Picture this: hacked up body parts slithering on the floor, a decapitated head tormenting the living with maniacal laughter and condescension. Right away you might recall the demented joys of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and even Nobuhiko Obayashi’s masterpiece, Hausu (House, 1977). The wacky, energetic spirit of movies of this ilk possesses every frame of writer/director/actor Shinichi Fukazawa’s feature-length debut, Jigoku no chimidoro Muscle Builder (Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell [AKA the Japanese Evil Dead], 2014), and as far as blatant homages go, they don’t come more enjoyable than this. Clocking in at just over 60 minutes, the film is a celebration of severed limbs, sprayed blood and bulging eyeballs, reminiscent of lo-fi ‘80s horror comedy. And like the misconceptions pertaining to men whose lives revolve around getting jacked, Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell might not offer much in the way of substance, but it does look good flexing.
The story follows Naoto (Shinichi Fukazawa), an unemployed bodybuilding enthusiast who spends his lonely days working out to get over the collapse of his last relationship. However, one day he receives a phone call from an ex-girlfriend (Masaaki Kai) asking him to help her research a haunted house, and like a fool in love, he agrees to. Joined by professional psychic (Asako Nosaka), they set out to visit a remote property once owned by Naoto’s deceased father, who just so happened to murder his lover there three decades before.
When they arrive at the derelict property, the psychic feels an evil presence staring at them from the walls and windows within. When they enter his fears are confirmed, and let’s just say the guests are not welcomed with open arms by Naoto’s dead stepmother. Shortly thereafter, our psychic is possessed, and all hell breaks loose.
Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell is thin on plot but it excels through its gung-ho simplicity. On paper, it bears trappings of a traditional haunted house movie, though instead of creaky floorboards and floating furniture we get an onslaught of carnage, hacked up body parts and a heaping of absurdist humour. Of course, all of it will seem familiar to seasoned horror viewers familiar with Sam Raimi’s aforementioned cult classic, but Obayashi doesn’t try to hide his adoration for that movie either. In case the direct reference in the title wasn’t enough of an obvious giveaway, Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell is littered with so many references to Evil Dead that it feels like oriental fanfiction. Aside from the plot similarities – both movies revolve around a group of people being picked on by a supernatural force in a remote location with a dark history – the film also contains gruesome makeup effects identical to the work of Tim Sullivan and KNB EFX (Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman), who worked on Evil Dead and the 1987 sequel, respectively. Furthermore, Naoto is essentially the Asian archetype of Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams character; only with more bulging biceps and less drama to deal with.
However, it’s not a complete clone of Raimi’s seminal splatstick; the film also bears similarities to the Hong Kong horror cinema during the late ‘70s and ‘80s – particularly the work of the Shaw Brothers’ horror fare like Xie (Hex, 1980). Also, when it comes to outrageous Japanese movies set in a haunted location, Hausu – a film which Evil Dead arguably borrowed some ideas from – is never far from the mind. Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell is a pastiche through and through, but it’s an affectionate and bloody fun one that understands what makes the films it’s homaging work. Furthermore, while comedic elements are at the forefront throughout, there is a constant air of menace that serves for a few chilling moments; Obayashi embraces the offbeat humour and horror sensibilities of his inspirations to create an admirable companion piece in its own right.
The movie was filmed on grainy 8mm and feels like a lost film from the bygone era it’s trying to replicate – which only adds to its retro charms. Prior to the release of the movie in its original cut in 2009, Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell was a project that had been fermenting for 14 years; conceived during the days of VHS only to be born in the digital era. So, as far as throwbacks go – which have been done to death in recent years, and often miss the mark completely – Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell has the advantage of being the product of a period when tributes were still self-aware, but less inclined to wink at a nostalgic audience for brownie points.
The best Japanese Evil Dead remains Toshiharu Ikeda’s Shiryô no wana (Evil Dead Trap, 1988). However, Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell honours the gore-filled traditions of Japanese splatter cinema admirably and writes one of the better love letters to Sam Raimi’s American horror classic. What the film lacks in originality it more than makes up for in mayhem and violence, whilst retaining a sense of self-awareness that never crosses into the realm of self-mocking parody. A perfect blend of riffing and respecting its forefathers, Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell is a worthy addition to the twisted family tree. I really look forward to seeing what Shinichi Fukazawa does next.
Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell is now available on DVD courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.