Review by Dragon and Loki
Though its name resontates with all the trappings of schlock horror, Bio Zombie (1998), directed by Wilson Yip, is far from it. And this is perhaps where the charm of the film lies, in its constant ability to surprise and confound viewers’ expectations. With its not-stop genre shifting-gears, the roller-coaster 90 minutes that is Bio Zombie, not only tears through its namesake – the zombie film – but takes on the buddy film, spins round the romantic comedy, double loops back over the action film and ends in a hair-raising finale, bleak, dark and hopeless.
Starting in a mall somewhere in Cantonese-speaking Asia, the film begins by exploring the exploits of two video shop clerks, Woody and Bee. Fast-thinking and handsome, Woody finds the perfect foil in the mop-headed Bee, who is contrastingly clueless to the point that his sole ambition extends to watching a movie with a nice girl on his birthday and rather ludicrously getting the opportunity to finally use his boot knife. “Working”, in the loosest sense of the word, Woody and Bee’s day-to-day in the video shop boils down to playing video games, swindling VCDs and trying to earn a fast buck. Quickly however, the daily diversions are thrown for a turn when Woody and Bee meet their female equals, Rolls and Jelly, two beauty shop technicians who work in the same mall. While Rolls, the skinny and clingy-dressed matches Woody’s savvy and quick wits, Jelly, the somewhat less-fleshed out and arbitrarily labeled not-so-pretty one, is poised as Bee’s love interest.
During this time the viewer also gets introduced to Kui, a pushy electronics shop owner with some not-so-good-mafia influence. For Woody and Bee, Kui represents a two-sided coin. On one side he’s a joke and failure, but on the other, he’s a warning of what Woody and Bee may one day themselves become when their youth runs out. About the only thing going for Kui, who is presented as an otherwise despicable character, is his wife, Mrs. Kui (who Bee has a thing for). Intelligent and attractive, Mrs. Kui is crippled by her dutiful subservience to her husband.
Meanwhile in a nearby warehouse the zombie plot takes seed, when Iraqi arms dealers sell a zombifying beverage (which I believe is actually Lucozade, a sport drink disgusting enough to turn you into a zombie) to a group of shady Asian businessmen. Of course, something goes horribly wrong when the sample zombie brought along for show and tell busts loose in a slow-mo lurching rampage only to get ahold of the stupid Asian businessmen. Rather calm about it all (as they always are), the Iraqi arms-dealers almost casually shoot the zombie in the head only after its finished killing 2/3 of their clientele.
The only businessman to escape the carnage (clutching a briefcase in which the zombie-soft-drink is carefully stored) runs out into the road where Woody and Bee are gunning the engine of their boss’s car as they bring it back from being repaired. Woody and Bee accidently run the car into the man (in a movie like this how could they not?). Injured, but still alive, the man mutters in his last breaths something about the soft-drink; which Woody and Bee interpret as him wanting a drink of the soft-drink. They find the beverage and give him half the bottle. Hesitating to leave the man in the road, they stick the guy in the trunk and take him back to the mall only to promptly forget they have half a dead man in the trunk of their boss’s car. When they finally do remember and return to check on him, they discover he’s gone and left behind a car full of melted stink.
Zombie-mall-survivalist wackiness gradually ensues as more and more folks turn into zombies, though conveniently the mall seems nearly deserted when the police first show up. Our heroes fight for their lives, with Jelly, the Kuis, and Bee (in that order) suffering gradual attrition as they seek to call the cops and/or escape the mall.
Apparently zombies, though rampantly destructive and with a hunger for the jugular, retain some vestigial personality and motives from their former lives. This leads to the tragic heroism of the Sushi-boy zombie (who in life was totally crushing on Rolls), which allows Rolls and Woody to escape.
Or do they?
Ultimately, Bio Zombie is the sort of flick with just enough horrific carnage, just enough dumb humor, just enough seediness, just enough attractive women, sexual tension and exposed skin (but not too much, mind!), and just enough justified mindless violence, that its perfect for adolescent boys in the prime of their rebellious “Fangoria” phase.
