Yoshihiro Nishimura 's Helldriver is set in a world plagued by zombies ever since the advent of a mysterious mist, which has spread across Japan and turned people into walking corpses. The government, not really having many other options, decides to build a sort of massive quarantine zone into which all the zombies are rounded up, thus preventing further contamination. Into this world comes a pretty young woman named Kika (Yumiko Hara) who is hired by the government to go into the infected zone to destroy the zombie queen who lives there. From there, it just gets nuttier, with alien star fish arriving on the scene and complicating matters as Kika and her comrades in arms slaughter their way to the finish line to hopefully complete their quest and save the day - but complicating things is the presence of Rikka (Eihi Shiina), her cruel and bizarre mother.
One of the more recent offerings from Nikkatsu's Sushi Typhoon label (which was created to basically delivers low budget gore and splatter movies, primarily aimed at the foreign home video market though sometimes receiving theatrical play, often at film festivals and the like), Nishimura's film can be a little tough to follow in spots as it relies quite heavily on flashbacks to tell the story and set up the plot. Once you wrap your head around what's going on, however, it's hard not to have a good time with this one, especially if you appreciate gore effects. While this film doesn't necessarily get deep or really try to get you to think, the plot is a bit more clever than the above synopsis might lead you to believe, particularly when you realize how much of it is an allegory for the film industry.
None of this would work if the film weren't cast right, but thankfully lovely leading lady Yumiko Hara proves to be more than game. She's got a great screen presence and handles the action scenes with loads of sexy style. Alongside Ms. Hara, front and center in all of this is Eihi Shiina, the absolutely beautiful young woman who first came to the attention of international audiences with her star making performance in Takashi Miike's classic, Audition. If you've seen that movie, you'll know that Shiina can do sweet and meek perfectly, but you'll also know that she's got a knack for letting her dark side really shine through and as such, she actually makes for a pretty solid heroine here. She may not look tough, but once the movie starts picking up steam and she's forced to fight or die, the kid gloves come off and her work more or less speaks for itself. If you enjoyed her work in similar movies like Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl and Tokyo Gore Police (also Nishimura movies) then you'll appreciate her work here, and the fact that she's as easy on the eyes as she is doesn't hurt things in the least either.
Shiina's good looks aside, Helldriver is pretty creative with its gore effects even by the already admittedly loopy standards of the whole recent crop of Japanese splatter films. A mix of practical effects and CGI, the film is gooey, gory and gross but not without a sense of humor about itself in this regard. Like many of Nishimura's movies it takes things so far over the top and to such a ridiculous extreme that it's hard to take any of it all too seriously, nor are you supposed to. How often do you get to witness near death by meteor, only to have a character save herself by ripping out her own daughter's still beating heart and placing it inside the gaping chest wound the meteor left behind? It's that kind of movie, not necessarily a 'so bad it's good' film as a lot of people seem to expect, but more like a movie that's just out to entertain by whatever means possible. With references to earlier Nishimura films, traditional western zombie films and sci-fi movies like Blade Runner worked into the mix, Helldriver succeeds at that goal and then some.
Helldriver was shot on high definition video and the AVC encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p presentation showcases the movie in its original aspect ratio. The image is as clean as you'd expect though it has a very artificial look at times, no thanks to the goofy CGI that is used throughout the movie and the fact that a whole lot of post production color tweaking has been done. This actually works in the context of the world where the film takes place, however - the movie obviously isn't going for realism. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts to note despite the fact that the movie is on a 25GB disc, and black levels are generally strong and deep. Contrast is properly set and while it doesn't take an eagle-eyed viewer to notice periodic instances of banding and aliasing, these problems are minor and overall this is quite a good transfer.
Audio options are supplied in Japanese language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and in Japanese language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with optional subtitles available in English only. The Japanese lossless surround mix is definitely the way to go here, it sounds pretty decent. The track spreads things out nicely during the action scenes and adds a bit more depth to the mix where you'd want it to - you'll really notice a lot of activity during the movie's insane finale. Obviously the 2.0 track doesn't have the range or the directionality of the 5.1 mix, nor is it as strong sounding but it's there for those who want it. Regardless of which option you go for, dialogue is well balanced as are effects and the film's score and there aren't any real problems here. The English subs are free of any obvious typos and are easy to read.
Well Go USA have provided a few featurettes here, the first of which is a featurette on the Sushi Typhoon imprint (20:06) which includes some interviews with the filmmakers involved in this new venture. Also included here are a trio of short films related to the feature, the first of which is Helldriver Dokata (11:07). It's a zombie movie in the same spirit as the main attraction, as are the second and third shorts, Catch Me If You Can (11:23), involving a wheelchair bound girl and her sister and Bailout! (19:11), which follows two guys who are conned by a pair of mysterious women. Rounding out the extras on the disc are a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Well Go USA titles, an intro from director Yoshihiro Nishimura, animated menus and chapter stops. The Blu-ray disc fits inside the keepcase which in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcase featuring identical cover art and text.
Helldriver might be as goofy as it is gory but it's still a lot of fun, delivering some effective black comedy along the way and telling a more interesting story than you might expect it to. Well Go USA's Blu-ray disc looks and sounds very good and has a few decent extra as well, making this one recommended, so long as you're a fan of such material.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.