Sorry it’s taken me this long to talk about Godfrey Ho, but the task is somewhat daunting. Man’s got twenty-five years worth of movies on his resume, with over a hundred credited titles to chose from. Some are almost decent. Some are so bad they’ve redefined “bad Hong Kong action movie” for an entire generation. And some are so weird you’ll wonder if you ever saw them in the first place. One of those is Zombie vs. Ninja.
There are cheap bastards and then there are cheap bastards, but even the cheapest, most miserly Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ notebook would stand in awe of Godfrey Ho’s filmmaking techniques. Ho liked to take the money most people would use to shoot a movie, shoot half of a movie, and then splice that half together with incomplete films he found moldering in Hong Kong studio basements. Or foreign films bought up cheap from Thailand, the Philippines, or South Korea. This ensured Ho could make two, three, sometimes even four films for the price of one. He made no promises about their overall quality. And neither do I.
Zombie vs. Ninja opens with a buck-toothed old geezer kung fu fighting three zombies the credit sequence appears to resurrect. In…wherever we are…coffins sit bolt upright and open all by themselves, allowing their residents easy access to living victims. Our white haired hero counters this by kicking a little ass, holding his own until the end of the credits. A crowing rooster, calling up the dawn, casts the three undead warriors back into their coffins and I hope you enjoyed that little sequence. It’s the last we’ll see of the titular zombies for the next thirty-odd minutes.
So…what have we learned? Apart from “don’t put credits on top of your opening fight scene”? Not a whole lot. And we’ll learn even less as we cut to an Anglo looking gentlemen with a Ninja headband. Not the kind that keeps sweat and hair out of your eyes. No: I mean a headband with the word “Ninja” printed on it, next to an outline of two ninjas. Ninja Man, whom we’ll later learn to call Mason (Dewey Bosworth) convinces a ponytailed, bearded chap we’ll later learn to call Titus (Mike Wong) to kill someone named Cheng “and take [Cheng’s] money. After that I see that the gold gets into the hands of the right person.”
Jump cut to: Evil Ponytail Man, asking directions to Cheng’s from someone named Ethan (Elton Chong). Cut to: Cheng himself, in the midst of handing over a bag of gold to some official and monologuing about how he intends it to reach someone named General Fey. “Too many officials today are only after money,” Cheng soliloquies. “They only take from the people and no one knows…how to give. Except for General Fey that is.” If Fey’s such hot shit, how come his patrols haven’t swept the roads clean of bandits? Like Evil Ponytail, his henchman, whom we’ll eventually learn to call “Tiger,” and his girlfriend, whom we’ll eventually learn to call “Lyn.” I named her Lady Raiden for reasons that should be obvious:
General Fey’s inability to protect The People allows our three Evil Amigos to whup Cheng, his son Ethan, and his gardener something fierce. Killing Chenge, they take the gold and leave Ethan for dead by the side of the road.
Cut to: Bucktooth McLivesWithZombies, who in his capacity as the local undertaker, picks up Ethan’s inert form him and carries him home…inside a coffin. Reviving in Bucktooth’s home, Ethan’s a might confused. So the elderly coffinmaker decides to take Ethan on as his apprentice…by proclaiming: “Alright: I’ve decided to take you in as my apprentice.” Good thing too, since Pierre Kirby shows up in the very next scene, seemingly enjoining Bucktooth to do just that.
Kirby is a fascinating figure, a British martial artists who appeared in nine films between 1987 and ’89, before vanishing without a trace. Here he plays Duncan, and by “plays” I mean “clumsily interacts with original footage.” This is the same trick that allowed Raymond Burr to “talk” to the actors in the original Godzilla movie. Most of Duncan’s scenes show him standing against a white background , talking to the air where Ethan or Bucktooth should theoretically be, asking them to do things he really shouldn’t need to ask about.
