If you’re a fan of Asian cinema from Japan, then you know the name of Kinji Fukasaku. In addition to directing the Japanese portion of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), he directed Toho’s Star Wars hopeful, Message from Space (1978), and the controversial and influential—and his final film—Battle Royale (2000).
After the international failure of Message from Space, Fukasaku set off to make what he hoped would be his masterpiece: an apocalyptic epic based Sakyo Komatsu’s best-selling novel Fukkatsu no hi, aka Day of Resurrection, intended to rival the likes of Hollywood’s A-List apocalypse pieces such as Soylent Green and The Omega Man and Irwin Allen-styled disaster films such as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Westerners—courtesy of their film adaptations—may also know Komatsu’s best-selling Eastern novels Japan Sinks (1973) and Sayonara Jupiter (1982), which were turned into the disaster film Tidal Wave (1973; the U.S. cut featured Lorne Greene from Earthquake) and the space opera Bye, Bye Jupiter (1984).
Upon its release, Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus was the most expensive film Japan ever produced—at $16 million U.S. It was also one of the country’s biggest box-office failures: even more so than Message from Space.
To make a return on their investment, Toho decided that the film needed to cast familiar western actors—albeit from Hollywood’s B-List—alongside their homeland’s familiar actors to successfully break into the Western markets of Europe and the United States. So an English-speaking international cast featuring Chuck Connors, Glenn Ford, British actress Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, an up-and-coming Edward James Olmos and Canadian actor Nicholas Campbell, Henry Silva, Bo Svensen, and Robert Vaughn was assembled to star alongside Sonny Chiba and Masao Kusakari. Not only was the cast of an international persuasion, the film was shot on-location, not only in Tokyo, but in various locations in and around Ottawa, Canada, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The film was supported by the Chilean Navy (Olmos stars as Russian-speaking Chilean), which lent their submarine the CNS Simpson for the production, as did the Canadian Navy, which lent out their submarine the HMCS Okanagan (Connors stars as a British naval officer).
The original cut of the film, which played in the Pacific Rim territories and was intended to play internationally, clocked in at 156 minutes (2 hours and 36 minutes). The film, of course, heavily features Sonny Chiba and Masao Kusakari, as their characters developed during the course of the film through a series of pre-apocalypse flashbacks to their earlier life.
Say it was too long; say it relied too heavily on its Japanese stars; or say that the film’s “blaming” the U.S. and other Western countries for unleashing a deadly pandemic—then nuclear devastation—upon the world was a tad too realistic (the scenes depicting marital law and infected bodies burnt in piles are undeniably dark) and not the dumbed-down Irwin Allen disaster epic with a happily ever after ending that Hollywood was expecting. And there was no way Hollywood was putting a two and a half-hour epic*—filmed mostly in English-subtitled Japanese—into theaters. So, instead of a full, worldwide theatrical release, the majesty of Kinji Fukasaku’s to-be crowning cinematic achievement was cut into a syndicated television version that ran at 108 minutes (1 hour 48 minutes). There’s also a third, shorter TV version that runs seven minutes shorter at 101 minutes (1 hour 41 minutes).
The missing 48 minutes eliminates all of the Tokyo-based flashbacks and most all of the scenes that take place at a remote, isolated Japanese station—which conveniently eliminated all of the English subtitled Japanese. While the 156 minute cut is the suggested watch—which finally seen an official U.S. DVD release in 2006; the original cut is also part of the Sonny Chiba Action Pack—you’re better off, of course, if you can only get a copy of the TV version, watching the longer of TV 108-minute cut. Sadly, the U.S. TV versions—which are now in the public domain on cheapjack DVD sets—reduce Sonny Chiba and Masao Kusakari from the “stars” of the film to peripheral characters; a heart-wrenching scene with the Japanese station making a contact with an orphaned U.S. child begging for help, is lost; Kusakari’s epic trek from a decimated Washington D.C.—which he and Svenson’s soldier tried to stop—is also deleted, which also cuts another great scene with Kusakari carrying a conversation with a burnt-out skeleton—and Jesus Christ on a cross—in a church. And whole scenes are also rearranged, most notably with Chuck Connors’s naval officer’s part not only reduced, but appearing in different parts of the film, depending on the cut you watch.
