A movie like Versus is immune to detailed criticism. Not because it's such an outstanding piece of timeless moviemaking—it isn't—but because it is so damn fun that docking it for being unoriginal or repetitive or what have you just doesn't feel in the spirit of things. If Evil Dead Trap was a Japanese homage to Argento, this is a Japanese homage to Sam Raimi.
Raimi roared into prominence when he shot The Evil Dead, a tiny shoestring-budget horror movie (with overtones of comedy) that blew minds left and right with its frenzied camerawork and tongue-in-cheek humor. The sequel was basically the same movie remade with a bigger budget, and even more outlandishly funny overtones (one duel between rotting corpses plays like a Three Stooges routine). Raimi has since gone on to become one of Hollywood's most respectable and talented directors, helming Spider-Man among many other movies.
Now comes Versus by Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura, which takes the same basic approach as Evil Dead—humans vs. monsters in the forest—upps the wattage, increases the gore, and extends the running time. And sure enough, it seems like a big-time Hollywood payoff is around the corner for Kitamura: he now has a first-look deal with a major studio based on this movie's cult reputation alone. Heck, even the Japanese-language trailer quoted Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News when he posted a rave review of the movie. Clout, it seems, knows no language barrier.
The opening credits spell out the premise: On Earth there are 666 gates to the netherworld. Somewhere in a forest in Japan is the 444th, the Forest of Resurrection. Those who die there are brought back to life—whether they want it or not. From that we leap into an astoundingly gory fight scene set sometime in the samurai era—and then 500 years forward to the present day.
Two escaped convicts (both wearing jumpsuits with LAWBREAKER stenciled on the front) stagger through the woods. They're met by a gang of yakuza-like thugs, all smirking attitude and swaggering bravado. They've got instructions to bring one of the prisoners and a young woman to a rendezvous point somewhere in the woods—alive. It doesn't help when Prisoner KSC2-303 snatches up a gun, blows away one of the gangsters, and tries to turn the tables on them.
That's when the zombies show up. It seems this particular yakuza gang had a penchant for dumping their victims in this wood, and they come clawing their way out of the dirt, staggering along on rotting legs, pointing rusty revolvers and moaning while blood slides down their chin. (Never mind that all that time out in the forest would have congealed all of their blood into black glue, but the movie is hardly designed to make sense.) And so a fight ensues, with the zombies on one side, and the gangsters and the criminals on the other.
As it turns out, this is only the tip of a very gory iceberg. The other gang they were to rendezvous with turns out to be composed entirely of the undead, and they have a bizarre interest in the girl and KSC2-303. The yakuza leader doesn't care: no undead scumbag is gonna put one over him, and he snaps out his knives and duels the undead leader. Huge, huge mistake. Before long he's one of the shambling undead himself.
Slowly the plot starts to make sense. Those flashbacks to samurai times showed all the character's previous lives—KSC2-303 and the undead leader are rivals from a former lifetime, coming back to the forest to settle scores. But the undead leader has another plan: Sacrifice the girl (the reincarnation of a princess), use her blood to open the doorway to the next world, and become the king of the undead. KSC2-303, however, grabs up a samurai sword and goes off to shove it right up the butts of the undead, as many times as it takes.
True to form, Versus doesn't quit or let up for one single second of its 119-minute running time. When they're not fighting, they're getting ready to fight, or recovering from having fought. The camera screams past (and sometimes through) the actors; seeing this on the big screen is highly recommended, even if it'll have you reaching for the Dramamine. And, of course, there's violence, tons of it: Gallons of blood spew. Heads get torn off. Arms ripped off. Hands severed. Guts ripped out. Bodies slashed in half. Brains smashed out. Gorehounds will eat the movie up even if they can't understand a word of what's going on (although English-subbed versions are easy to come by).
If nothing else, the movie points towards a noisy and healthy underground cinema scene in Japan, and one which is capable of exporting itself with less effort than you might think. In earlier decades, counter-culture movies out of that country were never seen in the USA, or if they were only in the most limited fashion. With the proliferation of home video—especially DVD—a cult smash like Versus can find an audience with little more than word of mouth.
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