Hong Kong dips a toe into the world of George Romero style zombie films, although the results are more Resident Evil than Dawn of the Dead.
The world of Hong Kong horror films (before Hong Kong rejoined China and the HK film industry was ingested by the mainland product) 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 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, kung fu 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 kung fu 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. 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, kung fu or sleazy softcore sex. Whacked-out creativity and willingness to skip happily down even the most tasteless of paths is present in spades. 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. Of course, most American horror films are the same way.
Before the zombie glut of the 2000s, one could 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 encountered anything resembling the ghouls that had been more or less defined by George Romero. In fact, even after the world went zombie-crazy in a fit that made the zombie craze of the late 1970s/1980s seem positively restrained, censorship rules in China kept zombie output (and horror in general) from that part of the world at a minimum. Bio-Zombie is one of the few 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 enjoyable, though predictably enough, it fails to effectively blend its horror with its slapstick comedy. Still, the overall result is an energetic, bloody zombie romp that manages to satisfy, if only barely.
Goofy, charismatic Jordan Chan, who made a name for himself in the popular Young And Dangerous movies, stars as a wannabe street tough named Woody Invincible. Woody and his pal, Bee (Sam Lee, another alumnus of the “young triad guy” movie trend of the late 1990s, most notably as one of the stars of Gen-X Cops), work at a video game store in a shopping arcade. They spend their days screwing around, hassling the security guard, and flirting with a duo of cute young women, Jelly (Bonnie Lai Suk-Yin) and Rolls (Angela Tong Ying-Ying). Sometimes, they take time off from this busy schedule to bug the older wannabe gangster guy and his wife (Tam Suk-Mui). There’s also a nerdy guy (Emotion Cheung Kam-Ching — yes, he decided his first name was going to be “Emotion”) who works in a sushi restaurant and lusts after one of the girls. Your typical mall crowd doing the usual mall stuff…until a botched underworld deal in the parking garage results in an experimental virus leaking out and turning people into gooey, flesh-craving zombies who wander around looking for things to voraciously consume. Also a pretty typical mall crowd.
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. The gore is tempered somewhat by the late-’90s tendency to insist that every movie be tinted blue. There is the usual procession of screaming and running and hiding, and of course beloved friends getting the zombie bite put on them. Eventually, Woody and Rolls 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 most of its runtime has been goofball. Humans can’t win, after all, in a zombie film. 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 out like a Resident Evil video game but without all the hyperactive over-directing that mars the actual Resident Evil movies. That video game was the biggest influence on Bio-Zombie, even though the mall setting is a callback to Dawn of the Dead. The zombie make-up is simple but effective. It’s higher-class than painting people blue 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 a first time out. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect. The movie’s first forty minutes lag as we are subjected to a long string of shouting and slapstick comedy that isn’t very engaging. However, some of the moments are interesting, if 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.
Ultimately, although there is far too much of it, the weird humor of the film makes the bleak ending that much more effective. 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. 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.