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

Crazy World (2020)

I’ve finally had my first Wakaliwood experience, thanks to the pandemic-inspired We Are One: A Global Film Festival charity event that ran for free on YouTube earlier this month. The D.I.Y. African movie studio has been operated out of the home of self-taught filmmaker Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana (self-credited as Nabwana IGG) for a full decade now. It seems to be little more than a few laptops & cameras in the hands of amateur action-movie buffs in Kampala, Uganda, but its acclaim in Midnight Movie circles has been emphatically spreading for years now. Where most outsider-art cult movies of recent years have earned their notoriety through so-bad-it’s-good mockery from tragically insincere Film Bros (think Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen or whoever’s responsible for the Birdemic Cinematic Universe), Wakaliwood pictures sidestep that pitfall entirely by having fun with the audience, allowing little room for anyone to mock them from a distance. There’s no way these micro-budget action thrillers could compete with the over-the-top spectacles of Hollywood franchises like Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious, at least not in terms of resources or scale. Instead, they aim for a deliberate action-comedy bent, verbally acknowledging their quality as a bootleg version of Hollywood action franchises and inviting the audience to laugh along with them instead of mocking them from afar. When Tommy Wiseau was let in on The Joke, his schtick was ruined, and he hasn’t done anything genuinely interesting since The Room. By contrast, Wakaliwood was already having fun with their outsider-art oddities before a worldwide audience arrived to the party, so all anyone could do was join in the fun. I’m grateful that We Are One finally sent along my invite (courtesy of the Midnight Madness programmers at TIFF).

A lot of Wakaliwood’s unique it’s-all-a-party vibe is due to its in-house hype-man narrator, Emmie. Emmie is billed as the films’ VJ (“Video Joker”), a master of ceremonies who excitedly talks over the movies to explain their onscreen action (as if he were Silent Era title cards) and to keep the audience’s blood pumping. It’s as if the films had built in their own MST3k commentary team, except will all the show’s above-it-all Gen-X snark replaced with unembarrassed movie-nerd joy. Sometimes, the VJ interjects to establish characters’ motivations or to remind the audience who’s fighting on which side. More often, he’s just shouting energizing catchphrases like an exercise class instructor, keeping our heartrate up with gloriously redundant outbursts of “Supa!”, “Commando!”, and “Movie, movie, movie!” Nabwana IGG’s hyperactive editing style is similarly geared towards keeping the mood light & the audience constantly wired, cutting out all breathing room between cuts so all that’s onscreen is action & jokes alternating in dizzingly rapid succession. Curiously, the characters themselves seem to be aware of this constant need to push onto the next action sequence, as if they are aware they’re in a movie. When a husband is about to find his wife in bed with another man or an evil gang is about to clash with the film’s heroes, there’s usually an excited observer on hand to comment about how good of a movie we’re about to see, sometimes doing the VJ’s job for him before he gets to weigh in. It all plays into the communal, regional filmmaking vibe Nabwana IGG establishes with his hyperlocal Ugandan crew and his exponentially international audience at home. Everyone’s on the same footing, whether narrator, actor, or outside observer; we’re all invited to party.

In Crazy World, a Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & the children’s enraged parents. In the 80s & 90s action movies Nabwana IGG is emulating (Commando, Cobra, Hard Target, etc.), the crooked network of child abductors would normally be taken down by a lone ex-military musclehead who is mysteriously unable to be struck by the bullets fired by dozens of enemies. Nabwana IGG opens up the playing field to allow as many of his local community actors to have their heroic Schwarzenegger moment as possible: returning characters from past Wakaliwood classics, a new crop of ”Kung Fu”-trained neighborhood children called The Waka Starz, and a random assortment of revenge-seeking parental figures who just want their kids back. The most notable of which is a once-reputable local man who becomes communally ignored as a homeless lunatic once his son is abducted by the evil gang. As the Video Joker solemnly explains, “He lost his child, then he lost his mind.” The title of the film is borrowed from the homeless man’s self-built shanty town, a reconstructed pile of trash from where he observes the comings & goings of the wicked kidnapping gang until he finds the right time to strike, using societal dismissal of mentally ill vagrants to hide in plain sight. None of this matters too much once the gang is actively overthrown by the community they terrorize, though, as he’s only one hero of many. It seems Nabwana IGG & his VJ mouthpiece especially want the Waka Starz to steal some of the homeless vigilante’s spotlight, repeatedly asserting that Crazy World is “The Greatest Kidz Movie Eva” despite the fact that it’s drenched in gunfire & bloodshed. The kids are adorably tough in their own moments of collective heroism, though, which really accentuates the movie’s charms as a document of hyperlocal communal filmmaking.

