Anime: First Impressions – Highschool of the Dead
Japanese Highschool animes. They’re not the greatest genre. Most are horrid love stories where teenagers endlessly giggle and stumble to admit they like one another. Where hand holding is considered “moving fast”, and nose bleeds abound at the mere sight of a bra strap. It’s the kind of stuff only teary otaku girls and very girly boys can watch without dry retching onto their sofas.
What’s not usually associated with these animes? Hordes of undead cheerleaders swarming over the jocks they once screamed for, teachers mauling their students like freshly served puppy chow, and nerds fighting back with an assortment of weapons created from the school supply closet.
Which is a shame, because in my opinion, that’s the only Highschool story worth telling.
A New Series Reanimates
Based on an ongoing manga series, “Highschool of the Dead” (H.O.T.D for short) is a new thirteen episode anime that focuses on a group of school students as they flee the zombie apocalypse. At the time of writing this article, only four of the thirteen episodes have been released, so this “First Impressions” review will be based upon those.
After the prerequisite battle scene of “things to come”, the series starts (amusingly) with the angsty flashbacks of a troubled teen, mourning the failed love between him and his long time friend. It’s a nod to the afore mentioned gag-worthy storylines we’re used to, and for a moment it seems this is the mood the show is destined to follow… but then a teacher gets her throat ripped out at the school gate and ruins the moment. For the students, that is. For us, the fun is just starting.
Highschool of the Dead wastes nearly no time getting into the action. Within minutes the putrid hordes are invading the school, cutting off the announcer as he tells everyone to “leave in an orderly fashion” and of course, instigating a rampage right into their waiting claws. Carnage and awesomeness ensues.
From there our view is narrowed to just a few characters (though the number quickly becomes fewer). Armed with nothing but makeshift weapons and some skills learned in class, the group must come to terms with what’s happening in the first episode, search for survivors in the second, and finally escape by bus in the third. Into a city that hasn’t faired much better, I may add. The fourth episode wastes a substantial portion of its runtime on recapping, but other then that I have no gripes with what I’ve seen so far.
It’s fast paced, gory, intense and fun. If the start is any indication of things to come, this is going to be a fantastic series.
(NOTE: Strangely, episodes continue for another two or three minutes after the credits finish rolling, often showing things that would be important to know for the next episode. Make sure you don’t stop them prematurely!)
Lore of the Dead
For those that know and follow the lore behind their favourite horror creatures, you’re in for a treat. There’s no bullshit like twinkling vampires in this show.
Zombies in H.O.T.D. are the classic “slow” type. Of course, they’re never referred to by that name. Like many of the best undead stories, these creatures are merely referred to as “Them” or “They”.
“They” move in a shambling fashion, only picking up speed when a tasty morsel is detected. They’re extremely strong, to the point where being grabbed by one spells your doom unless someone is nearby to help. They also display a disturbing flexibility, as shown in a certain hilarious scene in the first episode. This particular feature is new to the lore, but it’s a welcome one.
What exactly attracts the ravenous horde always seems to be different from tale to tale. In H.O.T.D, it’s established early that ‘sound’ appears to the be one and only thing that alerts them. This is unusual, since in most cases it’s a mix of seeing and smelling, or smelling and hearing, or all three at once. I can’t recall one where sound alone was the drawing source.
What it ultimately means is that the kids can walk among the dead if they’re very very quiet, allowing a touch more freedom then other stories. It’s not a bad thing… just different. It still offers just as many tense moments, so it shouldn’t change the experience much in the end.
Looking Drop Dead Gorgeous
The art in this show is superb, and of a much higher quality then I expected. Backgrounds are sharp and polished. Character animations are extremely fluid and detailed, especially during action scenes. It’s somewhere between realistic and cartoony, and I can’t really think of another anime series it resembles.
The best part is definitely the gore. Any encounters with “Them” results in splattered brains, torn out throats, dismemberments, or disembowelments dealt by a variety of weapons. Nothing like a pneumatic drill to the face to stop the undead in their tracks.
