There’s always been a really low bar to clear for movies like Wild Zero. When the premise is this simple - a rock band saves a town from an alien-directed zombie outbreak - it’s hard to ask for much more than a rollicking pace, some quotable dialogue and buckets upon buckets of fake blood. Using that sliding scale, Wild Zero is basically the Citizen Kane of rock n’ roll films, possessing such a unique bent on a well worn B-movie style as to feel wholly original. For years, it’s been a go-to title for me when it comes to shocking a group of friends after a night of heavy drinking, so I’d never given it much more praise beyond “this shit is bananas,” but upon a recent re-watch, I realized something more resonant about this otherwise bug-fuck insane trash-terpiece.
Wild Zero’s plot is splintered into several disparate strands that unite around the halfway mark as the zombie threat bubbling beneath the narrative rises to the fore. Each little arc is simple enough, existing only to ferry side characters to the main event slaughter that awaits them in the film’s final act, but the prime story is pretty special.
Ace (Masashi Endô), a young kid, saves his favorite band, Guitar Wolf, from the depraved sociopath who owns the club they just performed at. Guitar Wolf, the band’s eponymous frontman, slices his hand open to become blood brothers with Ace and gives him a special whistle to call on them whenever he may need aid, not unlike Superman gifting Jimmy Olsen a signal watch. Guitar Wolf, the band (also comprised of Bass Wolf & Drum Wolf), are essentially superheroes, so they feel like the stars of the film, but film’s real heart lies in Ace’s story.
Ace encounters a pretty girl named Tobio (Kwancharu Shitichai). Their meet-cute is adorably swift and represents a strong counterbalance to the rest of the film’s chaotic excess. Ace first accidentally saves her from a botched gas station robbery and then again plays the hero once actual zombies show up. They run off together to hide from the monsters, and the two share an intimate moment of emotional honesty. Ace confesses his true feelings and things begin to escalate, which is where events take a sharp left turn.
This is where Ace discovers that Tobio is transgender. Now, Wild Zero was made in 1999, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the rest of the running time was dedicated to callous transphobia and socially negligent dick jokes, but oddly enough, that is not what happens. Firstly, the reveal itself doesn’t go full frontal, instead holding on Ace’s face with a few subconsciously cut frames of genitalia doodles, which itself is a little goofy, but again, softer than you would expect. Secondly, yes, Ace does run out of the room screaming, but it’s what happens after that is kind of amazing.
Guitar Wolf pops up, not unlike Val Kilmer’s Elvis in True Romance, and bellows a touching maxim at Ace. “Love has no borders, nationalities or genders! DO IT!” The first few times I saw this movie, I was always taken with the hilarious, emphatic delivery of the line, but I never gave much thought to how legitimately powerful it is in a film otherwise untethered to reality. Ace remains confused about the whole thing, but the minute he hears the zombies return, he immediately realizes that Tobio is in danger. Everything else washes away and he has to save her.
Now, the second half of this movie is pretty nuts. At one point, Guitar Wolf pulls a samurai sword from the neck of his guitar and uses it to cut a spaceship in half. It’s that kind of film. But you know what else? Tobio’s gender is never brought back up. After that initial shock, Ace accepts who she is. The film doesn’t delve into specifics or use any social justice jargon to better explain things. Instead it presents an advancing horde of zombies and aliens, simply placing abstract concepts like “love” and “rock n’ roll” above all others.
Wild Zero is a singular aberration in the world of cult cinema, balancing over the top theatrics with genuinely touching moments of sincerity. When compared to prestige pictures selfishly exploiting the legitimate concerns of the LGBTQ community for awards season cache, having a subplot surrounding a transgendered love interest be treated just as pedestrian as the other human elements of a film this crazy feels absolutely refreshing. This was made at least a decade before these issues became part of the national conversation, and yet the cringe factor inherent in so many projects made back then is absent.