★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A Malaysian zombie movie! How did it go? Well, I’ll give them an A for effort, and a C for execution. The production and story is pretty pedestrian and very rough around the edges, particularly the dialogue, but it has a lot of heart. The introduction of indigenous Borneo Iban villagers is respectfully done and makes this quintessentially Malaysian. You do root for the film, even while wincing at its deficiencies.
Directed by Ray Lee Voon Leong
Southeast Asia has been emerging as a great source of horror films over the past five years, but largely that effort has been led by Indonesia. Films like Satan’s Slaves, The Queen of Black Magic, Impetigore, and May the Devil Take You Too are legitimately scary movies and have achieved plaudits the world over, including from The Scariest Things. The stories, the characters, and the scares are all top-notch. The Portland Horror Film Festival announced that they were releasing two Malaysian horror films, and that got us excited. Can the Malaysians deliver the same quality horror product as their neighbor?
My answer: Give Malaysia some time. Zombie Infection – Balaban Hidup is a rather generic zombie film, with a Malaysian twist in the third act. The premise of the movie is out of Zombie Films 101: A group of mad scientists have been running nefarious genetic manipulation experiments in Madagascar and have fled that island for another island: Borneo. There they have found a new population of people to experiment on, offering local villagers free medical care but instead capture them, turning them into zombies.
A group of teenage orphans breaks out of their cages, releasing all the experiments, and flooding the population with slavering undead. The escapees flee to the local shopping mall to rescue the sister of one of the girls, but finding that overrun, they flee to the dense Bornean jungle, hoping that the zombies would have difficulties negotiating rough terrain.
The surviving panicking teens make their way towards an indigenous Iban village, drawing the zombies in their wake. The Iban village hunting parties are led by a charismatic young hunter Gadang (Pablo Amirul) who takes in the orphaned teens. It is revealed that a neighboring village scoundrel has been selling out local tribespeople to the evil corporation, so now the jungle is filled with enemies closing in on all sides, forcing the villagers and orphans to team up to fight or flee from the onrush of evildoers.
The film in a lot of ways feels like the first half of One Cut of the Dead, before its mind-blowing second half. It’s earnest and quaint, in that it feels like a zombie movie made for people who have never seen a zombie movie before. It carries all the Romero tropes, a bite will infect you and turn you, a shot to the head or the heart will kill the zombies, and they are mindless flesh-eaters relentless in pursuit of human prey. Standard fare stuff. It also looks like it was shot with 1970s film stock. It has an old-school feel that makes it somewhat grindhouse in appearance.
The movie does feel disjointed, as the main group of teenagers who make the initial breakout are the central focus of the first act. They all bicker and argue about whether to rescue doomed friends and family and whether to run or hide. They all come off shrill here, and the dialogue in the first act is truly abysmal. But, these pithy arguments set the tone, and if you’ve never seen a zombie film then it helps set the framework of panic in a zombie apocalypse.
If you have seen almost any other zombie movie, these decisions are fundamental and don’t really add anything new to the genre. The trip to the shopping mall is certainly an homage to Dawn of the Dead, and this adventure would have been worth the side quest if these characters were going to matter in the end. They don’t.
What does matter, and what makes this movie fresh, is the introduction of the native Iban tribe. The movie actually sets up the tribe well, with decent backstories for Gadang’s family and the culture of the village. The movie would have benefitted if the whole movie was about them. Instead, we get something of an awkward collision at the halfway mark of the movie, and the focus turns from one group of protagonists to another, and it’s this second group you actually care about.
There is a great emotional sendoff for one of the supporting characters at the end of the movie, and it ends somewhat ambiguously as to the fate of most of our characters. There is a certain casualness to the death of many of the other characters, and to celebrate the one character at the end, though satisfying, came at the expense of all of the characters who got dispatched with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
This movie is celebrated for actually shooting on location in Borneo with real indigenous Iban tribespeople. And it deserves those plaudits. There was so much more effort put into the back half of the movie that the whole front half of the movie feels irrelevant. We want to spend more time in the village, less time at the mall.
For a zombie movie, this is very light on the gore. If this ever gets rated, it would earn a PG-13. The zombies descend in mobs. And when they do get you they like to bite you on the collar bone. That also happens to be a handy way to hide that somebody has been bitten. Ah, the old hidden bite trick that comes into play many times here. Another zombie hoary chestnut trope.
A warning though, I think they actually show the killing of a real chicken in this film. In that way, it has a link to Cannibal Holocaust/Cannibal Ferox, but the tribespeople here are much nicer. Even the zombies are nicer than the cannibals of those Italian shockers. They’re satisfied with just taking a fairly benign nibble out of your torso. No guts. No decapitations. It’s pretty tame by zombie standards. Though we do get a suicide of a woman by gouging her own eyes out. (Though it’s mostly suggested than graphically shown.)
After disparaging the shortcomings of this movie, I still encourage people to see this film. I think it puts a marker in the ground announcing that Malaysia is now going to be a player in the International horror market. Also, this is explicitly a Malaysian film, bolstered by the Borneo background. Again, it tries hard, it just lacks some of the refinement we’ve come to expect from Asian horror.
Zombie Infection – Belaban Hidup is in its film festival run and is not yet streaming.