fans (including myself), it's not new to suggest that zombies are an afflicted, disadvantaged, or oppressed class of people, so the film's thematic angles fail to engage. And the style of filmmaking is alienating, rather than inviting or particular intriguing.
The film doesn't go anywhere unexpected, either with the zombie perspective or the family angle. Of the two or three Sabu-directed movies that I can recall seeing, The Blessing Bell is the one that is lodged most firmly in my mind. It, too, did not build up to some kind of explosive climax, but it did feel like a journey that explored characters and then had a great narrative turn that made it all worthwhile.
This film does not do anything like that, nor does it provide much else of its own personality or meaning, beyond the distinctive black-and-white photography and super-quiet approach to the zombie sub-genre. To be absolutely fair, one more thing stands in its favor: the sound of "Miss Zombie" scrubbing the outdoor patio to her own rhythm may be among the most memorable sounds of the year.
Miss Zombie made its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest. It screens again on Wednesday, September 25.