Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Zombie movies tend to come from specific regions of the world. The U.S. makes most of them, in no small part because the U.S. also has the largest movie production industry in the world, Hollywood. Other countries have produced a few works of note, from the U.K. and Shaun of the Dead (a decidedly very British movie), to Korea and Train to Busan, and a number of Japanese films and anime. The only other major country of note that was cranking out zombie films for a while was Italy, with all their unofficial sequels and series spun from U.S. works (among other zombies films they added to their repertoire). When the zombies move to another country you can feel the influence of that nation on the work. Shaun of the Dead comments on British society. Train to Busan tackles the corporate culture of Korea. And all the Zombi films have that low budget, Italian, "spaghetti horror" vibe to them.
Australia, of course, has it's own film making style. There's a whole era of Australian exploitation films that, famously, birthed the Mad Max series. You can pretty much imagine exactly what an Australian action film would look like: big cars, big guns, dudes in armor and masks, and a whole lot of violent driving around. Add zombies into the mix and it feels like the culmination of an entire horror genre. That's exactly what you get with Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, a film that seemingly exists to answer one question: what if zombies, but Australian. And it's great.
The film centers on Jesse Wilson (Michael Kenworthy), a mechanic who, one night, finds an intruder in his house. That guys, as it turns out, is a zombie, ravenous and mean, and he tries to kill Jesse and Jesse's family. They put the zombie down and then flee their no unsafe home, hoping to find a safe haven somewhere else in Australia. Sadly, while they travel, his daughter succumbs to the mysterious disease, and then his wife follows suit, unable to continue on without her daughter. They both die and rise again, but for some reason Jesse doesn't and, after a natural bout of depression, he gets his shit together and heads out on the road to, hopefully, find his sister. In the process he picks up other survivors along the way, all of whom are ready to drink, shoot, and fight zombies all down the road.
Jesse's sister, Lucy Wilson (Marsha Dietlein). While in her studio, doing an artistic photo shoot, her models suddenly go crazy and turn into zombies. She fights and kills one of them and gets the other caught up in some chains, climbing into the attic space of her studio to hide. Eventually some men in armored gear come into the studio and kill the other zombie. They then lure Lucy down, but not to save her. No, they immediately tie her up and put her in their cargo van. Inside there are a bunch of tied up survivors, a few strapped down zombies, and one crazy mad doctor. He immediately begins experimenting on Lucy, putting zombie brain goo into her head to see what happens. They causes her to start seeing what the zombies see, and it might have even greater consequences for her. Can she escape? Can Jesse find her? And what will these changes mean for both of them? The only way to find out is on the road of the dead.
Wyrmwood is a film told in segments. Each section of the film follows Jesse or Lucy as they encounter one issue or another. It pushes them forward through various adventures, exploring different aspects of the zombie apocalypse as it happens. This keeps the film moving, always on the go, skipping past dull times and longer moments via cutting back and forth between its two lead characters. It keeps the film lean and fast-paced, never really slowing down. That is its greatest strength, really, as you never get bored with this film.
It also has an interesting take on zombies that keeps you invested in learning more. The zombies of this film animated via some kind of gaseous virus. The infection kills and turns everyone with a blood type other than A-negative (for some reason) leaving only a thin slice of the population left alive after. Then, once you turn, you start emitting a dark gas. That gas is flammable, as the characters learn, and could spell consequences, good and bad, for our heroes as they travel. Suffice it to say it's an interesting take, one that this reviewer hadn't seen before, and it does lead to some fun sequences among the heroes as they explore this new, undead reality.
Lucy's side has its own weird exploration going on. Because she gets captured and experimented on, it allows the film to see just what Lucy can learn, and do, from those experiments. Having someone get zombie gore in them and then turning into a zombie themselves is staid. That's expected. Having them get the brain goo in and then slowly learn to be one with the zombies, while still retaining their humanity, is something else altogether. Lucy gets probably the most creative, and most interesting, character developments of the film, with the promise (in future adventures) that there could be even more to explore about her new reality.
Plus, frankly, the film is just fun. It's a quick and quick-witted adventure with a decidedly Australian bent to it. The characters all have this easy vibe to them, and just hanging out with the characters leads to all kinds of natural humor and gags. One of the best is when a character who has been bitten calls out for his first aid kit only to reveal there's two large battles of lager held within. No bandages, only beer. That strikes as the perfect way to cap that scene, and something true to the characters involved. Wyrmwood understands its characters, its setting, and its humor all too well.
Frankly there's very little to hate about this film. Produced on a low budget, the film manages to nail its world-building and character development. It has all the hallmarks of a solid zombie adventure, but told perfectly from its Down Under perspective. It's a zombie film that, truly, only could have come from Australia and we frankly need more movies like it. Give us the road warriors out in the zombie apocalypse. If Wyrmwood can do it, and do it so effortlessly, why can't others?