Intergalactic bounty hunter Iria (Yuko Moriyama) and her sentient computer Bob (voiced by Masakazu Handa) are in pursuit of Zeiram, a rogue bio-engineered alien killing machine now hiding out on Earth. Specifically a small Japanese town. To avoid endangering the locals Iria and Bob construct a virtual alternate dimension or "Zone" where they plan to combat and capture the murderous Zeiram. Unfortunately bumbling electric company employees Teppei (Kunihiro Ida) and Kamiya (Yukijiro Hotaru) stumble accidentally into the Zone, disrupting Iria's mission and trapping themselves alongside the terrifying, seemingly unstoppable alien monster.
Already established in computer games, manga and Japanese sentai ("superhero") television shows as a pre-eminent special effects designer and concept artist, Keita Amemiya made his cinematic debut co-directing the elaborate Mirai Ninja (1988) with veteran Sadao Nakajima. But it was the low budget, high-ingenuity Zeiram that made Amemiya's name, establishing him as the great auteur of sentai fare. At that time the sentai genre was in something of a rut, overshadowed by the limitless creative possibilities of anime. Amemiya infused the flagging super suit punching rubber monsters antics with an edgier aesthetic sensibility influenced by American sci-fi/horror films like Alien (1979), The Thing (1982) and the collective works of James Cameron, though specifically The Terminator (1984). Hence the titular nightmarish alien entity resembles a fever dream jointly concocted by H.R. Giger, Rob Bottin and Eiji Tsuburaya. Additionally the frenetic camera-work, with its mixed formats (digital video, 16 and 35mm), turbo-pacing and surreal flourishes, exhibits a plethora of visual influences. Among them kabuki theatre (i.e. Zeiram's creepy, smirking doll-faced parasite), French comics legend Moebius (Iria's form-fitting, super-cool battle suit), Hong Kong fantasy action films by Tsui Hark, Ronny Yu and Ching Siu-Tung and the gonzo energy of Japanese punk rock filmmakers Sogo Ishii and Shinya Tsukamoto.
On top of that Zeiram arguably brings George Lucas' borrowing from Akira Kurosawa full circle given how, like Star Wars (1977) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) it is an adventure story told from the point of view of two bumbling idiots. Clumsy, horny halfwits Kamiya and Teppei are down to earth protagonists with relatable problems that humanize an otherwise outlandish sci-fi story. Indeed a large chunk of the narrative centres on these two simply struggling to stay alive, slowly revealing a spark of courage and ingenuity that earns the battle-hardened Iria's respect. Admittedly the plot is strictly one-dimensional. Amemiya has no interest in allegory or subtext. The goofy comedy antics of Kamiya and Teppei are hit and miss although quite witty when they do hit. Intensely evocative lighting, editing and breakneck camera-work conceal the fact that the action choreography arguably pales by comparison with the athletic karate battles of, say, an old Kamen Rider episode from the Seventies. On the other hand the stunt work is seriously impressive. Especially Iria's leap out of an exploding window.
Brought vividly to life through a mix of puppetry, stop-motion animation and old fashioned suit-mation, Zeiram itself is a triumph of practical effects and design. Imposing and otherworldly the creature is a terrifying foe unlike anything hitherto seen in a sentai film and stands proudly besides the Predator or the Terminator as an iconic movie monster of the age. Similarly iconic star Yuko Moriyama exudes attitude as Iria with her deadpan delivery, sardonic humour and eye-catching yet solidly functional battle suit. Professional without proving humourless, empathetic but not overly emotional and utterly cool, Iria captured the imagination of Japanese genre fans as a new kind of sentai heroine. Set to a pulse pounding synth drums and strings soundtrack by Koichi Ohta, Zeiram sidesteps the odd plot-hole and pacing problem building to a riveting, action packed climax again lifting James Cameron's knack for lulling an audience with a false ending only to crank into overdrive.