The world of Hong Kong horror films is a strange one, indeed. Even within the horror genre, which can be pretty damn weird much of the time, Hong Kong manages to make films that will cause even seasoned horror fans to scratch their head. Hong Kong films often take the cake for the greatest degree of creativity with their tastelessness. This is the industry that gave us such genre classics as Untold Story and the intense graphic, hard to stomach atrocity exhibition Men Behind the Sun. It’s also the industry that gave us horror-fantasy wonders like Chinese Ghost Story, kungfu cannibal films like We Are Going to Eat You, and more hopping vampire films than you can shake a lucky Buddhist charm at. The sheer diversity of Hong Kong horror makes it a somewhat overwhelming, but endlessly exciting world to explore. It’s not horror like we’ve come to know in the West. Though a foppish looking Dracula may swoop down from time to time in old kungfu horror films, Hong Kong tends to rely much more on an indigenous cast of ghouls. Hopping vampires are sort of the banner carriers of the genre, and no creature is more uniquely identified with Chinese horror than these bouncing demons. Comprising the rest of the parade are a curious cast of witches, devils, sexy ghosts, fetus eating freaks, and countless possessed people with eerie green lights shining on them.
Conventional Western monsters are few and far between. Werewolves and Frankenstein monsters may have defined the genre in the 1930s, but you’d be hard pressed to find them in Hong Kong. And when you have the rich folk horror tradition of China and surrounding countries like Thailand from which to draw, why would you waste time ripping off wolfmen and vampires who wear frilly Renaissance garb even though it’s the 21st century? The composition of Hong Kong horror is unique. The films are almost always bizarre, often uneven blends of horror and gore, slapstick comedy, and much of the time, kungfu or sleazy softcore sex. All good stuff, obviously, but the Hong Kong films that actually make all the elements work together are rare. Your average Hong Kong horror film has a lot of “roll your eyes in boredom” sequences of people just sort of shouting and falling down. That’s fine and all, but I can get it for free on Univision. Of course, most American horror films are the same way. The real short-coming of Hong Kong’s prolific but not entirely impressive horror industry is that horror simply works best outside the mainstream. Hong Kong has no notable independent cinema scene, so getting anything but big studio crap is more or less impossible. The films may be influenced by Evil Dead, but it will never make Evil Dead.
Which is too bad, because the whacked creativity and willingness to skip happily down even the most tasteless of paths is present in spades. If someone in Hong Kong actually had the ability to work outside the studio system, the potential for an insanely great, totally wild horror film is staggering. Unfortunately, that’s not happening any time soon. But then again, it’s probably having to dance around studio censors and government madmen that has resulted in Hong Kong horror making up for outright gore with totally mind blowing weirdness. In the end, I eat my own words and go, “Why should Hong Kong horror be anything like Western horror? Western horror is already like Western horror.” Thus, Hong Kong has a whole new batch of stuff ready to offer up people who have already seen all the Fulci and Deodato there is.
I can count the number of Night of the Living Dead type zombie films from Hong Kong on, well, one finger. The United States, Japan, and especially Italy embraced the shuffling flesh-eaters, but even in Hong Kong films that make use of the term “zombie,” one rarely encounters anything resembling the ghouls that have been more or less defined by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Bio-Zombie is the one of the only Romero-style zombie flicks to come from Hong Kong. The result is curious, to say the least. For the most part, it’s uneven but definitely enjoyable. Although, predictably enough, it fails to effectively blend its horror with its slapstick comedy, the overall result is an energetic, bloody zombie romp that should satisfy fans of the genre, if only barely.
The goofy, charismatic Jordan Chan, who made a name for himself in the popular Young And Dangerous movies I love to make fun of (mainly because they were the catalyst for the whole annoying “young triad guy” movie trend), stars as a wannabe street tough named Woody Invincible. Woody Invincible and his pal, Bee (Sam Lee), work at a video game store in a shopping arcade. They spend their days goofing off, crossing the security guard, and flirting with a duo of cute flirty girls. Sometimes, they take time off from this busy schedule to bug the older wannabe gangster guy and his wife. And there’s also a nerdy guy who works in a sushi restaurant and lusts after one of the girls. Your usual mall crowd. A botched underworld transfer in the parking garage results in an experimental virus leaking out and turning people into gooey, flesh-craving zombies. Also a pretty typical mall crowd.
The zombie make-up is simple but effective. It’s higher class than painting people blue a la Dawn of the Dead but is nowhere close to the master zombie make-up of films like Zombie and Day of the Dead. Still, it’s not bad stuff for their first time out. In a turn of events that reflects a definite Dawn of the Dead influence without any of the harsh social commentary, the zombies start wandering around the mall looking for victims. Woody Invincible and his small band of cohorts are the only ones who can combat the growing legions of the living dead. Why? Because they are the main characters. When the zombies show up the action is fast and bloody, with all the requisite flesh eating you expect from a zombie movie. We’re not talking Lucio Fulci buckets of blood here, but heads do roll and necks are chomped.
There is the usual procession of screaming and running and hiding, and of course beloved friends getting the zombie bite put on them. Eventually, Wood and Ruby are the last two standing and must face off with the living dead in the parking garage as they attempt to escape, only to discover that things are a lot worse than they thought. The final scene of the two battered youths pulling into a deserted gas station and seeing emergency bulletins on the television is superbly apocalyptic, and a fitting end to any type of zombie movie even if half of it has been goofball. We can’t win, after all. Have the humans ever won in a zombie movie? And who would want them to?
Bio-Zombie has fast pacing, and inventive direction on its side. It’s slick looking and technically well made, playing itself out like a Resident Evil video game but without all the hyperactive over-directing that sometimes mars the actual Resident Evil movies. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect. The movie’s first forty minutes lag as we are subjected to a long string of shouting and slapstick that isn’t very engaging. Still, it’s a lot less boring than Fulci’s boring moments. At least something is going on. That’s really the only major drawback. More zombie action sooner would have made this good movie great, but as it is, I’m hard pressed to complain about what I got. Ultimately, the weird humor of the film makes the bleak ending that much more effective. And some of the moments are pretty interesting, if not out of place. When Woody Invincible braves the hordes of zombies to try and reach a telephone, the movie goes into full Resident Evil mode, with little flashing icons and “Reload!” messages popping up on the screen. Like I said, sort of out of place, but interesting. John Woo did the same thing in his one foray into horror-comedy, To Hell with the Devil, in which a battle between heroes and demons takes on the scoreboard of an Atari game.
And that video game was probably the biggest influence on this film, even though the mall setting is a callback to Dawn of the Dead. Once the zombies start showing up, it really gets to be a lot of fun. No heavy political messages or anything a la George Romero (oh, I’m sure you can force a “1997 handover anxiety” message into the film — you could do that with almost every movie made in Hong Kong during the 1990s), but plenty of quality zombie action. Jordan Chan would seem an unlikely lead character, but once the shit hits the fan, he starts looking cooler and cooler. As an aside, this is probably the only zombie movie where you’ll see a group of soccer playing zombies demand human sushi from a zombie sushi chef.