Helldriver (2010)
By: Stuart Giesel on January 31, 2013 | Comments
Monster Pictures | Region 4, NTSC | 1.77:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Japanese DD 5.1 | 117 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Starring: Yumiko Hara, Eihi Shiina, Yurei Yanagi, Kazuki Namioka, Minoru Torihada
Screenplay: Yoshihiro Nishimura, Daichi Nagisa
Country: Japan
External Links
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The cover of the DVD proclaims: "From the maker of Tokyo Gore Police and Machine Girl". Make note of this. If you didn't like either of those films, you'll hate Helldriver. If you thought they were too gory, too over-the-top, too excessive, then know that they look like Merchant-Ivory films compared to Helldriver. But more importantly, do you like hate bad CGI and (mostly) cheap and poorly-executed gore effects? If the answer is yes, I'd consider giving this a pass. Personally, unlike my fellow reviewers here at DR, I thought Helldriver was a bit of a stinker despite my love of abundant gore, silly humour and ridiculous content (see: Father's Day). And this is coming from someone who liked both Tokyo Gore Police and The Machine Girl.

A zombie outbreak, caused by a meteor strike and resultant ash, is slowly spreading across Japan. Schoolgirl Kika (Yumiko Hara) witnesses her father being killed and eaten by her deranged mother Rikka (Eihi Shiina) and her brother Yasushi. Another stray meteor strikes Rikka in the chest, and Rikka - as you do - takes Kika's heart as her own. Kika gets a mechanical heart and chainsaw blade as replacement and is sent out by the government to stop Rikka - now known as the zombie queen - before the outbreak infects all of Japan. It sounds like the basis for a fun, gory romp across Japan, and to an extent Helldriver delivers. In fact, the problem is that Helldriver overdelivers, again and again...

My biggest gripe with Helldriver isn't its excessive run time (though this is a problem) or ridiculous scenarios - it's the shoddy CGI. Just because a film like Helldriver is pure shlock and meant to be a "bad" film, it doesn't mean the filmmakers have carte blanche to make a cheap and poorly executed film. This is the sort of film that cries out for practical effects - even done haphazardly, they have a lot more charm than a poor computer-generated effect done with Adobe After Effects. Take any gore shot from something like The Toxic Avenger and I guarantee it's more effective than anything in Helldriver. I know, I know, the budget was pretty damn small (I hear something like $600K) so if that's the case then kudos to director (and writer and editor and everything else) Yoshihiro Nishimura for stretching it as far as he could possibly take it. It seems, however, that the extreme constraints of such a small budget and - according to the making of feature - an extremely tight shooting schedule has resulted in a loud and rushed mess that just happens to have moments of brilliance.

I appreciate when a film goes for broke, where the filmmakers go "fuck it" and throw everything they have at the screen and hope that at least some of it sticks. Helldriver is a case of Nishimura doing just that. But unlike something like The Machine Girl, Helldriver's ridiculous excesses prove to be its downfall. Absolutely no restraints are made. If Nishimura thought of it, chances are it's here, logic and relevance to the story be damned. Fine, if that's how this is going to play out, but when it results in something this unrestrained it leads to viewer weariness and, eventually, apathy. When every scene contains something completely bonkers, something so outrageous, that you wonder how they'll top it, it soon becomes an exercise in futility. You stop wondering how the makers will top the last bit of ridiculousness and then start wondering precisely why you're watching this and how long it has to go. If Helldriver had some restraint and was able to better use its clearly limited budget in better ways, it would have worked wonders. Instead of trying to make a bloated epic apocalyptic zombie horror movie, if the makers had scaled back the scope and put more of the budget towards practical effects rather than bargain basement CGI, they would have had something approaching Peter Jackson's Bad Taste. Bad Taste, despite its low budget, provided abundantly outrageous scenes of gore but still had a plot (admittedly not much of one), genuine humour and mountains of charm.

Let me divert a little. A point of reference is George Romero's third Dead film, Day of the Dead. Originally Romero had an epic zombie film planned for his followup to the landmark Dawn of the Dead, but soon realised he needed a much larger budget to film his vision. He had a choice - accept a larger budget and a mandatory R-rating from the MPAA, or cut the budget - and the script - and shoot Unrated. The rest is history. Though Day suffered from being mostly set underground, you have to admit that the gore set-pieces by Tom Savini still holds up as some of the best ever filmed. Some fans in fact claim that Day is the best of the series, and Romero has stated that it's his favourite. The point here is that Romero had to scale back the scope of his script when he realised he didn't have the resources to film them. So what did Nishimura do with Helldriver? Well, as far as I can tell from the Making Of, he figured he'd just shoot it all. A ridiculous number of shots were planned for each day. Instead of shooting for quality, he went for quantity.

