Skip to content

Plot: vloggers travel to mysterious island and uncover terrible secret.

Now that the zombie wave following in the wake of The Walking Dead (2010-2022) is finally cresting some interesting outliers have been revealed. Whereas South Korea’s #Alive (2020) went for the introspective approach iZla channels the spirits of old grandmasters Cirio H. Santiago, Gerardo de Leon, Eddie Romero, and Bobby A. Suarez. At 85 minutes it thankfully is mercifully to-the-point and surprisingly clever when it wants to be (which doesn’t happen all that much, sadly). iZla lives (and dies) by its adherence to the exploitation maxim of the three capital Bs: babes, boobs, and blood. And it delivers just what it promises. iZla makes no qualms about what it is. A puerile and low effort romp that’s the closest to Raw Force (1982) as we’re likely going to get in this day and age. Barry Gonzalez must be aware of his country’s rich history in exploitation. Savaged by critics and detested by audiences alike iZla is unadulterated Filipino pulp horror at its best.

iZla opened domestically on 22 October 2021 and premiered internationally on Netflix about a month later. The cleverest thing about it is probably its title. Director Barry Gonzalez seems to specialize in swooning romances and comedies (or some permutation thereof) on both the big and the small screen. iZla appears to be his first foray into horror although here he retains the comedy that’s his comfort zone. Perhaps he had better focused on the romance because the humour here is painfully unfunny. Granted, iZla does work as a horror when (and if) it stops mucking about. Which doesn’t happen near as much as it probably should. Whether you find iZla funny is contingent upon your tolerance for crass and easy boob - and fart jokes. iZla never gets its head out of the female cast’s cleavage long enough to ridicule the inherent absurdities of cheap zombie horror plot contrivances and the tired conventions that come with it. iZla has plenty of story to fumble but not nearly enough to sustain what amounts to an +80-minute skit.

The year is 1942, World War II. The Japanese occupation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines has claimed several of its islands. One of these unnamed and unspecified islands armed forces mysteriously disappear into the blackness of the night by unseen assailants. Guarding the island are Japanese ninjas specialized in guerrilla warfare that the government simply dubs Ninja On Call or Ninja-Call. In the bowels below scientists have developed a serum rendering them impervious to injury and death. The locals soon believe the island to be cursed and the story of Forbidden Island becomes an integral part of native folklore. Decades pass and the legend of Forbidden Island lives on. Badong (Paolo Contis) and Entoy (Archie Alemania) are two orphaned slacker resort workers getting by on tips from odd jobs here and there. Not even the crippling debt they inherited from their absentee parents looming dangerously above them is enough to spring the unambitious and non-upwardly mobile duo into action. The two desperately need something to get out of the rut and the financial hole they’re in.

In Manila Veronica (Isabelle Daza), Valerie (Beauty Gonzalez, as Beauty Gonzales) and Venus (Elisse Joson), or the popular vloggers collectively known as the V-Sisters, are brainstorming ideas for their latest YouTube prank hit video. The sisters and their team - mascot Abi (Aiko Climaco), producer Gina (Sunshine Garcia) and researcher Lani (Analyn Barro) – are about to give up when they run into Badong and Entoy in the city of Kalimliman. Mayor Anding (Niño Muhlach, as Nino Muhlach) (who just so happens to be the V-Sisters’ uncle) has ordered a travel ban to Forbidden Island (whether it’s in the environs of Savage Beach, Warrior Island, or Taboo Island is, sadly, never disclosed) stirring the girls interest in the destination. Badong and Entoy figure that they might as well make a buck from the ditzy girls and brokers a deal with Veronica. The two agree to charter a boat and double as their guides/security detail. Things take a turn for the dark when the group discovers that uncle Anding has a marijuana plantation and his own para-military force. It’s then that the zombie ninjas break loose and left and right people fall prey to the maws and jaws of the undead. Will be Badong, Entoy, Lani, and Veronica be able to ward off the hungry undead long enough to figure out an escape plan?

It took writer Ays De Guzman (as Ice De Gusman) and 5 (!!) others to come up with a halfway coherent “story concept” that’s essentially the first half of Angel Warriors (2013) combined with the second half of Raw Force (1982). Really? That’s not even counting various scenes and plot elements lifted wholesale from Hell of the Living Dead (1980), Cross Mission (1988), Zombi 3 (1988), and After Death (1989). You halfway expect Yvette Yzon to do a cameo but iZla is never smart nor self-aware enough to capitalize on its collective legacy and multiple decades of domestic cinematic traditions. Writer Ays De Guzman and Barry Gonzalez commit to some Claudio Fragasso / Bruno Mattei level hackdom here. It’s perfectly okay if you mistook this for a spoof because iZla seems to operate on that mindset. More charitable and forgiving minds might call this a semi-comedic deconstruction but that’s giving this one far more credit than it deserves. Shaun Of the Dead (2008) this most certainly is not. Nor is it Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) for that matter. The cringe-inducing dialogue is both terribly written and helps nothing with exposition. What passes for humour alternates between fart and boob jokes almost exclusively and some situational slapstick would’ve worked wonders here. Since none of that will be forthcoming we’re stuck with characters either too dimwitted or self-absorbed and ditzy to be of any interest. No amount of boobage and gratuitous fanservice can camouflage writing this half-assed and bad.

