Versus (2000) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series takes a look at Ryuhei Kitamura’s 2000 zombie action horror movie Versus

Horror fans have had a whole lot of zombie entertainment sent our way in the last couple decades, much of it broadcast on television by AMC. There have been so many flesh-eaters and brain-munchers on our screens, some of us are feeling zombie overload. But if you’re still looking for zombie stories that do things a little differently from the others, we have a recommendation for you: a Japanese film that mixes the walking dead with shootouts, swordfights, and lengthy martial arts fights. It’s called Versus – and if you haven’t seen this one yet, it’s the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

Versus (watch it HERE) was an independent production made by a bunch of unknowns, and many of the people involved with the movie remain unknowns to this day. It marked the feature directorial debut of Ryuhei Kitamura, who has gone on to have a solid career, directing movies like The Midnight Meat Train, Aragami, Azumi, and Godzilla: Final Wars. If you get hired to make a Godzilla movie, your career is definitely a winner, even if your Godzilla movie doesn’t turn out to be one of the better ones. Kitamura wrote the Versus screenplay with Yudai Yamaguchi, who has built a directing career of his own over the years. Together, they crafted an incredibly simple story.

The movie begins with text appearing on screen to provide the only set-up that’s really necessary. It tells us there are six hundred and sixty-six portals scattered around the planet that connect our world to “the other side.” One of these portals – the four hundred and forty-fourth, to be exact – is located in the Forest of Resurrection in Japan. Once we’ve been given that information, we’re treated to the extremely cool sight of a samurai taking down a large group of zombies in the Forest of Resurrection. Then things move ahead to modern day, where another zombie outbreak is about to occur within the woods.

A pair of escaped prisoners make their way to the forest for a meeting with a carload of organized crime types. Our hero is Prisoner KSC2-303, played by Tak Sakaguchi. We’re told he was locked up for first degree murder, robbery, manslaughter, and excessive self-defense, but we know he’s our hero because he doesn’t react well when he sees that the gangsters have taken a young woman hostage. The Prisoner refuses to take part in the kidnapping, and is willing to fight the criminals to protect the girl, played by Chieko Misaka. She’ll say he saved her, but he’ll say he wasn’t actually standing up to the others for her. The other guys just pissed him off. Whatever his reasons may be, he does help her. A fight breaks out, one of the gangsters is killed… and then that dead gangster rises as a flesh-eating zombie. This all happens in the first fifteen minutes, and the movie is off and running from there. The entire rest of the film is about the Prisoner and the Girl fighting off zombies and gangsters as they try to escape from the woods. And there is a lot of fighting in this movie. Enough that the original version sported a running time of one hundred and twenty minutes. Four years after the initial release, Kitamura and his cast and crew returned to the forest to film new scenes and enhance the action sequences, resulting in what’s called the Ultimate Versus cut, which is ten minutes longer.

Versus Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Kitamura and Yamaguchi didn’t bother to name any of the characters in their script. Aside from Prisoner KSC2-303 and The Girl, most of them are credited based on their appearance, their clothes, or their weapons. Versus was the first screen acting credit for the majority of the cast members, and many of them haven’t done much in the film industry since this movie. A few have only worked on Kitamura projects. Sakaguchi and Misaka are two exceptions who have gone on to do a lot more film work. So are Kenji Matsuda, who delivers a wonderfully over-the-top performance as Yakuza Leader with Butterfly Knife; Minoru Matsumoto, the Crazy Yakuza with Amulet; Ryosuke Watabe, the Yakuza Zombie in Alligator Skin Coat; Shoichiro Masumoto, who played the One-Handed Cop; and Hideo Sakaki, who lurks around as a mysterious, supernatural character called The Man. One actor who should have gotten a lot more work after this is Yukihito Tanikado. He only has a couple other credits, but he’s hilarious as Masumoto’s fellow Cop, a guy who is highly confident and arrogant. He says he’ll have no trouble tracking down the escaped prisoners because he was trained by the FBI. The fact that they’re in the forest is no trouble because he grew up in Yellowstone. When challenged, he claims to be the master of all martial arts, with reflexes five hundred times faster than Mike Tyson’s. He even thinks he’s faster than a bullet.

While growing up in Japan, Kitamura discovered he enjoyed watching movies more than anything else, so he figured he should become a filmmaker. Tired of wasting his time on things that didn’t involve movies, he dropped out of high school, then moved to Australia, since it was the home of many of his heroes, like George Miller, Russel Mulcahy, and Peter Weir. Despite his lack of a high school diploma, he was able to talk his way into attending a school for visual arts. After two years of schooling, he had to make a movie to graduate. So he went out into the woods and shot a short film that involved zombies, punching, kicking, and knife fights. Step one on the path to making Versus. Returning to Japan, he made the fifty minute crime film Heat after Dark and the forty-seven minute horror film Down to Hell. Then he was ready to extend his running times. Down to Hell really paved the way for Versus, as it was about criminals abducting people, setting them loose in the woods, and hunting them down. But this forest turns out to be a place where the dead come back to life. When Kitamura started developing Versus, it was meant to be a sequel to Down to Hell, but it gradually evolved into a separate story.

