Kung Fu Zombie (1981)

As bottomless as my hunger for low-grade genre trash can be in general, I do have a limited appetite for particular cheap-o subgenres that I never developed a proper palate for. One of my most glaring shortcomings as a B-movie enthusiast is a dulled, limited appreciation for the martial arts film. I’m not talking about artily psychedelic wuxia epics or the 1980s heyday of Hong Kong visionaries like John Woo. I mean the real cheap stuff, the kind of public domain outliers that pad out local broadcast television schedules. While I grew up watching tons of sci-fi & horror schlock on TV, I don’t remember martial arts cheapies ever being part of that diet. As a result, I have a hard time brushing off my annoyances with the genre’s worst idiosyncrasies—mainly the inert sense of pacing and the repetitive fight choreography sound effects from its near-universally shoddy English dubs—things I’d likely find more charming had I been indoctrinated with this stuff at an earlier age.

In an effort to meet martial arts schlock halfway as a latecomer to genre, I’ve been seeking out fringe titles where it overlaps with the horror tropes I’m more accustomed to. The “boutique” bargain bin Blu-ray label Gold Ninja Video has been an excellent resource in this endeavor, releasing such horror-tinged martial arts titles as the post-modern Brucesploitation castoff The Dragon Lives Again and the delightfully amateurish wuxia nightmare Wolf Devil Woman in the past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely. While I wasn’t quite as enamored with their recent selection Kung-Fu Zombie as those other two titles, it did help further drag me into an appreciation for horror-themed martial arts schlock in a couple key ways. Firstly, it includes an excellent video essay from critic (and label-runner) Justin Decloux titled “Punch a Ghost: A Beginner’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror” that highlighted the charm & historical context of the subgenre (along with a 90-minute “Hong Kong Horror Trailer Reel” packed with recommendations for what to watch next). More importantly, Kung-Fu Zombie itself was one of the quickest-paced films I have ever seen in any genre, which sidestepped one of my usual sticking points with martial arts schlock in particular.

Kung Fu Zombie is a public domain Taiwanese martial arts horror cheapie that’s very light on spooks & gore but plentiful in broad comedy & breakneck fight choreography. It mostly concerns a father-son duo who’re haunted by criminal nemeses from their past. The son’s petty dispute is with a thief whose robbery he interrupted, landing the scoundrel in jail. Once released, the thief hires a Taoist priest to reanimate a small militia of corpses to attack his foil as retribution, fearing the young hero’s superior fighting skills in one-on-one combat. Through a series of mishaps, the thief & the priest manage to resurrect a vicious murderer with a heartless vendetta against the hero’s father (and martial arts trainer) as well, a much more formidable foe our hero has unknowingly been training to defeat his entire life. The title is something of a misnomer. This really isn’t a Romero-style zombie invasion picture with fight choreography interludes as much as it is a full-on martial arts picture that happens to feature a grab bag of generically Spooky archetypes: a couple zombies, a ghost, occultist rituals, etc. It’s all played more for broad humor than genuine horror atmosphere, which is fine, except that the jokes aren’t especially funny (and often backslide into juvenile sexual assault humor at women’s expense).

While the horror elements of this genre-hybrid cheapie didn’t deliver anything especially memorable, the kung-fu sequences are plentiful and plenty entertaining on their own. The movie is insanely shrewd in its editing – speeding up & trimming down everything surrounding those fights until all that’s left is a lean 78-minute whirlwind. Kung-Fu Zombie isn’t nearly as funny nor as innovative as the Peter Jackson classic, but the way it delivers broad jokes & a wide range of classic spooks at a breakneck pace makes it feel like the martial arts equivalent of Dead Alive. I won’t say that it was a mind-blowing revelation that cracked open the martial arts genre for me as an outsider or anything, but its rapid-fire looniness made for an amusing enough novelty, one I likely should have enjoyed with friends & beers instead of alone on the couch as a midnight snack. I plan to continue seeking out these cheap-o titles where horror & martial arts schlock overlap just to expand my appreciation of everything low-end genre filmmaking has to offer. Even if this particular film didn’t fully hit the spot, its Gold Ninja Video release gifted me with dozens of other titles in its same vicinity that look even more promising. It’s more of a breezy genre primer than it is its genre’s artistic pinnacle.

