Yawn of the Dead: A Review of 'Zombiepura' (2018)

With the proliferation of zombie-related media nowadays, it is hard to imagine that once upon a time zombies were a novelty. When George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead burst onto the scene in 1968, it was an instantaneous sensation like no one has seen. The critics were scandalised and cognisant of the birth of a new big thing—Kael deemed it “one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made”; Ebert abstained from reviewing and wrote at length about the young traumatised audience with whom he shared a screening—and the box office was enthusiastic, grossing the film an estimated thirty million worldwide on a hundred thousand dollar budget. The world shuddered, equal parts terrified and disgusted, and the rest is, as they say, history. Within a decade, zombie films have gone big; riding the currents of a nascent horror-gore sub-genre into the mainstream, and in recent years, broken into the public psyche as the world’s favourite monster.

Pre-Romero, cinematic explorations of the zombie had been limited to a handful of feature films that teased the occult origins of the zombie—shamans, witch-doctors, Voodoo. The zombie mythos has its roots in Haiti during its French colony days as Saint-Domingue, where slaves toiled and perished under the merciless subjugation of their colonial masters: death was thought to release them from suffering to freedom in the afterlife (Suicide was common.) but uncertainty over where exactly one goes after one dies would come to inform a sort of fear that even in death they might not gain freedom; that they might be condemned to a soulless eternity roaming the plantations in a cruel twist of irony. Even after the colonial powers left and the new world order reoriented itself, this fear of re-enslavement never really went away because of the acute economical woes and strongmen of the times who teased its possible resurgence, and so the zombie remained in the peripherals of the Haitian public memory as a boogeyman of lost agency.

Post-Romero, the formerly explicit connection to the body politics and histories of the African diaspora would, in time, weaken and be, eventually, completely excised from contemporary understandings of what a zombie is. Taken to be a general reflection of social woes—racism, consumerism, the Vietnam War—and public ills, zombies came to represent a sort of American moral counterweight that is then exported to the rest of the world. As absorption into the mainstream grew, so did the dilution of the existential horror that zombies represented; in a way, zombies became gentrified.  There is now a cottage industry of zombie-related products, and as pop culture becomes more and more cynical, with apocalypse looming in a not-so-distant future, a zombie-fied future has grown from a point of speculation to something almost inevitable, at least cinematically.

Now, when Zombiepura, billed as ostensibly Singapore’s first zombie film (Not quite the first anyway, when one considers the banned Eric Khoo entry for the nation-building omnibus project Lapis Sagu, which depicted foreigners as zombies in an off-beat musical comedy), was announced, one might have felt an unreasonable amount of apprehension. For as much money that has been pumped into the sector as the government has done for the film industry, the numbers are not really encouraging aside from the scattered few arthouse darlings that manage to trawl the festival circuits for some of that international prestige. However, with genre works in a new renaissance internationally, and following the runaway success that was the Korean zombie picture Train to Busan, Zombiepura seemed to represent an interesting entry for Singapore cinema; a foray into genre that might stand out amidst the landscape of terrible Chinese-language domestic dramedies that have plagued Singaporean silver screens the way flu virus may infect a whole school of children seasonally. Given the extensive lore of zombies available, their enormous metaphorical potential, and the seeming congruent idiosyncrasies of certain Singaporean with zombiehood, one could have had some faith in the film. Better interesting than dull; better adventurous than safe, in a manner of speaking. 

As things unfold, this faith would go on to be subverted, destroyed, stomped on, and completely obliterated in every sense. As things unfold, one would discover that one’s fears over the worst of Singapore cinema has been enshrined, embalmed, sent to the electric chair only to return revitalised like Frankenstein’s creature. As things unfold, one starts to realise that it is a zombie comedy alright, but the zombies are behind the camera, not in front of it, and the joke is on us. The dead have risen, but there are not enough brains to go around. There are barely enough for the living as it is.

