(Or: how you can do things right by doing nothing wrong, and adding some brains...)
It's hard to think of a more tired horror sub-genre than the zombie flick. Due to the popularity of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead
and especially his apocalyptic full-color sequel Dawn of the Dead
, every fan with a movie camera has always kept the genre from dying out entirely. But the last decade has seen a revival of the undead which is almost better described as a plague! From no-budget to high-budget, from funny to gory, from slow-shuffling to fast-running, we've seen it all. Hell, zombies even successfully jumped over to television, in a high-profile multi-season series.
So I was surprised by the great word-of-mouth surrounding Sato Shinsuke's I Am A Hero
, based on Hanazawa Kengo's famous manga. At its core, it's a pretty basic zombie film, and how much gory action would we expect in a mainstream-aimed film from the director of Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror
And I'm saying "word-of-mouth" rather than "hype" because outside of Japan, you can't really speak of a hype yet, which is a damn shame. For this is one of the few films which warrants hyping a bit. It played at the Imagine Film Festival Amsterdam last week, and I know some zombie fans who missed it just by not assuming too much of it. And miss it they did, because holy shit, does this film pack a wallop!
In I Am A Hero
we follow Suzuki Hideo, "spelled with the symbol for Hero" as he himself constantly reminds people. He's an unsuccessful assistant manga artist who constantly dreams of bigger things, but never manages to reach them.
But then a virus hits Japan, killing people left and right and transforming them into rabid flesh-eating monsters, whose bite immediately infects others. Suddenly Hideo is on the run for his life, helped a bit by being one of the few people in Japan who owns a shotgun and a full bullet-vest to go with it. If only he'd actually dare shoot at something...
As I'm unfamiliar with the source manga, I cannot testify how close to it the film adaptation is, but storywise you basically get everything a zombie lover could want: the epic outbreak, fleeing the city, surviving in the wild, meeting good survivors and bad survivors, getting trapped in a zombie-siege... What sets I Am A Hero
apart is that it treats each of these episodes seriously, and with a character-driven approach. Instead of just going with "cool, we've got zombies and a guy with a shotgun", the film focuses on putting a select number of people, Hideo most of all, in sticky situations and confronting them with the consequences of their actions. In fact, this may be one of the best treatises on cowardice, decency, survival and heroism I've ever seen. Is Suzuki a hero? You decide, and the answer isn't as clear-cut as you'd think. There sure is no standard teenage wish-fulfilment here, and famous stage actor Ōizumi Yō plays his craven protagonist with respect and honesty, with none of the lovable goofy shenanigans you might expect in a comedy.
As for the gore, there are no limits, so we get superfluous eye gougings and all. In bloodiness it's the bastard child of Dawn of the Dead
and Evil Dead 2
. And the diversity of zombies is fantastic here, most of them half reverting into regular behaviour when there are no living people nearby, and some start muttering or even singing. They look creepy too, as if their design-DNA has as much Ito Junji flavor in it as it has Hanazawa Kengo flavor. Most films get by with a "hero zombie" or two (think Bub in Day of the Dead
or Tar Man in Return of the Living Dead
), but here there are many, many zombies which become memorable characters. "What's up with that one?" Hideo asks a fellow survivor at one point, referring to a particularly bizarre corpse spider-crawling around. The reply he gets: "I don't know, some of them do not make sense". That's funny, but also disquieting, and eerier the longer you think about it.
I Am A Hero
is epic, gory, funny, poignant, and very very creepy at times. The only reason Romero's Dawn of the Dead
is better, is because that film provided the base for the entire genre, tropes and all, and this film obviously uses it as a template. But I Am A Hero
uses that template well, and it's winwinwin all the way. There is something you want to see when you go to a zombie film, and this one provides it. It's rare to see expectations surpassed this fully on all fronts.
Audiences in Amsterdam thought so too and awarded the film a score of 8.3 out of 10, making it end in the Top-5 of that festival, something I fully agree with. For a film in this sub-genre, in these film-zombie-infested times, I find that pretty damn amazing.