Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)
Dir. Kiah Roache-Turner
Written by Kiah Roache-Turner, Tristan Roache-Turner
Starring Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradey, Leon Burchill
I recently saw one of those infographics (I know, I know, I never claimed to be a role model) which documents the prevalence of different horror movie monsters in different respective decades. Like any of these tiresome infographics, I have to imagine that at least 60% of the info here is pulled directly out of someone’s ass, and the rest is spottily sourced semi-random numbers plucked off of wikipedia lists. But even so, experience seems to confirm its main finding: zombie movies are more ubiquitous than they’ve ever been in cinematic history.
You can’t trip without falling into a zombie movie these days. We’ve seen fast zombies (28 DAYS LATER) slow zombies (The Walking Dead, emphasis on “walking”). We’ve seen zombies take to the air (FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), zombies taking to the pole (ZOMBIE STRIPPERS), zombies taking to the soccer green (GOAL OF THE DEAD). We’ve seen them fight ninjas (NINJAS VS ZOMBIES), Cockneys (COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES), Vampires (VAMPIRES VS ZOMBIES), strippers (STRIPPERS VS ZOMBIES, not to be confused with ZOMBIE STRIPPERS) and Abraham Lincoln (STEVEN SPIELBERG'S LINCOLN. Just kidding, it’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS ZOMBIES). We’ve seen them subject to tortured puns (ZOMBEAVERS, LIFE AFTER BETH, JUAN OF THE DEAD, DEAD AND BREAKFAST) and titles of rather uncomfortable bluntness (BIG TITS ZOMBIE, ZOMBIE ASS [aka: ”Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead”]). They’ve gone to Mars (LAST DAYS ON MARS), represented the Third Reich (DEAD SNOW, DEAD SNOW 2), been to, I guess, India? (THE DEAD 2: INDIA). We’ve seen holiday zombies (ZOMBIES VS MARDI GRAS, SILENT NIGHT ZOMBIE NIGHT), we’ve seen zom-coms (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) we’ve seen rom-zom-coms (BURYING THE EX), hell, we’ve seen zom-dram-rom-coms (WARM BODIES). We’ve seen no-budget indie zombies films (OJUJU) and $190,000,000 big-budget big-stars spectacles (WORLD WAR Z). And it hardly needs saying, but yes, we’ve seen zombies go postmodern (CABIN IN THE WOODS, ZOMBIELAND).
Wikipedia lists 85 separate zombie films since the October 31 2010 release of THEY WALK, or approximately 1.5 per month, every month, since 2010. And just a cursory glance at that wikipedia list reveals it has major omissions; for example, BURYING THE EX, EXIT HUMANITY, and VHS 2 don’t appear on it (they do now, thank you very much), so that number is unquestionably low, and possibly substantially so. Even with a truncated list, to put that into perspective: I could watch nothing but zombie films, at least two a day, every day, this whole Chainsawnukah season, and still not even get through the ones produced in the past 5 years.
All that adds up to one hard truth: if you’re making one of the 13+ zombie films that premiered in 2014 alone, you gotta ask yourself, is there really any more juice to be squeezed out of this particular lemon?
Fortunately, Aussie first-time indie filmmaker Kiah Roache-Turner either didn’t ask that question, or was more confident than his $160,000 budget would feasibly warrant, because he went ahead and did it anyway. And hey, against all odds, it turns out to have been worth it, because even the clumsy and mostly nonsensical double-moniker WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD* can’t stop this cheerful no-budget from being a real fun time.
It begins with the traditional zombie apocalypse as seen from the eyes of a cranky Outback everyman mechanic (Jay Gallagher, nothing) who has to see his family attacked and transformed into fright-contact-sporting monsters. Meanwhile, his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey, nothing) is being attacked in her urban art studio many miles away, and calls her brother for assistance. With his family gone, Barry must find a way across the zombie-strewn outback to rescue his sister, in the process accumulating a growing (and then shrinking) band of colorful survivors. You’d think the sparsely populated rural areas of Australia would be the best possible place to experience a zombie outbreak, but apparently there are more people living out there than one would imagine, as evidenced by the various hordes Barry and Co. have to fight through.
