It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 20132014201520162017201820192020, and 2021.

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse (2022)

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner

Written by Kiah Roache-Turner and Tristan Roache-Turner

Can schlock be too polished?

Back in 2015, I reviewed Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014) for the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon and it was a mind-bending, over-the-top, lo-fi splatterfest that immediately became one of my favorite zombie films of all time. It had a handmade aesthetic and a gonzo swagger. It kicked other zombie movies in the junk and then stole their beer. Then, in 2018, when we celebrated our tenth anniversary EZMM and highlighted the best films from each year’s marathon, Wyrmwood exploded onto the list once more. The Roache-Turner brothers were the real deal – low-budget filmmakers with a love of gonzo genre movies, and when they released their second feature, Nekrotronic in 2019, a neon mash-up of The Frighteners, Ghostbusters, and The Matrix, I was ready and loved it. It was a film that maintained that hands-on design style, plus added some digital wizardry that truly elevated it into something special that I didn’t even know I needed in my life. Sometime in-between, they filmed a teaser and shopped around a 10-episode Wyrmwood: Chronicles of the Dead TV series and though the short was like a freebase distillation of the entire first film and there was good buzz, it unfortunately didn’t materialize.

Then, in August of 2020, the Roache-Turner brothers announced on their Facebook page that Wyrmwood 2 was finally going to happen! Now, two years later, Wyrmwood: Apocalypse has been released on VOD and whatever we had planned for this evening’s EZMM 2022 installment was shuffled as I called an audible and queued up a film I’d been waiting seven years for.

And it is a gorgeous piece of work. Everything from the set and character designs to the creative lighting to the practical make-up effects are damn near perfection. Jay Gallagher is back as Barry, along with Bianca Bradey as the hybrid zombie Brooke, but things aren’t going very well for them. They’re on the run, apparently doing terrorist strikes on what’s left of the government. Meanwhile, a soldier named Rhys provides humans and zombies to government scientists in the hopes of finding a cure. Luke McKenzie returns to play Rhys, who also wants revenge on Barry and Brooke for killing his twin brother, The Captain in the last film. 

For those who don’t remember, there was a zombie outbreak and Australia was fucked. Barry teamed up with a First Nations bloke named Benny (Leon Burchill) who ultimately sacrificed himself in a last-ditch effort to save Barry and his sister Brooke from the murderous Captain (McKenzie), but to no avail. Brooke, however, had been captured by scientists, experimented on, and became a zombie hybrid who could control other zombies in a brain-breaking twist, and she and Barry took him down.

Bradey was an instant iconic badass (and was also going to feature in the TV series). Here, however, she and Gallagher are sidelined for a chunk of the film while we instead focus on Rhys’ quest and Benny’s nieces, Grace (Tasia Zalar) and Maxi (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), who have their own drama. Somehow, though, even though they are the spotlight, we still don’t really get much development for any of them. As expected, Bradey is the highlight of the film, and anytime she’s onscreen, she owns it. We really needed more of her character, and some follow through on the implications and ramifications of her hybrid powers.

If you couldn’t tell, you should probably go watch Wyrmwood before diving into Apocalypse, otherwise you’re gonna be confused. Especially since there’s no explanation for what the yellow mist the zombies exhale is and how it is used as fuel to power cars, motorcycles, generators, irrigation systems, and all the other stuff that we see happening this go around. There are enough context clues to figure out what’s going on, but a rewatch of the first film is still probably necessary.

The only problem with watching the two films back-to-back, though, is that Wyrmwood: Apocalypse doesn’t quite live up to the exaggerated bizarro energy that Wyrmwood established.

Apocalypse is good, don’t get me wrong. But Wyrmwood caught lightning in a bottle. It was always going to be hard to reach the psychotic peaks of the first film. It’s almost like with a few years to think about it, a bigger budget, and a shooting schedule that wasn’t weekend shoots over the course of four years, the film ends up being almost too polished, and even a little safe. The filmmaking is definitely a higher quality than the original, but that homemade feel and the chaotic energy of their first two features is missing.

The scene introducing Rhys actually serves as a microcosm of my issues with the film. It’s beautifully designed, down to the finest detail. Rhys’ trailer looks lived in and rugged, but Rhys clearly isn’t living hard. He’s hot, serious, and cut and we see him go through his morning exercises, emphasizing just how fit and determined he is. Then, we see him check on his compound, where the zombies are essentially batteries, fueling his lifestyle. They slot into the background as part of the tech, and when one needs replaced, there’s no fuss or muss. Rhys is just so badass that he can grab a snarling, biting monster with no effort and plug it into his machinery.