Like this one key scene, where Duncan “tells” Ethan to ask Bucktooth to train him in kung fu so Ethan can avenge his father’s death. You’d think Ethan wouldn’t need to be told this…though he might need to be told that the crazy old undertaker knows kung fun, since Bucktooth’s one of those old masters who likes to play coy and let the student come to his own realizations…until it’s officially Go Time, ‘a course. Then again, Ethan could just do what every Shaw Brothers fan does and automatically assume everyone over 60 is a kung fu master. Either way, Bucktooth apparently trained Duncan in the ancient art of ass kicking. This theoretically means Duncan could bring ninja vengeance down upon those responsible for Ethan’s father’s death any old time he chooses…but that wouldn’t be sporting…or possible, given Kirby’s scenes were filmed years after the footage in Ethan’s storyline.
There follows a synthesizer-backed training montage as Ethan hauls a coffin over hill an down dale at his new master’s direction. Now, coffins weight a great deal, and strapping one to your back lengthwise can be damn awkward under the best of circumstances. But hauling one around – especially when it’s full of rocks your master ordered you to dig up – does eventually gift Ethan with super strength…instead of, say, crippling hernias. Ethan discovers this during one of the many allegedly comedic scenes that spice up his quest for vengeance. While hauling his coffin through a snowy field, Ethan sets it down, sends it sliding, hops on, and sleds right into an emissary of the Emperor…and the emissary’s bodyguards. Winning the ensuing fight gives him the balls to hold his own against his master…for about five minutes. Then ol’ Bucktooth makes him do the splits between two chairs while holding lit candles in each hand. (Yeah, Mask of Zorro totally ripped this movie off.)
Fairly typical kung fun movie Quest for Vengeance stuff, right? Bracketed by liberal amounts of rural, slice-of-life comedy as Ethan (in his capacity as walking advertisement for his master’s above-board services) meets and greets the town Cute Girl, Lilly, and the town Bastard…whose name’s completely slipped my mind…assuming I ever learned it in the first place. Ethan’s running battles with the Bastard waste a lot of screen time on “comical” misunderstandings, even more “comical” fights, and the kinds of coincidences familiar to small towns the world over. Sucks when the guy who’s been giving you shit for no reason turns out to be the head waiter of the family-owned restaurant you just so happened to choose for lunch that day…am I right?
Further intrusions abound. Like shots of Mason discussing his Evil Plot with head henchman Ira (Patrick Frzebar). They plan to install some friend of theirs named named Titus in the local governor’s mansion, using the gold they stole from Ethan’s dad to…um…yeah…run around town with, I don’t know. I’m too busy trying to figure out who the fuck Titus is…Mr. Evil Ponytail? Sure as shit isn’t Lady Raiden, that’s for sure.
Most of Zombie vs. Ninja’s scenes feel hacked off at the waist, either because they come from a different film, or because Godfrey Ho and his producer, Joseph Lai, needed more room for the Pierre Kirby footage. From what I can find, 90% of Zombie vs. Ninja comes from a 1983 South Korean fighting comedy, The Undertaker in Sohwa Province. Lai and Ho inserted Kirby and his round-eyed rivals for the benefit of racists everywhere, contracting with infamous dubbing company ADDA&V Ltd. to both write the English language script and supply the English audio track.
A sample of Master Bucktooth’s improperly dubbed wisdom should give you a sample of ADDA&V’s work as a whole:
“You are your worst enemy. If you want to defeat others you must first defeat yourself.”
A little later, as he’s having Ethan haul him through the snowy fields of…feudal Korea, I suppose…our balding master instructs his pupil to, “Stop here. Ethan, I’m gonna take a shit.” Obedient to a fault, Ethan stops and wanders off to Minimum Safe Distance after seeing the faces his master pulls while dropping kids off at the pool. “Never seen anyone take a shit like that before,” Ethan monologues. At this point, I was laughing so hard I barely noticed the zombie.
