“MISS ZOMBIE” (Fantastic Fest Movie Review)
Fred Gwynne was right: Sometimes dead really is better. Especially if being undead means living in the grim, colorless zombies-groomed-for-manual-labor universe imagined in MISS ZOMBIE, the latest feature from Japanese cult writer/actor/director Sabu.
The film begins with a promising, enticing bang: A crate arrives at the home of a country doctor. Inside sits a twenty-something worn-yet-pretty female zombie, alongside a box containing a handgun and the following note:
Care Instructions: Feed fruit or vegetables. Never provide meat, as it may turn feral. If there is a risk of bodily harm, dispatch it with the pistol included.
The neighbors clearly aren’t pleased about having a zombie around, and neither the doctor’s attempts to downplay the situation—“It’s a carrier, but its virus count is low, so it’s not fully developed”—nor his promises to shoot her the first moment she gets out of line alleviate their concerns. Perhaps sensing this general disapproval and an easy target, neighborhood kids and teenage bullies harass her without mercy. Dehumanized covers the plight pretty well.
The doctor’s wife, on the other hand, is more than happy to have an semi-human automaton at her beck and call, and quickly puts the zombie to work scrubbing walkways, cooking dinner, running to the grocery store, etc.
Here I can’t help but be reminded of the travails of the simian laborers in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, trained to serve humanity after a brief aborted plan to keep them as pets after a disease wiped out all the world’s dogs and cats. Alas, unlike that glorious exercise in ridiculousness and despite a brief scene featuring the girl pondering an old photograph of her smiling, pregnant pre-zombie self, MISS ZOMBIE fails to give us much with which to identify or empathize. It is simply not all that intriguing to watch a half-zombie do household chores in borderline slow motion punctuated only by her occasional rape at the hands of two cold, aloof household employees and, with a smidgen more passion and tenderness, the doctor himself. (The doctor’s wife is naturally less enthusiastic about this development, yet doesn’t go particularly out of her way to put an end to it—good help presumably being still hard to find even after the future zombie subjugation.)
Things pick up a bit when the doctor’s young son drowns and the wife orders her house zombie to bite him back to life. Trouble is, zombie son is now more attached to his undead mother than to the owner of the living womb from which he sprung and soon the household goes into a bloody meltdown—maternal jealousy is apparently more vexatious and provocative than, you know, slavery and quasi-prison rape.
In theory, there is plenty to love about MISS ZOMBIE. It is a cleverly conceived, beautifully shot feature. In practice, however, the film—despite clocking in at a mere eighty-five minutes and delivering a few truly sublime moments, including a gorgeous, ultra bleak final resolution—proves a glacial, impassive, and, at times, exceedingly tedious, slog.