Page 2 of 3

ZU, WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN

SYNOPSIS: During the Tang Dynasty, an army deserter is saved from vampires by a mysterious swordsman, only to be enlisted in his hunt for the Blood Devil. They are aided by a whirlwind of celestial spirits and master swordsmen… OR, in the other version, a modern Hong Kong student, studying in England finds himself whisked back to ancient times, where he joins a cavalcade of master swordsmen and spirits to battle the world destroying blood monster.

Zu, Time Warriors is a re-edit of Zu, Warriors from the Magic Mountain, adding a forgettable modern prologue, while eliminating a great battle scene. Both are entertaining, though Magic Mountain is the more rewarding version.

During the early 90’s North America saw an influx of Hong Kong’s new wave of cinema. For film buffs who’d primarily known Hong Kong for its martial arts films this was a revelation. Discovering directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam added a glittering new jewel to our cinema geek crowns. My first exposure to the Hong Kong new wave was a Nuart Theater screening of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), followed by a double bill of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed epic A Better Tomorrow (1986) and his even more bombastic sequel. The experience led me to scour up as many fourth generation VHS tapes as I could afford, devouring films like Lam’s City on Fire (1987) and Woo’s The Killer (1989). Among them was Tsui Hark’s 1986 historical action comedy, Peking Opera Blues, which became a personal favorite. Stylish and over the top barely described these alternate universe, totally non-Hollywood films.

John Woo became the poster boy for Hong Kong’s poetic excess. But his occasional producer, Tsui Hark, was often villainized for his hands-on approach, which some likened to a creative stranglehold. But Hark, who (fun fact) is actually Vietnamese, is a genuine talent that helped revolutionize Hong Kong cinema.

As a producer, Hark showed a gift for generating new genres or reinventing old ones. The success of A Better Tomorrow launched a tidal wave of Triad action films, while A Chinese Ghost Story spawned multiple sequels and dozens of imitators.

Hark took the director’s chair for 1983’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. It was a risky choice as Zu falls into the wuxia fantasy film realm—a genre that had fallen out of favor. But Hark combined hyper camerawork, comic book color and frenzied editing, cranking them all up to eleven to create a unique film that enthralled Asian audiences.

Let me say two things right off. First, Zu (in either version) doesn’t make a whole lotta sense. Second, who cares! This film takes the term over the top to a gleeful extreme, combining martial arts, swordplay, ghosts, demons and romance. If Hark had thrown in some cross dressing he’d have hit every note in Hong Kong cinema’s cultural symphony. This isn’t a poetic wuxia film like 1993’s highly recommended Bride with the White Hair. Zu is just plain bonkers in the best way possible

Hark incorporates every special effect in the American Cinematographer’s Manual, including miniatures, foreground miniatures, reverse shots, slow motion, fast motion, diopters and wire work, while conjuring up a few new tricks. But, in 1983, Hong Kong still wasn’t able to handle high end compositing and matte shots. Fortunately, Hark’s frenzied, yet rhythmic, editing style never allows you to focus on any one shot long enough to pass judgement. You just sit back and let the chaotic fun wash over you.

The cast is great, with Yuen Biao (Iceman Cometh, 1989) as the heroic lead, along with future HK stars Sammo Hung and the beautiful Brigitte Lin as the Ice Queen. Interestingly, Lin went on to play the titular Bride with the White Hair.

The production design and cinematography are gorgeous, spotlighting just how far Hong Kong’s film industry had progressed in the ten years since 1973’s Enter the Dragon. That classic film had to make due with a single imported Panavision lens.

So, why isn’t Zu at the top of every film aficionados list of beloved Hong Kong films? Sadly, this epic was initially cursed with terrible VHS releases, reducing its saturated, comic book palate into smeared garbage. Its original English subtitles were borderline gibberish, rendering the plot incomprehensible—a fate many Hong Kong films suffered. This stemmed from English subtitles being a legal mandate foisted on Hong Kong filmmakers by the governing British. HK producers saw little value in these legally required subtitles, knowing that the American market would dub their films anyway. As a result, they were knocked off cheaply, with plenty of misspellings and local English phrases. But the Hong Kong new wave films weren’t dubbed for North America, so those nonsensical subtitles stayed. Some of my favorite terms were, “Give me face,” for showing respect and “crowdy” for anyplace crowded.

