George Romero's Night of the Living Dead marked a massive shift in the way that zombies were treated in mass media; where the genre was once populated with voodoo and black magic, Romero's take reworked the formula into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, rich with pathos and political satire. The zombies themselves became less of the focus, resigned to being the catalyst for the dissolution of society and the backdrop for the very human drama that played out over several classic films (and a few not-so-classics). Even as other directors gave their own spin on the genre, Romero's formula became the de facto blueprint for contemporaries such as Robert Kirkman's cross-media sensation The Walking Dead and Daisuke Sato's popular Japanese manga Gakuen Mokushiroku, aka Highschool of the Dead. Of course, popular manga in Japan tend to be adapted into anime series, and Highschool of the Dead is no exception, distilling Sato's Romero-inspired tale into a dozen half-hour episodes that follow a group of high school students as they travel across the ruined sprawl of urban Japan in the wake of a worldwide zombie epidemic.
The series starts off in a strangely non-horrific fashion, introducing us to the key characters of Takashi Komuro and Rei Miyamoto, estranged friends on their own corners of a shojo-style love triangle. This emotional melodrama is quickly turned, however, by an abrupt and unexplained incident that turns the gated high school into a charnel house teeming with the living dead. The two star-crossed lovers join up with a group of other survivors in an attempt to survive the zombie pandemic that has devastated not only Japan, but the entire world.
It's the group dynamic of these characters that really makes the series work, comprised of characters as diverse as a gun-obsessed otaku (a Japanese nerd) to a sword-wielding girl with a dark secret. The interplay between the survivors is fun, frantic, and sometimes sweet, with the aforementioned romantic elements occasionally peeking through to show that, in spite of the horrors around them, there is hope in their hearts. The best comparison, as odd as it may sound, is The Breakfast Club, with the characters' different archetypes working together when outside of their normal social context.
Even stranger than this John Hughes-y tone is the relentless use of cheesecake fan service. Virtually every female character is a bouncy, well-endowed nymph who falls into the perfect position for an upskirt peek at her panties. Outfits are liberally torn off, breasts seem to follow their own insane laws of physics (with one particularly Matrix-inspired scene leaving this reviewer agape at its absurdity), and the overall treatment of the female characters from a visual standpoint seems to be completely designed to appeal to mouth-breathing adolescents. However, like the characters, this softens some of the bleakness from the series with more than a little goofiness. Even as you recoil at events as grim as a man bleeding to death in front of his daughter or the gospel of a lunatic teacher trying to start his own hedonistic colony, there's a pair of jiggling jugs just around the corner to keep your spirits up.
In spite of all of this strangeness (or perhaps because of it), Highschool of the Dead is a thrilling ride through the zombie apocalypse. Its clever satire and bleak horror make it a perfect Japanese counterpart to Romero's Dead movies and its frequent attempts at a lighter tone make it a pleasant change of pace.