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'Wyrmwood' Breathes Fresh Life Into the Undead

Wyrmwood's Deranged Doctor

While not perfect, this independently produced passion project is a surprisingly refreshing and original zombie movie with a twist.

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

Director: Kiah Roache-Turner
Cast: Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradey, Leon Burchill, Berryn Schwerdt, Luke McKenzie
Length: 98
Studio: Guerilla Films
Year: 2014
Distributor: Shout Factory
MPAA Rating: NR
US Release Date: 2015-08-04

When Dawn of the Dead meets Mad Max, you get an explosion of horror, action, and drama that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Throw in a little of the wry humor and irreverence of The Evil Dead franchise, and the result is Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, a gory, profane, and bloody funny film that takes itself just seriously enough to make viewers feel invested in the characters but is surprisingly and delightfully wacky at the same time.

Helmed by a brotherly duo that’s mad enough to make this kind of mash-up work, this crowd-funded labor of love three years in the making is refreshingly original while still respectful of the classics to which it pays tribute. Wyrmwood takes some exciting liberties with the zombie flick formula, and while some of its experiments fall flat, the sheer originality of this film elevates it from yet another zombie movie to a promising example of how even films patently inspired by beloved and well-known predecessors can move beyond a mere rehashing of those inspirations and deliver the kind of freshness and novelty that audiences crave.

When a meteor shower inexplicably leads to an outbreak of undeadness transmitted through bad breath, mechanic and family man Barry (Jay Gallagher) must overcome the brutal loss of his wife and child to rescue his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradley), adapting household items to arm himself with makeshift weapons and armor and joining up with other similarly resourceful survivors, such as the candid and amusingly bumbling Benny (Leon Burchill). Little does he know, though, that his sister is being held in the back of a truck in a less-than-sanitary mobile lab, gagged and bound like her neighboring zombie captives, and her captor is a deranged doctor in a hazmat suit (Berryn Schwerdt) who takes ghoulishly obscene pleasure in experimenting on live subjects in addition to undead ones, while menacingly boogying to unsettlingly cheerful disco music.

Wyrmwood's Deranged Doctor

As the doctor’s macabre experiments progress and Brooke receives a series of mysterious injections, she gradually becomes aware of a curious, unspoken connection between herself and her undead cell-mates as she develops the ability to psychically command them to do her will. The zombies thus effectively become the “good guys”, the “bad guys” no longer a mindless, ravenous horde but instead a much more human yet equally terrifying horde of fishy, faceless SWAT team soldiers unquestioningly fetching test subjects for a clearly mad doctor. This shift in villains is a welcome departure from the standard fare of zombie films that makes Wyrmwood far more than a mere imitation, instead representing a mostly successful experiment in giving the zombie genre a refreshing revamp.

As far as independent feature films go, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is an impressive first outing for director Kiah Roache-Turner and his co-writer and partner in crime Tristan Roache-Turner, two brothers who formed the Australia-based company Guerilla Films with the goal of creating the films they wanted to see but no one would pay them to make. In their first feature, these relative beginners in the filmmaking industry took their experience with advertising and short films to an astonishingly expert level, making this low-budget film seem anything but. In some ways, the protagonist and his band of misfits are a reflection of the production crew; left to fend for themselves, they become instant professionals, overcoming obstacles with finesse and resourcefulness.

For example, while the initial battle scene makes it appear as though the main characters had been living in this dystopian reality for some time, their equipment worn, their cooperative movements totally in sync, and their ability and effectiveness undeniable, in reality, less than a day has passed since the zombie outbreak. Even in terms of their originality and ingenuity, these characters parallel their creators, constructing vehicles fueled by zombie breath, controlling the undead with psychic powers, and using non-traditional weapons such as staple guns, although the effectiveness of this latter is somewhat suspect.

It’s not surprising that the Roache-Turner brothers were able to partially fund their endeavor with help from the very people who want to see such a film, especially given the current popularity of zombies evidenced by the hugely successful television adaptation of the The Walking Dead comic book series and the renewed interest in the kind of fast-paced road-raged action of the Fury Road revival of the dystopian action classic Mad Max. In many ways, Wyrmwood is a direct descendant of Mad Max, as both Australian films embrace the idea of the savageness of the outback and the kind of madness mixed with ingenuity it breeds. In fact, despite the confusing plot device requiring the use of flammable zombie breath as fuel due to the inexplicable impotence of more traditional combustibles, the resulting onboard zombie breath supply rig is conspicuously prophetic of Nux’s “blood bag” contraption, using Max, affixed to his vehicle, as his body's own fuel.

The DVD extras include an arguably unnecessarily lengthy behind-the-scenes feature that chronicles the three years of production, depicting the camaraderie of the crew and the great pleasure they took in the project, a captivating seven-minute teaser scene, which is polished in appearance while simultaneously emotionally and physically raw, as well as the brothers’ petitions for donations in the form of short promotional videos, which are both compelling and endearing, showing these filmmakers’ genuine love for their work and the works that inspired them. For instance, donning full zombie make-up themselves, the Roache-Turners make a comical appeal for post-production funding that is incongruously articulate yet delivered from the mouths of the undead.

While Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead certainly isn’t perfect, with baffling plot holes, unclear motivations for its villains, and missed opportunities to, for example, use the samurai sword that is introduced with much fanfare to actually kill something, it's overall a surprising and refreshing zombie film with a twist. The passion of its creators is palpable, leading to a professional movie far more polished than its small budget suggests that is compelling and entertaining, appealing directly to the interests of the horror and action film fans who supported it. All in all, Wyrmwood represents a promising future for low-budget, independently produced passion projects that give the people what they want in ways that big studios may never be able to understand or execute.


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