Kung Fu Zombie (1981) Review

"Kung Fu Zombie" Theatrical Poster

"Kung Fu Zombie" Theatrical Poster

AKA: Kung Fu Zombies
Director: Wa Yat Wang
Writer: Wa Yat Wang
Cast: Billy Chong Chun Lai (aka Willy Dozan), Kong Do, Kwan Yung Moon, Cheng Hong Yip, Chan Lau, Pak Sha Lik, Jeng Kei Ying, Woo Wai, Wong Yu
Running Time: 80 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Thanks to the success of recent movies such as The Raid and its sequel, Indonesian action stars like Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian have quickly become familiar to fans of the martial arts genre. However, the first Indonesian star that made a significant impact on the kung fu cinema scene came a whole 35 years before, in the form of Billy Chong. Chong shone briefly and brightly over a period of around 5 years from the late 70’s through to the early 80’s, before he returned to his native Indonesia and became a local star in his homeland.

As it happens, Chong, who now goes by the name of Willy Dozan and is in his mid 50s, is currently having a career renaissance of sorts, with his movies Duel – The Last Choice, in which he stars with his son, and Garuda 7, best described as an Indonesian version of The Expendables, soon to be hitting local cinema screens. With both Indonesia and Chong back on the action genre radar, I decided to visit one of the movies that originally grabbed people’s attention, the wonderfully titled Kung Fu Zombie.

It’s no secret that enjoying the old school kung fu genre is rather like navigating a minefield. For every classic that reminds you how much you love watching people kick the living day lights out of each other, there’ll be 10 duds waiting in the wings full of teeth gratingly bad comedy, sloppy fight scenes, and dubbing that makes your ears bleed. Titles can be deceptive things, so I find myself always erring on the side of caution. Yes, Kung Fu Zombie sounds fantastic, but then so did Deadly Snail vs. Kung Fu Killers, and you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered there wasn’t a single deadly snail to be found it its entire run time.

So, my cautious viewing began. First up Kung Fu Zombie is that rare form of Hong Kong kung fu movie in that the two principal cast members are both non-HK natives. Apart from Chong who takes on the lead, he’s given an opponent in the form of Korean boot master Kwan Yung-moon. Kwan, who affectionately became known in the kung fu community as the ‘Crazy Korean,’ for his trademark moustache and wild eye brows,  is another performer who left his mark in kung fu cinema history, due to his ferocious kicks and villainous demeanor.

Thankfully, Kung Fu Zombie turned out to be one of those diamonds in the rough. The influence of Encounters of the Spooky Kind – a movie directed by and starring Sammo Hung, which essentially kicked off the whole kung fu/comedy/horror hybrid made just a year earlier – is clear to see; from the wacky rituals performed by the Taoist priest to the presence of hopping vampires. However, while clearly operating a tier under the work of Sammo, director Wa Ya Wang seems determined to entertain us by having proceedings move at a breakneck speed, which almost makes Encounters pf The Spooky Kind seem slow in comparison.

The story revolves around the character of Chong, who lives at home with his strict father, and who also happened to foil a bank robbery several years earlier. When the thieves are released, they come to seek out Chong to get their revenge, but it quickly becomes clear they’re not his match and the head of the thieves is killed. When Chong’s father has a heart attack and dies, the ghost of the thief asks a Taoist priest to reincarnate him in the father’s body, so he can take the ultimate revenge on Chong by killing him using the hands of his own father.

The above description actually makes it sound much more deep and meaningful than it really is, mainly due to the fact that despite being the crux of the plot which everything revolves around, more time is spent of Kwan Yung-moon. So, I need to make sure I explain this clearly – early on the Taoist priest is roaming through a morgue with the ghost of the thief in an initial attempt to find him a new body to reincarnate into. While there, they stumble across Kwan Yung-moon, who is sleeping in a coffin, because, well, he’s a vampire. There’s some nonsense about the vampire holding a long time grudge against Chong’s father, but it’s mentioned almost in passing.

So then Kwan’s character of the vampire becomes the primary threat to everyone, and Kung Fu Zombie is fantastic for it.. In an age which is obsessed with providing the origin story of every character we come across, it’s refreshing to have a movie which features a kung fu fighting vampire with no other explanation except that it’s just a damn cool idea. True to his nickname of the ‘Crazy Korean,’ Kwan spends more of his screen time yelling out battle cries as he tries to kick someone to death than he has actual lines. But when he does speak, it’s almost always something worth saying, such as this gem – “I have made many ghosts from the living, and I will make more!”

If he’s not kicking some poor saps head off and enthusiastically drinking the blood from the spurting stump of the corpse’s neck, chances are Kwan is in a fight scene with Chong. Chong also does a lot of yelling, and so whenever they fight, it’s best to have the volume turned down, or said scenes may give your neighbors the impression there’s some serious domestic violence going down. The fight scenes between these two guys are kung fu cinema gold: both can bust out some very impressive kicking, and the fights are under cranked just enough to make them look like they’re moving scarily fast, but not enough to no longer be able to appreciate the choreography.

Watching Chong in action makes you wish he’d made more movies in Hong Kong, as he clearly had the rare combination of being able to bust out some serious moves, with a likeable screen presence and charm. For the first time in a long time, the fights had me glued to the screen. The finale is a great mix of fists, feet, and some supernatural action as Chong and Kwan go at each other so aggressively that the fight reaches cartoon levels of hyper violence. At one point, Kwan has both his fists and his feet set ablaze, and they still go at each other, before things culminate in one of the most OTT death scenes I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. It’s a joy to watch.

At just short of 80 minutes, it’s almost impossible for Kung Fu Zombie to outstay its welcome, although some of the original movie definitely appears to be edited out of the English dub. There’s one scene involving a group of characters having a conversation, and then suddenly it cuts to Chong throwing down against some Asian guy with an afro who we’ve never seen before up until this point. Amusingly, once the fight finishes, it cuts to another scene, and the first character to speak says “This doesn’t make any sense.” Indeed, it doesn’t, but it’s a whole lot of fun.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10

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