Zeram, the most terrifying alien monster ever to try
to kill someone for asking directions.
Is it really fair that you can walk into any almost any video store in the US and pick up a copy of the Japanese film Zeram, an enormously silly sci-fi action film, letterboxed and not too badly dubbed, yet it is nearly impossible to find a copy, not to mention a letterboxed one, of most of Kurosawa's films? No, of course it's not fair, but that's the way international film distribution works. (Update: the advent of DVD has meant increased availability of Kurosawa's works. International film distribution still sucks, however. 9/6/2000)
Okay, we're done venting. Zeram is a live-action film that was made in the mold of an animated film. It has a kick-boxing babe hero, a wise-cracking computer, and a slimy monster that tends to sprout all sorts of unpleasantly slimy tentacles. Oh, and the main characters are a couple of normal schleps who wander into the plot by accident. It's not surprising that when a prequel series was made based on Zeram, it was animated.
Tepphei (Kunihiko Iida) and Kamiya (Yukijiro Hotaru, who played the annoying guy in Gamera, Guardian of the Universe) are workers for a Japanese utility company that makes them wear silly outfits. Kamiya literally runs into a mystery girl on the street and falls promptly in love. Later, a power anomaly draws our heroes to a certain address, which just happens to be where the mystery woman, an alien bounty hunter named Iria (Yuko Moriyama), has set up her monster busting equipment.
We would never get so lucky that that's
the key to her hotel room she's waving at us.
Iria's plan for catching her newest bounty is to wait until he arrives on Earth, then trap him in a virtual reality creation called the "Zone," which looks exactly like an abandoned warehouse district. Unfortunately, Tepphei and Kamiya get sucked into the zone.
Tepphei is the first to actually greet Zeram when he/she/it arrives. The initial encounter doesn't go well. As Tepphei describes it later, "When I asked for directions, it tried to shoot me!" Well, you'll get that with your average killer alien menace from out of town.
Zeram himself looks like a member of the Mummenschanz from Hell. You remember the Mummenschanz, they were those weird-ass performance artists that used be on The Muppet Show every now and again. They wore black body suits with only their hands and feet showing. They wore masks of various types, including one with a face made of clay that could be manipulated by hand, and one with facial features drawn on pieces of paper that could be torn off revealing new features underneath. The Mummenschanz also occasionally dressed up in sleeping bags and pretended to be insect larva. None of this is really related to the movie at hand, but the Zeram alien forced us to recall this twisted chapter of our youths, and there's no way we're letting you off easy, either.
"Next I'll do 'climbing a ladder.' "
Iria eventually arrives in the zone and engages in combat with Zeram. A Keystone Cops routine follows as the decidedly un-warriorlike repairmen must help Iria defeat him. In their favor is the fact that Zeram is a decidedly bad shot. Working against them are Zeram's creepy little henchmen, who pop out of little shells at whim and are just as slimy as they know how to be. Add in the fact that the Zone will soon disappear and take everyone inside with it, and you've got all the dramatic tension necessary for your average Japanese alien combat movie.
The special effects are generally pretty good. They tend to be of the "man in a suit" variety, often augmented with hand-drawn animation composited into live action footage for the various beams and stuff. At the end Zeram turns totally alien, and a stop-motion animated, slimy bio-mechanical construct attacks our heroes. While it would be correct to say the film contains computer generated imaging, it would be stretching, because the only CGI is Bob, Iria's computer who always appears on a TV screen. Zeram also has lots of explosions, apparently just because explosions are so darn cool.
Okay, so Zeram isn't going to win any awards. The movie takes its time getting started, and at best, it's a Japanese approximation of Abbott & Costello meet Giger's Alien. The laughs, however, are well worth it (who can forget the classic "Tepphei eats a cockroach" scene?) and the Power-Rangerish action mixed with a bit of Tom Savini-like gore is a treat for those who always wanted to see the Pink Ranger really get busy on some monster's ass.