If Bio Zombie has a problem, it’s the film’s sometimes botched attempts at humor. The “testicle sequence” for instance, wherein Woody and Bee joke about the size of a mechanic’s balls, plays as tired and drawn out, feeling as if it was stuck in film because its makers had the footage. This is not to say that Bio Zombie always stumbles over its humor though, because for the most part it succeeds in getting laughs. The film’s snappy dialogue echoes heavily of Kevin Smith. And while Smith probably writes funnier dialogue (for the Star Wars generation, at least), Bio Zombie succeeds in a realm Smith has never fully succeeded in – by taking its witty dialogue and putting it into a half decent “plot”. One wonders how much Mallrats (1995) (or any of Smith’s films for that matter) would have been improved if Smith had watched Bio Zombie first?
Bio Zombie‘s most innovative humor, however, comes from its send-ups of video game culture (it is now obvious that Shaun of the Dead (2004), directed by Edgar Wright, owes something a little more than a nod to Bio Zombie). From its spoof of first-person zombie-shoot-’em-ups, to its video-game/collector card style breakdown of the protagonists occurring about 3/4 of the way through the movie, Bio Zombie‘s satirization is dead on. During the character breakdown sequence for instance, the actors’ bodies rotate on screen with a listing of their stats and their choice of weapons just like the character selection screens in most video games. Who knew Mrs. Kui’s “Power” and “Sex Drive” were both so high?
Yet, for all its bright comic-garishness, Bio Zombie is also a zombie film that has been to zombie school. It knows what the Zombie King himself, George A. Romero, made evident in his films: that if you want to have a good zombie film, it can’t be about just zombies. Where Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, from which Bio Zombie borrows its setting, had famously critiqued mindless consumerism with zombies, Bio Zombie‘s zombies all literally and metaphorically lead the protagonists to dead ends.
Comedy quickly becomes a nightmare, and by the conclusion of the film, all the characters in it are dead. The end of the film finds the last two surviving characters, Woody and Rolls sitting in a car. After realizing Rolls has unknowingly drunk some of zombiefying soft-drink, Woody rather knowingly drinks some, too.
The rather dark ending works on a lot of levels. In one sense, it makes the film a tragedy, like a well-crafted Shakespearian one (or maybe ancient Greek?). Just as Adam eats the apple because Eve was “flesh of his flesh” whom he couldn’t otherwise stay with, Woody’s drinking of the soft-drink is not out of ignorance to its zombiefying effect, but rather out of desire to join Rolls. The end is sad – but beautiful in an awkward Clerks-ish Romeo to her trendy shop-girl Juliet way (cue Don’t Fear the Reaper fade in).
The ending also works metaphorically. In the worlds where all the characters exist, the dreams of Woody, Bee, Rolls and Jelly stop at the ceiling of the mall. At the end of the film, it is difficult not to recall a conversation that Woody and Bee have earlier, lamenting about their lack of education and resultant opportunities. Their futures are ones that will almost certainly walk down the path of Kui. In this regard, Kui becomes far more horrific and loathsome than any of the comic-book zombies in the film. The choice isn’t a hard one at all for Woody. Rather than become a living zombie like Kui, in choosing to drink the drink, Woody refuses to accept the hand that society has dealt him. It is this stance that is mirrored in his stand against the zombies, which all culminates in a meaningful action in an otherwise meaningless existence.
Of course, there will be some who watch the film and argue otherwise, screaming, “We don’t know that Woody and Rolls died! Just because they both drank the zombie beverage in the last shot doesn’t mean they are necessarily dead. Woody barely even got a swallow of the stuff.” Seriously though – have we learned nothing from the cleverly plotted dialogue between Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey? Shane dies! Woody and Rolls die! Nuff said.
The best part Bio Zombie is that the fun doesn’t end with just one watching. Like any good movie, Bio Zombie bears rewatching and the DVD spices this up some with interesting language options for subsequent viewings. Language options included: Cantonese dubbing (the actual language), English dubbing, English subtitles, and Engrish subtitles. In spite of the hilarity that Engrish subtitles might have provided (“I have to go to the bathroom, before I stool”) it was just difficult to tell if the words actually were the movie’s so-so humor, or just due to the bad translation. I found these too distracting to follow throughout the movie and switched to plain English subtitles after a few minutes. Still, the option was nice because just how many films give you the choice of bad translation, a separate entertainment unto itself?