-Brandon Ledet

Teddy Bomb (2014)

Earlier this year, I purchased two Blu-rays of backyard film productions from Toronto as a means of sending financial support to a podcaster I admire. Of Justin Decloux’s two directorial credits, I was much more enthusiastic about the more recent feature, Impossible Horror – an uncanny slapstick splatter comedy about loneliness & outsider art. It’s an incredibly dense, ambitious picture for a no-budget horror on its scale, one that adapts Sam Raimi-style exaggerated camerawork to tones & themes that aren’t typically tackled in its Regional Horror genre. Decloux’s earlier film, Teddy Bomb, is something much more typical to the backyard horror aesthetic: a practical gore splatter comedy that aims more for over-the-top camp & gross-out hyperviolence than anything nearly as sincere or ambitious as what the director would later accomplish in Impossible Horror. However, even as a relatively average backyard horror comedy (with a few moments of genre film splendor in isolated gags), I do think there is a very specific circumstance in which catching up with Teddy Bomb is practically mandatory: if you’re at all a fan of last year’s sci-fi body horror Upgrade.

I was a huge fan of Upgrade myself; it made my Top 10 films of the year list last year and became a favorite of mine to rewatch with friends who hadn’t yet seen it as the year went on. A major part of the film’s appeal was the way it reimagined the basic outline of RoboCop (possibly my favorite sci-fi film of all time) as a satire on modern fears of self-automated technology instead of a satire on the privatization of law enforcement that was already on the horizon in the 1980s. I was a little surprised, then, to see a microbudget filmmaker from Toronto claim that their own work was direct, unacknowledged inspiration for Upgrade, a film already so undeniably indebted to RoboCop. Having now seen Teddy Bomb for myself, I totally get it. In the film, a bumbling beer delivery boy is in over his head when he steals what appears to be a cute teddy bear but is actually a high-tech weapon of mass destruction. Like with the STEM tech in Upgrade, the teddy bear telepathically communicates with his unprepared user, instructing him on how to kill the terrorists who wish to repossess the cuddly weapon. He often closes his eyes while the “teddy bear” does the nasty work of disposing of baddies, which is the most consistently rewarding gag in Upgrade as well. It’s all uncannily familiar.

Since I’m talking about two films that follow well-worn genre templates, it’s difficult to parse out exactly what’s parallel thinking vs. what’s unacknowledged “inspiration.” Besides Upgrade’s obvious debt to RoboCop, it’s a film that also saw its own uncanny parallels in a bigger-budget descendent with last year’s Venom, just months after its own release. Teddy Bomb itself feels like it borrows elements from other horror properties wholesale: Sam Raimi’s live-action-cartoon camerawork, George Romero’s signiature zombie disembowelings, the 8-bit romance of Scott Pilgrim, etc. The difference is that Teddy Bomb is very upfront about where it pulls its ideas from, even setting several scenes in a video rental store where Decloux himself appears as a side-character store clerk who practically points to the titles that most influenced his work. If Upgrade pulled direct influence from Teddy Bomb (and there is some convincing evidence it did, despite this being a microbudget splatter cheapie), it’s a shame that it didn’t do the same in turn. The titular weapon is Teddy Bomb’s most distinctive, exciting invention – one that adds to the genre film conversation instead of merely echoing it – so it’s frustrating to see it “borrowed” for a better-funded work without proper credit. I still believe Upgrade’s satirical vision of a self-automated future is distinct & funny enough on its own terms to justify its praise among similarly-styled works like RoboCop, Venom and, apparently, Teddy Bomb; that’s what telling stories within a genre template is all about. Still, it’s only right to acknowledge your direct influences, especially if you’re appropriating inspiration from self-funded artists far below your weight class who could use the boost.

If you want a concise comparison of the two films side-by-side, this tweet from Decloux lays out a fairly convincing case in two minutes’ time. Fans of Upgrade should really check out Teddy Bomb in its entirety to make up their own minds on the parallels, though. If nothing else, the back-to-back viewing experience makes for an interesting look at what two genre films following the same story template look like on drastically different budgetary levels.