Helldriver just hopes to divert your attention away from the aspects that it skimped on; namely plot, characters you care about, and any semblance of emotional involvement, be it suspense or genuine horror or some belly laughs. It's fine for a film to have a low budget, it just means the filmmakers have to be prudent on where the money goes. Helldriver's scope is far beyond what a low budget could have afforded without it looking crap. If you're thinking that it's okay, that the film is in no way meant to be serious and it was the director's intention for it to look cartoonish, then I point you to Olaf Ittenbach. Whatever his limitations as a writer and director (and actor), he knows his strengths and can balance his film accordingly. Hence, an ultra-low budget film like The Burning Moon or Premutos has far better effects and emotional payoff (even if the only emotion is nausea) than Helldriver. The gore in Helldriver is of two varieties: one, the "spray blood into the camera" variety, and two, the "let's CGI the shit out of it" variety. Guess which effect is more visceral? And even the blood spray effect gets old awfully fast, when everything from a severed hand to a ripped finger produces immense quantities of the red stuff like water gushing from a fire hydrant. Again, some restraint would have ensured that the bloodshed had more impact. As it stands it's like an annoying kid screaming in your ear constantly, only periodically altering its pitch to an even higher degree to see if you're paying attention.

Granted, Helldriver is imaginative if nothing else. However, you get the feeling that it would have worked better as an animated film or a manga rather than a live action feature film. If you thought The Machine Girl could have been more epic in scope, or Tokyo Gore Police was a little bloodless, then no doubt Helldriver will be right up your alley. There are also a few bits that feel cribbed from Peter Jackson's Braindead, including a zombie baby that looks and sounds all-too-familiar. However it's crammed full of ideas of its own, some which mesh, some which belong in another film entirely. There's a subplot about the fight for zombie rights which feels like it belongs more in a Romero zombie film than in Helldriver. An interesting twist on the genre which is mentioned, but isn't explored in any depth, is how the glands from zombies can produce an addictive narcotic. Unfortunately this is almost used as a throwaway line - why didn't Nishimura explore this interesting plot thread? There's also is a nice section which gives us almost a documentary feel about the outbreak and its effects on Japan, including on the political side of things - think Robert De Niro's voiceover explaining how a casino runs in Martin Scorsese's Casino. This part works so well, I wish Nishimura had given us more of those scenes.

Acting-wise, Eihi Shiina's gleefully unhinged Zombie Queen character is a standout. Unfortunately she's sidelined for a good chunk of the film. Yumiko Hara's character Kika is, sad to say, a bore, and Hara has little screen presence here. I'm sure she did her best; shame Nishimura didn't give her anything decent to work with. And Hara seems to have one expression - constipated - regardless of whether she's slicing zombies in two, deflecting bullets, acting angry or in pain or crying. A cowboy character Kaito appears later in the film to lend a hand and was probably meant to be funny or ironic or something, but simply looks ridiculous.

Still, when you have utterly twisted scenes every five or ten minutes, you can accept that Nishimura's epic zombie story come to life does at least have things you've never seen before in a movie. Examples include a car made out of zombie body parts, a shrieking zombie with baby arms growing out of her face that wield utensils, and the zombie equivalent of a long-range batter, sending severed zombie heads out into the field with all the finesse of Babe Ruth.

Helldriver is gleefully dumb and entertaining so long as you don't mind a cavalcade of terrible CGI interspersed with some admittedly okay makeup and gore effects. I know I'm not supposed to stay mad at a film that features, amongst many other things, a severed head attacking a woman's crotch, but - dammit - I did find the film a slog to get through. Give a director with a vision no boundaries (other than budgetary) to make a film and you can end up with a masterpiece or a disaster; guess which one Helldriver is. Okay, that's unfair -- by no means is it terrible or unwatchable, but it does waste some solid ideas that might have worked better if they'd been fleshed out properly. My advice is to try before you buy.
The Disc
The video quality on the Helldriver DVD is hit-and-miss, though I hazard a guess that this is mostly due to the original source which suffers from excessive post-processing fuckery. Some scenes are horrendously interlaced, and due to the overuse of CGI there are precious few scenes that don't look unappealing.

The 5.1 audio track (Japanese soundtrack only with optional English subtitles) does the job and for what it's worth the picture sounds better than it looks, though some of the sound effects get tiresome (namely uncle Yasushi's persistent grunts and growls) and the music score is equally workmanlike and repetitive. But with excessive screams, gunshots and blood spurts overwhelming the soundtrack, it'll certainly give your sound system enough of a workout to have the neighbours considering calling the police, wondering what sort of mayhem is going on next door.

Monster's release of Helldriver on DVD comes on two discs. Disc one has the (mercifully shorter) International Cut. Disc two has the Extended Japanese Version which has a few extra scenes that don't really add much of value and merely extend an already overlong film. The second disc has a trailer and a very good Making Of featurette that runs for about 45 minutes and provides a detailed and fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes of Helldriver, which includes Nishimura and his collaborators talking about the restrictions imposed by such a small budget and the demands of the ridiculously tight fifteen-day shooting schedule.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
If good intentions and vision were enough to make a great film, Helldriver would be close to a masterpiece. But the final product is what matters, not the constraints of the production or the hellish conditions endured by cast and crew, and despite its wild imagination the finished film falls short. Because Helldriver is absolutely, completely unrestrained it tries to throw everything it's got against the screen, meaning very little of it sticks. Fun if you're in the mood for it, a pain if you're not. If you're new to Nishimura's work I'd suggest you start with Tokyo Gore Police first.

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