Also, Benny Hill would be proud: Bio Zombie is a movie that is ideally watched at 2x speed.
Seriously. Rather than being an hour and a half of tedious not-quite-suspense and tiresome interpersonal interaction, double speed turns this film into a fast-paced, action-filled 45-minute romp among the undead and amidst modern mall trash culture. Even the subtitles are conducive to this, as they mostly stay on the screen about long enough to be read at the faster rate.
You may want to slow it down once or twice to catch a couple details, but doubling the speed might just double your enjoyment of watching the film, too.
Finally, the film offers some spectacular previews, with at least one of them likely to appeal to any of the overlapping demographics which Bio Zombie targets.
Gappa (1967), directed by Haruyasu Noguchi – For those who like monster flicks we have Gappa. Gappa! The story of a society of beaky, flying versions of Godzilla from a small island. Gappa! And how they wreak havoc on the world when rampant industrialism encroaches on their homeland. Gappa! GAPPA! What’s so appealing about this isn’t just the old style in which its shot, but how the announcer keeps calling out, “Gappa!” in a resounding voice thoroughout the preview.
Indigenous islander child: Gappa angry! Gappa angry! Angry!
Loki’s aside: Unfortunatly I’ve seen Gappa and it is one of those films that should be missed, period, even if you are a gigantic monster fan. Ironically, not only have I seen it twice, once as Gappa and once as Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, but I also somehow have managed to acquire two copies of it over the years. One is a copy that I believe that I actually taped from the Albright Sci-Fi Gamers Guild’s library and another that is a part of a DVD horror anthology. My advice, don’t make the same mistake as me and do yourself a favor, flush the Crappa that is Gappa down the toilet.
Wild Criminal (1999), directed by Hide – For those who enjoy edgy stories about the sordid underbelly of society (especially some generic Asian criminal world), we have Wild Criminal. Something to appeal to those who like stories where guys beat each other up and do despicable things to each other (like cutting off fingers), where women are either hard as nails or the abused playthings of men (or both). It even has a suggestive scene with two women kissing. Sure to appeal to someone’s trashy urban thug fantasies.
Reborn From Hell II, (1996), directed by Kazumasa Shirai – Obviously if you watched Bio Zombie it was probably because you had some interest in Asian cinema. I don’t know–maybe you thought you were getting some Japanese horror film like The Ring, but when you found out that zombie films straddle the fine line between horror and action sci-fi, you learned to love it. Well, in an almost unrelated vein here’s a movie with only the most tenuous connection to any of these themes.
Reborn From Hell II, is the touching story of 7 souls returning from hell in the hopes of starting a little Japan-o-centric armageddon on Earth. It’s also the story of the one-eyed samurai whose relentless martial prowess thwarts their nefarious plots. But think not that you’re in for the usual Lone Wolf and Cub carnage of spraying blood and severed limbs. No, the previews clearly suggest a more “thinking man’s” (or at least “ponderous man’s”) samurai film with warriors circling each other for hours looking for a weakness, jumping and flipping mid-air in unison, and riding up to the camera majestically.
Truly a treat for those with nothing else better to do.
Hakaider (1995), directed by Keita Amamiya – You like Asian sci-fi? Then how about Asian armored-suit sci-fi? Maybe? Ok, how about live-action, Asian, armored-suit sci-fi? “Not on your life,” you say, “I’ve seen The Guyver and it was not a pretty sight.”
Fair enough. And honestly Hakaider (or more properly “Roboman Hakaider”) looks like more of the same. But, come on, based on the preview how could you not want to see this movie? To quote:
Hakaider: “I am Hakaider, one who destroys to bring justice!”
Voiceover: In this mysterious mugopolis (megapolis) every individual is under total mind control.
Voiceover: Hakaider, the Roboman, awakens from long sleep.
Voiceover: Ruthless justice…
Voiceover: or Satanic Evil?
Voiceover: or Revenge?
Voiceover: What’s his purpose!?
Hakaider: “If this peace is ficticious I shall destroy it.” (and apparently he does).