Color, 2000, 120 mins. 7 secs. / 130 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura
Starring Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka
Arow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Media Blasters (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Tartan (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Shot Versusfor pocket change in the woods, the Versusaction-horror hybrid Versus caught a lot of viewers off guard during the early days of the Japanese genre film resurgence that became a major worldwide cinematic force for much of the '00s. Drawing inspiration from classic yakuza films, '80s horror, and the hip American indie style of Tarantino and Rodriguez, the film was a big calling card for young filmmaker Ryûhei Kitamura who would go on to direct Godzilla: Final Wars, The Midnight Meat Train, and Azumi.

At the eerie and desolate Forest of Resurrection, Prisoner KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi) arrives with a fellow escapee only to encounter a carload of gangsters who have abducted a nameless girl (Misaka). After a violent confrontation, it becomes evident that this forest, the 444th of 666 portals leading to the underworld, can revive the dead -- a problem that leads to the emergence of several undead crime victims in the area and the need to call in reinforcement from The Man (Sakaki) to take care of the situation. With the prisoner and the girl finding refuge deep in the forest, the bloody mayhem soon escalates as a supernatural secret binding these people together plays a key role in their destiny.

With its time-tripping plot involving samurai and zombies stripped down to its bare elements without any bona fide character names, Versus instead serves as a lean and mean dispenser of stunts, gore gags, and surrealistic thrills. The scrappy production values (with a seven-month shoot patched together wherever possible) and minimal character development take some getting used to compared to some of the slicker VersusJapanese action and horror offerings of the era, though anyone who's wandered through the more lo-fi terrain of things like the Ju-On cycle Versusshouldn't have an issue here. The film also keeps you on your toes with a number of category-bending twists and turns, building up to an ambitious finale that pulls off some lofty concepts that would have intimidated many filmmakers with a far higher budget.

Media Blasters bowed this film on DVD under its Tokyo Shock imprint in 2003 in two edition, an unrated director's cut and a worthless R-rated version that dispensed with the more outrageous splatter effects. Audio options include 5.1 and 2.0 Japanese tracks and a 2.0 English dub, plus two audio commentary tracks: one with Kitamura and cast members (Sakaguchi, Sakaki, and Shoichiro Masumoto), and one with Ryu Kitamura and Keisho Shin. Trailers are also included for Samurai Fiction, Pistol Opera, Kunoichi, and Pyrokinesis. In 2007, the label released Ultimate Versus, an expanded version of the film with ten additional minutes shot later by Kitamura and the rest of the cast and crew to flesh out some scenes that weren't achievable at the time including several replaced shots, different music cues, and significant variations in color timing. New extras on that release include a 10-minute promo, the two-part "Behind Versus" divided into "Birth of a Dark Hero" (26m40s) and "Versus - The Legend" (46m6s) segments, a "Deep in the Woods" compendium of cast interviews, and a thorough look at the later reshoots in "Sakigake! Otoko Versus Juku" (18m22s). A second disc features all the material from the prior version that was excised from the ultimate cut with optional director Versuscommentary, an interview with editor Shuichi Kakesu (12m33s), the 2001 Hamburg film festival video diary "One Man's Journey: Tak Sakaguchi" (14m25s), and two shot films with a narrative connection to the main feature, "Nervous" Versus(6m31s) and "Nervous 2" (15m58s).

In 2020, Arrow Video premiered the film on Blu-ray in a two-disc edition featuring what's advertised as a new 2K restoration from original film elements; in an unusual move, they also issued a statement on social media about the transfer due to its differences compared to past releases (though given how much this film has been tinkered with already, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise). Supervised by Kitamura, the presentation here was done to his specifications and removes the very heavy blue tint used for a long passage in the middle of the film. The film looks quite a bit brighter and more detailed here, with the DVDs looking very soft and muddy by comparison; film grain appears natural and retains the look of the original low-budget production without any distracting digital manipulation. The audio specs here echo those on the first DVD for the theatrical cut -- DTS-HD MA Japanese 5.1 (with optional English subtitles) and 2.0, English 2.0, and the two audio commentaries.

In the new "Body Slamming Body Horror" (16m4s), Jasper Sharp places this film in context with other watershed films of the era like Audition and Battle Royale while offering an overview of Kitamura's career including his earlier short film, Down to Hell, which was initially intended to lead into Versus. The archival "First Contact: Versus Evolution" (9m39s) takes a look at the challenging indie road taken Versusby this film starting in 1997, followed by the "One Man's Journey" featurette, a quick "Team Versus" (1m1s) look at the Napalm Films office, a French "Deep in the Woods" Versuspromo featurette (24m43s) with the cast and crew, the Kakesu interview with producer Shin Keishiro, a timecoded VHS-quality deleted scenes reel (21m30s) with subtitled cast and crew commentary, a condensed 19m52s version of the feature that plays a lot like those old Super 8 condensed cuts, the two "Behind Versus" featurettes, and two very loud highlight reels of the film's festival screenings (2m6s and 3m7s). Both "Nervous" shorts are also featured along with a brief making-of featurette (1m17s) for the second part. Finally the disc closes out with five trailers (an early The Return: Down 2 Hell version, English, making-of, Japanese theatrical, and promo), and four galleries devoted to promotional stills, posters, and the Japanese press book and press kit. The second Blu-ray is devoted to Ultimate Versus, which looks the same as the theatrical cut in terms of color timing, framing, etc., and is presented with Japanese and English 6.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio options with English subtitles. Extras here include the Kitamura and company audio commentary from the earlier DVD and the "Sakigake! Otoko versus Juku" featurette. The packaging, which features new cover art by Chris Malbon, also features (in the first pressing only) an insert booklet with liner notes by Tom Mes (including a reprinted interview he conducted with the director) and Kitamura's own notes on the production.

Arrow Video (Blu-ray)

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Media Blasters (DVD)

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Reviewed on December 31, 2020.