Review by Mike Finkelstein
There is no denying that 2014's Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead was a solid entry for the zombie genre. It not only brought solid zombie action to the table but did so with Aussie exploitation charms, making for a violent, gory, and delightfully goofy entry in the zombie canon. For many it became a regular late night must watch, a zombie-filled gore-fest that you shared around to the true believers, showcasing just what the zombie genre could really do. It might have lacked the political themes of the greatest works of the genre, those by George Romero, but it made up for it with new ideas, and a lot of zombie killing.
Hopes were high for a sequel of some kind, and one was almost immediately promised. Ideas for a sequel film were fleshed out into a full, 10-episode TV series, which would have been titled Wyrmwood: Chronicles of the Dead. Sadly, nothing more than a trailer for that production ever came out, and and the proposed series quickly faded away after it's 2017 announcement. Fans had to wait, and wonder, just where the Wyrmwood franchise could (and would) go. Eventually, though, a sequel film was announced, and then released to the festival circuit in 2021, all before getting it's official release in 2022. It's a direct sequel to the first film, delivering more zombie action in the Outback... the only issue is that it lacks some of the previous films best charms.
Picking up sometime after Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, we find zombie fighter Barry (Jay Gallagher) and his hybrid human-zombie sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) working with a couple of other zombie hunters, Maxi (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) and Grace (Tasia Zalar). A bad fight against some zombies, though, reveals that Brooke doesn't have nearly as much control over her zombie side as we previously thought. Grace gets too close to Brooke, the hybrid bites the girl, and suddenly we have an Australian stand-off as everyone has their guns drawn. Barry is able to talk everyone down, but Maxi and Grace bail, taking their car, driving off to work on their own without Barry and Brooke.
Unfortunately they almost immediately run into Rhys (Luke McKenzie), the twin brother of The Captain (also McKenzie) who Barry and Brooke killed in the first film. Rhys works for the soldiers, the guys that seem like they're government agents, except they have no issue torturing humans for... reasons. Rhys thinks they're working on a cure, so he finds various humans roaming the Outback, captures them, and brings them to the research base. What happens then, he doesn't know, but he assumes its for the greater good. He drags in Grace, who is now exhibiting signs of being a hybrid, and this gets him some praise from his superiors. But it also puts Maxi on his tail. They fight, he captures her too, but before he takes her in he starts to question just what is happening to everyone he bring in. Quickly he teams with Maxi, and then Barry and Brooke when they arrive on the scene, and soon it becomes a mission to not just save Grace but also find out just what the soldiers are doing to the last humans roaming the world.
When it comes to zombie action and gore, Wyrmwood: Apocalypse does certainly deliver. It's just a full of splatter-fied moments as the first film, with lots of shooting, spiking, and stabbing of the undead fiends. Blood flows, entrails fly, and there is much gore to be had by all. The film absolutely doesn't disappoint if all you want is more zombie action in the Outback, delivered with the same commitment to a hard R-rating as with the first film.
Unfortunately where the film loses its way is with its story. The first film was about Barry and Brooke, their separate adventures dealing with the soldiers roaming the Outback and their quest to get back to each other. There was a solid charm to their adventures, as one (Barry) experienced zombie fighting out in the wilds while the other (Brooke) saw first hand the evils these soldiers were perpetrating. The exploration of the zombie plague, the amusing discovery of the fact that zombies could be used as fuel, the full dive into Brooke's burgeoning zombie-control powers, it gave the first film a lot of thrust. This sequel lacks that kind of dynamic storytelling. Hell, for the most part it lacks Barry and Brooke, even.
After that introductory scene, Barry and Brooke exit, Stage Right until the last act of the film. Instead of the heroes we already know the film, instead, focuses on a bunch of people we've never met before. Rhys is a poor substitute for Barry, lacking the actor's charms and the character's motivations. Rhys works for the soldiers so they can find a cure, which is a noble cause, but he never thinks to question their orders. He lives alone, exercises, deals with zombies, and hunts humans. He is not an interesting or charismatic protagonist, and the fact that he works for the bad guys makes him hard to care about.
We could probably get behind the dynamic between Maxi and Grace if the film actually worked to develop them as characters. They're split up quite early, once Rhys finds them, so we don't get to spend a lot of time with the two girls together. We're told they care about each other, because they're sisters, but we don't really get to see it between them two of them. And then, while Maxi goes off on, more or less, a retread of Barry's story from the first film, Grace gets to be tortured by the evil Surgeon General (Nicholas Boshier) in a repeat of Brooke's story from the first film. The movie goes out of its way to put new characters into the slots of old characters, forcing them through storylines that, you'd think, were designed for the original characters, and you're left wondering, "why?"
I have to wonder if there were scheduling conflicts for the original cast that prevented them from being there for the whole shoot. The film is clearly designed to act as a direct sequel for those characters, setting them up to be split up and forcing Barry to work with the brother of a man he killed in the previous film. You can basically see how that version of the film would have played out, how the siblings are divided and forced along their own paths (even if those paths are retreads of the first film), only to them come together once more to tear down the system as a whole. It's maybe not the most creative sequel, but it would work. It does, however, need the original characters to stick around for the whole movie.
Instead, we get new characters doing the things the old ones would have done, just without a movie's worth of development to make us care. That's not to say Maxi and Grace are bad characters, per se, just that the film doesn't invest in them enough for us to really feel anything for them or their adventures. We needed more time with them learning about them, seeing them battle the zombies together before splitting them up and making them fight to get back together really makes sense in the story. They're just cookie-cutter creations right now, characters designed to fill roles, but not real, fleshed out people.
And even then, the weird spark that made the original film so memorable is missing. That film managed to create some new, weird idea every few scenes, which meant it was constantly reinventing its own zombie apocalypse. The sequel sticks pretty close to the rules and doesn't really tread new ground until almost then end. That last act is great, when the characters are all together again and they have to fight their way into the big soldier compound. There's fist fights, gun fights, a battle with a cyborg zombie, and more explosions after. It's got the crazy, over-the-top charm of the first film, but we have to wade through two lesser acts to get there. The film needed to be paced better, it needed to invest in its characters more, and it needed to find a way to really match the charms of the first film.
Wyrmwood: Apocalypse isn't a bad film, it just doesn't manage to nail all the things that made the original film so good. It's a pale sequel, and while that pale imitation is watchable, it lacks the thrilling, visceral, popcorn charm that made the original movie a midnight horror classic.