Thankfully, new releases of Zu have more accurate subtitling, allowing English speaking viewers to catch some of its subtle cultural elements. But, for your first viewing, I recommend turning on the English language track. I’m not being a cretin here, it’s merely that Zu’s Benzedrine fueled pace doesn’t allow time for reading.

Overall, Zu is a highly recommended piece of Hong Kong nostalgia. It’s the sword fighting, ghost battling, flying hero, equivalent of Evil Dead 2, and that’s a very good thing. Zu is also perfect with the audio turned off, accompanied by the soundtrack and edibles of your choice.

And if you’re looking for some action-packed monster mayhem, check out my new book Primeval Waters, from Severed Press. It’s an Amazon River hell cruise teeming with prehistoric monsters, modern pirates and ageless mysticism… and cannibals too! It is, of course, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.

 

CAPTAIN SCARLET & THE MYSTERONS

Gerry Anderson’s, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968) holds two distinctions. Firstly, it contains some of the most dazzling miniatures and special effects created for television. But it’s also one of the most violent shows to be broadcast before cable loosened the reins of censorship. Oh, did I mention Captain Scarlet was a puppet show for children? It’s a genuinely fascinating oddity.

Captain Scarlet’s central concept was engineered for maximum carnage. In the year 2068 humanity sends its first manned mission to mars. The astronauts encounter the red planet’s disembodied inhabitants, the Mysterons. But the interplanetary meet-n-greet turns into a violent confrontation, leaving Earth embroiled in a war of nerves with the invisible invaders. Humanity’s first line of defense is a hybrid military/police organization known as Spectrum. This may sound like a kid friendly Power Rangers type of show, but we’re talking about the 1960’s, so things got dark very fast.

To survive on Earth the disembodied Mysterons must kill humans, then replicate them ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These murders are committed in the most devious ways imaginable, like crushing people in hydraulic lifts or incinerating them. Once duplicated, these Mysteron meat puppets slaughter even more innocents to accomplish their mission. It falls on Spectrum agent, Captain Scarlet, to kill the evil duplicates. Why is Captain Scarlet so qualified? Because he’s the only human that’s been duplicated and survived, embodying him with the power to die and regenerate. That means even the show’s hero dies on a weekly basis, before pulling a messiah style resurrection.

Every episode was a whirlwind of flaming car wrecks, aircraft crashes, exploding buildings and gun battles. If the writers were feeling whimsical, they might toss some spearguns and suicide bombers into the murderous mix. The pilot episode forged the template, packing all of the above into one thirty-minute thrill ride. FYI, that suicide bomber didn’t blow up off camera—it was a full-on Scanners style human firecracker! In a later episode entitled “Avalanche” a Mysteron agent casually asphyxiates three hundred people! Not to be outdone, the memorable, “Attack on Cloud Base” kills off all the show’s major characters, including the titular hero… before revealing that it was all a dream.

Here’s a loving YouTube compilation of Scarlet’s mayhem, including the infamous human bomb scene.

When I first saw Captain Scarlet, I thought I was dreaming, because only my twisted children’s imagination could’ve concocted such non-stop mayhem. In addition to Scarlet’s 007 worthy body count, it was also chock full of spaceships, fighter jets and futuristic vehicles. The show’s dark, brooding atmosphere perfectly synched up with my monster kid mentality. In short, it was boy-child heaven.

So how did this Sam Peckinpah goes to puppet land series get made? And who in their right mind would serve it up to children? Captain Scarlet was the brainchild of legendary “Supermarionation” producer Gerry Anderson. His previous series, The Thunderbirds (1965-1967) had honed his production team’s skills in creating miniature models and pyrotechnic effects. But Thunderbirds was upbeat and comedic, with loveable characters like Lady Penelope and her cockney chauffeur Parker.

 

Captain Scarlet was a dark, pessimistic affair, right from its violent, film noir opening down to its pyrotechnic finales. Anderson assumed that Thunderbirds fans had grown a few years older and were therefore ready for more serious fare. He was right, except those more mature fans usually graduated to live action shows. Despite its being a show constantly in search of an audience Scarlet managed to last two delirious seasons, spawning comic books, newspaper cartoons and a dizzying array of toys. After Scarlet’s cancellation Gerry Anderson borrowed some of its core concepts for his paranoic live action series UFO (1970). In that show alien invaders crossed the galaxy to harvest our organs. Man, Gerry Anderson sure liked things dark.

