Zombitopia Exemplifies the ‘More Is Less Approach’ to Malaysian Filmmaking

Dept. of Disease and Disappointment


SIGH. This is never fun. When we sit down to watch a local Malaysian movie, like Zombitopia, we want to celebrate it. We want to support local filmmakers as best we can. We’re hoping to be swept away by the martial arts of a Wira. To have our hearts warmed by another Suatu Ketika. We really don’t enjoy pointing out flaws in films where we probably know the people in the crew, but what else can we do with Malaysian films that trip themselves up trying to outdo Hollywood blockbusters on a fraction of the catering budget of most blockbusters, instead of focusing on telling smaller, tighter, stories?

Zombitopia starts promisingly enough (despite a dodgy helicopter explosion) in media res with a zombie outbreak in Malaysia, before jumping to 15 years later.

While going about his daily life working at a scrap yard with his forgetful adopted father Hassan (Azman Hassan), Zidik (Shaheizy Sam) daydreams about the time directly after he lost his family to the zombie outbreak. He frequently reminisces about the home for children orphaned by zombies where he developed a friendship with another orphan, Zooey (Amanda Amry), while being exploited by the harsh proprietor of the home. This kitchen sink drama is interrupted by another zombie outbreak along with the return of a disgraced Dr. Rahman (Bront Palarae). 15 years ago, Dr. Rahman apparently came up with a vaccine for the outbreak of “violence” in Malaysia, but was found to have committed fraud with his pharmaceutical company while trying to cure his own daughter’s (Nur Shahidah) zombie affliction.

As Zidik tries to escape the zombie hordes , he and Zooey meet again, in less than ideal circumstances.

Wasted Potential

Zombitopia‘s set up has plenty of potential for a more introspective zombie experience, in the vein of something like Warm Bodies, or Maggie, but instead, it strains against the limitations of its budget, it’s reach not only exceeding it’s grasp, but highlighting issues at almost every turn.

Whether due to production issues (non-COVID related as the film was completed 5 years ago) or just bad plotting, the film presents a laundry list of “what not to do while making a low budget movie.”

  • Don’t put a helicopter explosion in your script, if you can’t pull it off convincingly.
  • If you want cool action shots of zombies attacking your heroes through the windows of their speeding car, don’t give them more than enough time to roll up the windows when they first spot the zombies before ploughing through them!
  • If your script features multiple scenes of zombies biting your hero, who is immune to the zombie virus by the way, then save some money for bite mark makeup. And no, a few dried fake blood streaks will not do.
  • Don’t show your hero with his top off and without a single scratch on him, directly after the scene where he collapses under the weight of multiple zombies, all biting him all over his face neck and chest.
  • Don’t expect the audience to feel any sympathy for a character who pointlessly sacrifices themselves to kill a couple of zombies that our heroes have already passed by safely. They’ll just think he’s stupid.
  • Finally, if you can’t come up with something half as convincing as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, a film made 28 years ago, do not, I repeat DO NOT, put a dinosaur in your third act!

Tis but a Scratch

These scenes take place right after each other

If Zombitopia approached half these issues with a knowing wink and it’s tongue firmly pressed into it’s cheek, it might have gotten away with it, but everything is so dour there’s not even a possibility that they were going for laughs. Everything that is, except Bront Palarae, whose Dr. Rahman feels like he’s walked straight out of the more ludicrous Resident Evil movies. In comparison, Shaheizy Sam is appearing in a restrained drama about lost love and modern life in Malaysia, switching between taciturn, confused, angry, and overwhelmed by zombies.

Subplots concerning Sharifah Amani’s character, Maya, and how she managed to tame her zombified brother’s cannibalism, and the effect Zidik’s blood has on a zombified Zooey, would provide ample material to fill a film with smaller ambitions, but here they get lost in plot holes and empty, unimpressive spectacle.

On a recent Goggler podcast, we ran into some difficulties when it came to discussing the Indonesian film Ali Dan Ratu Ratu Queens on Netflix and comparing it to Malaysian films:

“It’s hard for me to say anything about this film without saying bad things about our Malaysian industry… it’s hard to not compare, because Ali Dan Ratu Ratu Queens is not “difficult” to do. In the sense that there are no car chases, no guns, there’s no police. The New York aspect of it is not what drove this film, that’s not what made me love this movie… To say, “oh they went to  New York, they got money,” that’s not the point. The point is the story is beautifully crafted. It could have been a story about a Penangite coming to Kuala Lumpur… This story shouldn’t be difficult to do.

The Goggler Podcast #81

Sadly Zombitopia exemplifies the Malaysian approach.

Scope Creep

Rather than focusing on Kampung zombies, or a zombie love story (a zom-com if you will), Zombitopia not only fails to achieve the spectacle it’s aiming for, but it ends up weakening the story it’s trying to tell when it does so. It’s a shame, because when it’s not trying to vie with Fast and Furious 6 for the title of longest road/runway sequence, and concentrates on what it’s good at, it delivers.

The relationship between Zidik and Hassan belongs in an entirely different movie, the zombie hordes are convincing enough, if a little silly at times, and a fight scene between Shaheizy Sam and Bront Palarae that leans into the worst action movie clichés works incredibly well with the two men absolutely HAMMERING each other in ankle deep water for no other reason than it looks cool. Nothing against Bront, but there is something strangely satisfying in watching him getting pounded relentlessly in the face for a full 30 seconds.

To me, that’s cinema

Sadly this just highlights what could have been achieved if the rest of the film had been limited to the same scope.

Here at Goggler we know its a miracle just getting a film made and released, and I’m sure Zombitopia‘s release on Disney Plus Hotstar Malaysia will be hailed by some as a success for Malaysian film, but sadly it fails to do anything interesting with the genre or expand the appeal of Malaysian films to a wider audience.

Zombitopia is now streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar Malaysia.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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