Was there ever an unhappy shooting day on the set of Wyrmwood? Zombie films will always give at least its extras a fun time, but that feeling is so palpable here. Director Kiah Roache-Turner – while collaborating with brother Tristan and filling several other roles like editing and production design – knows exactly what tropes we expect: a mysterious outbreak, embittered heroes with (un)dead loved ones, friction between the rag-tag group of survivors and a permeating sense of doom. The joy of his feature debut is that he can crib from those films without feeling uninspired, joke around without being too insincere and even add a few inventive touches of his own. The end result is a country fairground ride of a movie: rough, rickety, but with dopey fun to spare.
The poster proudly advertises this as a hybrid of Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead, which is fine to sum up the surface-level pleasures going on: hordes of zombies being mowed down by armoured outback dwellers in souped-up road machines. However the characters are road warriors by look only, courtesy of some modified BMX gear they pick up around the halfway point of the narrative. Their closer movie progenitors are the hapless teens in The Evil Dead, because they barely know what they’re doing. Charmingly, rather than despairing and panicking like more po-faced horror of recent years (like, say, the Evil Dead remake of 2013), they’re more inclined to scratch their head and crack a beer open. More important in that comparison is the elastic cinematography by Tim Nagle, which has too many inserts and whip-transitions to not invoke Sam Raimi. Thankfully, they’re effective enough to do him justice and energise the proceedings.
Our Ash Williams is widower Barry (Jay Gallagher), who has no chainsaw-hand but a penchant for zombie-slaying in the wake of his wife and child succumbing to the infection. His ally Benny (Leon Churchill) is the only one with some inkling of what’s going on, as he recounts seeing an ominous star shower in a weirdly amusing opening scene. Roaming the bush, the two encounter several other odd characters – best of which is a mustachioed barn-owner played by Keith Agius – and then an odd way of turning the zombie invasion to their advantage. Meanwhile, another bonkers sequence unfolds in the lab of a mad doctor (Berryn Schwerdt), where Barry’s sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) is chained up and subjected to experiments, which give her an interesting place in the new pecking order. Some tricks are used once or twice too often, such as a Reservoir Dogs-inspired music gag, but those are carried by the strength of Schwerdt’s wonderfully creepy performance. Overall, it’s a clever and involving line of action done wonders by Bradey’s screen presence, Nagle’s shots and the Roache-Turners’ visual designs.
There’s a strange atmosphere that roams the map tonally, but never goes off-grid. A big factor is how no breath is wasted on false drama. No-one walks around being bite-marked for death, and while everyone’s got a potty mouth on them, they’re never over-deliberating and hollering abuse at each other like those on The Walking Dead. In tune with their Australian demeanours, any character’s death wish is never laboured over, and a decent opportunity for a wise-crack is never passed on, as Churchill demonstrates over and over again in his stand-out performance. Only the ending puts the charm on a time-out for a fight that unfolds in the goofy manner of the Resident Evil films, but this is easy to cope with since the rest of the film is so appealingly unfussy.
The film’s small crowdfunded budget does show in the overall production values, but it’s so solid within those rough edges that it simply doesn’t matter. It sits nicely with The Babadook as an Australian horror movie that’s undoubtedly the product of its director’s vision, despite how reverential it is to masterpieces that have come before. It also counters Jennifer Kent’s feature by being a sight messier and sillier on purpose. As producers and press writers rush to concoct a solution to the country’s recurring box office woes, it’s nice to know that filmmakers outside of industry group-think can get their mates together and belt out a lively jaunt like this.
Wyrmwood is screening for one night only, at selected cinemas, on Friday the 13th of February. For Sydneysiders, you can catch it at Dendy Newtown.