Wednesday, November 19th, 2003. The late, lamented Brothers Hawkins had Permission to Land, winning over a brace of too-cool-for-the-room hipsters (here’s some advice for you wipes – if you’re ‘too-cool-for-the-room’, please leave it) at Chicago’s Double Door – and I was there. Seven minutes later, I was a block away at a club called Subterranean – where one of my absolute favorite bands took the stage for a blast of “Midnight Violence Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
I saw The Darkness and Guitar Wolf on the same night. By the end of the eve, I was completely drained – and not just because some ecstasy-fueled cutie-punk grabbed me by the back of my favorite head and used her leather-clad hinder to buff my crotch to a luxurious shine – it was because the combined energy of those two fantastic acts drove the audiences at both venues absolutely apetit.
But as phenomenal as The Darkness set was – the Guitar Wolf show was a flat-out fight for survival. It was a night that will live in my memory forever. And when I want to relive it – I watch Wild Zero.
Wild Zero is a Sci-Fi/Horror/Action/Comedy featuring the legendary Guitar Wolf. The band, for the uninitiated, can best be described thusly: In 197X (gratuitous Capcom reference), Joey Ramone and Glenn Danzig made their way to Japan. During their stay, they knocked up a few chicks in the Harajuku district. Years later, these brothers – Seiji (Guitar Wolf), Billy (Bass Wolf), and Toru (Drum Wolf) – drawn to one another by The Quickening, no doubt – started a band.
In truth, Guitar Wolf was formed in 1987, when Seiji and Billy – employees in neighboring stores – discovered that they had similar musical tastes (Link Wray, The Ramones, The Misfits, Stooges, Runaways, MC5). They played indefatigably in bars and clubs in Japan and abroad, and – after showing up on a few comps (with the 5,6,7,8’s among others) – they released their first full-length album in ’93. In 1997, they appeared (in glorified cameo capacity) in trash auteur John Michael McCarthy’s Sore Losers (and I swear I remember seeing them in his Teenage Tupelo, as well – but perhaps the movies are just blurring in my mind – ‘trippy’ is an understatement). This work with McCarthy was undoubtedly the catalyst for the proper cinematic introduction to the band provided by Wild Zero (Sore Losers is a similarly constructed, self-conscious Retro/Teen Alienation/Sci-Fi riff featuring members of The Oblivians and The Makers).
Wild Zero is the tale of Ace (Endo Masashi), an awkward pomade punker who dreams of one day becoming a real rock ‘n’ roller like his idol Guitar Wolf.
We meet Ace as he prepares to see the progenitors of Jet Rock and Roll at a local club called Future Pub. As Ace gets his hair ready, we’re made to watch the skies – where we discover that there is an alien invasion afoot. Hundreds of green saucers (rendered in CG to look every bit as realistic as string-supported toys in an Ed Wood film) are speeding toward Earth – or, specifically – Asahi, Japan. But not even an alien invasion can stop the rock, so we’re off to the club with Ace for a frantic Guitar Wolf set. It’s pretty obvious that the template for this performance piece is Allan Arkush’s Rock ‘N’ Roll High School - which is so very fitting.
After the gig, the band heads for the owner’s backroom office in search of compensation. What they find is the unsettling laced-up short-shorts and Sonny Bono wig-do of drug-addled club-owner The Captain (Inamiya Makoto), who refuses to pay the Wolf because, “Rock ‘N’ Roll is over, baby!”
As the situation between the Wolves and The Captain worsens, we find Ace in the john, taking a leak (which we get to see via the, um, one-eyed cam…weird) and psyching himself up enough to tell the club owner that he wants to perform there. His resolve (and coif) in place, he leaves the can – and steps right into the Mexican (Japanese?) standoff in The Captain’s office, creating just enough confusion for the Wolves to get the drop on Cap and his shaved-pate problem-solver. During this sequence, Wild Zero shows off with some of the first really effective CG gore I’d seen at that point. Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners played with computer-assisted grue in 1996 (remember that slick Jeffery Combs exploding head?), but it would be years before CG could really pull it off – and sometimes it still looks awful. This is the first film I’d seen that made me feel like convincing CG splatter was within reach – and most of it still holds up.
Once the band makes its escape, Seiji thanks Ace by making him a blood brother – and presenting him with a high frequency (wolf) whistle that will summon the band in times of trouble. I had a whistle just like that, once – unfortunately, it summoned The Mike Curb Congregation, and I had to run over it with my Caddy.
Somewhere in the sticks, a nameless guy launches into a mean-spirited tirade, hops into his car, and speeds away – ditching his girl on the side of the road. The girl, forlorn Tobio (Shitichai Kwancharu), begins her slow, somber walk back into town.
From there, we’re introduced to a trio of road-tripping rejects – Masao (played, appropriately enough, by Masao), Toshi (Morishita Yoshiyuki, Japan’s answer to Steve Buscemi – and he’s even done time in a Tarantino flick. I wonder which one?), and Hanako (Taneko). The gang is heading for the site of a reported meteorite landing, and Toshi and Hanako spend every mile bickering about their lack of cash. When they pull into a mini-mart parking lot, though – the supremely frustrated Masao is the only one prepared to do anything about their financial woes. He breaks out the Balisong and makes to attack the gas station. Masao bursts into the building, sending the patrons into a panic, and causing delicate Tobio (who’s managed to walk this far) to faint.
