Subtitles are a wonderful little invention. Simple translated text below the image, they allow purely English speaking audience members like myself to enjoy the dialogue of foreign films, enabling us to follow the story and characters. Well, that's the idea in theory anyway, and 99.9 percent of the time it works out pretty well. With 'Helldriver,' however, I think I may have finally come across a film that actually makes less sense with the subtitles turned on. Seriously, the story is so nonsensical, convoluted, ridiculous, and exceedingly random, that one might be better off toggling the translation off entirely and just gathering a group of friends together to provide your own version of the dialogue as the movie chugs along. In fact, that actually sounds like a lot of fun, which is much more than I can say for the experience of watching the movie itself. An incredibly violent, exceptionally gory, and utterly bizarre Japanese splatter film, 'Helldriver' had the potential to be an amusing thrill-ride in the bloody tradition of classic grindhouse mayhem. Unfortunately, despite a few momentary bursts of insane genius, this action/horror/comedy lacks creativity and competency, leading to a repetitive and at times simply painful experience that is surprisingly light on actual laughs and thrills.
Due to the movie's lack of any semblance of a logical story, I actually debated whether or not to simply sum up the plot by simply writing: Zombies, blood, chainsaws. Despite how surprisingly accurate that short description is, I have decided to give a more traditional full synopsis a whirl, if for no other reason than to see if I can even make a cohesive paragraph out of the cinematic mad-lib that makes up the film's script. OK, here it goes... some kind of alien entity has crash landed in Japan causing a rampant zombie epidemic that turns ordinary citizens into evil, flesh craving, horned monsters. The country has been torn into two and the government's incompetency has only made the crisis worse. Wait a sec, we have to back up a bit. Before the crisis began there was this girl, Kika (Yumiko Hara). Kika stumbles upon her evil mother and uncle viciously torturing her brother. They then turn their violent attention to Kika which leads to an impossibly bloody confrontation between mother and daughter. How does this fight end? Well, with a meteor crashing through the evil mother's chest (carrying the zombie aliens, of course). With her entire chest missing, the mother does the only logical thing and rips out her daughter's heart and puts it into her own body, while an alien creature attaches itself to her head. Once the zombie epidemic is in full swing, Kika wakes up in a hospital with a brand new mechanical heart which has fashioned her into a kind of zombie killing cyborg. The remainder of the film follows Kika as she unleashes hell on zombies and eventually goes after her mother, the apparent alien zombie queen. Whew, still with me? Really? Why?
Though I've been a bit hard on the nonsensical plot, the reality is the movie's story isn't meant to be taken seriously and the strange, random script really only exists to give way to about two hours of over-the-top, gory, mindless action. That's all good and well, but the problem is that the film's nonstop violence is rarely very exciting and all of the severed limbs and bloody zombie kills just end up becoming redundant, boring, and just plain gross. I don't really consider myself the squeamish type, but this really may be the most disgusting move I've ever seen. The constant, pulsing rivers of guts and fountains of blood quickly loose their luster and the uninspired humor never finds a successful tone in all the splattering madness. There are times when I wanted to laugh, but simply couldn't because it just wasn't funny. Usually with movies like this even if the intended humor falls flat there are still instances of unintentional amusement to be had. 'Helldriver' somehow proves to be an exception to this phenomenon and fails to be either intentionally or unintentionally funny.
Through both necessity and artistic intent, the director employs a very low-budget visual style full of cheesy effects and makeup. The cheap aesthetic helps to lessen the blow of all the nonstop violence and gives way to some of the picture's only successful bursts of fun. Despite all my criticism, there are indeed a few isolated moments of over-the-top creativity, including a sequence involving a barrage of exploding heads, a car made out of zombie bodies, a fight scene involving a bad guy that has little arms coming out of its head, and a climax involving a giant zombie that turns into a jet (did I really just write that?). These sporadic moments did effectively bring a smile to my face and even managed to elicit a chuckle or two. It's just a shame that all of the uninspired dreck that makes up the majority of the running time left such a bad taste in my mouth that it ruined the few instances of legitimate fun.