There’s no real sense of danger or threat from them, despite a constant pack of noisy monsters clawing at his fences, desperate to get in and eat him. At the same time, there’s a fantastic believability to the camp. Everything has been planned out in detail and even Rhys’ tank/car is practically seamless in its construction. There are nods to it being hand-constructed, but there’s no weakness in the thing. It’s a badass zombie hunting car. It’s a serious car for a serious man on a serious mission in a mostly serious film.

Likewise, the opening moments reintroducing Barry and Brooke along with our first looks at Maxi and Grace are super serious. Brooke is out of control, torturing someone we never see, bloody and beautiful and scary AF. So much so that Grace isn’t having it. Brooke is too far out of control and attacks Grace when she intervenes, biting her and causing the sisters to nearly put her down, then and there. Barry intervenes, giving his sister a dose of blood to bring her back to her senses, but then he gets an arrow in the hand for his trouble.

And with that, Grace and Maxi leave them behind. But, as with Rhys, there’s no sense of impending danger despite Grace having been bitten by a hybrid zombie. And when she turns rabid, Maxi is there with a handy dose of blood to calm her down, but there’s no reflection on what just happened. Grace has the same white eyes as Brooke, implying that hybrids breed hybrids.

That seems like a HUGE plot point that should play into some larger storyline ahead. But it doesn’t, really. Instead, we focus almost entirely on Rhys and his interactions with the surviving scientists and military goons – whom he never suspects might have ulterior motives for the humans and zombies that he captures and delivers. He doesn’t like them, and calls them names under his breath, but even they aren’t really as cartoonish as they should be in the Wyrmwood Universe.

How can a maniacal mad scientist, The Surgeon General (Nick Boshier), snort ground up corpses and inject brain-fluid into his veins to stave off an impending zombie infection and it not ring my bells? This behavior didn’t shock, I think, because he still seemed more restrained and less an over-exaggerated cartoon character, despite performing an homage to Bruce Campbell as his infected zombie arm fights him in one scene. Jake Ryan as The Colonel is also suitably threatening, but in a realistic way, lacking the exuberant madness that schlock requires. Maxi and Grace are potentially fantastic characters – First Nations actresses who are basically set up to be the next generation Barry and Brooke, capable of carrying on the franchise, if necessary. Instead, they both take turns playing captives in need of rescue more often than not.

Even the big face-off between Brooke and the oversized cyborg zombie being remote-controlled by the Surgeon General is somehow too understated. I can’t believe I even wrote that sentence. I’m literally stunned.

Maybe it was having an already established world to play in that makes it feel safer? There are only a couple of big innovations introduced this time. The fact that the medicines to keep the zombie plague at bay are made from corpses, ingested in pill or mist form, is given lip service as something horrible that Rhys wants to quit taking, but he can’t, so we move on. There’s also that idea that if Brooke bites you, you turn into a hybrid who can also control zombies. I can’t believe that’s just a thing that nobody talks about.

On a side note, the fact that hybrids go feral at inopportune times, and only a taste of blood can get them back under control, doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. They’re biting people and therefore drinking blood already. Why does an extra dose of blood calm them down?  Is it only cool blood that does the trick? I don’t know. They specify that it’s just plain blood. Nothing special is added. In a schlockier film, these things wouldn’t really matter. But Apocalypse is so polished that issues like these draw attention to themselves.

In a world as insane as this, maybe we needed to go larger than just focusing on a simple rescue mission with no real implications that there’s a larger world or larger themes. I definitely wanted more of Bradey in there. She’s the face of the franchise and needed more screen time and a larger role. Maybe she should have become the real threat reigning over a zombie army that Barry would have to step up to deal with her? Maybe kidnapping Grace should have been handled quickly up front and then we discover a larger evil behind the Surgeon General and The Colonel, instead of them essentially being drug-addled dickheads with under-developed motivations? Why is Apocalypse the movie’s title, when there’s nothing any more apocalyptic this time than there was in the first film?

But I digress…

To be honest, it may only be in comparison to the first film that Apocalypse falls short. Maybe any sort of follow up would.

On its own, Apocalypse is a banger with beautiful cinematography, hyper-stylized lighting, amazing character, set, and vehicle designs, practical effects work that is as good as it gets, and great performances where the only major failing is that nobobdy goes as over-the-top as in the original. I mean, it’s getting a rave review in the New York Times, for fuck’s sake. What do I know? Maybe this is their Evil Dead 2, hitting similar plot points as the original but upping the quality and demonstrating their actual filmmaking skills for potential future investors? Is this an 88-minute sizzle reel? Is there a Wyrmwood: Army of the Dead in our future if this one makes money?

Have the Roache-Turner brothers gotten too talented to make effective schlock?

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse is definitely a more mature film from definitely more experienced filmmakers, and they really deserve all the money we can throw at it, if only to see what they do next.

That’s not a bad thing.

Is it?

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