In an age saturated with zombie movies and TV shows, I Am a Hero does something I thought impossible: It makes zombies terrifying again.
Based on the excellent manga of the same name, I Am a Hero is the story of Hideo, a 35-year old assistant manga artist. His pay is low, his girlfriend has come to hate him and his dreams always stay firmly out of reach. Then, one day, the zombie apocalypse happens. Miraculously surviving the original outbreak, Hideo follows rumours of help awaiting at Mt Fuji, meeting various survivors along the way.
There is one big thing that sets Hideo apart from nearly every other person in Japan: He is one of the very few people in Japan to own a gun — a sporting shotgun to be precise. In a land largely without guns (and full of zombies) you might assume that the man with the shotgun is king. However, in this story it's only useful in a few select situations. It is a non-issue at best — as almost everyone assumes it is fake. And at worst it is a fatal liability — with some people wanting it badly enough to kill for it. This is compounded by the fact that Hideo is unable to shoot another human, even when his life and those of his companions are on the line.
In fact, Hideo is, for the most part, a relatively useless person to have around in a zombie apocalypse. He is not particularly athletic, smart or clever. He makes dumb choices as often as good ones — especially regarding his school girl companion Hiromi. And, perhaps worst of all, he seems completely unable to take down a zombie one-on-one.
The only reason he continues to survive when all those around him are devoured en masse is luck. Hideo is by far the luckiest person on the planet. Time and time again he "lucks" his way into survival.
If he does have one skill, however, it's somehow befriending the best of people in the zombie apocalypse. Those he comes to trust are those who selflessly attempt to save him — even when he is nothing more than a stranger in need. And these are exactly the types of people who reward loyalty with loyalty.
That doesn't mean he doesn't run across his own fair share of psychotics and arseholes, however.
While the story of I Am a Hero is solid enough — though featuring many of the familiar zombie film settings and tropes — it is the way that the story is told that makes the film superb. The direction is amazingly well done, especially in the scene where the zombie epidemic hits full outbreak. Hideo runs through the streets as zombies tear into people all around him. It's full of wide shots with hundreds of extras — fully showing the chaos of an outbreak in Tokyo.
What makes this scene (and the film as a whole) fantastic is the reliance on practical effects instead of CG. When a zombie is coming, it is almost always a person in (extraordinarily well-done) makeup. When said zombie's head is bashed in with a bat, something is really being crushed. The blood-splatter is real liquid going everywhere.
And, let me tell you, this film never shies away from showing you the violence — so much that I, a grown man in his 30s, am not ashamed to say I covered my eyes at a few points to prevent future nightmares. There are no cutaways when a person gets his or her nose ripped off, gets kicked in the teeth or takes a shotgun blast to the face. The film is unforgivingly brutal.
The zombies, likewise, seem monstrous and border on the eldritch. Many are deformed from their transformation process. Some zombies move in ways that seem more spider than human (through either a contortionist actress or CG so real I couldn't tell the difference). They are terrifying — even in an age where zombies are often treated as little more than cannon fodder for the heroes.
All this makes for a film that feels real from top to bottom. Nothing looks fake enough to draw you out of the film; nothing reminds you that it is just a movie.
I Am a Hero is a classic zombie film reborn. If you have ever liked zombie stories, are tired of fake-looking CG, and can stand watching brutal ultraviolence, this is not one you should miss. It's well-directed, well-acted and will make you remember why zombies have been scaring us all for generations.
I Am a Hero was released in Japanese theatres on 23 April 2016. There is currently no word on a wide Western release — though it has been making its way through the film festival circuit with English subtitles.