Rules of surviving a zombie apocalypse, if 'High School of the Dead' (aka 'HTOD') is the basis of your guide:
Rule #1: Don't make any noise. The louder you are, the more likely you are to attract unwanted attention, in the form of biting zombies and/or thugs taking advantage of frantic survivors.
Rule #2: Your status in life before the world ended is not necessarily an indicator of your likeliness to survive. Otakus, rejoice. See also: you're only worth as much as your means of defense. Going unarmed is the quickest way to become undead. Homicidal tendencies aren't a must, but are encouraged.
Rule #3: If you have big breasts, have any lines of dialogue, and are reasonably attractive, you're guaranteed to live, so as to be able to change into excessively inappropriate clothing later on, to go gallivanting, killing the undead with no underwire support for your oversized bosom...or pants to cover your no no bits.
Rule #4: It is more dramatic to focus on an upskirt shot of some nubile female being eaten by the undead than it is to show the flesh being ripped off their body, or their eyes going dead. Additionally, having sexy panties may not be a surefire way to survive. Just ask the girl whose face is never shown, but whose knickers are for about ten seconds. She died. Her panties lived on, however, in vending machines across Japan.
I have no problem admitting that I more than eagerly anticipated the release of 'HTOD,' as it combined my obsession (the undead, particularly zombies) with anime, an art form that I'm very fond of. While Americans have almost run the living dead into the ground from overuse, these creatures are not a common occurrence in anime features or series, especially for the focus of a show. I can't say I let any expectations get in the way of my enjoyment of the show, as I refrained from reading about the show (beyond comments about its excessive fan service) and its plot, or even watching trailers or clips. I don't mind spoilers so much in most things, but I prefer my zombie tales to be unspoiled, thank you very much.
This twelve episode program was my initiation to distributor Sentai Filmworks, who, judging by this show, should be renamed Hentai Filmworks to be more honest about their product. Anime fans, surely you've noticed random lingering upskirt shots, a bouncing breast, or constantly teased nudity in your shows; these elements are made to give the obsessed, the perverts, as it were, their release and satisfaction. I get it, sex sells. I just wish I got a show here that was more about zombies than it was T&A.
The plot of the show is somewhat fractured. The opening episodes focus on a small group of students, some of whom have pasts with each other, some of whom are more or less strangers, who are forced to band together as survivors of a catastrophic outbreak. Their school is enclosed, and when the virus got through the gates, there was no place to run, and no real weapons to defend oneself with. An ordinary boy and girl (whose lost friendship creates an added layer of resentment and drama) find themselves alongside a gun nut class outcast, a voluptuous and vapid school nurse, the daughter of a rich and influential family, and a kendo club champion, as their world collapses around them. Escaping the school alive and uninfected is only their first test.
Considering the show is only in the high school for the opening three episodes, it's really a stretch to name the series after it like it were some constant, but that's a gripe that should be leveled at the manga source material. As the show advances, new themes are introduced that have questionable fits in a show featuring teenagers faced with such world altering circumstances. The politics of the military, and even of fellow school survivors, can be a tad overly dramatic and counter effective. The use of a young girl and a puppy to convey innocence is ridiculous, considering where in the series they debut. The constant infighting of those outside the small group of lead characters creates drama whenever said groups are present, and the final episodes of the show are the most dumbfounding, unnecessary and contradictory moments I've possibly seen in any anime, period.
The zombies of 'HOTD' are somewhat familiar. After the first creature (commonly called Them in the show) spreads the virus to the unaware faculty of the school, the entire situation snowballs rather rapidly in the enclosed area. Panic stricken students, often relying on the faculty, are quickly dispatched, as are the adults with no means to defend themselves. The creatures are slow, with lethal bites, limited dexterity, and the basic resistance to non-head oriented injury. They respond by sound rather than sight, their eyes rolled back in their heads, and their grip is difficult to escape unscathed. So this crucial element of the show isn't blasphemous in any way to genre fans. It's really easy to adapt to these rules, this incarnation of the creatures.
