Saturday, March 31, 2012

Zombie vs. Ninja (1987? 1988? 1989?)

aka Gravedigger

aka Zombie Rival the Super Ninja Master

When people think of Godfrey Ho/Joseph Lai films of the 80s, they generally imagine Frankensteinian creatures stitched together from one or two films from South Korea or Taiwan Lai and/or Ho bought up cheap to have their way with, and a handful of Ho-directed scenes featuring frightfully talentless white guys doing nightmarish things to the viewers' brains. Often, people are right about that.

As I have learned through painful experience, not all Ho/Lai films are this way. Some, like the film at hand, are really just one martial arts movie slightly re-edited and "improved" through stupid to hysterical dubbing and about fifteen minutes of Ho's favourite white non-actors saying things like "The dragon's fire burns hot". Of course, these white guy non-actors are still dressed in garishly coloured ninja outfits made out of Halloween sheikh costumes, table cloths and garbage bags, and wear that eternal Godfrey Ho classic, headbands with the word "Ninja" written on them in big, cheerful letters, so there's that. All too fittingly, they have names like Burt, Billy and Ira.

If we can believe the Hong Kong Movie Database (and it's usually quite a bit more on the money than the IMDB), Zombie vs. Ninja's parts not featuring that sort of silliness belong to a South Korean film made in 1983 translated as "The Undertaker in Sohwa Province", and directed by Kim Jung-Yong.

In that film, a young man re-dubbed here into Ethan (Elton Chong/ Jeong Jin-Hwa) witnesses the murder of his peaceful herbalist father by a bad guy this version of the film redubs into Titus, and his two favourite cronies. Afterwards, Ethan falls in with a semi-comical Taoist gravedigger only called the Undertaker (Kim Yong-Wan) throughout the film. As in every other vengeance-based martial arts film, the Undertaker will turn out to be quite the fighter, and will teach the young man all the coffin carrying based martial arts he knows; mostly, by having Ethan fight hopping vampires (called "zombies" by the film) who often look as if they were doing the Robot until the young man is ready for his revenge.

To justify the inclusion of the white guys, there are scenes of a ninja (it says so on his headband, so it must be true) named Duncan (Pierre Kirby, the white guy ninja on duty in more than one Ho/Lai film) supposedly giving the Undertaker good advice of the "train that Ethan" kind by speaking into the camera, and taking on other white guy ninjas who work for the supposed boss of the killer of Ethan's father.

Despite this being a comparatively coherent and logical movie (as far as martial arts vengeance comedies are ever logical), you can already feel the true spirit of the makers of Zombie vs. Ninja before the film has really begun, for the first thing you are going to hear when you venture into the wonderful world of Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai or whoever did truly make/re-cut/whatever the Frankenfilm at hand, is a bit of music by John Williams from one of those little known Star Wars movies. "IFD Films And Arts Limited Presents" - it's oh so true.

There's not quite as much improbable insanity on display afterwards as you'd wish for from an IFD production - this is after all as close to a "normal" movie as these things get - but the South Korean movie the whole affair is based on has its own moments of glorious bizarreness, not only thanks to the whole "train my martial arts pupil by conjuring up hopping vampires for him to fight" business, but also by virtue of random wrinkles like the hero appearing for the final fight in random pantomime doll make-up meant as some kind of disguise, the villain's seeming death by heart attack once he finds his favourite henchpeople dead, or a henchwoman who likes to sex people to death. It's all good, if perhaps not quite what one expects when one takes on a Lai/Ho/whoever movie.

As always with these movies, it's doubtful who is actually responsible for the re-write, the re-edit or the new scenes, but I'm not sure it is actually important if they were done by Ho, Lai, or a madman who broke into the IFD premises (which in my mind look like a broom closet full of film cans).

I like to imagine Lai and Ho not as actual persons with lives and identities of their own, but as different manifestations of a Lovecraftian godhood that tries to open the gates to the places where the Great Old Ones sleep through the power of brain-damaging movies. If you think about it, it's a much better explanation for the existence of something like Zombie vs. Ninja than the idea someone was actually able to make money with it. Plus, has anyone ever seen Lai and Ho together?


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