Since Down to Hell was made for three thousand dollars, Kitamura figured he could get the follow-up made for ten thousand. But as it became an original idea, it also became a bigger project. It took several months of filming for Kitamura and his cast and crew to complete Versus, and they had to keep scraping together more money as they went along. It had to be an independent production because Kitamura wasn’t able to find any supportive producers. They said an action-heavy Japanese movie wouldn’t do well, because audiences preferred to get their action from America and Hong Kong. So Kitamura had to prove them wrong. This was such a big undertaking that it could have broken him financially. It could have ended up being the only feature film he ever made. So he had to try to pack as much into it as he could. As he told Midnight Eye, “I just put everything I loved into the movie. People categorize things too easily. They say it’s a horror movie, so you shouldn’t add comedy or action. They want to limit it too much to one genre. … The inspiration for Versus came from the films of the 1980s, Sam Raimi movies, John Carpenter movies, George Miller movies. Everything I like: zombies, gun fighting, kung fu fighting, sword fighting. I wanted to do car action, too, because I love Mad Max so much, but I didn’t have enough money for it. So, aside from the car action, everything is in there.”

Kitamura found his lead actor, Tak Sakaguchi, by being in the right place at the right time. Sakaguchi was a streetfighter, and Kitamura met him when he was out on the street, beating someone up. The filmmaker told the fighter he should be brawling in movies instead of on the street. So they made it happen.

Versus Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Versus was first screened at the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival in October of 2000. Then it slowly made its way out across the rest of the world over the next couple years. To Kitamura’s delight, and the surprise of the producers who had turned him down, it did very well in Japan. Allowing Kitamura to start making bigger movies, to the point where he was even given the chance to direct the fiftieth anniversary Godzilla movie. A film that, at the time, was being marketed as the final Godzilla movie. Then he moved on to making American productions, mixing in the occasional Japanese film. But as his career goes on, Versus still manages to linger over everything else.

At one time, Kitamura considered directing an American remake of Versus, and even wrote a script for it, but it never went into production. Then, he set his sights on making a sequel to Versus. Again, he put together a script. He has Versus 2 written and ready to go, and has revealed that it starts out with a thirty minute action sequence. A car action sequence, to be exact. The one thing he wasn’t able to work into the first movie. Unfortunately, it’s being held back by budget issues. Kitamura told Dread Central he intends for the sequel to be “big and insane, and I’m not going to do a watered down version of that. That means I need to have a much, much bigger movie than the original. When I do it, it’s gonna be like Versus: Fury Road. That’s what it is. I’m trying to do an even longer car battle than Mad Max: Fury Road, so obviously you need a lot of money to do that. I’m working on it, so I’m going to do it someday. I just don’t know when.”

Even though we’re a couple decades away from the release of Versus now, there’s still interest in a sequel because Kitamura made the first movie such a fun ride. For two hours, it just throws action scene after action scene at the audience. It never gets old because there’s so much variety to the action. For example, one scene might be a lengthy martial arts fight between the Prisoner and one of the gangsters. Then we’ll see the other gangsters emptying their guns into a large group of zombies. The number of zombies is increased due to the fact that this forest has been the gangsters’ dumping ground for the bodies of people they have killed. And they have killed a lot of people. Along the way, some depth is also added to the story with the revelation that Prisoner KSC2-303, The Girl, and The Man are all reincarnations of people who have been in the forest before. In fact, all three of them were involved with that “samurai vs. zombies” situation at the beginning of the movie. And their connection might continue on far into the future as well.

It’s evident that Versus was made on a small budget. Which makes it all the more impressive to see how much action Kitamura was able to pack into it and how stylish his direction of the action is. The inspiration he drew from Sam Raimi really comes through in some of his shot choices. At this point, there’s also a bit of a nostalgic edge to the film, because it’s saturated with a sense of cool that is very much of its time. You can tell that it was made around the turn of the millennium, especially when the Prisoner puts on a black leather trenchcoat during his struggle to survive. He gets his hands on a pair of sunglasses as well, but he can’t pull off the look as well as Keanu Reeves did in The Matrix or Tom Cruise did in Mission: Impossible 2, so he ditches the sunglasses pretty quick. There’s an even funnier Matrix reference when the arrogant cop tries to do some back-bend bullet-dodging. But he’s another character who just can’t live up to Keanu.

Versus is a non-stop onslaught of gunfire, martial arts fights, gore, comedic moments, and hilariously over-the-top performances. So if you enjoy seeing those things in movies, you’ll probably have a blast watching this one. We usually like to cover one or two of the best scenes in these write-ups, but it’s difficult to decide which of the action scenes is the best, since they’re all so cool in their own way. You can’t really pick and choose with this one. You just have to take it all in and bask in the glory of its two hours of violence.

Watching Versus, you’d think Ryuhei Kitamura was on his way to becoming one of the biggest action directors in the entertainment industry. But right now, it sort of seems like his career reached its peak with the Godzilla movie. He’s gotten a couple major opportunities since then, but has never reached the level he deserved to. The Midnight Meat Train is the biggest English-language movie he has gotten to make. That one has its fans, but it’s a shame he has never been given something larger so he could really follow in the footsteps of his heroes Sam Raimi and George Miller. Who knows? Maybe there are still bigger things ahead of Kitamura. Maybe he’ll even get the budget for the long-awaited Versus sequel, with its thirty minutes of car action right up front. In the meantime, we still have the original film to go back to, and we can watch it over and over any time we’re in the mood to see a legion of zombies get slashed, blasted, kicked, and punched in the Forest of Resurrection.

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.