Johnny Z is a 2023 horror-action feature film directed by Jonathan Straiton. In a world overrun by zombies, an evil corporation profits off of the bitten with a serum that requires weekly treatments to keep them human. A half-human, half-zombie experiment subject escapes the facility and finds himself under the protection of a martial arts expert named Jonray. After extensive training, the zombie is renamed Johnny Z and sets out to seek vengeance on the corporation.

A quick disclaimer: I love bad movies. LOVE them. However, when I say bad movies in this context it is not a negative. I mean the best of the bad; not your typical lackluster and utterly forgettable drivel, devoid of soul and pedaling hackneyed plots. I mean the low-budget, bad dialogue, “I clearly bullied my friends into this film” acting, the outlandish plot jumps, costumes that make you pause and say “What the hell is he wearing?!”, 10-minute long wrestle-fighting scenes (swoons in “Rowdy Roddy”), and those joyous moments when you exclaim “What the fuck??” and then laugh uncontrollably.  To make a “good bad” film takes heart and—most importantly—you have to really try to make something different.

If this doesn’t capture you, then you can leave cause this isn’t for you. (Aubry slams the door on their way out.) Okay, for those of you who are left, I have four words for you: “zombie karate training montage.” Johnny Z has so much heart, so much silliness, and so much martial arts that it’s hard not to be entertained.  The story kicks off midway through Z’s escape, and right from the start, it’s apparent what we are in for. The escape sequence is clever in that we don’t see exactly how Z escapes, we just watch as the baddies realize they have been fooled. The lighting, camerawork, and fight choreography definitely aren’t phoned in, showing skill and the ability to work with what they have. At this point, I thought “Oh man, this might be really good.” ….Then the main baddie spoke and I knew what lay ahead was campy goodness, and I couldn’t wait.

This is one of though delightful amalgamations of a technically well-executed film mixed with outlandish characters and silly dialogue, but definitely not taking itself too seriously. You have an incredible range of acting, going from “this dude is awesome” to “this dude must be the director’s friend.” Stilted dialogue is delivered with over-the-top gusto in one scene, then somehow in the next you are genuinely swayed by a character’s plight—sometimes both are even within the same scene. In the beginning, we meet the main baddie, a fur coat-clad Frank who is the head of the facility and speaks with an accent that seems to constantly fluctuate between Russian and Belgium. I genuinely had no idea what it was supposed to be by the end of the film. Shortly after we are introduced to Jonray, who is ostensibly the main character of the story, as the driving emotion of the plot centers on him and he is on screen way more than Z. That’s okay! Jonray is a badass, and I loved him!

Jonray is played by Felix Cortes, a stuntman and stunt choreographer, who brings a true male action hero vibe and some amazing kickass martial arts. Seriously, there are movies with 100 times the budget of Johnny Z that don’t come near reaching this level of fight choreography. Jonray is framed as somewhat of a lone wolf surviving in the apocalypse while venting deep-seated rage at the zombies who amble around it. However, when a scientist begs Jonray to take Z with him, he acquiesces, bringing him home to the dilapidated farmhouse he and his brother Crisanto call home. Crisanto can be best described as a raging alcoholic Kevin Smith-type character, with acting that is maximum campiness.  Z, who is later renamed Johnny Z by Jonray, is fully introduced in the same scene and it is the only time we see his face. The rest of the time he is clad in a cyberpunk street mask.

The half-man, half-zombie who is the namesake of the film has zero dialogue and is actually not in the film very much, but it’s hard not to fall in love with him from the start. (Uh oh, signature horror bad boy thirsting incoming later…) Johnny Z is played by actor Michael Merchant, who brings ample martial arts proficiency and wonderful comedic physical acting to the character. Z often moves in ways that don’t feel quite human, channeling the start and stop ambling best embodied in the more terrifying zombie films, like 28 Days Later (2002) and World War Z (2013); there is something off about his body, but he is fast and moves with intent. However, the character also exhibits a childlike mischief, continuously escaping his confines just to return later, and displaying a calm inquisitiveness while mimicking Crisanto and Jonray. He cocks his head in curiosity or shrugs his shoulders to convey a lack of care, even throwing items in a tantrum.

Every morning Jonray plays out his greatest trauma, reenacting the fight he lost to see if he could have changed the outcome with more speed and efficiency. When they see Johnny Z reproducing these same moves with precision, Jonray decides to train him. Train him. A zombie. In a training montage. God I love this film. It’s so absurd, but so much fun. Training a zombie in martial arts, through a classic montage sequence. (Aubry walks over and opens the door previously slammed on the others. “Are you sure you don’t want to come back in?!”) And again, the martial arts is good, I mean good. As the bad guys eventually hone in on Johnny Z’s whereabouts, they make the mistake of kicking a hornet’s nest, and from the moment we first hear Z’s enraged zombie scream, the movie is just too much fun. Sadly it comes way too late in the film.

When Z does finally go on his revenge-fueled killing spree, it’s as a kukri-brandishing zombie in Japanese streetwear. His tall thin frame glides across the screen, taking down enemies with a deadly elegance that is joyous for those of us who love violent films. There are so many moments when I couldn’t help but cheer, he’s like the John Wick of zombies. As much as I liked Jonray, I wish the movie had been more of this; non-stop action with Johnny Z at the center, a perfect fusion of martial arts action film goodness and zombie shenanigans. That first guttural cry of anguished rage sealed him forever as one of my favorite anti-heroes and left me thinking about how awesome it would be to have someone like him on your side. New horror boyfriend? I think so. Adorable and deadly, what more could a girl ask for?

Look at this beautiful boy.

Thankfully, the film ends with the perfect setup for a sequel, so I might just get to see my new boyfriend brought back for the beginning-to-end zombie hero smashing baddies film that Johnny Z failed to be. However, if you are a fan of campy but full-of-heart “good bad” films, then Johnny Z is for you. It suffers from pacing issues here and there, but overall this is a good film to watch with like-minded friends who love low-budget films packed full of sincerity and silliness. 


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Johnny Z (2023) is available to stream online here

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