Aside from its violence, Captain Scarlet was surprisingly progressive. Its cast of puppet characters was more integrated than Star Trek, which, a year earlier, had stretched racial and gender boundaries. Scarlet even featured a group of ethnically diverse female jet pilots—all combat aces, ready, willing, and able to blast the hell out of anything. This was pretty iconoclastic during the chauvinistic sixties. In another radical concept, the war between Earth and the Mysterons was entirely humanity’s fault, brought on by trigger-happy xenophobia. In another moral gray area, the good guys sometimes lost, often through their own ignorance or arrogance.

These elements were all part of Gerry Anderson’s genius. While most producers of children’s television condescended to their youthful audience, Anderson offered them a truncated movie experience, packed with all the dramatic elements of adult fare. While the storylines were streamlined to accommodate kids, they were never dumbed down. As a child I genuinely appreciated this.

Visually, Captain Scarlet is stunning, with fantastically detailed miniature sets created by Derek Meddings, who went on to win an Oscar for Superman (1978) as well as working on a plethora of Bond films. His artistry wasn’t limited to futuristic vehicles and spaceships. In the episode “Inferno” his team crafted an Aztec temple worthy of an Indiana Jones film—only to blow it up in the finale. That was the other great thing about Captain Scarlet—everything got blown up, people included!

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is well worth viewing for its sheer entertainment value as well as its being a cultural time capsule. In its restored version viewers can finally appreciate special effects ace Derek Meddings’s amazing attention to detail—It’s the toy box you always dreamed of. You can find it on Blu Ray or watch episodes on Shout Factory TV.

And, when you’re not feasting on puppet carnage you should check out my new novel PRIMEVAL WATERS from Severed Press—it’s an Amazon River hell cruise, teeming with prehistoric nightmares, modern pirates, ancient aliens, and ageless mysticism, and there’s enough mayhem to make Gerry Anderson smile. You can find it on Amazon.

 

MERCENARIES – FACT AND FICTION

My latest novel Scorpius Rex is the tale of a squad of private military contractors locked in a battle for survival against giant prehistoric scorpions. One of my favorite characters is Hansie Beeker, an aging Afrikaner mercenary. He was inspired by an article about South African apartheid-era troops turned soldiers of fortune who, despite being well into their sixties, are still fighting around the globe. So, in his honor, I thought it would be fun to give a little background on history’s most testosterone-drenched occupation. Continue reading

MY FAVORITE PREHISTORIC NIGHTMARES

My latest novel SCORPIUS REX is packed with rampaging nine-foot prehistoric scorpions. But these voracious monsters aren’t something I plucked from my imagination. A few million years ago, they were alive and kicking—part of nature’s pantheon of horrifying prehistoric creatures. These monsters make dinosaurs look like kittens in comparison. So, here’s a rundown of my personal favorites, with something for every phobia.

Continue reading

WHY SMUT FILMS USED TO HAVE STORIES: A HISTORY LESSON

I’ve never pretended to be a perfect person, nor have I tried to hide my slightly tarnished past. In fact, I think it’s made me more interesting, and a bit less judgmental. During the first decade of the 2000’s I produced a plethora of Playboy and ‘Skinimax’ films along with some racy television shows. I was never involved with hardcore pornography, but, along the way I did meet people like Cecil Howard and Howard Ziehm who’d been part of a period from 1970 thru 1984 that some nostalgically call, “The Golden Age of Porn.” These colorful characters shared tales from that outlaw filmmaking period. On another occasion I met a retired first amendment attorney, who’s courtroom stories were even more entertaining.

Continue reading

Zombies and Voodoo Go to the Movies

Once upon a time diehard zombie fans could only find the living dead on local television at 3:00AM or in dangerous inner city grind house theaters. But today there’s a virtual flood of zombie television shows like The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Z-Nation, I Zombie, plus dozens of big studio movies! But very few of these modern epics delve into zombies’ Voodoo origins.

Continue reading

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2022 William Burke

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