And with a cast consisting of Filipino television staples Beauty Gonzalez, Isabelle Daza, Elisse Joson, Sunshine Garcia, and Analyn Barro there’s plenty to be had. These Pinay equivalents of Stephanie Herala or Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡夢媛), and Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春) might not be the next Cristine Reyes, Fernanda Urrejola, or Anne Curtis but they acquit themselves good enough. For a movie centered almost exclusively around their shapes and forms they take it all in stride. The emperor might have no clothes but these babes staunchly remain in theirs. For something that tries very hard to be a throwback to the Golden Age of Filipino exploitation there’s an interesting duality to the way director of photography A.B. Garcia films the women. Garcia takes a near-porn level of interest in their curves but with this being a broad comedy and general audience release it shies away from any and all female nudity. Well, there’s plenty of female nudity but most of it is either implied or obscured by strategic props and such. For all the bounce and jiggle there’s precious little bang.

iZla only gains a faint pulse when it towards the end suddenly starts talking body temperature, asymptomatic carriers (of the zombie virus) and 14-day quarantines. Up to that point iZla had concerned itself superficially with mad science worthy of Blood Island (1959-1970), ninjas, and zombies and it’s absolutely the last thing for it to suddenly turn current and political. Yeah, iZla not only steals the Nazi zombie subplot from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted (2007) (completely with celluloid footage in a derelict lab with blood-splattered walls) and the ending from Hell of the Living Dead (1980) it actually has the gall to present itself as a parable or allegory of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Il faut le faire. It’s handled with all the grace, finesse, and intelligence of someone who considers a bowel movement the apex of humour. Horror movies, especially the sillier ones, often carry big themes or important messages. If there’s anything to compliment iZla on it’s the special effects work. This one is full of old school prosthetics and practical effects with an absolute minimum of digital post-production. Faint praise though that might be, there’s at least something it gets right. It might not be much but you got to take what you can with these sort of things. Here’s hoping Barry Gonzalez makes a full-blown female-centric action movie (preferably with Beauty Gonzalez, Analyn Barro or Elisse Joson) in the old Filipino tradition next.

Plot: troubled Vietnam vet turns vigilante to restore order in his city.

Just two years ago French indie filmmaker Benjamin Combes made the coolest retro 80s action movie. That was Commando Ninja (2018) and it was lensed over a two-year period on a modest €35,000 budget. A 70-minute love note to just about every classic Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme movie under the sun. Hopkins does for the vigilante what Perfect-Lover.com (程序戀人) (2018) did for the robot girlfriend subgenre: enliven it by modernizing its worn-out conventions and tropes. Always wanted to know more about what events shaped corporal Leeroy Hopkins? Ask and you shall receive. Just like The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) before it Hopkins packs a lot of punch in a short 18 minutes. Not only is Hopkins a thematical precursor to its more popular cousin but it also serves to whet appetites for and drum up interest in the currently in pre-production and being crowdfunded Commando Ninja II: Invasion America. Before John Hunter there was Hopkins.

Naturally a project like Hopkins requires a different aesthetic and stylistic approach. Instead of the over-the-top action of Commando Ninja (2018) this time around Combes explores the urban vigilante subgenre that was popular from the mid-to-late seventies. As such Hopkins takes more of a psychological direction and is much more of a slowburn instead of a wall-to-wall action romp. It’s more Taxi Driver (1976) than The Driller Killer (1979) and more Death Wish (1974) than First Blood (1982) – which doesn’t stop it from climaxing with an obvious homage to The Exterminator (1980). As much as the The Exterminator (1980) segment is the centerpiece Hopkins at all times remains a very character-driven piece. As much as Combes loves all those no-holds-barred action movies that Cirio H. Santiago seemed to specialize in whenever he wasn’t ripping off Mad Max (1979) or making topless kickboxing movies - Hopkins is not that. No, Hopkins is a very quiet, brooding, and at times introspective piece of cinema.