Kayu [A pun on the Malay term for being wooden] (Alaric Tay) and Tarzan (Haresh Tilani) are reservists serving in-camp training under the command of Sergeant Siao On [A pun on the Singlish term for being over-enthusiastic] (Benjamin Heng) in the midst of a viral epidemic. Whilst trying to malinger by feigning an eye infection at the medical centre, Kayu, Tarzan, and Siao On encounters an unconscious soldier brought in for resuscitation. The soldier turns out to be a zombie and decimates the waiting patients, the staff, (and Tarzan) alongside fellow zombies that have somehow materialised. Kayu and Siao On escapes alongside the canteen operator’s daughter (Joey Pink Lai), and the rest of the film orients itself around their laughable attempts at survival and inevitable rescue.

Well-done cinematic conventions elude this film, as does common sense and logic. The term ‘muscle memory’ was bandied about like some universal snake oil slash Chekhov’s gun so much that when the big reveal arrived that the national anthem (represented here in a hilarious bootleg rendition) stops the zombies in their tracks because in their former lives as soldiers, they had to stop when it played to pay respect to the State, it extracts from its audience a sort of exhausted amusement—here, we recognise where you are coming from and what it is meant to do, take our laughter and get on with the show. 

Suspense and good taste were left to fend for themselves in favour of terrible throwaway gags like these: a woman slathering mosquito repellent all over her body as an appreciative male audience watch, gobsmacked; zombies somehow manoeuvring an obstacle course in pursuit of prey; even in the opening sequence, a zombie comes out of nowhere to maul a lone soldier taking a dump in the woods, we watch him scream and prone and not at all struggling, and then cue opening credits. Low-hanging dramatic fruits are picked and left to rot. We were expected to feel sympathy for a character who barely had ten lines and no dramatic contribution apart from dying; were we supposed to cry at her demise or laugh at the sheer cheesiness of it all?

This curious melange of horror, comedy, and moments of under-developed drama is a concoction that seemed at times more terrifying than whatever is happening onscreen, if for what it appears to indicate as a young relatively up-and-coming director’s idea of a good film. It is well-known that comedy is hard to do, and thus the strange conundrum that the players complicit in making this project must have faced when getting it on the road—they were adamant in their admissions of how long (Seven years) and hard (Very) it was to make a film such as this—seemed trite when the route to horror or drama is open, options made poignant especially since the comedy is so poorly-written.

Low budget is no excuse for poor cinema; the Japanese midnight darling One Cut of the Dead blazing the festival circuit, which also concerns itself with zombies, has practically none, but it works its magic nonetheless because of the strength of its sincerity and a reflexive understanding of where their humour is coming from; even in the textbook example of Romero, low budget just means that filmmakers have to be creative in getting good work done on the cheap. Neither is genre-bending an excuse, titles like Zombieland and Cabin in the Woods are excellent combinations of laughs and scares; what they lacked were lazy writing and an impatience to milk the moments for the story.

By its own admissions to be “All Killer, No Filler”, Zombiepura was hoisted by its own petards because of how self-conscious it was of all the checkboxes it thought it should tick: here is a joke, there is a jump scare. There is nothing organic to the narrative, much less a story, which lends itself to a perfunctory run-through of your standard zombie movie tropes, albeit localised in a way that both highlight the foibles of the production and the irrelevance of whatever it is trying to lampoon. Explorations of themes such as conformity, repression, racism, easy pickings for provoking critical thoughts, were all passed over in favour of a pastiche that appeared to try and satirise contemporary Singaporean military culture, an attempt all the more vexing because of all its inaccuracies.

Those who have an appetite for the macabre may find Zombiepura an enterprising effort; certainly not those who expect a return on whatever they paid for a ticket. There are good movies to come, and there are good movies which have already arrived; Zombiepura belongs in neither of those categories. Instead it lingers in the limbo between the lovably terrible and the plain awful, shuffling alone in the night for an occasional victim who may stumble on its track and decide on a losing gamble, prowling the peripheries in a half-life that demands a bullet in its non-functioning brain.
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