Since Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2014, I’d hoped co-writer and director Kiah Roache-Turner would produce a sequel like the eventual Wyrmwood: Apocalypse. Zombies were all the 2000s rage after 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead popularized “runners,” but stagnation soon hit. The “fast zeds” concept was overdone like leathery burnt barbeque. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead found success as a 2010s burst of Australian freshness that called upon dystopian Mad Max influences to reinvigorate a back-to-shambling subgenre—which Wyrmwood: Apocalypse rediscovers without much depreciation. The continuation honors the roadkill hallmarks of Kiah and brother Tristan’s first splatterpunk gauntlet with a warm but rotten embrace.
We reunite with mechanic Barry (Jay Gallagher) and his half-human, half-zombie sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey)—who can control other zombies with her mind—after their fight for survival in Road of the Dead. Brooke’s able to mostly contain her zombiism, except when she ferociously bites Grace (Tasia Zalar), which causes Grace and sister Maxi (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) to flee. As the siblings drive across brushlands, their vehicle is disabled by mercenary Rhys (Luke McKenzie) and he delivers Grace to the underground facility of the Surgeon General (Nicholas Boshier). Rhys assumes he’s supplying patients to help with cure experimentation, no questions asked. Maxi knows better than to trust mad scientists with devious smiles and demands Rhys help rescue Grace from the Surgeon General’s clutches.
You should prioritize a rewatch of Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead before tackling this film, because if there’s a struggle within Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, it’s the first half’s at-odds intention to embrace something new while retelling necessary plot points from the first movie. Luke McKenzie played The Captain, the grunt brother of Barry’s previous foe, in Road of the Dead, which might be either a confusing callback or lost reference until clarified depending on the viewer’s familiarity. Starting with Barry and Brooke scaring away Grace and Maxi feels somewhat out-of-place, since Rhys’ soldier-boy routine takes prominence almost instantly. The Roache-Turners’ screenplay trades buddy-comedy elements prevalent in Road of the Dead for the brooding, mission-focused Rhys’ lonesome outback quest collecting bodies for the Surgeon General. It’s more of a chore as new characters meet old faces, playing out Rhys’ roguish morality debate as lies and truths are revealed ahead of a guns-blazing siege that dominates a backloaded Apocalypse.
The Roache-Turners’ abstract zombie landscape—where walkers expel a noxious, flammable gas that becomes a replacement for gasoline—is still creatively unique in Apocalypse. The gag doesn’t run thin, as drivers safely rig halved zombies to power their engines like exhaling, rotting co-pilots. There’s a ludicrousness to everything that filmmakers acknowledge, from the “Re-Animator Green” serums to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon villains (props to Boshier and his channeling of Bruce Campbell’s Evil Dead II physical comedy). Bright colors pop from quarantine suit yellows and neon laboratory screens; baddies are gravel-voiced brutes who pulverize; heroes are cut-and-paste martyrs who’ve studied every mid-tier action release on cable syndication. Apocalypse is the kind of midnighter that understands its weaknesses and strives even harder to sell its strengths, whether they be explosive battle-weary gore, the Surgeon General’s maniacal creations hidden behind steel doors, or fortified vehicles ready to enter the Death Race alongside Jason Statham.
Once Rhys abducts Grace, Maxi fights back, then Barry and Brooke intervene, Apocalypse shifts into high gear. Everything that occurs after Brooke commands her zombie army and bashes down the Surgeon General’s door is what the Road of the Dead faithful crave. Fully computer-generated graphics are usually something I rail against when used for horror death sequences, but not here. SFX supervisors Tim Namour and Stefan Whyte achieve a barbarically blood-slick balance between practical makeup and prosthetics under post-production touchups. Brooke’s hybrid banshee appearance as a human zombie with milky white eyes gives off a badass superhero vibe, while other zombified corpses grotesquely decay as they lunge towards meals. Apocalypse’s aesthetic is everything we ask from ambitious do-it-yourself indies: Heads bursting like water balloons, flesh-tearing, a range of gnarly injuries leaking juices—and that’s without the beastly secrets the Roache-Turner withholds (recalling his team’s fantastical demon designs in 2018’s Nekrotronic).
While Wyrmwood: Apocalypse might be described as a brains-off zombie flick that’s best when at its most insane, it’s certainly not braindead. Engines rev as zombies breathe toxic-colored fumes, homemade outposts defend against hungry undead outside, and horror-action excitement ramps almost with a vivid, videogame cinematography that’s escapism through extreme, baddie-brutalizing violence. Roache-Turner’s sequel drives bumpier at first, but burns rubber when bullets start shredding through bodies like they’re made of Jell-O. It’s another exciting zombie detour from down under, good enough to warrant further intrigue in a third exploration should the Roache-Turners make good on the finale’s teases about what their Wyrmwood franchise could evolve into next.
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner
Writer: Kiah Roache-Turner, Tristan Roache-Turner
Starring: Luke McKenzie, Bianca Bradey, Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Tasia Zalar, Jay Gallagher, Nicholas Boshier
Release Date: April 14, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.