A fitting usage of the universal language of zombies as a vehicle for a uniquely Malaysian social commentary. Slightly campy in its humour but driven in its ambition; KL 24: Zombies is a great example of what the Malaysian independent film industry is capable of, even if it doesn’t achieve everything it seeks.
The zombie genre boasts a huge wide-ranging repertoire of hilarious satire and horror classics: from the comical quips laced with British witticism of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead to the unexpectedly terrifying and revolutionary George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Our local scene has a fair share of zombie films too, with the slapstick galore of Zombi Kampung Pisang and KL Zombi. KL 24: Zombies, on the other hand brings something novel to the table. The first independently produced Malaysian zombie film to appear on the big screen, Doghouse 73 Pictures’ film, tells the tale of a viral outbreak from the perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds. On a spectrum, the movie leans towards humour, but it is not without its profundity – shining upon social issues through our obsession with the undead.
“Zombie movies have always been about social commentary. Even in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the movie was also talking about issues such as discrimination – issues that were relevant to those times”, commented James Lee, one of the directors and writers for the film.
Directed and written by James Lee, Gavin Yap and Shamaine Othman – the plot touches upon three different points of view. The first story is set in an office where three white-collar workers (Joseph Germani, Jiven Sekar and Fahad Iman) are practically trapped in their office at the mercy of their overbearing boss (Alfred Loh). Their attempt at escaping copious workload and their horrible employer, quickly became a desperate (but gut-bustingly hilarious) attempt at saving their own skin.
On the other side of Kuala Lumpur, there’s Farah, a lawyer who represents an NGO, (Sharifah Amani) and her lover, Steven (Benji Lim) having dinner with the latter’s family. The family boasts a great ensemble consisting of Uncle Jack (Thor Kah Hong), David (Pete Teo), Denise (Sue Tan), and Denise’s son (Marcus Chen). The dysfunctional family dynamic coupled with Farah’s efforts at impressing and schmoozing her family-in-law made for some funny, noteworthy moments. Intriguing and commonly controversial discussions about human rights (a topic that would be brought forth in the next story) were slipped in, touching slightly upon religious differences – all of that without forgetting to make the occasional crass joke and utilizing the platform to make dirty (although at times, gratuitous) humour.
Speaking of “dysfunctional”, the next story follows the same risque and subversive tone, as it explores a polygamous family (cleverly titled Polyzombies in the credits), mainly from the view of the wives as they contemptuously scrutinize their husband, Karim, (Na’a Murad) and his endeavour at marrying for the fourth time, to Melati (Siti Farrah Abdullah)- someone who is significantly younger than all of them. Salwa (Fatimah Abu Bakar), Husna (Amanda Ang) and Karina (Alia Kearney) tries to convince Karim that Melati is a zombie. This discussion itself unravels so many insights into the complications found in a polygamous relationship. Imri (Ali Alasri), son of Karim and Salwa, also enters into the fold adding another facet to the matter.
Interspersing these stories, is also the tale of some of the characters from the other stories and the Pak Guard (Azman Hassan). An often unsung hero of our society; the fact that the Pak Guard was revered in the writing as they confront many obstacles in their path is incredibly heartwarming. It is this aspect of the entire narrative, which reveals the most of what KL 24: Zombies achieved in terms of the actual zombies. The characters come face-to-face with the infected, their mass gory hunger for humans impressively visualized, considering the low-budget this film had. The effects did it parts to keep the scenes suspenseful, putting the audience at the edge of their seat.
The film however, suffers slightly in the execution of its social commentary, sometimes straddling the line of being too on-the-nose, (for example, Salwa warning the other wives in the household not to be “zombies in the marriage”) instead of relying on the subtext. The quips and the jokes are hysterical for the most part, but at times unwarranted and distracting. The acting as well, does not always lend itself to the highest quality. Nevertheless, it should still be considered a praiseworthy feat, as the whole shooting process was done in the duration of only nine days.
Despite its occasional weaknesses, KL 24: Zombies is still chock-filled with memorable scenes. The sequence where Sharifah Amani’s character prepares herself to fend off the undead was beautifully produced. The Azman Hassan’s cool and composed behaviour even in the most intense moments were well-executed. Fatimah Abu Bakar’s candid yet empathetic role stood out amongst the lot. Alongside Sharifah Amani, she more than just adds to the list of strong female characters in Malaysian cinema through this film. Pete Teo’s intense and irritable disposition in his playing of David was also a joy to watch, especially during the segment in the film when he was conversing with Farah.
Many smaller things also render the movie worthwhile. The way the newsreel transitions each act using comic relief to comment on the deceptive and manipulative way the media always portrays events were funny and poignant. Throughout most of the movie, James Lee’s philosophy of making the “low budget seem high budget” was evident in the production. Since this was a joint venture between three directors and writers, the fact that many different stories and perspectives flowed adequately well – thanks to the prowess of Gavin Yap and Sharmaine Othman – is definitely commendable.
It should also be noted that this movie is available on YouTube for free, as the directors believe in riding the wave of technology and utilizing, instead of condemning, people’s demand for free media.
“We want to encourage more filmmakers, especially fresh blood”, said James Lee. “The industry should make way for these young people. Movies that are made should also be universal. We have movies like Train to Busan, a Korean film, that did very successfully in our cinemas, even though nobody speaks Korean. Maybe Malaysian films can achieve that standard too – regardless of your race or language.”
Judging from the uproarious laughter from the diverse audience in the movie hall that night, it is safe to say that mission is one step closer to being accomplished.
To find more about this KL 24: Zombies, check out their Facebook page. Do also follow Doghouse 73 Pictures on Youtube and Facebook for more local, independent films. Picture credits go to the KL 24: Zombies team.