You don't see it so much anymore, but there was a time when Troma, along with Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, dominated the homemade horror movie aesthetic. Anyone interested in bringing blood and gore to the screen saw Lloyd Kaufman's hack and slash Hellsapoppin' approach (or better yet, said Fake Shemp's surreal splatter slapstick) and figured they could readily recreate the same. Sadly, what they offered in ambition they usually lacked in talent or tenacity. Take Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay, for example. With its cosmic thang set-up, government cabal subplotting, and significant promise of grue, you'd never think of it as a rightful reference to The Toxic Avenger or other Slime City inspired homages. Even worse, director Kazuo 'Gaira' Komizu has done significantly better work, including the ludicrously vile (if artistically approachable) Entrails of a Virgin/Entrails of a Beautiful Woman. As a result, what should be a goofy old gorefest with lots of irreverent humor transforms into a true test of your patience.
A meteorite falls from the sky, right into Tokyo Bay. The resulting steam mixes with unknown heavy metals to form a strange serum that reanimates the dead. Some people are immune. Most are turned into blood thirsty fiends, or worse, killed by a rogue army corps known as the "Human Hunters". The brainchild of power-mad military mind Gen. Hugioka, this group of super soldiers doesn't care who they destroy, be they living or undead. They just want to server the desperate despot. Luckily, Col. Kirihara foresaw such a craven coup, and provided his daughter Keiko with a fully armed Battle Girl suit. Her mission: go to the various survivor camps around Tokyo, thwarting the Human Hunters while trying to get as many refugees to a waiting transport ship as possible. Of course, with bands of black market weapons runners everywhere, this won't be easy - not to mention, the thousands of flesh-hungry monsters looking for a little long pig luncheon.
Zombie movies can be a lot of things - funny, frightening, freak showboaty in their ample arterial spray - but BORING should never be one of them. Even if you're trying for something new or novel, or crazy and cartoonish, audience should shiver, not sleep, through your flesh feast. Yet once it gets going and removes most of its cheap direct-to-video circa 1985 F/X, Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay turns positively toxic. You wonder when the gore will arrive (it never really does). You long for the moment when our star sexes things up (that also never happens). After a whle, you're literally praying for comic relief, some stellar action, or a really good kung fu inspired martial arts face-off. Those pleas go unanswered as well. What you do get are lots of scenes of green faced Asians going Romero, government conspiracies and bureaucratic bravado out the ying-yang, and a central character whose only claim to fame seems to be the warm leatherette outfit she's wearing.
Now, we have been spoiled by the post post-modern living dead flick. Titles like Dawn of the Dead (the Snyder remake), Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and the controversial Dead Girl teach us that not every fright formula or notion of dread has to be followed. Even back in Battle Girl's day (circa 1992), we had homemade horror filmmakers rewriting the rulebook. But for someone as confrontational and artistically outrageous as Komizu to basically riff on b-movie schlock without any irony or self-imposed satire is wrong. Even the typical Japanese notion of taking the piss out of society is not seen here. Instead, Battle Girl wants to be a superhero hoedown with a decent looking lead (with the apropos name of Cutie Suzuki) and some crazy cult leanings. That it never really takes off, that it often lays there and lumbers along like a drugged dung beetle, is its aching Achilles ' heel.
And then there is the whole Troma-type thing. Komizu is no Kaufman, lacking Lloyd's originality, stamina, or oddball inventive intern-flogging chutzpah and since Battle Girl is not really meant as a comedy (something Toxie's crew consistently strives for), there is no hyper-pixie sticking sense of fun. Things get bogged down early and often. The acting is wooden when it's not screaming to the rafters extreme. Much of the movie has our heroine wandering the empty streets of Tokyo, occasionally running into bands of oatmeal faced fiends. Two decades ago this might have worked well. After all, CG had yet to turn the undead into a massive visual sprawl. Had it found a way to mock the archetypes, turning its limited budget philosophy into a ridiculous, over the top treat (like, say, Rikki-O), Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay would be a wonderful retro thrill. While not perfect, at least it would be exciting and engaging. Instead, it just lays there like a dying blowfish, gasping for air before finally suffocating.
Give Synapse Films credit - they do a bang-up job with the tech specs here. The 1.33:1 full screen image is clean, crisp, loaded with color, and not too post-DVD production processed. The movie takes place in the middle of the night and inside darkened buildings, yet the level of detail and contrast is consistently maintained. While still suffering from a little made for VHS sensibility, the transfer here is very good indeed.
Boasting a new set of removable English subtitles (which are excellent, by the way) and a Japanese language Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, the sonic situation for Battle Girl is equally impressive. We don't expect a movie from 1992 to wow us in the aural ambient department, but the soundtrack is cool in its Casio keyboard conceits and the overall treatment is polished and professional.
While slim in quantity, the one bonus feature provided here almost single handedly saves this entire digital package - flaccid film and all. Director Komizu sits down for an hour long overview of his career and his experiences making Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay. It's fascinating, especially when he discusses the various elements he feels make the movie a real winner. All in all, this interview proves that, no matter the product included, the supplements can sometimes make or break a DVD release.
It's always interesting to see how the rest of the world views horror. Some base their filmic fears on superstition, religious fervor and faith, dark myths and legends, or reinvented or reformatted folklore. In the case of Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay, an attempt to copy the clever craziness of Troma fails miserably, and with a lack of anything remotely new or inviting to offer, the entire experience is underwhelming and dull. Earning a Rent It for the sole reason of the hour long director Q&A, this terror item will definitely test your scary movie mantle. Some may feel in sync with what the Japanese believe is high-spirited spook slop. Most, however, will grow weary of the slow pace, lack of payoff, and overall level of entertainment ennui. This should have been better. Instead, it's just blah.