“Lacking the insight of George Romero, the deft cultural recasting of Train to Busan, or even the working-class comic drollness of Shaun of The Dead, Zombiepura is an affable though toothless zombie romp.”
Appropriately for a genre concerned with fast-moving viral infections and the risen dead, over the past decade, zombie mania has swept through cinema like a relentless plague. When George A. Romero created the modern archetype of the shambling flesh-eater (using it to explore everything from Consumerism to Racism to the Military Industrial Complex over the length of his career) few would imagine that the subgenre would have such malleability and staying power. From Night of The Living Dead (1968) to TV’s The Walking Dead (2010) zombies have remained a fixture of American popular culture for the past half-century.
Though largely a tool for reflecting upon Western values, failings, and foibles, zombie-centric entertainments have proven to have major international appeal. For example, 2016’s Train to Busan, the first film of its type ever produced in South Korea, went on to major success and is already being hailed as a modern classic of the subgenre. This year’s Zombiepura – The first zombie film hailing from Singapore–comes chomping at its heels, offering up commentary on the country’s mandatory military service and been-there-done-that undead action for a culturally specific, though not terribly exciting brew.
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Directed by Jacen Tan, the film tells the story of Kayu Tan (Alaric), the laziest corporal in Singapore’s army reserve, who, along with his cohort Tazan (Haresh Tilani) attempts to feign illness to avoid his daily duties, much to the displeasure of the overzealous sergeant Lee Siao On (Benjamin Heng). When a zombie outbreak plunges the base into chaos, Siao On and Kayu must put aside their differences to rescue the bodacious and impertinent Xiao Ling (Joey Pink Lai) and get out alive.
Early on, the film plays like a workplace comedy with bureaucratic hoops standing between the two central layabout malingerers and their day of rest. The time of the “Zom-Com” (films that mix zombie horror motifs with slapstick or dark comedy) has come, gone, come, and gone again with Shaun of The Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009) and most recently, Jim Jarmusch’s exhaustingly deadpan The Dead Don’t Die (2019), but with Zombiepura Tan attempts to mark his own comic territory by basing the script on his recollections of his time in the army reserves.
The opening scenes are filled with colorful characters, local slang, and crass, rapid-fire dialogue, making it easy to see why the director has made a name for himself in his home country. The distinctly Singaporean air of the humor is hilariously specific yet universal, with Tan’s satirical jabs at the country’s military and depiction of the quirks of life as a soldier in the island city-state playing well regardless of the viewer’s national origin.
When the milky-eyed flesh-eaters start munching on Kayu’s brothers-in-arms, however, this irreverent humor gets a bit lost. Tasked with giving audiences the zombie action they crave (the success of Train to Busan is an obvious influence as it reportedly became the first South Korean film to cross the million dollar mark at the Singapore box office,) Tan defaults to handheld camera work of the Danny Boyle school and plot points so arbitrary the film itself sheepishly acknowledges their arcade game-style simplicity. The effects are serviceable and the undead-on-soldier bloodletting is satisfying enough, but all-in-all, it’s a tad too flavorless and derivative to leave an impression.
But Tan’s biggest fumble lies in his inability to push any sort of socio-political or allegorical message despite the film’s early focus on military minutiae and hypocrisy. Though there are many simple-minded zombie classics (the works of Italian gore-master Lucio Fulci come to mind) the best examples of the genre serve up blistering social commentary between blood spurts. For example, Zombiepura’s closest contemporary, Train to Busan, uses its plot to explore a hierarchical society set to blow, and even more tongue-in-cheek films of this type, like Shaun of The Dead, mine humor from the absurd banality of modern life when set against an apparent apocalypse.
Zombiepura seems primed to do the same, but the humor is too lowbrow to be insightful, and, as previously stated, once all hell breaks loose, we lose any sort of edge it had to begin with. Still, Tan manages to make some points about the emptiness of heroism and the toxicity of military culture (the undead’s “muscle memory” compelling them to constantly do the drills they did daily is a smart choice) but these are merely talking points that don’t put any real meat on the film’s bones.
For anyone who might wonder what a Singaporean zombie-comedy-thriller might look like, Jacen Tan’s Zombiepura is culturally specific enough to recommend, but Tan’s style is a shade too mindlessly gentle for a genre built upon incisive socio-political commentary. Lacking the insight of George Romero, the deft cultural recasting of Train to Busan, or even the working-class comic drollness of Shaun of The Dead, Zombiepura is an affable though toothless zombie romp.