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.