Although the millennial revival of zombie movies in mainstream cinema was kicked off by the critical and commercial success of 28 Days Later (2002), they were prefigured by a cycle of offbeat Japanese efforts, including Versus (2000), Wild Zero (2001), and Junk (2001). Adapted from a novel by Kenji Otsuki (who cameos here), Stacy spoofs an array of well-known zombie movies but retains a satirical outlook and pop cultural obsession that is uniquely Japanese, not to mention its preoccupation with cheery sailor-suited schoolgirls.
In the near-future, all over the world, girls aged between fifteen and seventeen fall victim to a mysterious plague. Schoolgirls enter an eerily blissful state known as N.D.H. (“near death happiness”) and, covered in a sparkly substance called B.T.P. (“butterfly twinkle powder”), become shambling, flesh-eaters dubbed “Stacies”. No-one is quite sure how the nickname caught on, but as a side note, Stacy was once the name of Japan’s blonde, long-legged answer to the Barbie doll, which suggests some satirical intent.
Nobel prize-winning scientist Dr. Inugami (Yasutaka Tsutsui) gleefully urges parents to despatch their daughters using the tested “repeat kill” method - i.e. complete dismemberment! In an already infamous spoof TV commercial, a bubbly bunny-girl advertises the latest hot consumer product: a lightweight, hand-held, Stacy-destroying chainsaw called “Bruce Campbell’s Right Hand 2”. Every week the rotting remains of the neighbourhood Stacies are dumped curb-side for collection by the government sanctioned, Romero Repeat Kill Troop (named after you-know-who). But Nozumi (Tomoka Hayashi), Kanae, and Tamae, three colourfully attired sixteen-year-olds approaching Stacyhood, form the Drew Illegal Repeat Kill Troop (named after Drew Barrymore, because “she’s our idol!”) to intercept emergency calls and bust zombies for fun and profit!
Meanwhile, N.D.H.-afflicted Eiko (Natsuki Kato) approaches kindly puppeteer Shibukawa (Toshinori Omi) with an unexpected offer. She will sleep by his side, if he promises to kill her when the inevitable happens.
Low-budget zombie movies are dime-a-dozen these days and usually trade on the same, depressingly familiar mix of cheap gore and even cheaper laughs. Stacy includes plenty of both but, typically for a low-budget Japanese horror movie, the quirky performances, atypically (for this genre) summer-hued photography, and zombie makeup effects are of a high standard. Moreover, beneath its oddball - but again, very Japanese - combination of splatter, slapstick and sentimentality, flows a stream of interesting ideas worthy of George A. Romero or even Nigel Kneale.
Certain cultural commentators maintain the semi-fetishized image of the relentlessly perky Japanese schoolgirl symbolises Japan’s bubble-economy. Therefore the various rape and torture fantasies that characterise a distressing amount of low-budget Japanese exploitation constitute coded attacks upon corporate greed and rampant consumerism. “These days men are exhausted, their eyes dark and gloomy”, remarks one elderly, male observer. “The only beautiful people in the world are the Stacies.” There is an element of resentment felt by middle-aged men over carefree youth and a regrettably misogynistic glee in chopping these supposedly vacuous air-heads into bloody, writhing chunks. However, the misogyny is leavened by a strain of romantic melancholy that proves oddly affecting: e.g. the charming puppet show Shibukawa performs for a delighted Eiko and a scene where the infected schoolgirl brings the Romero squad to tears trying to dissuade their guilt.
If one delves beneath the gore-spattered surface, the film examines feelings of patriarchal guilt. Learning to love the Stacies becomes a crucial plot point as the story develops into an essentially optimistic parable, with an intriguing denouement wherein the Stacies merge into a kind of collective consciousness with Eiko at its centre, and birth a new species. It’s a weirdly metaphysical plot twist taking things in a more promising direction than Romero’s own recent movies.
On the downside several scenes drag on far too long, aside from the Eiko-Shibukawa relationship and various plot strands (which include a teenage Romero trooper still in love with his Staciefied pen pal; a nasty female captain who is this film’s answer to Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead (1985); and an inexplicable plot twist unmasks one trooper as a former serial killer) don’t amount to much, only coming together amidst the hectic final battle where the more interesting characters are casually killed off. Personally, I could have done with more from the amusing Drew Illegal Repeat Kill Troop whose martial arts antics anticipate the superior Chanbara Beauty (2008).
Also of interest to J-horror fans, Stacy co-stars no less than two incarnations of Misa Kuroi the Good Witch, Japan’s ghost-busting equivalent of Buffy. Natsuki Kato acquits herself far better here than she did in the awful Eko Eko Azark IV: The Awakening (2001). Hinako Saeki was Misa in both Eko Eko Azarak III: Misa the Dark Angel (1998) and the popular television series. The beautiful actress is something of a genre staple, playing an erotically-charged incarnation of that ultimate long-haired ghost girl Sadako in the ill-fated Ring sequel Spiral (1998), a memorable cameo in Uzumaki (2000) and takes the lead in Mamoru Oshii’s mega-budget science fiction epic, Assault Girls (2009).