Unsettling 'Miss Zombie' Lacks Gray Matter as Zombie Drama

Directed by Sabu; Runtime: 85 minutes
Grade: C+

Explorations of the underlying feelings and dramatics involved with being one of pop-culture's noteworthy "monsters" have grown in popularity over recent decades, from the immortality and blood-drinking necessity of vampires to tormented ghosts and werewolves controlling the beastly side of themselves. These creatures possess the foundation for genuine explorations of what it's like to live in their skin -- the struggles and associated themes -- because their stories offer a glimpse at what the world looks like through the lens of their perception, which hasn't directly impacted their human-like thought processes. Zombies, on the other hand, have been purposely designed to lack coherence and a grasp on what it's like to be human, with their disease transforming them into mindless flesh-eaters. Therefore, the underlying conceit of Sabu's Miss Zombie already hits a wall that its stunning black-and-white productions design and gritty, committed performance value cannot scale over.

Miss Zombie does try to adjust the context of a world populated by zombies, in which the condition has many stages -- not unlike a disease -- that develop with time and fluctuate depending on the individual zombie's situation, notably whether they eat meat or not. Due to the degrees of the zombie condition, almost-human versions of the creatures can be utilized and indentured servants or slaves or however one wants to classify them, where their semi-mindless state can be controlled and applied to menial tasks. A Japanese family receives one of such zombies, Sara (Ayaka Komatsu), locked up in both a metal cage and a wooden crate, along with an included pistol just in case the servant grows out of control. As the zombie begins to work around the house, shuffling her feet and monotonously scrubbing the floor, both the family that currently controls her and the other workers on their property begin to look at her differently, some viewing her with more humanity and others in an unsavory and abusive light.

The starkness of the monochrome photography and the intense focus upon Sara's scarred and veiny appearance evoke harshness in Miss Zombie, but it's a stunning and absorbing sort of harshness that draws one into Sabu's world-building. By playing with depth of field and the extremes of light and shadow, the director and his cinematographer Daisuke Soma craft an absorbing atmosphere around which the zombie perpetually and rhythmically scrubs a heavily-textured floor and walks to-and-from a living space some distance away from the property. The sounds of her shuffling feet, signaling her approach or departure, takes on unique meaning throughout the film depending on how she's perceived at a given time: trepidation, curiosity, and eventually a human degree of suspicion. Based solely on the sharp-contrast aesthetics and the oddly disquieting mood generated within them, Sabu's handling of the zombie's presence around the household could be labeled stimulating and provocative.

Examining Miss Zombie beyond the surface elements and into Sabu's deeper emotional and social considerations never works, though, and that revolves around the arbitrary nature of the zombie's dulled awareness of the world around her and the degree of humanity that remains within her. Actress Ayaka Komatsu capably embodies the stoically deadened attitude of a zombie under some form of control, be it self-control or programming, allowing flickers of personality to come out in subtle, sluggish glances and movements. Sympathy for the zombie emerges in how she's mistreated on a day-to-day basis, but those intentions are clouded by the vagueness over what's going on in her head and how she's able to tolerate it, both the violent aspects of being stabbed or stoned and the emotional scars that follow along. That ambiguity may be intentional with Sabu's world-building, but without some frame of reference as to how distorted her perception has become as a member of the undead -- or without internal monologues, like in Warm Bodies -- the thematic elements can't be properly evaluated.

Despite those impenetrable issues that have made zombie character studies a rarity, Miss Zombie doesn't tread over much new situational or symbolic ground within the broader undead subgenre, either, stitching together elements from other shock-value horror-drama hybrids. Sabu doesn't shy away from difficult themes in his depiction, hinged on the monster's perceived lowered worth as an individual and the unique situations involved with granting a form of immortality to those who are bitten by the afflicted. From the sexual abuse of Deadgirl and the reformation aspects of The Woman to turn-undead desperations that immediately trigger thoughts of Interview with the Vampire, the ideas cobbled together here do shuffle close to a deeper purpose reflecting upon the ostracization, exploitation, and objectification of, y'know, regular people. As the zombie seems to develop more value, the "normal" humans exhibit less worthwhile qualities and begin to resemble figurative monsters with their impulses, a functional parable about the nastiness of mankind that lacks freshness.

Shocking, mildly avant-garde imagery and an uptick in dramatic uncertainty cannot distract from the fact that Sabu struggles with coherent and contradictory storytelling in Miss Zombie. Little about the timeline and logistics of the situation seems clear, notably how the zombie is allowed to walk back and forth between the house and her ramshackle living space, a trek that's long enough to see daylight disappear while tempting her with aggravating confrontations and meat-eating possibilities. This ends up being one of many messy allowances taken by Sabu in service of his conceptual ambitions, which get even messier and contrived as he reaches a crazed finale driven by gunfire, accidents, and flashbacks that creep up and have a cerebral impact whenever the director sees fit. Despite an intriguingly gradual escalation of emotional tension created by the zombie's presence, Sabu pulls the trigger on jarring shock value at the end of Miss Zombie and he misses the mark due to how it's completely hinged on an individual whose thought-processes exist in an indeterminate state of cogency.

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