Finally, there’s the only possible downside to the series: the fan service. This is not entirely the animes fault, but an unfortunate side effect of the source material. I imagine that leaving out the numerous bouncing jumblies and panty shots would make the series most devoted fans riot in the streets of Japan. So rather then risk it, the studio has chosen to stay as true to the manga as they can.
Don’t let the put you off though. Other then one character, who appears to made for that purpose and nothing else, the fan service is fairly sparse. And when it comes down to it, I’m not really going to complain about every school girl having a bust to rival Gemma Atkinson. Just don’t watch it with a female friend, or you’ll never hear the end of it.
Dead Men (and Girls) Walking
The characters that we eventually end up with are a mixed bunch. We don’t get to spend much time with some, but you can pretty quickly pick out the ones that are likable and the ones that aren’t. I’m not even going to attempt to remember names, so you’ll have to bear with me.
The main two characters are the previously-alluded-to angsty teen and his best friend, who are forced together once again when guy who came between them kicks it in the first episode. They’re fairly strong characters, and probably the best choice for the series to follow, since they don’t drive you up the wall as much.
Among the group of survivors is a pink haired girl who consistently points out her mental superiority, despite being useless for anything but screaming. Her fat nerd sidekick fast becomes one of the better characters, assembling a nailgun into an awesome undead-owning weapon of destruction.
Finally there’s the obligatory “cold hard killer” character, a purple haired girl who’s masterful with sword play; a blonde nurse, who firmly occupies that ‘fan service’ slot I mentioned earlier; and a particularly creepy teacher with intentions that are so far unknown. Other side characters come and go, usually supplying us with an endless supply of visual fodder, but otherwise it’s a decent cast.
Admittedly, none of them are very well developed. But come on. It’s a zombie show. It’s either lock the survivors down and force us to like and sympathise with them, alla Dawn of the Dead, or keep them on the run and let us enjoy watching them survive, i.e. the Walking Dead comic series. Personally I prefer the latter.
I don’t really need to know everything about these characters. I just want to see how long it takes before they all end up as undigested flesh chunks in a rotting gullet. Prolonged character development just feels like wasted time; learning tidbits as we go is enough.
Sometimes I think people forget this about the zombie genre and come to expect to much from it. If you’re a true fan, you’ll know what I mean.
Falling On Dead Ears
Sound in the show is almost as good as the visuals. The groans and growls of “Them” are sure to give horror-sensitive viewers the chills. As will the subsequent splats, squelching and crunches of the gore that follows. Nothing is spared in order to make the experience feel as visceral and meaty as possible.
In a very welcome touch, the music occasionally homage’s other zombie medias, most notably the “28 Days/Weeks Later” series. With Weeks being one of my all time favourite flicks, I was thrilled to hear H.O.T.D.s version of the iconic theme. There’s something very lonesome about that electric guitar riff…
The only issue I might bring up is how piercing the Japanese school girl screams and panic fits can be. I mean, I’ve heard them before in other animes, but goddam… these ones border on eardrum splitting. I recommend you have a remote on standby, since when a girl goes off in this, she really goes off. Ouch.
Final Verdict: Dead on the Mark?
I’d have to say: yes. From what I’ve seen so far, this series is looking extremely promising. It’s a relentless, on-the-run survival horror, featuring kids fighting the undead in a realistic setting using only what they have on hand. It’s fast, brutal, sometimes candid, and very addictive. It’s all that, with a side of boobs.
Of course, I may be slightly bias. I’ve developed a soft spot for the show, as it bears a striking resemblance to a fiction story I wrote a few years back, featuring a very similiar set of events. It’s almost like seeing my tale come to life! See “Macabre Nation” Part 1, Part 2, and the Conclusion for that story.
Will H.O.T.D. continue this level of quality till the end? Hmmm… well that remains to be seen. As long as they don’t waste any more time recapping, we should be right. Look out for the updated “complete” review in two months!
Enjoyment Rating: 9/10
Highschool of the Dead: Education Bites, But In a Good Way