Eye For Film >> Movies >> Zombie And The Ghost Train (1991) Film Review
After a gig, Harri (Matti Pellonpää) and his unlikely Finnish country-and-western band the Mulefukkers are exchanging stories about the talented bass players they have known who have died tragically young. Meanwhile, a man sleeps off his alcoholic stupor in the back of the tour bus, and it is clear that his own story is evolving into one of these tales of doom. This is Antti Autiomaa (Silu Seppälä) - and himself a talented young bass player - but also a lost soul on a path to self-destruction.
From the start the writing seems to be on the wall for Antii – not just because of his nickname Zombie, suggestive of a dead man walking, but also because the film opens near its end, with our protagonist living (if you could call it that) as a down-and-out in Istanbul, drinking beer for breakfast, and clearly not in the best of health.
Cut to six months earlier, and Zombie is just returning to Helsinki from another self-imposed exile. Arrested by the police for desertion the moment he sets foot back on land, his irremediable slacking (not to mention the bottle of turpentine that he pours into the officers' soup) soon see him discharged from military service and back on the road. Zombie tries to return to the land of the living, moving back in with his mother and father, getting back together with his long-suffering girlfriend Marjo (Marjo Leinonen), and becoming first a roadie and then the bassist in his old friend Harri's band – but work-shy, over-sensitive Zombie is an eternal misfit caught in a downward spiral, and even the slightest setback sends him right back to the bottom of a bottle or six.
Drawn loosely from the life (and death) of the real musician Pulu, with whom the non-professional lead Seppälä had been well-acquainted, Zombie And The Ghost Train derives the second part of its title from the stagename for three musicians (Jussi Rinne, Vinski Viholainen, Roger Niemenin) whose path Zombie keeps crossing at critical moments. Harri describes this trio of mute, black-shaded ZZ Top types as "a band with loads of gigs, but no-one's heard them play", as though to underscore their near supernatural status - and sure enough, every encounter Zombie has with them seems to lead either to his salvation or his downfall. Not that these are the only ghosts haunting Zombie's ride to hell, as is proven by the snippets of real-world news seen on televisions in the background (the heavy Soviet Army assault on Vilnius' TV Tower, a massive oil spill, the first Iraq War), and by the irrational but utterly moving final sequence.
Aki Kaurismäki is arguably Finland's best-known cinematic export, but his older brother Mika also knows a thing or two about filmmaking. In fact the brothers collaborated on all their early film projects, and co-founded Villealfa Filmproductions as well as Finland's legendary Midnight Sun Film Festival. Zombie And The Ghost Train was in fact Mika's tenth feature, but it was the first to be made under his own newly formed production company Marianna films (named after his daughters Maria and Anna-Maija) – and while it has its share of comic observations and poetic flourishes, it is a relentlessly downbeat tale of alienation, dipsomania and nihilistic ruin. Even the Istanbul sequences that frame the film's central narrative, for all the potential that they offer for colourful exotica, have instead been shot in a drab grey, offering no escape from the dark demons that pursue the protagonist wherever he goes.
Mika's film may be a train to nowhere, but it is well worth catching.Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2008
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