WYRMWOOD: APOCALYPSE is a very fun Australian zombie movie that just came out here on blu-ray and DVD. It’s the long-awaited sequel to the 2014 film WYRMWOOD (released here as WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD), once again directed by Kiah Roache-Turner and written by Kiah & Tristan Roache-Turner. I don’t think you’d have that much of a problem understanding it without the first one, but I recommend watching both.
When I caught on to ROAD OF THE DEAD it was one of those situations where I assume I’ve run out of reasons to watch new zombie movies and then I see it and think “Okay, never mind. That’s a good reason.” The main gimmick that differentiates this apocalypse from others is that the meteor that caused the zombie outbreak also changed the earth in such a way that combustible engines no longer work. But then some guys figure out that the green fumes exhaled by the zombies can be harnessed as fuel. So this is a world where road warriors attach tubes to zombies’ mouths, strap them onto the back of their vehicles and burn rubber (or dirt).
It’s a very Australian take. High speed vehicles, also a boomerang and a cool Aboriginal character named Benny (Leon Burchill). The other unusual part is how much it revolves around a sicko scientist performing experiments on zombies. One of the main characters, Brooke (Bianca Bradey) falls victim to this, and becomes a hybrid zombie with the power to psychically control other zombies.
APOCALYPSE picks up an unspecified amount of time later, when part 1 leads Brooke and her brother Barry (Jay Gallagher) are on the road with the late Benny’s nieces Maxi (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) and Grace (Tasia Zalar). Brooke sometimes loses control of her zombie side and gets hungry. She can be calmed down by being fed vials of blood, but that doesn’t stop her from biting Grace’s neck, so the sisters split off from Barry and Brooke.
Then the movie veers off to follow a new character, Rhys (Luke McKenzie). I didn’t remember this, but they later make it clear that he’s the twin brother of a soldier that Barry killed in the first movie. Rhys seems to be a mercenary – a soldier, but off on his own doing his thing. He has a little home set up with corrugated metal barriers around it, and one of the best parts of the movie is watching his morning routine, how he deals with the zombies outside his walls, replaces faulty zombies powering his generators, cooks his breakfast, does a workout (which includes boxing with a zombie wearing a birdcage over its head). Later we learn that he listens to relaxation tapes (yes, on cassette). It seems like a horrible life but also, given the world he lives in, a pretty good one. He’s got a good set up.
He also drives around in a badass armored vehicle called the War Pig, which is… a Black Sabbath reference? A MAD MAX: FURY ROAD reference? A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference!?
As soon as I saw that thing I knew it reminded me of somebody. Pumbaa? No. Bebop! Is that intentional? I have no idea, but I like it. It’s a cool truck. The people in this world agree. He gets complimented on it sometimes.
For work he drives around and if he gets in a scuffle with somebody – like this guy on a motorcycle called Spider (Tristan McKinnon) – he brings them to this bunker and gives them to The Colonel (Jake Ryan, Underbelly, THE GREAT GATSBY) and The Surgeon General (Nicholas Boshier), a twitchy weirdo in a biohazard suit who does horrible human experiments to create drugs he uses to cover up that he’s a “bite hider.” (Yes, this society has developed terminology for the guy in the zombie movie who doesn’t let anyone know he’s been infected.) Rhys also brings them fresh zombies (which they put into a chute to transport underground) and makes deliveries to their outposts. Otherwise he lives independently.
Rhys is clearly not 100% honorable by our pre-apocalyptic standards, but he comes across as a cool anti-hero like Mad Max. It even becomes clear that he doesn’t realize what goes on in the lab. He asks the Surgeon General, “Are we any closer to a cure?”
“Course we are,” the guy lies.
So Rhys isn’t evil. He’s just naive and/or gullible.
They send him looking for “the hybrid” – Brooke – who they want to study. Rhys knows she’s with Barry, and he wants revenge. It’s understandable. But he really tests our loyalty as viewers when he comes across Maxi and Grace. He shoots a missile and flips their vehicle, just like the War Boys do to Max at the beginning of FURY ROAD. Grace now seems to be a hybrid, thanks to the bite from Brooke, so he hands her over to the Bunker for study.
He seems reluctant, though. He tells them he wants to know what happens with her, if she helps with the cure. The Colonel tells him to fuck off.
I guess there might be some big fans of the first one mad that it doesn’t just follow Brooke and Barry the whole time. But I really like how this structure reminds you of them and then leaves them as these legendary figures out there somewhere until Rhys crosses paths with them. It makes them seem very important when they do show up. Before that it’s almost like a buddy movie between Rhys and Maxi, who catches up with him and forces him to help her rescue her sister from the bunker. I like both of them and they have conflicting goals so they fight back and forth until they end up having the same goals.
It seems like a bigger budget than the first one – big enough for a little more scope, multiple vehicles and more ambitious makeup effects – but still not huge. Any budget shortcomings are pretty much made irrelevant by the energy of its filmatism and its enthusiasm for introducing wild new ideas. I definitely see an early George Miller influence in the camera work for high speed driving, a missile-eye-view shot, a cool drone shot circling Rhys’s compound, a dropping-down-the-zombie-chute shot. Camera moves that are thrilling but never too frantic.
In my review of the first movie I mentioned the tone not being entirely consistent, but I didn’t have that problem this time. It’s not a comedy, it takes itself seriously, but it has a sense of fun. They use air cannons to incapacitate zombies, and later to knock each other around in battles. There’s a PREDATOR style helicopter gun inside a van. They establish that the bunker has drawers that pop out to put zombies into for fuel, then repeatedly (admittedly too repeatedly) pop them open to purposely whack into each other. There’s also a huge cyborg zombie that the Surgeon General controls with a VR rig. Lots of good weaponry.
The promotional shorthand for this series is usually “MAD MAX meets DAWN OF THE DEAD,” which isn’t too far off. But by “MAD MAX” they mean MAD MAX 2/THE ROAD WARRIOR, and this one especially is closer to DAY OF THE DEAD: military bullies and mad science experiments in an underground bunker, zombies corralled like cattle, dangerous missions out in the wild, people finding small comforts in a dying world, and deciding whether or not to hope for a cure. Oh, and some dangling intestines.
The appeal is pretty straightforward. It’s an interesting world with interesting rules. The characters are simple. You root for them even though they’re all out for themselves; it feels triumphant when they become allies. Rhys realizes that he’s been a part of something horrible, and seeks to redeem himself through the only methods available in movies like this (violence, self sacrifice, maybe rescuing somebody). He started out a loner, hating the assholes he works for (probly the only people he ever talked to), but believing he was on the side of right, not knowing how his actions affected others. Now he knows the truth, he sorta has friends, and a chance to redeem himself. Those are things to be thankful for in a terrible world like the one they live in. Apply it to our world if desired.
The Roache-Turners definitely didn’t intend to wait this long for the sequel. They originally announced one in 2015, intended for 2017 release. But when that year rolled around it had evolved into a 10-episode TV series called Wyrmwood: Chronicles of the Dead, which they released a teaser for. I had assumed the show idea was scaled down into APOCALYPSE, but I found a recent interview where the director says “The TV series is sitting there, and it’s ready to go. It’s just a question of finding the right partners.” He thinks a third movie will happen “if this release does similar business to the first one,” and the movie certainly sets the stage for further adventures (while telling a complete story). Here’s hoping they get to do another one, that it doesn’t take them so long, and most of all that the War Pig gets a purple mohawk.