Those horror fans with their beady eyes fixed firmly on the East eagerly awaiting the next worthy successor to the cycle kick-started by Ring have already touted Kitamura's hyper-kinetic feature debut as the one to watch for. However Versus, a zombie-populated kung fu splatterfest reducto ad absurdum owes much more to the slap-in-your-face body horrors that populated the late-80s than such restrained and well-mannered offerings as Nakata's film.
A brief prologue set 500 years previous sets the ball rolling, establishing the locale of the Forest of Resurrection as the 444th portal of the 666 gates that link to the Other Side. Two escaped convicts come head to head in a clearing with a carload of sharp-dressed yakuza and their female captive. The two factions snarl, spit and square up to each other as the steadicam swirls around in ever decreasing circles before the bullets start to fly. However, the Forest of Resurrection isn't so named for nothing, and pissed-off yakuza don't stay dead for long.
Kitamura's film is a cocktail of elements borrowed from The Evil Dead, Highlander, and countless sub-Fulci zombie flicks, tarted up with some slick editing courtesy of Shuichi Kakesu, an established cinematic talent whose undeniable skills were better served by Sogo Ishii's Electric Dragon 80,000 V amongst many other titles. Kakesu's presence goes some way to disguise the absence of budget, plot and purpose with a thick Matrix-style veneer pasted together from a panoply of whip pans, headlong steadicam charges, busy wide angle compositions and slo-mo geysers of blood and sputum, and up to a point there's a great deal of fun to be had in all the gory high-kicking hijinx.
But Kitamura has said all he's going to say within the ten minutes, making for an incredibly long two hours as ceaselessly bloody fights scenes are staged and re-staged between our stone-faced convict hero (Sakaguchi), his nemesis (Sakaki, best know for his role in the Takenori Sento-produced rite of passage film This Window is Yours / Kono Mado Wa Kimi No Mono, 1994), and an endless horde of peripheral figures who just refuse to stay dead. It's all about as involving as a non-interactive video game. Blood spurts, heads roll, and limbs are severed to a pulsing techno accompaniment, but for all its posturing and attitude, this particular zombie flick has about as much bite as a toothless sheep.
Despite an obvious lack of funds, an undeniably large amount of talent has been poured into this film, but its nothing we haven't seen before. Far from Asian-looking, it seems depressingly derivative of the Asian-influenced action aesthetic as recently assimilated by Hollywood and recoursing to endless shots of prancing and preening yakuza in shades striking poses. Versus may be a technical tour-de-force, but you have a feeling its director may be better suited to a career in advertisements than feature fiction. At the end of the day, Versus is just far too silly to prove effective.
For many, one of the most interesting things about the recent boom in Japanese horror was in the originality of the films on offer. Character-driven pieces such as The Ring, Shikoku, Tomie and its ilk didn't need gallons of blood and gore to set spines tingling. Even during the gruelling climax of Audition very little blood was actually shed. These worked because they were inventively scripted and staged. Versus however, seems content to follow the same reductive route symptomatic of the decline from both the Italian and the American independents' respective heydays, and in this respect perhaps anticipates the end of Japan's current cycle. By ignoring the adage that more is less, it is limiting its audience to the horror hardcore cult circuit.
An obvious industry calling card, Versus has at least succeeded in the respect that, having recently completed his next feature, Alive, Kitamura is already shooting a US-funded project under the title of The Pirates Of Tarutao.