New York City, 1978. Five years after they put a rifle in his hand, sent him off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man corporal Leeroy Hopkins (Philippe Allier) is a PTSD-afflicted pariah and vagrant. In lieu of treatment he numbs his pain with alcohol and narcotics. In his waking hours he’s haunted by visions of Vietcong (Leo Guyard and Joey Rudolf) he encountered in the jungle and the nights are even worse. The country and city he loves and spilled blood for is morally bankrupt and ripe with decay. Pimps (Ludwig Oblin), prostitutes, and crackheads litter the streets. The very peope he fought now are food vendors and run restaurants all across the Big Apple. His commanding officer Colonel Magnum (Steve Rappard) and the military brass seem in no hurry to offer any help. The more destitute and desperate Hopkins grows the further he slips into insanity. When his former Vietnam buddies start dying under mysterious circumstances Hopkins’ condition only worsens. The further his sanity erodes the stronger and livelier his visions become. One night he encounters an AK-47 wielding Vietcong woman Lan (Floriane Fizaine) emerging from the sewers, but shrugs it off as a hallucination. Except that it isn’t. Armed with a flamethrower Hopkins engages his (real or imagined) enemy – until the Army find him passed out in the street, boozed and drugged out of his mind. 1 January, 1979 - Magnum recruits a sobered up Hopkins into the Army reuniting him in California with his Green Beret buddies from the old Lizard Smokers platoon. Not only did he get a fancy-looking suit and plum desk job with the US Air Force – the military installed him with a rather nifty Powerglove too.

And let it be known: Benjamin knows exactly which buttons to push and which genre sensibilities to cater to. His heroes are very much modeled upon Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme’s most enduring characters – yet besides all that rugged, roided up masculinity he, very much in Hong Kong tradition, consistently casts strong and beautiful women, Caucasian and otherwise, in key roles and parts of narrative importance. In Commando Ninja (2018) we had Cécile Fargues, Charlotte Poncin, and young Anaëlle Rincent. Hopkins has Floriane Fizaine. True to form Hopkins is not Fizaine’s story and Philippe Allier very much owns the character he so brilliantly portrayed two years before. Helped in no small part by the fact that Allier looks like a young Michael Biehn he’s Chuck Norris and Jean-Paul Belmondo rolled into one. His Hopkins is smug, casually racist, but that macho bravado belies a deep insecurity and hurt. It makes you wish people like Jean-Pierre Marielle, Serge Sauvion, and/or Howard Vernon were still around to play the elder patriarch of some crime dynasty. Hopkins’ aim is not big explosions, witty quips, and/or funny one-liners. Combes exhibits his versatility by showing that a character study comes just as natural to him as an action flick. In a just world Hopkins would be expanded into a 90-minute feature.

Who wouldn’t want to see Combes do a Naked Vengeance (1985) or Silk (1986) derivate – or better yet, a good-natured Andy Sidaris styled spy-action romp like Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) or Picasso Trigger (1988) with Charlotte Poncin, and Cécile Fargues in candy-colored bikinis fighting Floriane Fizaine with oversized guns in some sunny tropical locale? Bring back the aerobic and new wave. Stock up on spandex and lycra, neon-colored leggings, stirrup-pants, pastel-colored leotards and bodysuits, legwarmers and headbands. Have the assembled bronzed, oiled (and preferably exposed) hardbodies of Emilie Bedart, Océane Husson, and Stella Reig at the ready. Hell, hire GreenCatFromHell and Céline Ebeyne while you’re at it. Let Anthony Centurini and pint-sized powerhouse Cecily Faye do the choreography. Crank up that electric guitar. Fire up the sax. The world needs a hero. Ideally in the shape of a woman. Things are goddamn grim. Keep the blood flowing, the bullets flying, and the boobs bouncing. Enough with the commandos. We need more estrogen. Call in the LETHAL Ladies.

If Mainland China can churn out a multi-episode parallel all-girl franchise to Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables franchise on a fraction of the budget, so can you. Kinda like Mercenaries (2014) reimagined with an 80s sensibility. Bring Me the Head Of the Machine Gun Woman (2012) (with Fernanda Urrejola) sort of got it. Get the old band back together and lens that StarCrash (1978) or Galaxina (1980) space romp that The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) only hinted at. Better still, how about an epic adventure in the Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Barbarian Queen (1985) tradition? If Arrowstorm Entertainment can produce the Mythica (2014-2016) pentalogy there’s obviously a market and audience for that sort of thing. Certainly Nicola Posener, Melanie Stone and/or Danielle C. Ryan wouldn’t mind a holiday dans la belle France.

In short, there’s plenty of creative avenues to go from here and a multitude of projects to conceptualize and explore. If this is going to be Benjamin Combes’ modus operandi to follow up each full length feature with a short movie the future is looking bright and, no doubt, lit in eye-searing neon. We haven’t seen the last of monsieur Combes yet. Judging by his social media profiles the vaults of his boundless imagination are bursting at the seams just like his women are always on the verge of busting out. If you couldn’t get enough from Commando Ninja (2018) and are hungering for more, Hopkins is your ticket. It might be tonally different but is otherwise largely the same. Floriane Fizaine is a breath of fresh air and hopefully we’ll see more of her in the future. Imagine if Combes unleashes her as an enemy on John Hunter much in the same way as Veronica Ngo in Furie (2019). As a matter of fact we wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Hopkins ends up partially (or entirely) reconstituted as a character – and worldbuilding flashback in Commando Ninja II: Invasion America. As Sensei Yinn proclaimed, “there can be only one… Commando Ninja!” hopefully this is only the beginning of a very prosperous and enduring indie franchise. If that doesn’t catapult Benjamin Combes into a Hollywood or Hong Kong career, then what will?