Only...the rules don't get followed all the time. Zombies regularly will lose interest in a barricaded, quiet survivor when another noise is heard, no matter what it is. This isn't anticlimactic one bit. What is, though, is when the rules get thrown out the window. The undead traveling en masse makes sense, their moans attracting each other, creating walls, multiplying their deadliness. But they congregate where people are, regardless of if they're making noise or not. These rules that are established early, demonstrated when the survivors slip past a hallway of undead by moving silently, are now sore thumbs. How do the creatures figure out where people are holed up immediately when they break through a barricade, in an entire community or town? It's not like the survivors are having a giant block party or anything, with the limited power at their disposal. They've surely studied the creatures, too. So what gives?
The manner in which the outbreak is portrayed is pitch perfect, which only makes the later failings unforgivable. The rapid spread is perfection, the panic genuine. The undead are truly sinister, with falling out teeth, all white eyes, and blood pouring out of every orifice. Choppers and planes are going off everywhere, 110 (akin to our 911) is busy, overloaded (see also: 'Shaun of the Dead'). The few survivors have limited resources, with a nail gun, a wooden kendo stick, a pole, and a baseball bat being the sole tools. The shrieking zombie fodder and blood splatters are fun to watch en masse, creating an even bigger problem for those trying to escape. Normal students are faced with a new world, one where they must break societal norms and kill; to some, this is a shock, that they look back on how much they've changed, while to others, this is the window of opportunity they've been waiting for.
The show is just overly convenient, and it loses its effectiveness the longer the charade goes on. The survivor group is put in constant danger, yet are always bailed out one way or another. Weapons at their disposal are constantly upgraded, as are vehicles. Them stumbling into an entire arsenal of weapons at their first safe house is just silly, and kills the atmosphere. As the show stumbles on, the odds get more thoroughly stacked against the students and their lone chaperone, but the constant near misses and last second saves grow tiresome.
But I have to rant about the fan service. 'High School of the Dead' exists more to show off panties and boobs than it does zombies and survivors. I mean, the random zombie schoolgirl upskirt shot, that's one extreme, but the constant variety of lacy and frilly bras and panties is just a bit much. The girls in the show, once in the first safe house, get a well needed break, which they take to the luxurious bathroom, get naked, and fondle each other incessantly, eventually leading to attempted sexual encounters with each other and even one of the guys, in the show's lone display of shota. This isn't just regular anime "nudity" with nothing showing, just globes; there's actual body parts visible on the nurse (the lone character above "age of consent"), and so much skin showing on the others that it's past plausibility. The girls change into skimpy clothing, and make no effort to change into more secure, practical clothing. Zombie killing in a pair of panties and an apron? Really? Wandering around nude not knowing it until others point it out? How dumb can a character be before viewers disconnect from them entirely?! The introduction of a young girl who witnesses her father killed in front of her, and a constantly yapping puppy (dumb move, guys, it makes noise!) immediately following the extreme sexualization break that lasts a few episodes (seriously) to try to put the characters back on track is somewhat scary. With this company, and the lengths it has gone up to that point, you never know if it's going to pull a 'Dance in the Vampire Bund' and try to sexualize her. Hell, I was afraid this show might sexualize the dog the way it progresses.
'HOTD' has a few amazing episodes in it. At times, it can be very effective. But then, it can be so amazingly stupid, catering to horny guys rather than general audiences and abandoning logic and established rules, that all the momentum built up is thrown away. This show does this multiple times, abandoning every positive going for it and going off some random deep end, delving to the bottom seeking out the lowest common denominator. It's borderline obscene in its excess, and panders so much that it stops being a story as much as it is softcore porn. As such, the score that this show could have earned gets cut in half without any regrets in doing so. Hopefully some studio out there will produce a serious zombie anime. Hell, even a zomedy would be fine by me. But post apocalyptic fanboy porn? No thanks, Hentai Filmworks, keep it to yourselves.
The Disc: Vital Stats
The menu layout is very unique, and I'd like to take this moment to thank Larry Koteff, the menu and graphic designer for this release, for such an awesome job. Each of the episodes has its own tab on the main menu screen, along with a single setup tab. There is no play all. Rather, the show automatically resumes playing episodes after the selected one finishes, which is the way all discs on this format should operate (ahem, 'Wolverine and the X-Men'). The language select operates peculiarly, but all in all, this is a fantastic way to set up a menu, and it deserves props.
