From Wit Studios, the people who brought you a world where everybody has grown used to living with giant naked people who eat other people, comes a story where everybody has grown used to living in a society with the reanimated dead. While the basic premise of Empire of Corpses is nothing new – that of a society that uses the reanimated dead as slave labor – Empire of Corpses uses the premise as a backdrop to create an exciting adventure story which dodges the expected horror elements that usually plague the reanimated corpse genre.
The story is set in nineteenth century London where the achievements of Victor Von-Frankenstein in bringing a corpse back from the dead has led to the creation of “corpse technology,” the reanimation of the living dead. Though no one has yet replicated Frankenstein’s Monster which was able to feel fear, sadness, anger, and other emotions, current technologies allow the various world governments to bring the dead back to life with basic motor skills and programming so that they can perform basic labor tasks.
The main character in this zombie-filled world is John Watson (yes, that John Watson and no, it makes absolutely no difference to the story) who is researching reanimation of the dead in order to determine how to imbue a corpse with a soul. After reanimating the corpse of his friend, Friday, Watson is recruited by the British government to track down the Victor Von-Frankenstein’s missing notes. Watson and Friday are joined by Burnaby, the wise-cracking adventurer, as well as a varying cast of tertiary characters in an adventure that spans Europe, Russia, Japan, and America.
Empire of Corpses does an excellent job of making the fantastic mundane. The corpses are integrated into everyday life and are generally ignored. Unlike many stories which would show the slaves being mistreated or abused, the corpses here are treated with neither disdain nor affection. They elicit no more emotion from the general populace than a Roomba might elicit from you. In fact, unlike most zombie movies, there isn’t even an ounce of horror in Empire of Corpses. Instead, Empire of Corpses covers itself in the tropes of the action hero genre, complete with carriage chases, shootouts, burning buildings, and explosions at every opportunity.
The story proceeds quickly, despite the two hour run time, and it never felt like it was dragging its feet. Instead, the characters jump from location to location with almost no travel time. The reasons for switching locations sometimes seem less thought through then “the Princess is in another castle,” which makes some of the transitions a little jarring, but the change of location gives the story a chance to show different sceneries, different outfits for Burnaby, and another character to either die or betray everyone – and then die.
Watson does an excellent job of narrating the tale and Burnaby keeps the story fun and the action interesting (including an awesome Indiana Jones style grab for his hat in the middle of a fight). Unfortunately, it feels like the characters are playing their roles in separate rooms and it never feels like they have any actual interactions. Additionally, aside from Watson and Burnaby, none of the other characters really stand out as having distinct or interesting personalities. In fact, most of them are clearly outshined by Friday, the reanimated corpse.
Friday is excellent portrayed as obviously superior to the shambling corpses but still devoid of humanity. His movements are slow and robotic and they constantly leave you wondering whether this will be the moment when you realize he has a soul and is capable of making his own decisions. I continuously found myself searching his eyes for some sign of recognition, just as the main character did.
Added to the cast of characters is Hadaly Lilith, the secretary to Ulysses S. Grant, who wins the award for best arrival atop a chariot with a flamethrower. She comes and goes at various points in the story and while she never really arises to the level of ‘love interest’ for Watson, she does warrant her own character arc – which is more than you can say about Barnaby. Her story does come off as a little insincere in a way that I cannot describe while still making a spoiler free review, so I will save that discussion for after the credits.
Empire of Corpses is a fun ride through a world of the dead which sometimes stumbles in characterization but will keep your interest all the way through.
If you’re interested in checking the movie out, you can get tickets at FunimationFilms.
SPOILERS BELOW! CAUTION!
After the deaths of the first few bad guys, our overarching villain, The One, is introduced. The One is Frankenstein’s original monster who has the goal of separating corpses from humans. It is an interesting twist to the genre, where instead of wanting revenge on humans for past transgressions or wanting to be given equality in the human world, The One treats the corpses as different creatures all together which may even be superior to humanity. This interesting twist is later neutered when he reveals that his goal is actually to bring his wife back to life by using the souls of all of the dead to feed his machine in a manner that makes absolutely no sense despite the movie’s general habit of explaining everything meticulously.
Hadaly Lilith plays a small role in The One’s quest for his bride as the unwilling vessel for her soul. Hadaly’s ultimate goal, as the corpse servant to Ulysses S. Grant, is to join Watson on his quest so that he can help her get a soul. While the twist that Hadaly was actually a corpse was interesting, her desire for a soul just feels off. At one point she describes to Watson how she just wants to be able to feel sad and no one seems to catch the irony that she is sad that she can’t feel sad. It just kills any emotional weight when later the Wizard tells Tin Man that he had a heart all along.
And finally, it was cute that they tied everything together with Sherlock Holmes at the end of the story, but it felt kind of pointless. There was no reason for the tie in to exist. It added no depth to the characters and it added nothing to the plot.