I can’t speak to how Crazy World compares to other films in the Wakaliwood canon, but it worked exceedingly well as an introduction to Nabwana IGG’s output for me. That often came across as a deliberate intention of the piece, as the movie periodically stops dead to promote the trailers for past & future Wakaliwood productions the audience should get hyped for. It worked too, as I was jotting down titles like Bad Black & Who Killed Captain Alex? as necessary homework assignments I needed to catch up with. Unfortunately, a documentary titled Once Upon a Time in Uganda was supposed to premiere at this year’s SXSW fest to help further spread the good word of Wakaliwood’s output but was preempted by our current COVID-19 pandemic. In what had to be my favorite aspect of Crazy World’s presentation on the We Are One platform, Nabwana IGG directly acknowledges that bizarre circumstance, interrupting the film’s action to deploy “anti-piracy enforcers” to online bootleggers’ homes across the globe via CG helicopters to apprehend them for stealing his movie. There is no shyness around self-promotion or copyright protection here. Characters will directly ask bootleggers onscreen “Do you know how hard it is to make a movie?” as a plea for compassion (as well as a for-its-own-sake comedic gag). It is damn hard to make a movie, something that makes Nabwana IGG’s growing media empire look even more enticing as a newcomer who’s far behind the curve. He has so many titles under his name, yet so few resources behind their production or distribution. In that way, he’s a true D.I.Y. filmmaking success story, and I’m incredibly excited to have finally stumbled into his crazy world.

-Brandon Ledet

Bulletproof Monk (2003)

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There’s a delicate balance at work in Bulletproof Monk (which easily could also have been titled Tibetan Punk! or Monks & Punks) that a lot of lesser films fail to achieve. Judging solely by the basic monks & punks premise and the cheesy early 00s imagery, it’s by all means a bad movie. At the same time, however, it resists nearly all negative criticism by being such a delightfully goofy bad movie that’s very much self-aware in its vapid silliness. In a lot of ways the film sells itself as a action-comedy cash-in on the cultural & financial success of martial arts choreography-fests The Matrix & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also has its own charms as a unique intellectual property, which are mostly dependent on the natural charisma of its costars Yun-Fat Chow (as the monk) and Seann William Scott (as the punk, naturally).

The story begins in a Tibetan monastery where an elderly monk plays right into the classic one-day-from-retirement trope and is brutally murdered in a hailstorm of bullets. What kind of a bastard would murder a kind, old monk, you ask? Why, a Nazi bastard, of course. In addition to the film’s already preposterous buddy dynamic of a Tibetan punk and a New York City punk, Bulletproof Monk also makes room for aging, power-hungry Nazis, a shirtless British rapper named Mr. Funktastic, and the red-hot daughter of a Russian crime lord. It’s a quite silly hodgepodge of mismatched characters, but they have more in common than you’d expect. For instance, both aging Nazis & shirtless British rappers enjoy hanging out in underground smokeshow lairs that split the aesthetic difference between steampunk & Hot Topic. Also, New York City pickpockets who inexplicable live in millionaires’ apartments above adorable single screen cinemas and pious Tibetan monks both share a deep passion for Crouching Tiger-type martial arts & Matrix-era bullet time, which the former learned from the movie theater and the latter from his lifetime dedication to protecting an ancient scroll that’s incredibly important for some reason or another.

The critical consensus at the time of Bulletproof Monk’s release was that it was a disappointing comedy saved from being a total wash solely by the virtues of Chow Yun-Fat’s martial arts skills. I’m not sure if its campy charms have just improved with time or if I’m just more able than most to excuse a movie’s faults sheerly for the purity of its goofy attitude, but it’s hard for me to fault a movie that features Chow Yun-Fat performing gymnastics on a mid-flight helicopter’s landing gear or the line “Lucky for you this crumpet’s come begging for some of my funktastic love.” Seann William Scott is also surprisingly convincing as a no-good punk with a heart of gold and there are some genuinely striking images of him learning/practicing kung fu in front of a movie screen. Bulletproof Monk may have been a disappointing development for Chow Yun-Fat’s fans after the heights of his John Woo collaborations & career-defining performance in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, but for a fan of goofy buddy comedies, bizarre cultural relics, and Nazi war criminals getting their due, it’s quite a treat & surprisingly just as impervious to criticism as it is to bullets.

-Brandon Ledet