Here’s some sound advice for when the zombie apocalypse arrives: surround yourself with Australians. Assuming you’re not one of the first to turn in the world-ending plague of undeath, being in the company of folks from the land Down Under is a surefire way to ensure your safety once your friends’ and neighbors’ shambling corpses come calling for your brains. Aussies are handy with tools, know how to kick-start a burnt-out engine, and are crack shots with any firearm you give ‘em. Endurance is just in their blood.
That’s the big takeaway from Wyrmwood, the debut film of director Kiah Roache-Turner. Since its premiere at last year’s Fantastic Fest, Wyrmwood has been touted as a mix of The Road Warrior and Dawn of the Dead; the description fits, but frankly, Roache-Turner’s influences expand far and wide beyond the Georges, Miller and Romero. How do you watch zombie horror from Australia without thinking of Peter Jackson and the Spierig brothers, and what modern zombie flick doesn’t bear at least a partial resemblance to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies? Roache-Turner even evokes a little bit of Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead 3 here. That takes a measure of cojones.
Give Roache-Turner credit, though, for giving less than a damn about appearing derivative and going for broke in the departments of genuflection and splatter. Wyrmwood might be a scrappy, DIY horror film with standard-issue performances and more references than a Quentin Tarantino production, but it’s hyperactive and bursting with enthusiasm that hides its scuff marks. There’s a sense that no one involved cares about looking silly or cheap; thus, the film may be rough around the edges, but that hardly matters. Zombies with flammable breath, unexpected psychics, disco-dancing lunatic doctors, shotguns, hilarious Aborigine sidekicks; Wyrmwood has all of these elements.
The film begins with a meteor shower that turns a huge chunk of the world’s population into ravenous walking cadavers. Roache-Turner starts off in media res and winds back to the start, working scene by scene back to Wyrmwood‘s introductory zombie fracas; his approach at first suggests a much more po-faced movie than the one he’s actually made, but once he gets a grip on the reins, we’re treated to the tale of Barry (Jay Gallagher), who suffers the cruel fate of mercy-killing his wife and child once they turn into ghouls. Lesson learned: nobody in Wyrmwood is safe, so with the help of fellow survivor Benny (Leon Burchill, perhaps the film’s highlight), Barry hauls ass to retrieve his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradley), who falls into the hands of sinister military types performing weird experiments on the living dead.
Wyrmwood goes from self-serious to zany really fast, and that breakneck pace is a huge component of what ultimately makes the film successful. Roache-Turner hasn’t made a genre monument to rival the classics, but he’s certainly announced himself as an inventive filmmaker with energy to spare and a knack for putting his stamp on an homage. Wyrmwood isn’t original, but it’s exuberant; it’s easy to get on board with what Roache-Turner is doing here for that exact reason. His film is gory and hysterical in equal measure, and proudly wears its heritage on its sleeve.
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