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Virus (aka Day of Resurrection, Fukkatsu no hi, 1980)

Fukasaku Kinji

Japan

155 min, color, English (some Japanese dialogue)

Review © 2004 Branislav L. Slantchev

This is the mother of all apocalypse films: it is not enough that a deadly virus wipes out the entire population of Earth except a handful of people stationed in Antarctica, but then a nuclear holocaust wipes out whatever's left, including most of the survivors. Nothing ever works right for the heroes of this drama, including in many places the script. By the time the credits roll, you will truly believe that the ending is happy. You may not be singing "It's a Wonderful Life" but your frame of reference would be so twisted that you'd forget that it really is twenty people about to revert to Cro-magnon state.

And it wasn't even Godzilla's doing Chuck Connors soothes Kusakari Masao

I first saw the butchered (in more ways than one) international version on a horrifyingly awful R2 DVD from the UK. Cut by over 30% and cropped to "fit your screen," the film made little sense: the story was rushed, the visuals tortuous, and the entire thing seemed like a misguided attempt to create a Hollywood-style disaster film on 15% of the budget. I was disgusted enough to toss the DVD but then decided to find out a bit more about the film. After all, it's Fukasaku we're talking about, so it can't possibly be that bad.

Noriko (Takigawa Yumi) gets the flu In the Oval Office

It is not. I shelled out $50 for the 2-disc special edition Japanese DVD that presents the film the way it was supposed to be seen in its full 155 minute length (the DVD also includes the 100 minute "international version" but I did not bother). What a difference an additional hour can make! Suddenly the plot made much more sense (the entire love-story background of the main character had been deleted, rendering his actions totally incomprehensible), and the gorgeous widescreen transfer revealed the stunning photography, especially amidst the ice. So, the rest of the review is of this version, not the unspeakably crappy UK release.

Ken Ogata is overwhelmed by patients The Japanese base crew

A secret biological agent is stolen from an American research lab by the East Germans. An attempt to recover it misfires when the plane carrying the agent crashes somewhere in Mongolia (or at least in Asia, the guys were speaking Russian actually). For some reason it spreads first in Italy, and the epidemic is dubbed the "Italian Flu." Soon it becomes clear that it is impossible to contain, rioting breaks out, and even though the US government does find out what the origin is, it is too late to create a vaccine. Within a month the entire population of the planet is wiped out. Except the scientists stationed in Antarctica: the virus goes dormant when the temperature drops below -10 degrees. Eight women and 855 men are to rebuild the world.

Why was this cut from the US release? Symbolic last sunset

Not so fast! What would a Cold War disaster film be without some reference to the overbearing Russians and Americans, with their "stupid" rivalry. In a very heavy-handed critique of the antagonism, both sides are obsessed with the possibility that the other will attack even as the world is disintegrating around them. They have doomsday machines of Dr. Strangelove variety: if a nuclear explosion is detected on the home land, the full retaliatory force is automatically fired at the enemy. Before dying, the crazy American (and the unseen Soviet counterpart) activate the doomsday machines.

No apocalypse film without crazy general The Norwegians are always the first to go

This does not seem to be a problem: after all, each system requires a detonation to trigger. But then Yoshizumi (Kusakari Masao) discovers that oil drilling in the Atlantic has caused a shift that is going to produce an earthquake strong enough to be misinterpreted as a nuclear strike by the system. This still does not sound that bad: after all, Antarctica is pretty far from both the US and the USSR. Unfortunately, it turns out the Soviets have targeted Antarctica because they had believed the Americans were building military bases there. As the Soviet general puts it, the Americans did not have monopoly on idiots.

Negotiations American-style 8 Women, 855 Men: do the math

The film transforms itself from a survival flick into an action-suspense thriller as Yoshizumi and Major Carter (Bo Svenson) race against time to deactivate the doomsday system before the earthquake strikes. The major perishes in the process and Yoshizumi begins his lone trek back to South America in search for any survivors from Antarctica. For some reason his trip leads him through Machu Picchu (I fail to fathom why one would climb it instead of following the Urubamba River) and through many desolate peaks (for some reason he does not like well-paved highways).

Yoshizumi reveals the earthquake danger The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades

The film is so bleak, one can hardly experience the happy ending when Yoshizumi, bearing a startling resemblance to Robison Crusoe on a bad hair day, reunites with his love Marit (Olivia Hussey). Without the background story cut from the international release it was impossible to understand his motivation, but it is clear in this version. Yoshizumi had left behind his girlfriend Noriko (Takigawa Yumi) even though she had been pregnant with his child. She dies in the flu and suddenly Yoshizumi realizes that the wonderful life is about love between two people, not career. He tries to expiate his guilt with his self-sacrificial trip to Washington, but when that fails, he embarks on the long, long (two years?) quest back to his new love.

Stop and savor the scenery, Yankee bastard Grateful Dead fan

The film turns out to be less of a disaster film and more of a social and political commentary. The demise of humankind is entirely man-made, a product of the Cold War. Even the survivors have to continue paying for the sins of their countries long after the countries have ceased to exist. It's funny that the military people continue wearing their uniforms even though they no longer mean anything. It is also funny that the American and Russian admirals quickly usurp the leadership of the government. We should, of course, not forget how the brave British submarine captain (Chuck Connors) blew out of the water those pesky sick Russian sailors that were going to bring the flu to the colony. If one forgives the rather simplistic critique and the "love conquers all and is the sole meaning of life" conclusion, the film is quite enjoyable.

The trek to Antarctica Gratuitous shot of Olivia Hussey

The Japanese 2-disc special edition DVD set is a sight to behold (and given that I speak no Japanese, I have no choice but limit myself to beholding). Disc 1 includes a pristine anamorphic transfer of the 155 minute version in its correct 1.85:1 ratio, accompanied with DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DD Mono English soundtracks. Most of the film is in English, which is great since there are no English subtitles. There are some scenes with Japanese dialogue but it is not difficult to guess what's going on. There are optional Japanese subtitles. All the extras are in Japanese, including the hefty and potentially very informative booklet. Disc 2 has the 100-minute international butchery (at least it's still anamorphic and widescreen, with mono English soundtrack). There are trailers, documentaries, interviews, talent files, and tons of other stuff that is completely useless to me. If anyone speaks Japanese, I'd love to get a translation. Get the 1-disc version, if such a thing ever becomes available. Stay away from the UK disc, it is atrocious.

July 8, 2004