It’s amazing how far the zombie movie has come in the last few decades. It’s gone from a cult fave subgenre for horror fans to one of the most reliable commercial trends for all levels of the horror marketplace. They tap into survivalist/end-of-the-world fantasies that are at a peak in today’s society – and it’s built around a simple set of elements that makes it possible for filmmakers at all budgetary levels to take a crack at the format.
Case in point: Undertaker. This 2012 effort from Japan was shot on video without the usual “film look” digital approach and utilized a budget in the mid-five-figure range. The narrative flow is almost dream-like, starting with a prologue where people are being evacuated from their villages as some sort of epidemic is taking root. A young boy named Ryouchi (Shinta Souma) gets caught up in a van wreck as he realizes one of his fellow kids is a zombie.
He escapes on foot and is taken in by a woman who is a sort of bounty hunter, tracking down people’s zombified loved ones to put them out of their undead misery. Years later, a grown Ryouchi (Yoshito Kobishagawa) has taken her place. He takes on a job to retrieve and kill a young zombified mother for her parents so they can know she is at rest. The hunt takes him into an abandoned mall where he must outwit a nest of zombies while dealing with the survivor trauma he copes with each day.
Undertaker runs just 64 minutes, including a lengthy end credits roll. This ensures that it moves at a steady clip and doesn’t waste time as it crafts its own minimalist atmosphere. It also means that the film also doesn’t traffic in the kind of niceties the average viewer expects: there’s little in the way of character development and Ryuichi doesn’t experience a character arc beyond fulfilling another deadly mission. It sidesteps weaving in the kind of social or political commentary one often sees in zombie films and the narrative is content to fade out rather than build to a rousing climax.
In fairness, Undertaker doesn’t really seem interested in hitting the expected genre marks. It’s more of a mood piece, using its main character to illustrate the human cost that would come with such a societal breakdown. Through Ryouchi, it shows the difficulty of holding on to one’s sanity and sense of humanity in such a situation. Writer/director Naoyoshi Kawamatsu gives the film a muted, somber tone that evokes an appropriately haunted quality befitting the lonely hero’s quest – and the performances of Souma and Kobishagawa convey the fear, sense of loss and emotional strain the main character struggles with.
Thus, Undertaker might not be for those who expect a more action-oriented approach to the zombie film but those open to different modes of expression under a genre banner might find this film’s powerful sense of mood intriguing.
Blu-Ray Notes: Undertaker recently received a release from Synapse Films on blu-ray and DVD. The blu-ray’s presentation brings crispness to the lo-fi visuals and the lossless presentation of the Japanese 2.0 stereo shows just how complex the sound design is. The disc also includes a short film from the director, deleted scenes, an image gallery and a trailer. The most interesting inclusion is a documentary on the film that is nearly as long as the film itself!