-Brandon Ledet

Impossible Horror (2017)

I purchased a Blu-ray copy of Impossible Horror mostly as a means of contributing financial support to a podcaster I admire. The film’s director, Justin Decloux, cohosts The Important Cinema Club out of Toronto, where he also programs repertory genre screenings under the Laser Blast Film Society brand. The film arrived with an endearing thank-you note from Decloux’s creative partner Emily Milling, who scored, co-produced, and contributed sound editing on the film (likely among other duties). I’m mentioning all of this to note that Impossible Horror is very much a microbudget backyard production, a modern entry in the Regional Horror canon with all the charms & limitations that descriptor implies. Decloux & Milling briefly appear in the film themselves as side characters among a local community of friends & collaborators (including Important Cinema Club’s other cohost, Will Sloan) as their film’s “backyard” setting expands into the late-night urban streets of Toronto. Taking a gamble on these kinds of no-budget horror cheapies is always a tough sell for anyone outside the local social circles who appear on the screen in that way, but Impossible Horror is overflowing with enough creative ideas & genuine genre fandom that it’s well worth the effort. A 76min, dialogue-light sampler of a wide range of well-staged scares (ghost possessions, cursed VHS tapes, evil dolls, suicide cults, etc.), the film is very careful to not test its audience’s patience. Decloux & Milling are clearly fans of this D.I.Y. end of genre filmmaking themselves. Along with co-writer Nate Wilson, they energetically flood the screen with the ideas & imagery they love to see in these kinds of movies, conscious of just how easily the exercise could slip into tedium if they eased off the gas pedal. The result is surprisingly effective considering the limitations of their means, even if there are instances where they have to prompt the audience to [imagine a bigger budget here].

All this talk of backyard D.I.Y. art productions would normally be extratextual, but Impossible Horror is largely a film about outsider art & for-its-own-sake creativity. Sinking into the emotional slump that follows a devastating romantic breakup, our protagonist finds herself unsure what to do with her sudden influx of alone time beside throwing herself back into long-abandoned creative projects – drawing comics & making films. She first picks up her old video camera out of spite for The Asshole who left it behind in the breakup, but soon finds herself supernaturally compelled to see her new filmmaking project through. Unable to sleep through her heartache & her resentment of The Asshole, she finds herself going on late-night walks in those eerie post-midnight hours when, as Whodini would say, The Freaks come out. Suddenly, the absence of dialogue that comes with living alone is supplanted by a torrent of mysterious, paranoid ramblings from a newfound friend discovered on those late-night walks. From there, our once-lonely protagonist spends the rest of the film sinking further into her new friend’s own creative project: investigating a phenomenon of ghostly screams that routinely echo in the night and are always accompanied by mysteriously materialized objects – typewriters, VHS cassettes, dildos, hammers, etc. Solving the origin, meaning, and answer to this paranormal puzzle can often feel like trying to work your way through the storyline of a video game after skipping all of the dialogue screens that explain everything. What’s more important is that our protagonist reacts to this confounding experience by obsessively documenting it for an amateur film at the risk of her own safety & sanity. It can be difficult to track what the story is logically doing from minute to minute, but it all ultimately adds up to a Lovecraftian splatter comedy about amateur artists being driven mad by their own creativity. That’s a fitting theme for a no-budget movie made among friends that’s so ambitious in how it doles out its synths, gore, and ghosts that even this long-winded paragraph is only scratching the surface of its full narrative.

It does feel like a little bit of a betrayal to reduce Impossible Horror to its value as a backyard horror production & a nightmare-logic splatter comedy. Usually, horror films on this scale apologize for their limited means by leaning into their camp value, intentionally playing up their “so-bad-it’s good” humor. The earnestness of Impossible Horror is something much braver; its scares, jokes, and practical effects are all genuine attempts to make the best movie possible under the circumstances, all with a surprising success rate. The most poignant scene in the film is a voiceover performance from the protagonist as she shows her new ghost-hunter friend an old short film she made, continually apologizing for its quality in cruel self-deprecation. Every theme explored in the film is on display in full potency in that moment: how we’re haunted by our own past, the never-ending ways we self-harm, the insuppressible urge to keep making outsider amateur art even though putting your own work out in the world is fucking embarrassing. As fans of the microbudget horror genre on its own terms, Decloux & Milling instinctively understand the need to deliver the goods elsewhere, filling the screen with plenty gross-out gore & slapstick gags to entertain fellow fans of the Regional Horror tradition. What sets Impossible Horror apart from most of those self-published films, however, is its earnest, ambitious reach for something greater than a winking-at-the-camera joke. It’s wiling to comment at length about its own limited means, but only in a genuine exploration of how making art on this scale walks a fine line between partying with friends & overworking yourself into a lethal mania. Not everything it hurls at the screen to entertain the audience (and the creators) works, especially not all in tandem, but it does all amount to a genuinely satisfying reflection on the nature of loneliness & self-published art in the 2010s. It’s the kind of D.I.Y. art project that’ll make you want to seek out & support more outsider films on its scale & budget, if not make some of your own – perhaps to your own peril.

-Brandon Ledet