Although I grew up on a steady diet of kung fu, Ultraman, and Godzilla (among other things), it wasn’t until the late 1980s that I headed out in search of material beyond that which was served up to me on Saturday afternoon via various themed “theaters” on television. It was a difficult road to travel at the time. These days, you can go pretty much anywhere and find a slew of cheap kungfu films for sale. But not so long ago, getting even the dodgiest fare from across the Pacific required months of searching and dealing with shady tape traders who kept asking if you were interested in their bondage videos or their band’s newest demo when all you wanted was a copy of the latest Jackie Chan film. When I moved to Florida in 1990, I met a guy who shared my love for all things kungfu. It was he who took me to a place on the outskirts of Gainesville that stocked shelves upon shelves of old-school kungfu films. It was one of those moments where your eyes filled with tears, and you want to fall to your knees and mutter “Amitābha!” In those carefree years, few things could bring a glow to my face quite like those familiar notes accompanying an animated seahorse flying through space while an announcer shouted “THIS is an Ocean Shores VIDEO presentation!”

Kung Fu Zombie (Wu long tian shi zhao ji gui, 1981), directed by Hua Shan, was among our favorite rentals, along with its not-quite sequel Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave (1982). Hua Shan started at Shaw Brothers as a cinematographer in the 1970s and, by the middle of the decade, transitioned into the director’s chair. He made an impression right out of the gate, directing the eye-popping superhero monsterfest Infra-Man in 1975. He never quite matched that phantasmagoric masterpiece, but he worked throughout the 1970s, splitting his time between mid-level martial arts adventures and erotica, blending the two whenever he got a chance. In the 1980s, as the Shaw Brothers’ ironclad grip on its performers slipped and draconian studio contracts fell out of fashion, Hua branched out, working with the Shaws while also collaborating with other producers. In 1981, he delivered a pretty amazing one-two punch, directing the insane Bloody Parrot for the Shaws and the delirious Kung Fu Zombie for independent producer Pal Ming’s Eternal Film (H. K.) Co.

In Kung Fu Zombie, underrated should-have-been superstar Billy Chong stars as Fong Fang, a snotty, rebellious guy who constantly fights with his ailing father (Chiang Tao). There isn’t much about the guy for which you can root. He’s a thorough heel, which is something kungfu comedies love to do: make the hero an asshole. Sometimes, in the end, he learns a valuable lesson about humility and respect. More times than not, however, he just beats people up then farts in their faces, and that’s the end of the movie. No lesson learned, no character growth, really nothing whatsoever to redeem them beyond being better than someone else at kungfu.

A gang of cut-throats have taken a disliking to Fong Fang and his sidekick, Hamster (Cheng Kang-Yeh). They employ the services of a black magic priest (Chan Lau) to resurrect some corpses to ambush Chong. It seems an overly complex plan: employ a priest to resurrect zombies that will, once given the cue, fly through the air and push Chong into a pit filled with spikes. If the end game is to push someone, I’m not sure why you need reanimated corpses, beyond…if you can get them, why not? Not to mention that a spike-filled pit seems a rather conventional culmination for a plan that involves resurrecting the dead. Just because you can summon the dead doesn’t mean every plot you hatch has to involve the summoning of the dead. Actually, no. It totally does.

What the bad guys didn’t figure on is that, after making an impressive flying leap from a coffin, crumbling old corpses are pretty ineffective fighters. Fang dispatches them without much difficulty, and he’s surprisingly unimpressed by the fact that he’s being attacked by the living dead. The gang’s leader, Lui Lo-Dai (Cheng Kei-ying, who sports an impressive pair of sloppy muttonchops), gets pushed himself into the pit of spikes during the melee, being justly undone by his own treachery. Satisfied that the night of being attacked by creatures returned from the grave for bloody revenge has ended, Chong heads off for the local tavern to make merry.

While Fang may not be an ugly ghost adorned with mangy muttonchops, his life still isn’t perfect. His family, which consists only of his abusive father (Chiang Tao) and the mysterious Hamster, is dysfunctional — and when a family is dysfunctional in a kungfu film that means all they do is yell, which is then followed up by a few minutes of fighting that culminates in the father nearly dying of heart failure, muttering “You’re killing me, you ungrateful son of a bitch!” which elicits a smirk from Fang, who will wave bye-bye and go out on the town with Hamster. As one may guess, there isn’t a whole lot to like about either member of the Fong household. The father reveals that he has been yelling at Fang so much because they come from a family of constables, and a blood enemy of the family is coming for revenge. Fang sees this as little more than his father using his own son as protection against a bad guy, and the father responds with, “Yeah, so what? And you’re a no-good little bastard, too.” Then they fight, the dad has a heart attack, and Billy goes out gambling with Hamster.