There is an OVA Blu-ray release, called "Drifters of the Dead," that is only available in Japan as a pack-in with a volume of the manga. Since that is not a part of this release, and can be difficult to get stateside, it is not included in this review. Right now an attempt to nab a copy us underway. Stay tuned!
The video for 'High School of the Dead' comes by way of a 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1.78:1. The quality of this HD release is actually very good, on par with some of the better titles from other anime companies. Of course, the fact this is a beautifully animated, very highly detailed show sure helped matters! Fantastic backgrounds are always a pleasure to watch, the amount of definition and character in foregrounds is superb, and the skimpier the clothing, the more intricacy there is, so those looking to get some good high def bang for the buck needn't look much further.
Colors are fantastic, in dark or light shots, with wonderful clarity and almost stunning detail levels. The show doesn't have much going for it in terms of aesthetics, though the worn out film flashback look was very well done, especially in HD. Blood splashes and splatters have to be seen to be believed, and may be the highlight of the show they look so damn good, even if sometimes they don't fit the dimensionality of the picture, which is regularly deep. The show doesn't look perfect, though, as some very light aliasing can be found, artifacting can spike, even if it isn't in heavy clumps, and banding, particularly in foreground reds, blacks, and grays, can be hard to miss. Basically, the trademark anime on Blu-ray booboos are all present, just not so much that they're a humongous detraction. I must say, that while this isn't the first release from Hentai Filmworks, it is my first, and I'm tempted to buy more based off the end result. I just have to filter for content in advance, perhaps.
'HOTD' may not be from FUNimation, but it has similar audio options: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, dub track default. The total score for this section is a weighted average, since both are important elements of the release.
English (4.5/5) - The default track is an absolute winner on Blu-ray. There's great audio spikes, a fantastic full room presence that puts you in the middle of the outbreak, in the creepy, not-too-abandoned hallways, and in the midst of a throng of undead monsters. The show goes from zero to one hundred and back again in no time flat, making for a track that can go soft then boom, but not require any volume adjustment for clarity in quieter scenes. I like that. I like that a lot. Bass levels are very heavy, range is uncorked, dynamics are fantastic, from open air to hallways, with dialogue reproducing properly and accurately...hell, even the random footsteps on grating come through crystal clear and powerfully. Localization effects are appropriate, but not too heavily used.
The dub itself is pretty damn solid, as well. Since the majority of anime I watch is from FUNimation, it was nice to get a different cast of characters, different voices. I'll admit, some did not fit their age groups, which could be jarring at times, but it was all worth it, for the changes in dialogue that localize the film to appeal to more American audiences. I won't spoil any of it for you, dear readers, but there are some absolutely hilarious one liners thrown in for good measure.
Japanese (3/5) - When you have near perfection on the other track, it kinda makes it tough to want to listen to the native mix. The stereo track isn't bad, but it just cannot compare, no way, no how. The lack of immersion is killer in a show so heavy in creepy ambiance. Bass can be weak (just listen to the theme song for a perfect example of how neutered the change can be!), though it is far from underwhelming. I just groaned, though, when blood splatters and attacks that should have registered all around me didn't. There is also no reason for this track to be as quiet as it is in comparison. For purists, this isn't cruel and unusual punishment, but once you sample the English track, there's no going back.
The only extras on this release are found on disc two, with their own little menu buttons (still lovin' the design of this release!). These don't count towards the score, but there are bonus trailers/advertisements for other Hentai Filmworks products.
I absolutely loved 'High School of the Dead'...when it took place in a high school. As soon as the show smashes the gate, it jumps the shark. Of course, I find it odd a show that takes place in a high school for only 25 percent of the runtime is named after the high school, too, but that's another story and chain of griping. This show has its moments to shine, but it sure does undo them in a hurry. The Blu-ray release is very good, although somewhat stereotypically barebones. If you like zombie violence, shows about crumbling society, and ridiculously excessive amounts of fan service, 'HOTD' may be up your alley. If you feel so dirty after watching this that even a week old soiled pair of briefs on a zombie seems clean by comparison, don't blame me. I felt the same way. Anime shows shouldn't require a shower immediately afterwards. Just sayin'.