Masao’s gas station siege is short-lived, as a happy-go-lucky Ace enters the station, inadvertently smacking the stick-up man in the mouth with the door (he has a real penchant for accidentally saving the day, this kid). Masao pitches a strange tantrum and bolts, Tobio regains consciousness, and Ace falls deeply in love with Tobio.
I’m feeling a bit like Virginia Madsen at the moment, because I forgot to mention our roadside visit with paramilitary princess Yamazaki (Nakajo Haruka). She’s standing next to her camouflaged Humvee (again – on the side of the road, as if these characters have no life when not traveling), anxiously awaiting somebody.
If you’re getting the sense that the film is really episodic – you’d be on to something. Each of these segments goes so far as to fade to black when they’ve wrapped up – something that could have been conceived of as a motif, but is more than likely a byproduct of director Takeuchi Tetsuro’s background in music video. All the same, these pieces serve to introduce us to the sizable cast of characters – including Kondo (Namiki Shiro), a Yakuza meeting with Yamazaki for a weapons deal – with haste. Once that’s accomplished, the tale begins in earnest. Masao, Toshi and Hanako’s investigation of the meteor crash site reveals that the aliens orbiting the earth have taken a page from the Bunny Breckinridge playbook – and are re-animating the dead in order to cement their takeover.
Ah yes…Plan 9 - Channel 7.
Back at the gas station, Ace and Tobio are hitting it off, but Ace’s gotta go – he’s got tickets to the Guitar Wolf show in the next town.
And just up the road a bit, zombie death befalls Yakuza Kondo and his entourage – in quite possibly one of the coolest bits in zombie movie history.
Kondo loses one of his bodyguards to the throng of undead, and he tells his panicked driver to get them out of there. The driver takes in the reality of the walking dead, draws his revolver, puts it in his mouth, and pulls the trigger. For some reason, that strikes me as a pretty real response to that sort of thing – and it’s so tonally disruptive that it becomes really funny.
It doesn’t take long for Ace to run into a mob of undead fiends – and his first thoughts run to the helpless Tobio. He’s allowed only a moment to wrestle with his own cowardice, before a vision of a cheerleading Seiji infuses him with the required intestinal fortitude to go save the girl. Ace races back to the gas station, grabs Tobio – and spirits her away to a cemetery.
Director Takeuchi then engineers a disturbing change of pace, as we return to Future Pub to watch The Captain dine like Denathor during a performance of the breakout single ‘Love Love Beam’ by what looks to be a twelve-year-old idol singer the Captain’s planning to ‘manage’ (if you smell what the Pollock’s cookin’). Alas, Cap’s playtime is over just in time (or far too soon, depending on how you feel about watching Japanese Idol Singers get violated by guys who look like the little kid who was friends with Gamera grew up Bonaduce) as he receives information regarding the whereabouts of Guitar Wolf. He ponders revenge just long enough to sniff his bandaged fingers (blecch!) – then the hunt is joined.
Meanwhile, back at the cemetery, Ace laments the poor life choices that have brought him to his lowly state, and weeps at the notion that he’s doomed poor Tobio, as well. The horror of their situation drives a wedge between the would-be couple – and Tobio rockets from the crypt in Afterschool Special fashion.
After another vision of Seiji (who appears Kilmer-in-True Romance-style to shriek “Rock ‘N’ Roll!!” to our would-be hero), Ace one again finds his testes (and a crowbar) and races into the city of the walking dead to win Tobio back.
And he remembers the Wolf Whistle. And he summons Guitar Wolf.
The band hears the call and hits the open road, hell bent on reaching Asahi and saving their blood brother. One by one, our characters are reunited – and the entire group ends up in Yamazaki’s Warehouse of Weaponry. Of course, the band has no need for weapons – as it turns out that Seiji can kill thirty or so zombies at a time by throwing his electrified glowing guitar picks at them.
Meanwhile, Ace stumbles through the plagued streets searching for his precious Tobio – but even if he finds her, will their love stand a chance against the Alien Menace? And, for that matter, can there be love among the living dead? Will The Captain take his revenge on Seiji and the boys – and could he please put some pants on that don’t accentuate and gingerly caress his firm, Amish, child-bearing hips?
And finally – Can Rock ‘N’ Roll truly save our lives?
If you don’t know the answer to that one I don’t know I wanna’ know ya’.
Wild Zero is, at its twisted heart, a charming little love story. The tale of Ace and Tobio is a strange and winding road fraught with angsty teen melodrama that plays less like John Hughes and more like Nicholas Ray (whose Rebel Without a Cause is of prime inspiration here). Elements of High School Confidential, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Return of the Living Dead, and the best Rock and Roll film ever made, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (Gimme’ Shelter, my ass), get cribbed – and it’s a wonder that some Goner or Estrus act wasn’t called on to cover Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash - in what is one of the weirdest rock movies ever – made weirder still by the film’s earnest and caring message that love – like Rock ‘N’ Roll – knows no boundaries, nationalities, or genders.
Guitar Wolf lost bass player Billy a couple years back, but found a replacement and resumed their slave labor-style touring schedule. They’re also prepping a sequel to Wild Zero, so perhaps checking this film out now means getting in on the ground floor of a franchise – so heed the words of Seiji himself, and “DO IT!!”
When next we descend…we’ll attend the August 24th American Premiere of Troma’s latest – Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead - from the Times Theater in Milwaukee (The Good Land).