Things don’t go well for the wizard, either (most of the characters in this movie don’t have actual names), who is soon plagued by the ghost of Muttonchops Liu, who is demanding resurrection and, in his spare time, feeling up sexy ladies. The nightmarish haunting takes the form of things like the ghost pulling the priest’s seat out from under him, constantly moving his wine out of reach, and other dastardly spooktacular shenanigans. Eventually, annoyed by these sinister shenanigans, the priest agrees. Alas, Liu’s body was badly mutilated after the tumble into the spike-filled pit. Down at the local morgue, they find the freshly-dead body of a powerful kung fu fighter (Kwan Yung-Moon), but when Liu tries to inhabit the corpse, he discovers that the guy is not quite dead. He just likes sleeping in a coffin down at the local morgue. This is also the villain who has been seeking revenge against the Fongs. Awakened from his slumber, the villain makes a beeline toward their home.

Fang is eventually victorious, killing the bad guy and collecting a sizable reward, which his father promptly takes for himself. Why does Fang even live with this guy? You know, filial piety only goes so far. The wizard-priest and Muttonchops Liu figure they can try to use the body again for another resurrection attempt. Since they only get three tries before Muttonchops is condemned to roam the earth as an incorporeal spirit, ‘Chops inspires confidence in the wizard by using the old encouragement tactic of slapping the wizard in the head and yelling, “You better get it right this time, you stupid bastard!” The wizard, who commands all of the vast powers of darkness, takes this abuse for some reason. I guess he and Fang are kindred spirits in a way. They mess up again, discovering this time that the bad guy is simply too evil to be killed by normal means such as breaking his neck. The failed possession attempt transforms the baddie into a super-invincible mega-bad zombie. Once again, he immediately sets out to kill Fang. Then things get crazy.

Kung Fu Zombie is both a typical kungfu comedy and a very weird kungfu comedy…though given the films that make up that subgenre, weird is the typical kungfu comedy. It doesn’t come close to the frenetic genius of Sammo Hung’s supernatural kungfu farce, Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980), but it’s still great. The fight scenes come fast and furious, and though some undercranking is obvious in spots, it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the fighting. Billy Chong is a superb fighter, carrying himself with a lethal combination of grace, speed, and power. The comedy is hit or miss, and while it misses more than it hits (which is very typical for kungfu comedies), it doesn’t miss in a way that would turn you off to the film. The horrific relationship between Fang and his dad is played for laughs, but after a while, it’s not funny so much as it is like one of those times when you were a little kid over at a friend’s house while the friend was getting yelled at by his parents. You just sort of sit there, sheepish and awkward, pretending you don’t notice your friend is getting spanked right in front of you. At least you can be thankful that your friend and their parents were not kungfu aces who settled their arguments by yelling “Bastard!” and beating the crap out of one another for the next five minutes.

On the plus side of the comedy is Chan Lau as the wizard. He’s superb as the not-entirely-evil priest who can’t seem to catch a break, especially when he has to walk around town wearing a giant leaf hat in order to avoid angry ghosts. A combination of wonderful facial expressions and perfect timing make him the standout in the film. The rest of the cast performs dutifully. Muttonchops is just there to bellow and make the “angry surprised” face a lot. His accomplices fulfill the standard old school kungfu roles of “goofy fat guy” and “goofy skinny guy.” And if you are wondering whether this film includes someone with that giant fake wart with the single piece of super-thick hair coming out of it…don’t worry. Hong Kong filmgoers find that sight gag endlessly hilarious, and Kung Fu Zombie isn’t about to let them down.

It is also, given Hua Shan’s predilections behind the camera, surprisingly chaste. No nudity, just a little big of ghostly breast grabbing. The same would not be true a year later when Pal Ming hired Lee Chiu to direct Billy Chong in a sequel of sorts, Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave. That follow-up (spiritually, if not narratively) features a lot more naked prostitutes, not to mention those long-tongued ghosts and a cameo by Dracula, who annoying flutters around Billy Chong’s head for a while before exploding.

Kung Fu Zombie isn’t an expensive film, and it does its best to cover the lack of funds by not aiming too high with its special effects — some eerie-colored lighting, a few gross corpses, and a fog machine are all it needs to successfully create an inexpensive otherworldly atmosphere. It’s crude and cheap, but it also has great energy behind it, not to mention some spectacular kung fu and a few creepy seconds scattered throughout the zaniness. Encounter of the Spooky Kind may be a better movie, but it’s not an insult to say something isn’t as good as Spooky Kind. Think of Kung Fu Zombie as that film’s plucky little brother. Watching it is like hanging out with old friends, even if you and your friends weren’t the types to be resurrecting kungfu-powered zombies to do your bidding.

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