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When I am dead, my soul no longer here,
What happens to my body is unknown.
‘Tis but a shell, an empty souvenir
Of my time in a world from which I’ve flown.
Most likely, it will end up in the ground,
A monument for time to chip away,
But if some more productive use were found,
Its former owner would not have a say.
If man no longer buried his remains
And flouted promises of “rest in peace,”
His conscience would be numb as it disdains
What once deserved respect upon decease.
What world of Frankensteins I’d leave behind
If man were to defile his own kind!

MPAA rating: should be PG-13 or maybe older

The Empire of Corpses looks like an incredible, action-packed, thought-provoking movie, but it’s not. It just looks like one. Based on a novel by a Japanese author dubbed Project Itoh, who died of cancer before the book’s completion, this anime zombie film sets up an alternative steampunk version of Victorian England, where technology has allowed mankind to reanimate the dead as essentially robotic slaves, programming them to perform menial labor as a growing workforce in the world economy. These walking corpses can be recognized by their pale gray skin and passive expressions, but though they seem to understand and follow orders, they are without a soul. Into this hypothetical world is placed an amalgamation of historic and literary figures, a la The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. John Watson is the hero, a corpse scientist who has resurrected a dead friend he renames Friday and now searches for a way to return his soul. Blackmailed by M of the James Bond franchise, he sets out in search of the fabled research of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, aided and impeded by the likes of Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison, and characters from The Brothers Karamazov and The Future Eve.

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While that description sounds rather awesome, especially when paired with a world full of brainwashed zombies, The Empire of Corpses seems eager to spoil a good thing. After the adventure begins on a thrilling note, it quickly descends into opaque philosophical pondering and inscrutable character motivations. After watching it all the way through, I recognize a worthwhile, imaginative story, full of food for thought, but actually watching it scene by scene can easily frustrate and confuse. By the end, the villain’s revealed plot (the second villain since one wasn’t enough) is baffling and poorly explained, making it clear just how vaguely defined the laws of this corpse technology are.

I hate to be so negative, especially when The Empire of Corpses looks so amazing. The animation is crisp and atmospheric and brings this theoretical world to life in ways that far surpass the deficient script. I’m glad I saw it, if only for the visual flair, such as the thrill of seeing a woman on the back of a galloping stagecoach mowing down zombies with a flamethrower. The action scenes are exceptional, but it makes it that much more disappointing that the rest of the film couldn’t measure up.

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The Empire of Corpses is not without its virtues; I would just like it much more if it made more sense. It does feature some intriguing themes about life and death and manages to create a unique entry in the zombie genre, complete with zombie suicide bombers. The English dub is actually quite good, but the animation is the main attraction for fans of the medium, though certain scenes can get bloody (begging the question of why a dead corpse would bleed). This film is one of three anime movies based on Project Itoh’s novels (the others being last year’s Harmony and this year’s Genocidal Organ), and I certainly hope the other two have more than visual merit alone.


Rank: Honorable Mention


© 2016 S.G. Liput
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