Remington is a regular small-town guy wasting his days either playing basketball or downing shots of rum with friends. His life is typical for any twenty-something male in a provincial town except for one little thing. You see, as a male, Remington has the nasty habit of teasing and ridiculing the large population of gay men in his hometown. Unafraid of reprisal, he one day insults a malevolent gay hag (Roderick Paulate) who, in retaliation, curses the impish little boy to turn gay when he grows up. Fast forward several years later to the start of Zombadings I: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombadings: Kill Remington with Fear, 2011) and, in the midst of a serial killer on the prowl, the film returns to this once bratty boy who has fallen in love with the virginal the girl-next-door (literally), Hannah. But before love can blossom between the two, Remington’s curse kicks in and he is accosted every night by a red shawl that transforms into a burly bare-chested masked-man who violently attacks Remington, shaving his pubes, yanking out his tongue like it was a rubber band and then puking up something that resembles seminal fluid on him, until finally the once macho-boy has made the complete transformation to effeminate gay male, what Filipinos derisively call a bakla or a bayot.
All of these plot developments could have easily rendered Zombadings as cheap camp, but the queer themes that writer/producer Raymond Lee, writer/director Jade Castro, and award-winning screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto play around with in their film are utilized to tell a really simple and sweet love story. At the core of this romantic tale is Martin Escudero’s performance as Remington. Escudero, who has mainly worked in TV and low budget horror films, has the difficult task of acting on two extremes of the dramatic spectrum: a straight, macho male and a flaming closet queen. Although he resorts to a lot of over-the-top gay cliches, e.g. finger snapping, using a higher octave vocal range, sashaying as he walks, etc., Escudero for the most part keeps from tipping over into full blown caricature by imbuing Remington with more compassion and humanity as a gay male than as a boring straight guy. Also, as a tweak on the bromance, an unforeseen side effect to Remington’s transformation leads to him falling in love with his best friend, Jigs (Kerbie Zamora), becoming a lovesick puppy around him as they flirt, argue, and joke with one another like a real couple. Their romance is so believable that one can’t help laughing at Remington’s anxiety as he squirms away from Hannah, the person with whom he is supposed to be in love, as she tries to steal a kiss from him, mistaking Remington’s chaste attitude towards her as his hidden sensitive side.
In between the pregnant pauses and longing glances that Remington and Jigs share, there is a serial killer that has every gay male in town in an uproar. Working ferociously to find the murderer, Remington’s mother and lead detective on the case, played by Janice de Belen, tirelessly patrols the town trying to catch a killer that is mercilessly whittling the town’s gay population. Even though Zombadings is not a gritty crime drama or a message picture, the film does dabble in those genres. Castro and Yamamoto are more interested in the satirical possibilities of their premise, which is evident in the fact that there is no real mystery about who the killer is. What is far more interesting is the ludicrous way all the gay characters die by ray gun, or more precisely gaydar gun, which fires a brightly colored blast of energy turning anyone who gets hit into a haggard looking drag queen. The punchline to the joke though is that it was a device developed by a well-meaning grad student who, for some reason, thought that it might serve farmers well if they had a device that could differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual livestock. And if that isn’t enough weirdness, the combination of witch’s curse, gaydar guns, and drag queens eventually erupts in the gay undead rising from their graves and attacking the living.
Besides Escudero, Roderick Paulate, a veteran star of stage and screen who has gained fame for his portrayal of gay characters, is just brilliant in the supporting role as the gay hag who curses Remington. For many Filipinos, Paulate’s appearance will trigger memories of a host of drag queens, queer characters, and sensitive gay leads that he’s played in the past. Filipino film history is replete with sympathetic gay characters, like legendary comedian Dolphy as the single parent in the celebrated family melodrama Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father, My Mother, 1978), and gay-themed dramas and romantic comedies have received quite a bit of critical and commercial attention in Philippine cinemas recently. In fact, one of the film’s writers, Michiko Yamamoto, earlier in the naughts had written what is considered to be a highly celebrated coming of age film Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) about a pre-pubescent gay boy from the slums who has a crush on a rookie uniformed police officer.
In the short span of time since its theatrical release Zombadings has gathered a significant cult following. Though it isn’t a perfect film, the movie is a real joy to watch and never overstays its welcome. It treads the fine line between offensive and subversive, realistic and caricature and does it while still never forgetting to have a sense of humor. Though the chances of this film being released in North America are slim to none, with its message of tolerance most likely attacked by the Christian Right and added to that would be the difficulty of translating the swardspeak, gay lingo derived from Tagalog, English, Spanish, and Japanese, its release might spark a change in the way in which many Western filmmakers have relegated homosexual characters to martyrs and tragic figures.