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Horror

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The impact of George A. Romero’s Dead movies reached far and wide. After 1968’s Night of the Living Dead defined the modern zombie as we know it, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead kick-started zombie cinema in earnest. Not only did it herald a horde of undead movies domestically, the infection spread internationally — although the outbreak took longer to reach some regions than others.

While Italy was first to strike with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie in 1979, Hong Kong wouldn’t get its first zombie movie until two decades later. A zombie film set in a mall, 1998’s Bio Zombie is a direct descendant of Dawn of the Dead. It also draws influence from the original Resident Evil game (which is featured in the film), although the zombie comedy plays more like a Return of the Living Dead sequel by way of early Kevin Smith (think Clerks or Mallrats).

Bio Zombie ensures the audience is in on the joke with the opening title sequence, in which a pair of teenage slackers chatter while bootlegging the very movie they’re in. Viewers soon learn that the brash voices belong to Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan, Young and Dangerous) and ZomBee (Sam Lee, Man of Tai Chi), who work in a bootleg VCD shop. (For the uninitiated, Video CD was the precursor to DVD that superseded VHS in much of Asia.)

After an inadvertent run-in with a noxious bioweapon, Woody and Bee’s irresponsibility leads to a zombie outbreak in the mall. In addition to the walking dead, they have run-ins with fellow mall regulars including beauty parlor employees Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) and Jelly (Suk-Yin Lai), lowly sushi waiter Loi (Emotion Cheung), arrogant electronics dealer Kui (Yin-Cheung Lai, The Storm Riders), security guard Ox (Frankie Chi-Leung Chan), and two police officers (Tak Chi Tam and future radical politician Chi Chuen Chan).

Bio Zombie is an early directorial effort from Wilson Yip, who would go on to become one of Hong Kong’s most prominent action filmmakers thanks to Ip Man and its three sequels. Some janky camera effects make it feel even more dated than its prominently featured Game Boy Camera, but the scrappy flick has a similarly hyperactive energy that would later propel the Ip Man franchise.

Yip’s stylized visions and clever direction — like a presumed split-screen shot pulling out to reveal a cleverly framed single angle — bring to mind the work of Edgar Wright. Not only does the tonal balance between buddy comedy and zombie tropes feel like a precursor to Shaun of the Dead, but the third act embracement of a Resident Evil-inspired video game aesthetic is reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Yip co-wrote the script with Matt Chow (3 Extremes II) and Man Sing So (Once Upon a Time in China and America). Some of the sophomoric humor hasn’t aged well — none more flagrantly than an effort to make a slapstick mockery of a sexual assault attempt — but several gags still land. There’s also a hint of satirical social commentary and a rumination on of-the-moment mall culture that make Bio Zombie worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Dawn of the Dead and such mallsploitation torchbearers as Chopping Mall and Night of the Comet.

The unconvincing zombie makeup is forgivable, given the time and budgetary limitations. What holds Bio Zombie back from being a full-blown must-see is its disinclination to what would be the splattery money shots in any other zombie movie; a deliberate choice to avoid a Category III (Hong Kong’s 18+ equivalent of an NC-17) rating. It’s still a fun watch and far from bloodless, but one can imagine the film being more widely discussed had the gore flowed freely.

Bio Zombie makes its Blu-ray debut from a studio-supplied master with additional restoration by Vinegar Syndrome. DTS-HD Master Audio of the original Cantonese soundtrack and a Mandarin dub are included with newly translated English subtitles and a Mandarin language dub track. The English dub that appeared on Media Blasters’ DVD is absent because, as Vinegar Syndrome notes, “it was not sanctioned, supervised, or approved by the filmmakers and presents a highly inaccurate translation and poor mix.”

Asian film expert Frank Djeng provides indispensable context regarding Hong Kong cinema in a new audio commentary. Yip fondly reflects on the film in an interview shot in 2020. Film historian Chris O’Neill provides a video essay titled “Video Games, Contaminated Lucozade and Human Sushi.” The included alternate ending plays it only slightly safer than the actual downbeat ending. Also included is a 20-page booklet featuring essays by film journalist Rod Lott and Fantasia Film Festival programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer.

Bio Zombie is now on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.

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