At this point, in 2011, the zombie apocalypse is pretty much played out. There've been a sizable mountain of undead crisis movies, TV shows, books, comics, videogames and more flooding the entertainment market in the last 10 years, all of them generally drawing from the same set of basic influences, following similar sets of character archetypes and plot scenarios; a ragtag team of unlikely antiheroes deal with the onslaught of the undead and somewhere along the line it's suggested that the real monster is man's inhumanity to man or some mild variation on that. So along comes High School of the Dead, a 12-episode adaptation of Daisuke and Shoji Sato's ongoing manga of the same name, and lo and behold, it's a ragtag team of unlikely antiheroes dealing with the onslaught of the undead and all that. Surely there must be something an anime series dealing wholesale in tired zombie tropes can bring to the table to set it apart, right?
Turns out this show has decided that the one thing the zombie genre was missing were anime boobs. Monstrously gigantic anime boobs, in various states of undress and a never-ending array of fetish outfits, endlessly undulating like heaping mounds of flesh-colored Jello placed in a paint shaker, filling the frame whenever there's even a hint that one of the female characters is going to move. This is what High School of the Dead has to offer alongside its predictable, formulaic zombie epidemic storyline, and that's it.
To the show's credit, the zombie apocalypse storyline is mostly competent in its execution, and, the first 5 or so episodes zip right along. The hastily-assembled team of misfits, bimbos and badasses that make up the cast escape the zombie-infested high school and travel to the city, hoping to find their parents. Along the way they manage to survive a number of encounters, still-living humans gone mad from the chaos, firefight after firefight, and a sadistic teacher on a bus who's trying to turn his cadre of rescued students into some kind of weird sex cult. It's all been done before, and better elsewhere, but the pacing is pretty tight and it's never boring. The show slows down once it hits episode 6, when the team finds their first safehouse (notably, almost every zombie movie ever slows down to a crawl when the heroes aren't out in the streets, on the run from the horde). Thankfully they're on the move again shortly and the show gets back to what it does well for at least a couple more episodes afterward. For the first two thirds or so of this series, it's at the very least entertaining. Trashy and cynical, but entertaining.
“Trashy” is sort of a key word to describe High School of the Dead. Episode 6 in particular is when the creative team responsible for this series apparently decided to crank up the fanservice engine past its breaking point; nearly an entire episode is spent on a bath sequence involving the show's four ridiculously-endowed heroines all slapping and squeezing eachother's cartoon bombshell bodies. Some of them even try to bang the hero, and they spend the entirety of the next few episodes either nude, in tiny pajamas or maid aprons. They never really tone it down after, this either; it's as if the director saw the first half of the show and said “MORE BOOBS! I SAID MORE GIANT BOOBS!” while cracking a whip over the animation team, a crazed look in his eye. Some of the fanservice moments that happen during combat sequences after episode 6 are destined to make it in to “look at this crazy nonsense” reels in anime convention panels across the globe; if you've ever wondered what a slow-motion bullet looked like passing beneath someone's taint and then through a pair of massive wobbling breasts, here's your chance. It never lets up, not even for a moment. It's hard not to admire their dedication to it, really, even if it is tiresome and feels like it was written by a 13-year old.
Naturally – because this is a 12-episode series based on an ongoing manga – the whole thing starts coming apart at the seams in the last few episodes, and the show simply “stops” rather than “concluding”. We waste some time with an overly-complicated, totally uninteresting backstory between Creepy Sex Cult Teacher and Komuro's sorta-girlfriend Rei that feels tacked on, there's the looming threat of nuclear armageddon that isn't explained very well and then that's it. The final moments may as well say “The adventure continues…?” That they left so much of the story – individual character arcs and basic questions raised by the plot – totally unresolved means perhaps they're confident a second season will be greenlit. Regardless, don't go in expecting a satisfying conclusion.
In the end, High School of the Dead is utterly unpretentious in its execution, which goes a long way toward making the show forgivable – at no point does it feel like this series is trying to be anything other than bombastic, derivative zombie survival action larded up with fanservice so over-the-top it borders on grotesque. It's apparent right from the very first episode exactly what this show is and what it's going to spend 12 episodes doing, so you're going to know right away if this is something your id is desperately craving. After a while a few members of the show's cast start to evolve a little and become interesting; Komuro's personality shifts from sullen teenager to zombie-killing hero, and there's some decent – if eventually totally undermined – character development with the sword-wielding Busujima, whose cool exterior hides a craven bloodlust that she secretly shares with Komuro. For some reason rather than developing an original otaku gun-nut character they just inserted a teenage version of Hellsing mangaka (and noted otaku gun-nut) Kota Hirano, who is admittedly fun to watch while he comes into his own as an expert marksman. The production values are pretty good, too – the animation is generally of above-average quality with a few dips and awkward CG here and there. It looks gorgeous on bluray, as well – sharp as a tack, with a bright and shiny color palette that pops off the screen. The dub is in booming 5.1 DTS-HD, and probably couldn't sound any better than it does.
The English dub – provided on this otherwise extras-free package from Sentai Filmworks (save clean opening and ending animations) is a point of contention. It's the work of Steven Foster (who seems to be responsible for around 90 percent of Sentai's dubs these days) and it's heavily rewritten, to the point of changing the lead character's attitude and personality.
Mostly they added a tremendous amount of swearing and pop culture references.
The performances are all just fine, really – save Monica Rial's nigh-unlistenable “high-pitched bimbo” voice for empty-headed school nurse Marikawa – but Komuro has been changed from a mostly soft-spoken, straightforward fellow into a kid who just found out he can drop F-bombs without mom getting angry. Here are a few examples:
Japanese Komuro: “We're saved!”
English Komuro: “F*ckin’ A, we're saved!”
Japanese Komuro: “I'm not sure if that makes me happy or angry.”
English Komuro: “I'm not sure if I should kiss you or slap the shit out of you.”
Japanese Komuro: “This is so …annoying!”
English Komuro: “Let's end this little road trip… with a f*ckin’ bang!”
In fact, English-language Komuro says “f*ckin’ A!” so often it's as if they were trying to make it his catchphrase. It's shrill and obnoxious and somehow – although this should've been impossible – makes the show even more of a monument to slobbering immaturity than it already is. It could be argued that something like this doesn't really need a faithful dub, but it doesn't take long until all the cursing starts feeling strained and unnecessary. Just wait until they crack a Sarah Palin joke (sorry, “Sarah f*ckin’ Palin”). Yep, that happens.
High School of the Dead is absolutely wallowing in an adolescent obsession with tits and gore and more tits and more gore, but it is very confidently sticking to exactly what it set out to be, with surprisingly decent production values and competent pacing that at the least keep the story moving along. Frankly, you can tell whether or not this show is for you simply by looking at the cover – zombie hands reaching for a giant pair of breasts being thrust outward. If that's what you're looking for, this show delivers it and delivers it well. If it's good taste, fresh ideas, or restraint you're looking for, you'd do best to stay far, far away.