Last week, I had the opportunity to see several new features at The Toronto After Dark Film Festival, a yearly celebration of horror and science fiction that never fails to please. And while we got our first taste of some excellent films in this year’s stellar lineup, I obviously can’t write about all of them. So I’m writing about the one I think most deserving of attention, the one that most thoroughly grabbed me by the throat and punched me square in the jaw with its unapologetic awesomeness: Wyrmwood. Wyrmwood is the first feature-length film from Australian siblings Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, and to be blunt, it’s fucking awesome. Not only is Wyrmwood a clever zombie romp drenched with guts, glory, and post-apocalyptic cred, it’s a beautiful testament to the power of independent cinema. Wyrmwood has been long time coming, with the brothers Roache-Turner and a fantastic cast and crew throwing their hearts, souls, and wallets into the project, grinding it out over the course of three years. The film was made on the kind of budget that wouldn’t even cover the cost of Michael Bay’s hand-quilted Peruvian toilet paper for a couple months (I hear it’s made from Alpaca fur). But they made it anyway, because they love movies, and because they wanted to tell the best damned zombie story they could. And in that ambition, they’ve definitely succeeded. Wyrmwood is better than any Hollywood horror I’ve seen in years, and as it makes the festival rounds searching for a distributor, I urge all of you to get out there and support it. Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner have brought a powerfully stylish and unique vision to the screen, and we need more filmmakers like them.
One of the most striking things about Wyrmwood, and one which instantly sets it apart from the pulpy mass of generic low-rent horror schlock, is the undeniable skill that the Roache-Turner brothers possess as filmmakers and writers. I saw incredible notes struck everywhere: the evocative photography and understated narration of the first segments reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s best work. I saw flashes of Quentin Tarantino in the masterful narrative structure and editing. The raw emotional realism and forceful characterizations could have been coaxed from the cast by Martin Scorcese himself. I’m not joking: I went to see an indie zombie flick with a shoestring budget and came out of it thinking of Dead Man, Pulp Fiction, and Mean Streets. Zombie flick or no, these Roache-Turner fellows have some serious cinematic chops.
Of course, Wyrmwood isn’t all drama and cinematography. At its core is a deep love for horror and science fiction coupled with a healthy appreciation of camp and satire. Sure, Kiah and Tristan are trying to make a great movie, but I know they didn’t set out with the goal of getting some random Internet reviewer like me to notice their moviemaking bonafides. No, the artistic flourishes are just that: flourishes, a byproduct of their immutable love for what they do. The real meat and bone of Wyrmwood is its awesome story, likeable characters, and unpretentious wit. So let’s talk about those.
Wyrmwood is, at bottom, a story about three people: tough-but-wise mechanic Barry (Jay Gallagher), his fiery artist sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), and a young, wisecracking Aboriginal survivor named Benny (Leon Burchill). Throughout most of the film, two narratives intermingle in the wake of a sudden and unexplained zombocalypse: Barry escapes his home and happens upon Benny and other survivors in thick rural brushland. Meanwhile, Brooke, having been kidnapped by shadowy military forces, is held captive by a sadistic medical researcher with an affinity for K.C. & The Sunshine Band. As these two plot threads come together, we discover that zombies are highly combustible (leading to Benny’s excellent deadpan “this truck runs on zombies!”), Brooke has some very disturbing (but useful) powers, and the Australian military has some seriously misguided ethical views (but hey, with Tony Abbott running the show, who’s surprised by that?).
Wyrmwood adds some very inventive new twists to the traditional zombie toolbox. The Roache-Turners’ zombies sometimes bend “the rules,” sometimes break them, and sometimes re-write them entirely. But the best part of this new zombie mythos is the fact that none of the characters in the story really care about how it works beyond their own self-interests. This is perhaps Wyrmwood’s greatest strength: it is character-driven from start to finish. Things happen, mysteries abound, oddities confound explanation, but nobody cares, because they’re too busy trying to stay alive. It’s enough to figure out that they can burn zombies’ blood for fuel. The explanation for how it works is irrelevant, because it won’t make their truck go any faster. In a delicious affirmation of this character-first storytelling, Barry, when confronted with a soldier’s admonishment that “this isn’t about you, it’s about the survival of the human race,” punches that revelation right in its smug face. Because in that moment, Barry has no reason to care about the survival of the human race, and that is what makes him so damned human.
In making this choice, the Roache-Turners eschew intricate plot points and concept-driven narrative, and instead place the dramatic burden squarely on the shoulders of their cast. Their faith is not misplaced. The main triumvirate of Gallagher, Bradey, and Burchill is consistently excellent. Gallagher is believably stoic while still showing us the destructive effects of societal meltdown on the quintessential everyman. Burchill’s delivery may not mark him as a consummate professional actor (because--with no offense intended--he probably isn’t one), but he has such vibrant charisma and energy that it’s impossible to hold some stiff acting against him. Bradey, however, is the brightest spot of all: her performance at times carries the film on the back of her electrifying screen presence. Make no mistake: if Wyrmwood manages to find a distributor and make enough noise in the horror scene, you will see Bianca Bradey in more and higher-profile roles. She has the talent and the attitude to make a picture her own. Put simply, this lady is going places.
A host of supporting actors serve Wyrmwood very well, stepping into and out of the main plot as required, providing what are essentially emotional vignettes: small-scale stories of hope, loss, desperation, and love amidst the larger narrative of Barry’s search for Brooke and the chaos of a zombocalypse. This again, is the film’s greatest strength: the concept underlying it is inventive and fresh, but the Roach-Turners avoid the temptation to make the movie about its own treatment of familiar zombie tropes. Instead, it’s about a whole bunch of people caught up in a giant shitstorm of uncertainty, and the ways in which they try to impose order on their newfound world of nonsense. At the film’s end, we’re reasonably sure that someone is finally going to get some answers, but Wyrmwood never provides them because Wyrmwood is about the symptoms, and not the cure.
In the end, I cannot recommend Wyrmwood highly enough. If you don’t know where you can go to see it, check out the Wyrmwood Facebook page for updates on the film’s next festival stops. If you love zombies, go see this movie. If you love action, go see this movie. If you love movies, go see this movie.