In all honesty, I stumbled across Zeiram by accident. At the time, I was looking into buying a used DVD of Gunhed, another Japanese science fiction film, when both this film and it’s sequel came out as recommended on Amazon. Unlike the aforementioned Gunhed (which is currently out of print) Zeiram was pretty affordable, so I took a chance and ordered the Tokyo Shock DVD for $10. A few days later, when I finally sat down to watch it, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but came away not only satisfied but quite entertained.
What is Zeiram?
Zeiram is a 1991 Japanese science fiction/action film from director Keita Amemiya. I’ll admit that, before seeing this film, I knew little of his work but, apparently, he’s a pretty prolific creature designer and director of the Japanese Tokusatsu genre (films which feature prominent practical effects such as Godzilla and Ultraman). Before directing Zeiram, he had made a name for himself directing Murai Ninja (known as Cyber Ninja in the US) which managed to become fairly popular upon release overseas, and would later go on to have a sizeable career in film, television and video games.
Zeiram is also the name of the film’s primary creature/antagonist. Evidently, he was decently popular back in the 90s, as the film was followed by a sequel only 3 years later and an anime prequel titled Iria: Zeiram the Animation.
What is Zeiram About?
On a distant world, a horrifically powerful creature known as Zeiram (Zeram in the English Dub) has escaped from confinement, slaughtering all who stood in its path, and has set course for Earth. In desperation, a large bounty is put on Zeiram’s head to bring it in dead or alive.
Meanwhile, on earth, intergalactic bounty hunters Iria and Bob are at Zeiram’s presumed landing site and have hatched a plan to capture him without risking any unnecessary casualties (which could cost them their bounty hunting licences). They plan to trap him in the Zone, a virtual reality version of part of the city without any inhabitants. However, when two ordinary electricians happen to be trapped in the zone as well, it’s a race against time to defeat a foe far more powerful than any Iria or Bob has ever faced before.
What Happens in Zeiram?
As you can see, Zeiram is not a particularly deep film. The first 15 minutes or so are spent showing Zeiram’s escape, setting up the Zone and introducing the main characters. From there, the film sticks to a pretty action packed formula with multiple fights and flight against the titular villain. As a result of this, character development is minimal, with a lot resting on the shoulders of the actors (who, fortunately, all fair well) and action sequences. Fortunately, the fights are entertaining without ever outstaying their welcome with enough space in between to keep it from turning stale.
And that’s really all there is to Zeiram. However, to be honest, I kind of like the film for it. After Dune and Batman Returns, sometimes it’s nice to see a film that keeps it simple and fun. The film never feels annoying and doesn’t outstay its welcome while the action scenes feel satisfying and suitably dynamic to keep them fresh.
How are the Effects in Zeiram?
By the very nature of this style of film, Zeiram’s effects, as well as it’s titular creature, will either make or break it. Fortunately, both not only suffice but succeed gloriously. Now, the effects aren’t Oscar worthy (this is low budget after all) but they’re more than good enough to help the viewer forget that Zeiram is little more than a man in a big rubber suit while staying just cheesy enough to keep the film from feeling too serious.
Let’s start with Zeiram himself (or herself). Its backstory isn’t ever totally elaborated on, but its design alone is enough to make it memorable. The director, in a special interview for the Laser Disc release, elaborated that he’d thought about how creepy it would be to see a silhouetted figure from of an Ashigaru (a footsoldier from the japanese fuedal period that often wore a large, brimmed hat called a jingasa) in the dark. On top of that, there appears to have been some strong inspiration from both the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise, with a Noh mask type face prodruding from Zeiram’s “hat” as well as the Predator for his multiple articles of weaponry. Because of this, Zeiram ends up with an incredibly unique and memorable design even though it ends up assuming multiple forms before the film’s end, including several that use almost purely stop motion which is always a nice touch.
Aside from Zeiram himself, the suit effects are nowhere near as strong. Fairly early on, we learn that Zeiram has the ability to create weird “goop” minions from bio-matter it has absorbed from other creatures it has killed. It’s an interesting idea, but most of the effects budget was clearly spent on Zeiram and Iria themselves, leaving little to make the minions terribly convincing. They are far from the worst suit effects I have seen, but when Zeiram’s suit effects look so good, they do come across as somewhat cheap in contrast. Fortunatly, however, they aren’t in the movie too much, so it’s really a minor complaint.
How is the Soundtrack in Zeiram?
If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while you know that I consider a soundtrack to be paramount to a film’s quality. Zeiram’s soundtrack feels somewhat…sub-par. The main theme, which plays multiple times throughout the film is pretty good, feeling suitably eerie and mysterious for the main antagonist. However, the rest of the music is either forgettable or a bit grating. Granted, this really applies to most early 90’s japanese science fiction/action films, but it’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t have stood out more.
Is Zeiram a Good Movie?
When compared to the sheer plethorah of films out there, Zeiram is not a “good” movie. However, it is an entertaining and memorable one. Granted, a lot of that has to do with Zeiram itself who is just incredibly cool and the film’s above average action sequences.
In many ways, this film is a lot like The Guyver starring Mark Hamill, but without the stupid jokes and…well…Mark Hamill. If the idea of Kamen Rider style fight scenes against a Predator/Terminator level of a foe with very little exposition and almost non-stop action scenes from the 15 minute mark until the credits roll is appealing to you then Zeiram really is a must see. If not, then there really isn’t much else. But I’m okay with that.