To be perfectly honest, I kind of hated this movie. Perhaps I simply couldn't get into the insane spirit of the whole affair, but either way I found the viewing experience to be rather painful. The second half of the film is really nothing but nonstop action, but with no character development outside of stock cliches and parodies to latch onto, and true humor and creativity so few and far between, I often just wanted the damn thing to end already. To be clear, I never found the excessive gore all that offensive, just stupid. The director seemingly goes out of his way to push the limits of low-budget cinematic carnage, bloodshed, and violence but can't back up the mayhem with the kind of creativity and competency that would make it worthwhile and entertaining. Big fans of other Japanese splatter films will likely find a lot to admire about 'Helldriver,' but most viewers will want to avoid this one.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA Entertainment presents 'Helldriver' in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The release includes a BD-25 disc and a DVD copy of the film all packaged in a keepcase. After some fast-forwardable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard navigation menu.
The film is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Though shot in high definition, the combination of a low production budget and an intentionally low-fi visual aesthetic result in an underwhelming and at times problematic transfer.
Detail is mostly solid, especially in close-ups, but the cheap visual style doesn't ever lends itself to particularly impressive visuals and there is rarely any sense of depth. Colors vary, ranging from washed out to over-saturated, and black levels also fluctuate, sometimes appearing elevated and tinged blue, and other times looking a bit crushed. Whites veer toward an overexposed, blown out quality. Posterization is rampant and digital noise is also prevalent (particularly in the opening scene). Some mild compression artifacts and slight pixelation make an appearance periodically, but due to the intentional nature of the movie's low-grade digital style it's hard to say what's a fault of the transfer and what is merely a result of the shooting methods and director's deliberate visual choices. At its best the movie looks decent and at its worse it looks like a murky, grimy, electronic mess (again, especially the very ugly but intentional opening sequence).
Taking its cue from low-budget exploitation films and classic gory horror pictures, 'Helldriver' has a very cheap, amateur, almost "viral video" quality. While this stripped-down digital grindhouse aesthetic works well with the ridiculous content, at the end of the day the video presentation still looks pretty awful at times. For all intents and purposes the movie appears exactly how it should, and the resulting image simply is what it is –- cheap looking, flat, and uneven with sporadic artifacts and technical anomalies.
The movie is provided with a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and a Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track with optional English subtitles. Though relatively lively, the mix lacks finesse and range.
Dialogue is full and clean with no major signs of crackle or distortion. Directionality across the front soundstage is solid with the film's many action sequences providing ample aural activity to spread around. The zombie mayhem makes its way to the rear speakers with faint ambiance and sporadic discrete effects, but the surround usage feels a bit clunky and artificial. Bass activity is frequent but is often missing the kind of oomph one might expect from such an action oriented track. While dynamic range is decent, the mix feels kind of one-note and lacks variety. Just like the action itself gets repetitive, so does the audio. It's certainly loud and noisy but it's never very immersive.
The audio track does a solid job and offers some fun moments of auditory chaos. With that said, though aggressive, the clumsy and unimaginative mixing never adds up to a very enveloping experience.
Well Go USA Entertainment has put together an OK set of extras that includes a few spin-off short films. All of the special features are presented in 1080i with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and English subtitles unless noted otherwise.
'Helldriver' is almost nonstop, over-the-top action, yet somehow manages to be quite boring and at times even painful to watch. The filmmakers seem to be going for an exaggerated grindhouse mentality but most of the action is uninspired and the laughs fall flat. The video quality is very uneven, ranging from decent to downright poor, but is seemingly respectful of the director's low-fi intentions. The audio mix is noisy and aggressive but lacks immersion and range. Supplements are solid with some spin-off short films and a featurette. While I'm sure fans of other Japanese splatter films will want to check this out, personally, I kind of hated the movie and don't recommend it. This is one that most audiences will want to avoid.