Early in Wyrmwood , not minutes before his head’s exploded, a hirsute, genial lumberjack of a fella (Yure Covich) pauses amidst all the chaos of the burgeoning Zombie Apocalypse and sighs. “Zombies—I can’t get used to it in my head, y’know?”
We do know, is the thing. Wyrmwood operates in a world whose pop culture is just as heavily saturated by undead lore as our own. As soon as any character witnesses another human gone suspiciously feral, there is no weighing of moral choice, there is only action: mallet to the face, axe to the neck, headshot, headshot, headshot. Even the terminology used to describe such an unthinkable situation is steeped in years of TV and movie know-how; no one in this film needs to be told twice about what to expect with “zombies” running about.
They run, it’s true. And walk, crawl, stumble, dodder around goofily, jump, moan, growl, drool, and generally do everything that any zombie in any movie would ever do. In fact, the zombies in this film do everything that every zombie would ever do. Wyrmwood never hides its influences; as a blissfully shameless stew of homage and cult love, it pretty much thrives on being everything at once. Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later are its obvious predecessors, but then so is The Matrix and The Human Centipede and any manner of Peter Jackson splatter-canon or Sam Raimi gore. It’s even got a fight scene that, in its affectless brutality and series of wet thuds of knuckles on face, reminds most of They Live. No wonder it’s been so readily compared to Shawn of the Dead: Lodged in the ever-expanding nexus between horror and comedy, Wyrmwood has nothing explicitly new to say about any of the genres it emulates, but it does prove that Australian director Kiah Roache-Turner—with his very first feature film—intimately understands what makes them tick.
Set in the Australian bushland, the film mostly follows greasy, good-hearted dude Barry (Jay Gallagher) as he figures out how to survive a bunch of zombie stuff on his way to save his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradey), from other zombie stuff. We begin in the midst of a zombie shoot-out, burst undead craniums painting red a SWAT team of men armored in football pads and leather. From there, chronology is toyed with, the audience taken backwards toward the dawn of the world’s end, when a meteor shower spreads the contagion that reduces everyone to carnivorous monsters—or so we gather. Unlike so many post-apocalyptic blockbusters that have littered theaters in the past year, we have no news reports or radio frequencies or TV sets to acquaint us, or even the characters, with the ensuing end times. We only have our intuited cultural instinct to force our hand, without hesitation, to pick up a nail gun and shoot our spouse in the forehead as soon as he or she shows signs of turning.
Which is what Barry must do, and the same to his daughter, not long after their tiny corner of Australia goes to shit. It’s an emotionally unstable scene, for good reason, pitching us quickly into sympathizing with Barry, who seems to accept his doom even before it hits. Because Barry understands what’s happening: no one is safe, and things are only going to keep getting crazier. Barry killing his family seems to then give Wyrmwood license to go full-tilt kooky, taking on telepathy and disco-dancing mad scientists and the Book of Revelation all with the fervency and editing and fish-eyed lenses of a Busta Rhymes video. When at one point Barry cocks a gun and says out loud to no one but himself, “Fuck yeah,” Wyrmwood has told you all you need to hear. This is fantasy fulfillment for its own sake—be it in a rap video or The Walking Dead, we’ve all at one point imagined ourselves doing something this badass.
Barry of course meets up with some folks to help him on his mission, quickly befriending wizened old man archetype Frank (Keith Agius) and the lovable Benny (Leon Burchill), who only speaks in foul-mouthed interjections and plot reiterations. Each of them have a traumatic story to tell, which serves to bind them closer, despite the pungent stench of manhood that permeates their every interaction or how fascinated they all are with a huge, phallic harpoon gun. Not that a film like Wyrmwood should need to dissect the gender politics of prototypical genre fare—but also why not? While the three bros survive for a few days due to their ostensibly manly prowess—being car mechanics, hunters and courageous alcoholics—the ultimate hero of the film is Bianca, who rises to super-human status at the film’s climax, but not before at least two guys have been hit in the balls really hard.
Whatever any of it is supposed to mean, if anything more than just a celebration of the glee inherent in filmmaking like this, Wyrmwood rarely pauses to let its ideas settle. Which is probably its greatest strength: the action is breakneck, reckless and balls first, willing to risk those balls for some exceptionally kinetic low-budget awesomeness. As, together, the characters gradually come to learn the rules of this new world they’re traversing, all the while running into one more increasingly bonkers fracas after another, so does the audience, unconcerned with the political or social ramifications of a zombie epidemic so far as they push us into the next bloodbath. Because that’s just how a movie like this works, and everyone knows that—both those in front of and behind the lens.
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner
Writers: Kiah Roache-Turner, Tristan Roache-Turner
Starring: Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradley, Keith Agius, Leon Burchill
Release Date: Feb. 13, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.