If you stood around, tapping your toes and wonder what the fuck zombies had to do with this, take heart. Once our Bucktoothed Master (who’s name, we learn in this scene, is actually “Master T”) starts raising the dead and commanding them to be Ethan’s sparing partners, this movie picks up tremendously. It begins to feel like a movie instead of the collection of scenes we’ve been watching up ’til this point. Not that said movie is any better than the random scenes we’ve been seeing…but at least it follows one narrative, and for the love of God, it’s a coherent one, instantly familiar to any fan of martial arts flicks of dubious quality.
After a final exam – consisting of a sparing match with three undead weapons experts -Ethan’s quest for revenge kicks into high gear after Titus’ son – flush with power now that his father’s achieved some political position – tries to kidnap Lilly because…well, she’s a peasant and he’s not. Lilly gets away by faking a tummy ache due to what we’d call “female troubles,” claiming the need for some privacy. Booking through the woods as soon as she’s out of grabbing distance, Lilly leads Titus’ son to Master T and Ethan, who proceed to beat him down. In a dick move that’s both straight-up gangsta and incredibly old school (as in, “from the thirteenth century”), Our Heroes load their opponent’s corpse into a coffin and chuck it onto his father’s front lawn.
With shit officially on, Ethan fights and kills Tiger, Lady Raiden and Titus in true blue, one-on-one, Quest for Vengeance fashion. After that’s done, we see a scene of Pierre Kirby kill Mason after an all-too-brief sword fight. “I told you before,” he says, “the dragon’s fire burn’s hot.” Cue red screen and a title card reading “The End.” Fade out. Move along people, nothing to see here…
I mean, besides the bad movie. And it’s a bad movie – oh, yes indeed. More coherent than most, but inept-looking to a fault. What’s worse, the amount of re-purposed footage makes this one of the least-Hoian movies in Godfrey Ho’s oeuvre. He stages better fight scenes than his uncredited co-director, Kim Jeong-Yong, but I think that has more to do with the fact Ho shot his footage in a different aspect ratio. Regardless of quality, its evident Undertaker was made for theaters. The square-box presentation on my aging VHS of Zombie vs. Ninja has a bad habit of cropping at least one combatant out of frame. This makes wide shots (especially when two or more people are fighting in a scene) look like amateur night at the Beijing Opera School, as heroes and villains alike battle those little black bars my TV lays over the edge of the frame.
Our one-on-one fights are slightly better, though their choreography remains weak, even by early-80s standards. Punches and kicks miss their targets by parsecs, and the over-clocked soundtrack’s extensive use of stock effects makes the movie seem even more desperate to impress. As does the awkward, “do The Robot” fighting style all the zombies (and, eventually, Ethan) employ to such devastating effect.
As with Western zombie movies, the living, breathing human characters get to have all the best fight scenes…though, even here, odd things crop up to break the narrative flow and wrench you out of key moments. Like the death of Titus’ son – which is so bloody important, the film shows it twice. Not instantly – the way that, say, all of the Black Ninja’s “best” moves are shown three times – no. This movie plays the death scene out for a full minute…then cuts back to the death scene’s start and replays that exact same minute of footage we just sat through…It’s as surreal an editing mistake as it was pointless, unless Ho meant to get us off our asses, furiously checking the VCR for playback problems.
Zombie vs. Ninja isn’t a movie, it’s a horrible transporter accident that somehow survived its own outraged biology. Given that it’s a movie made from two inexpertly grafted movies (with pretty much the same plot), the experience won’t disappoint…provided you’re looking to experience some of Hong Kong’s worst.
If you’re a fan of such things, this movie probably already on your list of unsung Bad Movie classics, along with its many siblings, most of which have the word “Ninja” somewhere in their title. After all, where do you think I first heard about it? Sheesh, some of us hadn’t even heard of Godfrey Ho before the internet opened up our worlds…If you’re not a fan, consider this the best gateway drug I could find and consider yourself warned.Whether you’re warned away from or towards the rest of Godfrey Ho’s flimography is entirely up to you.