WILD ZERO (1999) is something that I was aware of as a major cult movie twenty-some years ago, but I never got around to seeing it until now. So young people, please ignore that first sentence and pretend this is an impressive find on my part.
I remembered it because I watched that Japanese post-apocalyptic punk movie BURST CITY not too long ago. WILD ZERO is very different, but it’s another crazed genre movie starring rowdy Japanese rock ’n’ rollers who play music and get into trouble. A trio called Guitar Wolf (led by Guitar Wolf, backed up by Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf), who play a garage rock style they call “jet rock ’n’ roll,” star as themselves in a goofy zombie/sci-fi movie.
They don’t talk much. They’re these capital-C Cool motherfuckers with their sunglasses, leather jackets, slicked-back hair and badass poses. We see one of their fans – who maybe should be called Fan Wolf, but he’s called Ace (Masashi Endo) – at home in his pre-show ritual of combing his hair, putting on his boots, trying to be as cool as them. During their show we see Ace in the crowd with a big, adoring smile on his face. Afterwards he gets up his courage to go talk to Captain (Makoto Inamiya, KIKUJIRO), the shitty, short-shorts wearing manager of the club, about getting a gig.
That doesn’t happen. Instead Ace walks in on a confrontation between Guitar Wolf and Captain. They grew up together and Captain gave Guitar Wolf his start at the club, but Guitar Wolf calls him a pervert and pulls a gun on him for having an obviously drugged young woman delivered to him by a Yakuza. From another room Ace hears Captain saying, “Rock ’n’ roll is over, baby,” so Ace storms in, furious, saying, “Rock ’n’ roll is not over! Rock ’n’ roll never dies!”
Which gets him knocked the fuck out. After a brief gun battle, Guitar Wolf cuts his and Ace’s hands to make them blood brothers and gives him a whistle to blow if he’s ever in danger. That’s when you know this movie is special. Who among us hasn’t dreamed at one time or another of our favorite musician giving us a magic whistle to summon them with if we’re in danger? Not a one of us.
Most of the movie takes place in the town of Asahi, where a meteorite hit last night, and also where an arms deal is supposed to go down between the aforementioned yakuza and a badass tattoo lady named Yamazaki (Nakajo Haruka) who’s waiting on a road with her camo Humvee. The yakuza is on the way, bragging in the car about how she asked if he was starting a war with all this stuff. But they get attacked by zombies on the road.
Meanwhile, two men and a woman – Masao (Masao), Toshi (Yoshiyuki Morishita, PISTOL OPERA, KILL BILL) and Hanako (Taneko, ISOLA: MULTIPLE PERSONALITY GIRL) – are on a road trip to Asahi to look for the meteorite. They stop at an Esso station, which Masao tries to rob for some reason, causing a woman named Tobio (Kwancharu Shitichai) to faint, before getting hit by the door and scared off when Ace comes in to buy gas for his motorcycle. When Tobio wakes up, Ace plays along that he was some kind of hero.
Later, Ace comes across the crashed Yakuza car on the road and stops to check it out. I love the cut from his dumb, innocent expression…
…to this fuckin horror scene he sees when he peers around the corner.
For most of the movie Guitar Wolf are off somewhere else, like playing a show at the Apache Tavern, with fire coming out of their microphones as they sing about roaring and exploding blood, while the other characters are running around Asahi trying not to get munched. The zombies have blue/green makeup kinda like DAWN OF THE DEAD, with some gut pulling and swarming in the Romero tradition, though the makeup is not on a Savini level, of course. One thing that is impressive FX-wise is the occasional digitally-enhanced gore, like this headshot here:
Ace sometimes has visions of Guitar Wolf to inspire him, kind of like how Clarence sees Elvis in TRUE ROMANCE. And one of these visions inspires him to go back and protect Tobio, who he decides he’s in love with. When they’re holed up in a building he tells her that he never believed in God but now he does because he found her “at the end of the road.” I don’t really get this part but she strips for him and it’s indicated that she has a penis? You don’t see it but he looks in horror as there are a few subliminal flashes of this:
…and he runs away and cries.
I enjoyed the movie all the way through but this scene pushed it to the next level for me. I don’t understand what the deal is with Tobio’s penis, but for a moment it seems like a SLEEPAWAY CAMP type thing, using it for shock value, or at least making a joke of her being different. I think Ace is not wrong to change his feeliengs – it’s not like a deep love anyway, he barely knows her, he’s not required to change his sexuality for her. But he should be like, oh, uh, I had the wrong idea, I’m sorry. Not running away screaming like that. That’s just mean.
But then! Ace has another one of his Guitar Wolf visions. And this is what Guitar Wolf says to him:
I mean, that’s up to him to decide what boundaries he has in who he loves but wow, good for Guitar Wolf and/or Ace’s subconscious for being so open minded. Soon Ace does go back to save Tobio and also realizes he still loves her.
But first he blows the whistle. To me that’s the greatest moment in the movie. The band are far away, about to hit the road after their show, but Guitar Wolf can hear the whistle.
Of course the movie really kicks into gear once all the characters are together. Guitar Wolf (both the guy and the band) are pretty much never shown without a pose that goes above and beyond the call of duty in looking awesome. Usually it’s Guitar Wolf standing in front with the rhythm section standing behind him like henchmen. Those guys can handle themselves too – they’re pretty good with bazookas and stuff.
Guitar Wolf himself has a fire-spewing motorcycle worthy of Batman or Prince. He has the power to flip glowing guitar picks at zombies to destroy them. He teams up with Yamazaki and gets her excited about zombie-killing by reaching his bare hand deep into the bloody neck stump of a decapitated zombie and pulling out a small gold ball each of them have inside. I don’t get it, but I like it. Also he gives Ace inspirational words in person.
Once they’ve destroyed the zombies, a bunch of space ships fly in. I wish they could’ve had miniatures instead of the dodgy 1999 cgi, but it’s not a big deal. What is a big deal is that (SPOILER FOR WHAT IS A BIG DEAL) Guitar Wolf climbs on top of a building, plays an awesome riff, yells “ROCK ’N’ ROLL!,” and pulls the neck off of his guitar to reveal a katana blade inside! I don’t know how that works with the strings but who gives a shit, the guy had a sword in his guitar the whole time! It would be ludicrous and pretty much a sin against God for that not to be enough for you, but in case that’s you, I want you to know that he then holds aloft his guitar sword like He-Man and slices right through the mothership as it flies over him. Then it explodes.
It’s a romantic ending. I didn’t mention that Masao and Toshi have become zombies, but it’s okay, because they kiss. And Ace says, “Tobio, I swear by my leather jacket and by rock ’n’ roll, I swear I love you,” and they kiss in front of the fireball from the exploding ship. Just a good old fashioned Hollywood happy ending in a Japanese rock ’n’ roll b-movie shot in Thailand.
Guitar Wolf (the band) still tours and records today, though Bass Wolf died of a heart attack in 2005. His replacement stayed with them for 12 years and there have been a few more since.
Guitar Wolf (the guy) had previously appeared in an American retro-exploitation movie called SORE LOSERS (1997) and later another Japanese one called FONOTUNE: AN ELECTRIC FAIRYTALE (2018). In 2019, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York had a screening of WILD ZERO which featured “an exclusive peek” at a sequel called WILD ZERO 2: THE STRONGEST BLOOD OF HUMANITY, from the same director, Tetsuro Takeuchi. But there doesn’t seem to have been any news of a release since then. Is there a whistle somebody has to blow or something?