For 45 minutes, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is an excitingly efficient and ultraviolent zomedy. Director Kiah Roache-Turner pointedly refuses to bother with the handwringing that usually weighs down the first act of a zombie film (including obligatory debates over the cause of the outbreak that’s suddenly turning everyone into ghouls, bickering among the survivors, and talk of religion and where to go next), and jumps right into the good stuff of ripping off the best parts of better movies. We’re plopped down in the middle of a dusty driveway somewhere in the Outback with a bunch of desperate men who’re dressed in home-fashioned armor that recalls the outfitting of the Firefly clan in the opening of The Devil’s Rejects, which is understandable, as they’re in the midst of mowing down zombies in a shootout that unexpectedly resembles a pared-down version of the celebrated bank-robbing sequence in Heat.
Roache-Turner wears his references loose and fast, but he brings his own innovations to the party, effectively fetishizing the men’s gadgets and cobbled together hardware with free-floating camera movements that often appear to be staged from the point of view of the midsections of the men’s bodies. The freeness of the camera often achieves a best-of-both-worlds result: The action scenes are remarkably coherent for a contemporary genre film, and the general whack-a-mole nature of the zombie gags are invigorated with legitimately surprising timing, as the monsters can appear from any vantage point of the frame spontaneously and more or less logically. The exhilarating propulsion of the major set pieces is intensified by the editing, which is always superbly ahead of the viewer’s expectations, and by the unusually beautiful dusty desert browns of the cinematography, which suggests the faded cover of a pulp-western paperback.
Disappointingly, Roache-Turner and co-writer Tristan Roache-Turner don’t know when to leave well enough alone. Zombies, dudes, guns, ostentatious weaponry, booze, and a bitchin’ war vehicle straight from the pages of the Mad Max catalogue for the bored and lonely is all genre filmmakers this inventive need. But they eventually make a mistake that’s far too common to the modern self-consciously cultish movie by larding the narrative with “mythology” that, in this case, boils down to the same damn pandering Christ metaphor that afflicts every Marvel movie and basically every large-scale American action film after The Matrix. The engagingly understated randomness of the film subtly dissipates when a supporting character is revealed to be a telepathic Neo of the zombies, and in its place the filmmakers ladle on the disingenuously melodramatic character sacrifices that they were wise to initially jettison. Wyrmwood is considerably more confident than most of the horror films looking to cash-in on pop culture’s present obsession with everything zombie, but that skillfulness renders its eventual slide into the routine all the more irritating.