The zombie gore scenes are solid enough, with a hearty surplus of exploding heads and ripped off limbs, particularly considering that the film’s whole budget wouldn’t even buy me an apartment in this city. And I’m usually against CG blood, but if you’re going to use it to blow off this many heads, well, I’d say we can make an exception for that. But remember our little “I could watch nothing but zombie films...” talk from before. You’re going to need a lot more than somewhat-better-than-average red goop to make this worthwhile. WYRMWOOD provides that little extra oomph in two areas: first, it has a deliciously Aussie worldview on the subject of movies, inasmuch as there is really no scenario in which an Australian movie should be bereft of tricked-out MAD MAX armored vehicles. I’m pretty sure even PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK has a few, or if not I’m sure they’re in the deleted scenes, so this is hardly a unique twist.** But adding it to a standard zombie plot (along with our heroes’ over-the-top improvised armor) gives both genres a little goose, particularly when they improbably discover that zombie blood can be used for fuel, a clever way of integrating the two subgenres instead of simply running parallel. More interesting and more unusual, though, is the substantial subplot with Brooke, who is kidnapped by a weird cabal of gas-masked government types performing bizarre experiments which somehow turn her into some kind of crazy zombie psychic. Explaining exactly how this is accomplished, or even what the goal of doing so would be, is never even remotely attempted, but that’s fine, because the results are pretty fun and deliriously violent.
Not all the ideas here quite work; I’m mixed about the benefits of dropping a torture-porny mad science subplot in here, completely isolated from the main story for almost the entire runtime. It definitely provides some variety, but it makes the whole thing a bit unwieldy and episodic as well. The set pieces are uniformly boffo, but as a whole it doesn’t flow very well and consequently struggles to build momentum overall (possibly a result of the IMDB-reported 4-year shooting schedule, shooting only on weekends). But if it stumbles occasionally, at least it’s impressively single minded about delivering imaginative, bloody and energetic horror sequences, which it does, frequently.
Maybe more important still, it strikes the right tone, full of mordant humor but --at least superficially-- taking the characters and their drama seriously. It knows we’re not going to be too broken up over our hero losing his family, but it also knows the comedy will land a lot better if there’s a baseline reality established for it to play off of. It’s frenetic and filled with gory slapstick and exaggerated larger-than-life characters, but not so much that it turns into a low-stakes cartoon. Having likable, funny characters (special props to aboriginal charmer Leon Burchill) and crazy situations just makes it land a little harder when not everyone makes it through alive.
It’s somewhat miraculous to be saying this, but on a pound-for-pound basis this is one of the most entertaining zombie films I’ve seen in a good long time. There can’t be a lot more fuel in this subgenre, but WYRMWOOD manages to at least coast on fumes to its destination. And as the movie points out when its protagonists realize that zombies can be used as a cheap source of renewable fuel, every once and awhile even something familiar can find a new and unexpected use. WYRMWOOD doesn’t quite uncover something that pioneering, but at least it manages some of the more exotic and rewarding uses for the zombie trope we’ve seen in awhile. If we absolutely insist on cranking out zombie films at the current rate, we can only hope that all of them are executed with the same energy and desire to entertain that WYRMWOOD has.
*While we learned from CLIVE BARKER’S BOOK OF BLOOD that, “the dead have highways,” this doesn’t seem to be one of them, it’s just a regular highway that happens to have some zombies on it. Pretty weak gimmick to hang a movie title on. I’d have gone with HIGHWAYS AND DIE-WAYS.
**Apparently I subconsciously stole this joke from Mr. Majestyk over at Majestyk's Movies. You can visit the original here, but I urge you not to because if you do you'll realize that everything I didn't steal from Vern I stole from this treasury of affectionately acerbic film criticism.
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