Set in a futuristic Japan where zombies are domesticated as house pets and servants, genre auteur Sabu’s “Miss Zombie” is a deadpan social satire, an ode to motherhood, and a self-consciously grungy homage to classic silent horror-thrillers. Depicting a mail-order zombie’s ordeals and retaliation with black humor as well as compassion, the low-budget film suggests a cross between Lucky McKee’s “The Woman” and Jonathan Levine’s “Warm Bodies,” but sans the former’s misogyny or the latter’s ickiness. Although its predominantly monochrome lensing (with long dialogue-free passages) looks coolly atmospheric on the bigscreen, this freaky outing will haunt only festivals and home formats.
After years of creative draught — with the sugary “Bunny Drop” (2011) and clumsily earnest “Kanikosen” (2009) barely standing up to his cult crimers like “D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner” (1996) and “Postman Blues” (1997) — maverick helmer Sabu undergoes a resurrection of sorts with a quirky exercise that’s neither horror film nor straight thriller, but contains elements of both with its eerie mood and ironic twists. The dry humor that graced his earlier films finds expression here in a sharp satire of bourgeois hypocrisy; Miss Zombie’s exploitation by her “owners” even recalls recent realist dramas about foreign domestic helpers (some scenarios are almost identical to those in Cannes Camera d’Or winner “Ilo Ilo”).
Distinct distaff roles are a rarity in Sabu’ works, so it’s quite refreshing to see two female protags fleshed out with complex, stirring emotions. The film begins with a cage arriving at the villa of Dr. Teramoto (Toru Tezuka). Inside is a disheveled woman, Shara (Ayaka Komatsu). The accompanying instruction manual prescribes a diet of fruit and vegetables, and warns against feeding her any meat; a special pistol is also provided in case of emergency. Despite the neighbors’ concern, Teramoto vouches for Shara’s harmlessness as a mere “carrier” with a low zombie-virus count.
Teramoto’s wife, Shizuko (Makoto Togashi, “Guilty of Romance”), orders Shara to scrub her porch in exchange for daily rations of rotten greens. The trouble begins when workmen on the grounds salivate at the sight of Shara’s behind, firmed up by rigor mortis; Teramoto witnesses something abominable, but instead of interfering, he’s turned on by it. Shara takes her humiliation with muted indifference, yet a sense of foreboding pervades. Sure enough, when something happens to Teramoto’s young son, Kenichi (Riku Onishi), his mother makes a rash decision that gives Shara a chance to turn the tables.
Right from the start, Sabu strays from genre conventions by making the zombified world as quotidian as possible. Shara goes about her undead life with little fuss, impervious to daily bullying en route to work, and even sewing together her decomposing skin in a matter-of-fact way. More disturbing are the sadism and perversion she arouses. Her story becomes more intriguing when Kenichi becomes attached to her, triggering a family crisis and awakening Shara’s human instincts. Sabu’s minimalist screenplay divulges little of Shara’s past, but the purpose of this omission becomes apparent when her memory comes flooding back in the film’s mind-blowing ending.
Komatsu, who’s made her name as a “gravure idol” (a particular type of pin-up girl in Japan), suggests a smoldering sexuality beneath her physically grotesque appearance, and some of her scenes with Teramoto cheekily channel certain genres of Japanese erotica. Daisuke Soma’s roving camera seldom frames Shara’s face in full view; instead, it zeroes in on her maimed body parts, embodying the male characters’ objectifying gaze. Komatsu interprets the character’s transformation — from a stiff, marionette-like figure to someone driven by love and altruism — with a sullen intensity made even more effective by her lack of dialogue.
Tezuka and Togashi deliver performances with deliberately hyperbolic facial expressions and body language, as though emulating silent-film villains. In contrast with Shara’s recovery of her humanity, Shizuko’s ladylike affectations gradually give way to unintelligible outbursts; Togashi makes her character’s descent into hysteria both funny and repulsive, only to transform herself yet again, this time into a sympathetic, Pieta-like figure.
Confined to a few basic sets without the help of a production designer, Sabu still manages to fashion a mise-en-scene that evokes a bleakly futuristic milieu. Color, when it does appear, exerts a potent impact. Music is sparse and lightly discordant, amplifying the hypnotic sound of Shara scrubbing, which achieves the pic’s intended nails-on-a-chalkboard effect.