Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead is a confident debut from Aussie filmmaker Kiah Roache-Turner, a man who dares to create an apocalyptic landscape that re-imagines zombie lore in a ballsy new light. Gone are the teachings of George A. Romero, as Kiah and his brother Tristan instead turn to down-under legend George Miller for inspiration and a more action-heavy attitude over traditional zombie thinking. Kiah and Tristan set out to make a film that blends Mad Max and Night Of The Living Dead, and they certainly whip up a rip-roaring mechanized nightmare that screams “Mission Accomplished.” Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead establishes a violent dystopia filled with armored vehicles, sick experiments and tons of bad blood, and while the story leaves unexplained holes, Wyrmwood is a lonely road that I’d love to travel down many more times.
When Australia is ravaged by a massive zombie infection, only a few survivors are left to navigate dangerous bushland territories teeming with hellish monsters. Mechanic Barry (Jay Gallagher) and his bumbling companion Benny (Leon Burchill) are two such souls, united in their shared wishes of protection while searching for Barry’s sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey). After a few colorful run-ins with other survivors and hordes of zombies, the duo eventually learn that an assumed government agency has taken Brooke hostage as a guinea pig for their experiments. Barry, distraught over the fear of losing even more family to the disease, goes on a warpath to save the only blood he has left before it’s too late, but his vicious sentiment might lead to truths he’s not ready to accept.
So many zombie films come along looking as dark, sludgy, and generic as the last billion churned-out clones, but Roache-Turner quickly establishes a very provocative style that favors lively visual pleasures amidst graphic carnage and horrific scenarios. Aiding an extremely jovial and pulpy tone are highly detailed transport vehicles (think Mad Max and Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of the Dead), a chained-up Día de los Muertos-lookin’ zombie, and details that build a creative universe worth diving into. Everything from the costumes to locations exude a very chaotic and memorable style that’s both captivating and refreshing, and while warring factions aren’t something new to zombie films, cinematographer Tim Nagle utilizes light filters to drench certain scenes in a blood-red hue that stands out against typical nighttime/daytime shots. First impression always last the longest, and Roache-Turner’s team kicks the door down like Duke f#ckin’ Nukem.
More important than visual prowess is an inviting story, and Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead quickly wins us over by boasting more of the same zany confidence shown through an almost Refn-esque lens. Things seem suspect from the very first sequence, when we notice a cloudy smoke pouring out of every zombie’s mouth, and this gassy inclusion later divulges that zombies are the only form of burnable fuel left in Australia (or the planet). On top of that, zombies only emit the gas during the day, so they can convert their self-produced fuel into a nightly energy boost à la the Dead Rising video game franchise – once the sun goes down, zombies turn from Romero shamblers to 28 Days Later sprinters. The Roache-Turner brothers create a race against time by implementing such rules, pitting Barry against the clock each and every day in a harrowing blend of slow-burn dramatics and hyper-intensified zombie slaughtering.
Where Roache-Turner struggles the most is providing background for his noxious zombies, as the scope of Barry’s travels primarily looks forward. A few flashback sequences reveal how each character found themselves banding together, but we’re asked not to dwell on the past too long and just march forward into a zombie-filled Hell where dancing doctors toy with human lives.
Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead is very consequential (“The cars don’t work, good thing zombies can be used as gas!”), and relies too heavily on blind faith while constructing this gore-pumping Road Warrior hybrid. Benny’s constant exclamations about obvious plot development flashes brief glimmers of rookie maneuvers that are unfortunately rather unfunny, unnecessarily highlighting occurrences we already understand. In a Jar Jar Binks kind of mentality, Burchill’s performance is obnoxiously over-the-top in the most forcibly intrusive of ways.
But did I mention there’s a chick who can control zombies through Z-mode first-person possessions, manipulating them like festering puppets of doom? How does that NOT sound awesome? Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead is loaded with zombie goodies around every turn, from explosive bouts of head-destroying gore to a ruggedly badass performance from hero Jay Gallagher, but more importantly, the film establishes the Roache-Turner brothers as two promising genre visionaries who don’t get caught up in recreating what already exists. Not since Mick Taylor’s psychotic reign has more Aussie blood been spilled in such a gloriously demented fashion, as Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead paints the Outback red with beautiful splatters of zombie roadkill – like a Jackson Pollock painting made of decayed brains.
Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead leaves the competition choking on its dust (and a few zombie guts), as the Roache-Turner brothers do their Aussie-influences proud in this full-throttle horror debut.