It’s difficult for me to describe the way I feel about Sammo Hung, but I’ll try. My husband teases me and says I have a crush on the Fat Dragon, but that’s not quite it, although the teddy bear, chubby-yet-muscular guys are one of my types. It’s more like I wish I was him, because in the late 70s and the 80s he was the coolest man in the world, in my opinion. He’s fat…and furious! I’ve watched many of the movies he directed, starred in, choreographed, and produced so many times that I feel like the casts are old friends of mine, since it’s the same guys appearing in those films over and over. Sammo was always willing to look like an idiot to make someone else look good, to “put them over” as the smarks say, and that made him even cooler. Watching these movies reminds me of the carefree young person I was when I discovered Hong Kong action movies over 20 years ago, when I had no responsibilities other than some low paying part time job, and hanging out. I wouldn’t go back to that life for anything in the world, but damn it was fun.
The Dead and the Deadly, like most Hong Kong films, encompasses several genres, and has a batshit plot that is all over the place. If you sit down to watch one of these movies, you’re going to be entertained, dangit, or I’ll know the reason why! You’ve got your black magic, horror, a little bit of action, a little bit of romance, and even a hint of drama. Another thing I’ve noticed about these movies is that they take a long time to get to the point, sometimes half the movie or more, and I think that might be a cultural feature rather than a flaw. There isn’t a lot of serious criticism to be found, and a lot of that seems to have been written by one white dude in England, but if I had to guess without being able to confirm I would say the movies are plotted this way on purpose.
I read one review that opined that, along with all the other genres seen here, The Dead and the Deadly is also a satire of serious black magic films, but having seen plenty of them I can say that I don’t agree with that because no one in this film vomits up centipedes, no one travels to southeast Asia and pisses off the wrong woman, and there’s no battle between two sorcerers. But I could be wrong. There are good and evil priests here, and someone does turn into a bug. I’m not sure.
This one involves a guy played by Sammo who lives with his elderly uncle, played by the great Lam Ching-Ying here in what may be his first role as the Taoist priest character type he would be known for. They run a funeral home along with a couple of bumbling assistants whose personalities are made up mostly of ridiculous haircuts; one of them is Lung Chan who always seems to be made to look physically ridiculous in these films, but in the one picture I saw him star in he actually could fight. Not here.
In fact, no one fights much here, and you have to wait a long time until they do, but it’s worth it because Sammo is fighting as if he’s possessed by Wu Ma (right down to the rubbery facial expressions!), whose character has been murdered and needs to use Sammo’s body to get revenge. This is similar to Sammo fighting like he’s a woman at the end of Spooky Encounters. He might not be a great dramatic actor, but he surely can take on different personalities and choreograph as if he had that person’s mannerisms!
Anyway, the plot, if I can explain it: Wu Ma is a friend of Sammo’s who is pretending to be dead in order to steal a treasure, and ends up getting murdered by his accomplices. His ghost convinces Sammo to let him borrow his body, facilitated by the priest/uncle, but Sammo has to be back in his body by morning or he’ll also be dead. Well, guess what happens?
The smaller side plot, which is a little sadder and maybe even the more important one, is that Sammo’s character suffers from a family curse which dooms him to die as soon as he fathers a son. So the poor guy has been avoiding sex his whole life, even though he has a beautiful fiance played by Cherie Chung. The opening dream sequence even depicts him catching some people committing adultery, and then the couple being murdered by a ghost. So this fear of sex and death haunts his dreams, to the point where he’s having nightmares about other people dying from their lust! Ironically, Wu Ma’s character is impotent, and he still gets killed because of a woman, which helps lead Sammo’s character to realize in the end that, as he says, “I’ve become aware: it’s not how long you live your life, it’s how well you live your life.”
Don’t we all know people who need to have that epiphany, curse or no curse? How many of us are not really living, because we’re scared to die? Maybe that theme is why The Dead and the Deadly was nominated for Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1983. But it’s probably because it made a lot of money.
The Dead and the Deadly serves as a kind of follow up to Spooky Encounters, and is a rough precursor to the vastly superior Mr. Vampire. Although both films hold a place in my heart, watching this does make me wish Sammo had appeared in Mr. Vampire as well as producing it. Mr. Vampire is a nearly perfect film in my opinion, but would have been actually perfect if he had been in it.
When I’m watching these films with Taoist magic in the plot I always wish I had more historical context for what is going on. I don’t even know what time period the average period kung fu film is set in, but the sets and costumes always look the same (sometimes you can recognize sets from film to film) so they’re almost all in the same era, I think. Did people in the period this film depicts actually believe in all these superstitions, or did Sammo and friends make them up in the 1980s? I know there is some superstition in the film industry (the name of Wheels on Meals was famously changed from Meals on Wheels because Golden Harvest had too many films starting with M) but I’m talking about the characters in the films. For example, would the average person know, as Wu Ma’s character did, that his soul was expelled from Sammo’s body because the female antagonist took her underwear off and threw it on his head? Or was that just in keeping with the whole sex=death theme too? The characters are just so nonchalant about it when Wu Ma’s ghost comes back to the funeral home without the body, oh well, underwear on head, what can you do? Even the underwear tosser did it intentionally! I mean, I know her husband was a priest but how do you prepare for a situation like that in life? How often does this woman have to defeat the body of an acquaintance that’s possessed by the soul of a dead enemy?
And another thing, what did women do all day in the universe of these films when they weren’t tossing their drawers? There’s the occasional long-suffering girlfriend waiting to marry some guy who’s on a kung fu quest, a nagging wife working in the fish market alongside her husband, a victimized sister who must be avenged, and rarely, an Angela Mao style whupass queen, but they’re always characterized relative to the men or accompanied by them. Did anyone ever make a movie just about the women in this time period?
It’s a bittersweet feeling I get from watching these films over and over, because the Hong Kong film industry as it was in 1982 is gone and it’s not coming back. A lot of the newer films rely too much on CGI for no god damn good reason; I even saw a CGI coffee table once (although I watch so many movies I can’t remember which film that was in), and I’m not making that up. The most popular actors doing kung fu now are a few years younger than Sammo and his brothers, and they still all seem to be in their 50s. Try as I might, I just can’t develop feelings for Donnie Yen. He just leaves me cold. I don’t know why I feel this way, because he rules the world right now, and I have no idea who he is going to pass the torch to.
On top of that many of these films are getting extremely rare in physical form which is why I was extremely surprised and delighted to receive a VHS copy of The Dead and the Deadly for Christmas 2016. I may spend the rest of my life trying to lay hands on hard copies of my favorites, but at least those who do own them are usually kind enough to upload them onto the internet, and most of the time the companies who own them don’t bother to take them down. If you haven’t seen The Dead and the Deadly I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one to get a feel for the HK horror comedy genre, but it’s a good one for existing fans.