10:02 - 2nd March 2015, by Calum Waddell

Greatful Dead

Following in the same serial-slasher footsteps as Takashi Miike’s classic Audition (1999) or Sion Sono’s Cold Fish (2010), Greatful Dead is a home invasion story at heart. As such, the story retreads a lot of the same tropes that one might expect from this well-worn horror subgenre including gender conflict, sexual subversion and lots of spilled blood.

Therefore, it is a testament to the skills of writer-director Eiji Uchida (The Last Days of the World) that this thrilling and tightly woven pot-boiler manages to be as surprising and unpredictable as it is. Despite occasionally nodding towards Christian metaphors (thankfully this is not too overdone), Greatful Dead works best when it allows its excellent leading lady, Kumi Takiuchi, to let loose and become as psychotic as possible. As with Eihi Shiina in the aforementioned Audition, Takiuchi is both fearful and feminine: portraying a personality of obvious sexual appeal and, yet, absolutely terrifying. Indeed, her final descent into madness is one of the finest things that NEO has seen on screen all year.

Be warned though: this is a rough ride…

Greatful Dead opens with a big, bloody, brutal bang – a scene of violence in which a young child bludgeons one of her fellow school pupils across the head. The pint-sized psychopath in question grows up to be an attractive teenager called Nami. Indicating that she is disturbed beyond belief, Nami now spends her time studying the Tokyo locals – especially the elderly, whom she dubs to be ‘solitarians’: lonely, rejected, confined. Our lady never had a father, and is stuck between a perverse interest in the sexual interests of male pensioners, and the days leading up to their ultimate demise. Obsessed with the increasing trend for Japan’s aging population to hide away in their own homes and await the inevitable, Nami celebrates whenever someone finally passes away – to the extent of sneaking into their homes and taking phone selfies with the corpse. The gent who the youngster becomes most obsessed with, however, is a man called Mr. Shiomi (veteran performer Takashi Sasano). Shiomi is a temperamental soul: once a big shot, who now passes his afternoons at home –or even shopping for pornography featuring girls who are a fraction of his age. Unfortunately for Nami, Mr. Shiomi meets two young Christian missionaries who begin to have a positive effect on his life. No longer secluded, and becoming more positive about his social status, Mr. Shiomi’s life looks to be a little less lonely. Nami, of course, cannot take this change of affairs, and her desires – both sexual and sinister – begin to untangle themselves in ghoulish fashion…

It would be wrong to spoil much more about Greatful Dead because it is a film that functions best when it is pulling the rug out from under the viewer’s expectations. Inevitably, as indicated at the start of this review, the story moves towards a home-invasion conflict – and, in the process, becomes perverse, suspenseful and finally quite stomach-turning. There are plenty of ideas at work here, including the disengagement between Nami, and her generation, towards the old – be they those who built postwar Japan, or the men and women who were once afforded greater societal status. The idea of religion, as a form of salvation, in a culture and economy of materialism and selfishness is also maintained, but, more interesting, is how the plot deals with Nami’s obvious sex appeal. Evolving into that notorious genre figure – a femme castratrice – the character’s beauty is transgressed into, quite literally, seducing the very patriarchy that she seeks to slaughter. Again, as with Audition (which is really the best contemporary comparison to Greatful Dead), the murderous matriarch proves to be a force of natural fear.

There is also a clear dread of aging here: both the loneliness and the reliance on others that comes from the physical degradation of our later years. There is a genuine sadness in Greatful Dead, a sense of life and loss that is permeable and powerful. Furthermore, despite being ever-so-slightly-forced, and maybe a tad too cliché, the Freudian overtones are treated with a suitably amusing tongue-in-cheek grit.

At just 97 minutes in length, Greatful Dead never really lags, and the film’s dark and brooding atmosphere is, admirably, sustained even during the many daylight sequences. The sense that anything could spiral out of control here is unmistakable – and the build-up to Nami’s horrific behaviour becomes nail-bitingly tense.

In a year that has also unleashed Miike’s Lesson of Evil, this is Japanese extreme cinema at its best. Despite the nagging feeling that the conclusion to Greatful Dead is not as sustained as it should be (a little less in the way of wicked splat-stick might have worked wonders), there is very little reason for any self-respecting fan of arthouse horror not to spend some time with Nami and company. Boasting a first class cast, shocking set pieces and a cat-and-mouse finale that barely pauses for a breath, Greatful Dead is a first class frightener. Most rewarding, however, is the feeling that transgressive terror from The Land of the Rising Sun is alive and well. And we can all be ‘Greatful’ for that…

You would be dead stupid to miss out on this sanguine-packed bout of stylish slasher action!
SCORE: 4/5
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