Over on the Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema, the companion blog to the podcast Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema, I’m training with horses in preparation for the day my father’s supernaturally powerful kungfu demon enemy comes around looking for revenge. Kungfu Zombie stars Billy Chong as an obnoxious martial artist who is endlessly pestered by vengeful corpses.
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.
Hammer beats George Romero to the zombie punch by a year, but needless to say their effort, though perfectly respectable, was overshadowed by Romero’s groundbreaking classic. I went into this film with mixed feelings. On the one hand, all the stills I’d seen from it looked incredible. Very spooky and atmospheric. On the other hand, my most recent experience with Hammer studio director John Gilling was the dry as a mummy’s shroud The Mummy’s Shroud. But I’m a sucker for pretty much any and every Hammer film that’s been released, and I figure it certainly can’t be any worse than Zombie Lake. It turns out, in fact, that Plague of the Zombies not only isn’t any worse than Zombie Lake; it’s much, much better. Okay, maybe saying something is better than Zombie Lake isn’t saying a whole lot, so let’s revise the praise. Plague of the Zombies is a damn good film, maybe not the caliber of film that is Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but certainly on par with other great zombie films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and easily one of the best of Hammer’s non-Dracula/Frankenstein films. Is that a mouthful?
As a kid, I was a sporadic comic book reader at best, thanks mostly to growing up pretty far from just about anywhere. Within biking distance, as long as I didn’t tell my parents I was riding that far, was a Convenient food mart where my friends and I could exchange our hard earned chore money for the currency of American youth — baseball cards, squirt guns, superballs, and on occasion a comic book. As a monster kid who grew up staying up late and watching the classics on “Memories of Monsters” and the sometimes less-than-classics on WDRB’s “Fright Night” featuring The Fearmonger, my favorite comics weren’t the superhero fare upon which the industry was built. Instead, I always favored the monster comics like Marvel’s Frankenstein and Werewolf By Night. The closest I would come to superheroes was Dr. Strange, who occasionally tooled around in a dune buggy with a green bodybuilder in purple pants, a naked silver guy, and an elf in Speed-O’s. Easily my favorite comic above all others, though, was Tomb of Dracula.
The pain and glory of watching a Thomas Tang movie is that you never know what you are going to get, but it will almost always be stunningly terrible. Tang, for those fortunate enough to require an introduction, is part of the unholy trinity that also includes director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai, film makers in only the broadest and most liberal definition of the term. Their specialty, often working in concert, was to take part of one cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, splice it together with parts of a second cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, pepper in some original footage — usually of ninjas, hopping vampires, or white dudes (and by “white dudes” I mostly mean “Richard Harrison”) — then dub the entire thing into English in a lackadaisical attempt to make some sort of halfway coherent plot out of the mess. Using this formula, a guy like Thomas Tang could make ten or twelve movies out of just a couple movies, with very little production cost. By the time people paid to see whatever Frankenstein monster resulted from the process, it was too late for them to be pissed off. Thomas Tang — or Godfrey Ho, as the case may be — already had your money.
Some great directors die in the midst of their career and leave behind an inadvertent final film that does not reflect the quality of their larger career. Few would argue, for example, that Family Plot is a fitting capstone for the career of Alfred Hitchcock, or that Stanley Kubrick’s career was well served by having Eyes Wide Shut as his swan song or that Sam Peckinpah’s career ended well with The Osterman Weekend. On the other hand, some director’s die while working and leave behind a final film so stunningly perfect as their final statement that it seems hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t planned by some benevolent supreme being. Had the legendary Bruno Mattei’s life and career ended on any note other than Zombies: The Beginning, then truly this would have been a cruel and uncaring universe. But end with Zombies: The Beginning it did, and so Mattei departed this mortal coil via a film that is the perfect summation of everything he ever contributed to the world of cinema.
Many films focus on the glamour of the modeling industry, but it seems that it’s only the horror genre that concerns itself with its dangers. Movies like Horror of Spider Island and Bloody Pit of Horror have shown us how, time and again, models and those charged with tending to them have been called upon to place themselves in harm’s way, like soldiers at the front. And perhaps no more credible presentation of that reality can be found than in 1981’s Dawn of the Mummy — even if that film also asks us to believe that an American fashion magazine would bankroll a whole crew traveling to Egypt just to shoot dresses that look like old lady nightgowns.
In 1982, cult film fave Tobe Hooper got his shot at the big time. He was already an infamous character and major figure in the horror film world thanks to his first film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He enjoyed some mainstream success as the director of the original made for television Salem’s Lot, a movie that made a whole generation of children afraid to look out a second story bedroom window. A year after Salem’s Lot, Hooper got a plum job directing a big-budget horror film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Fans were excited to see what the king of survival horror could do with a Spielberg size budget. Unfortunately, whatever it was he was going to do never came to be.
At the time of this writing, we’re at a point where a good deal of film fans are suffering from an affliction that has become known as “zombie fatigue.” Thanks in no small part to video games, zombies began to shamble their way out of the niche horror market and into the mainstream. And then, just like the movies always told us would happen, the zombie outbreak spread swiftly and without mercy, consuming the entire country in a year or so. Zombies were everywhere, and one of the most obvious results of this sudden explosion of pop culture adoration for the walking dead was a glut of terrible, boring, no-budget zombie films. Sure, there were a few good ones scattered throughout the wasteland — Undead, Hide and Creep, even the Day of the Dead remake wasn’t nightmarishly terrible — but for the most part, it was an onslaught of shoddy shot-on-DV stinkers. Worse still, George Romero himself was responsible for many of the stinkers. Land of the Dead was underwhelming, Diary of the Dead was unwatchably rotten, and Survival of the Dead was…well, it wasn’t as bad as Diary of the Dead.
These days, it seems like Japan makes about five zombie movies a week, each one more half-assed and dreadful than the last. Once, long ago, when Italy and the United States had lost interest in the zombie film, Japan decided to start cranking a few out. They started out modest but promising, and by the time we got to Wild Zero and Versus, I do believe that I naively exclaimed that the zombie film was well served by Japanese stewardship. Then they made Stacy, and I started to wonder if maybe I had celebrated prematurely. A few years ago, the United Stated rediscovered the zombie film, and zombies themselves became a pop culture phenomenon that ultimately degenerated into hipster zombie parties and zombie olympics and such. Japan wasn’t going to miss out on things, and a whole slew of cheap, new Japanese zombie movies were soon flooding the market. They were and continue to be high on wackiness and low on watchability, pretty much like their microbudget counterparts in America.