So, yeah, we’re telling you to watch the original, “too bleak for the U.S.” theatrical cut as Kinji Fukasaku intended. And it’s important to take into account that this is all pre-CGI and shot with practical in-camera effects and seamlessly incorporated stock footage, but those effects—wow, especially those showing the world’s devastated cities, including an overgrown nation’s White House—are stunning set pieces. And if you take the time to watch the original—and are able to, considering our current COVID circumstances, digest a film about a global pandemic unleashed by man’s own greedy stupidity—you’ll agree this is one of the best—if not the best—post-apoc movies you’ll ever watch**.
In a timeline that runs from the year 1982 to 1988, the apocalypse begins as East German and American scientists bicker over the deadly MM88 virus—a virus that absorbs and amplifies other viruses, making them more deadly. Of course, its creation was “accidental,” and it was stolen from a U.S. lab. Successfully recovered, the plane transporting the virus to the states, crashes, and what becomes known as the “Italian Flu,” is unleashed. Oh, and a goody-two shoes lab tech that discovered the truth behind MM88 is murdered to keep it all quiet. (Sakyo Komatsu’s based his book’s “Italian Flu” on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920, which started in Kansas, USA.)
In a mere seven months, most of the world’s population is dead—and eventually claims the lives of Glenn Ford and Robert Vaughn (starring as the President and VP). Henry Silva (Silva, Ford, and Vaughn are excellent) is their paranoid-mad military Chief of Staff insistent that the new ARS Defense system must be armed to protect a now weakened America from a Soviet invasion. And being the crackpot that he is—after his bosses are all dead, he arms the system just before the flu claims his life.
Seven years later, all that’s left of humanity is 855 men and eight women at Palmer Station Antarctica, as the virus can’t survive in temperatures below 10-degrees Celsius. Their somewhat peaceful existence (women are forced into sexual servitude to propagate the species) is upended when it’s discovered the Soviets also have—and armed—their own ARS system: and one of the missiles is aimed at Palmer Station (because it’s a “secret military base”). Then, if the virus and the threat of nuclear war isn’t enough, the station’s seismological team discovers an earthquake will hit the U.S. eastern seaboard—and the magnitude of the quake will be interpreted by the ARS system as an “attack” and launch its rockets.
So, Bo Svenson’s Major Carter and Masao Kusakari’s Dr. Yoshizumi head off to Washington D.C. on an icebreaker to shut down the ARS. Only they’re too late: the earthquake hits and the U.S. ARS launches—and Carter dies in the earthquake rubble. Then the Soviet’s ARS counterstrikes. The world is destroyed.
And that’s how the TV movie version ends.
The theatrical version continues—with those extra seven minutes cut from the 108-minute TV version—as Yoshizumi treks south across the wastelands back to Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, where the Earth’s final survivors—from the ocean-bound ice breaker, escaped, and successfully created a vaccine.
As far as this reviewer is concerned: Kinji Fukasaku, in fact, created a masterpiece. And, if you’ve spent any amount of time on the digitized terrains of B&S About Movies and are familiar with the later, collective schlock ‘80s resumes of Chuck Conners (Tourist Trap), George Kennedy (Top Line), Henry Silva (Megaforce), Bo Svensen (Night Warning) and Robert Vaughn (Starship Invasions), you’ll realize that they’re all very good here—and Virus gave them their last great film roles before the Italian and Filipino film industries got their low-budget hooks in them. (Nicholas Campbell and Silva later worked together on the Canux-slasher Baker County, U.S.A; Campbell was “Luke Skywalker” in the Canux-star slop that was The Shape of Things to Come; Olivia Hussey ended up in things like Ice Cream Man.)
* We discussed, extensively, those epic “intermission” films of the ‘60s and ‘70s in our review of the 2021 release of the Australian film Rage.
** We discuss a few of our ’70s apoc favorites with our “Drive-In Friday” tribute to Hollywood’s A-List Apocalypse.