Joe Chien's follow-up to the bafflingly tasteless and salacious Zombie 108 delivers a generous second helping of the same Z-grade trash and splatter. Andy On and Jessica C are the attractive, if helpless, leads who - eventually - find themselves in an apocalyptic underground arena of the undead after escaping an overrun apartment block. But as was the problem last time round, Chien reduces character and narrative to a procession of boobs, blood and depravity that suggests he long ago fell foul of the zombie hordes himself.
Zombie 108 was one of those unforgettable viewing experiences. A seemingly simple story of zombies descending on a Taipei apartment block, it proved so consistently vile, exploitative, misogynistic and tasteless that you simply couldn't look away. With each new scene the film managed to outdo itself, presenting even more degrading sequences of scantily clad women being manhandled by rabid corpses, and doing so with such energy and lightheartedness that it must be assumed we were supposed to find it funny. Or at the very least, fun.
When news broke that Chien and Co. were embarking on a sequel, the film immediately shot to the top of my must-watch list. Not so that I could hate-watch it, but rather out of genuine fascination to see how he could top the carnival of chaos that had come before. Somewhere along the line, Chien's sequel changed track and became Zombie Fight Club, which had its world premiere at PiFan last week, but the film clearly exists within the same world as his previous absurd opus.
Zombie Fight Club opens in a ravaged near-future Taipei. The city is in the midst of a full-on zombie holocaust, and all social structures appear to be on the brink of collapse. As if that wasn't enough to contend with, a bag of drugs also proves contaminated, and soon buxom beauty Jenny (Jessica C) witnesses her boyfriend (Derek Tsang) and his crew of rappers and strippers all become infected and join the growing army of zombie aggressors.
Meanwhile, a SWAT team led by the duplicitous Michael Wong arrives at the scene, intent on seizing a stash of drug money for themselves. Only the heroic Andy (Andy On) seems hesitant, and before long the raid has gone sour and his team is dead. Other residents along the way include Terence Yin as a grungy drug dealer with a heart of gold, a group of white guys inexplicably hosting a Hallowe'en party, and Jack Kao as a loving father and school teacher whose relationship with his daughter and her sexually inquisitive friends inevitably takes a turn for the worse.
For a good hour, Zombie Fight Club feels almost identical to its predecessor, which also followed a menagerie of hot girls, buff guys and depraved loners through the corridors of a zombie-infested apartment block. Eventually, however, Andy and Jenny join forces and they manage to escape from the building, only to be rendered unconscious and awake in an underground dungeon. And finally, a solid 75 minutes into the film, our heroes are thrown into a gladiatorial arena and forced to fight for their lives against specially groomed undead opponents. The zombie fight club does exist after all.
One of the few legitimate draws of Zombie Fight Club was not only seeing Andy On in an all-too-rare starring role, but the knowledge that fight choreography would be handled by his long-time cohort Philip Ng, who recently got his own big break in Wong Ching Po's infinitely more impressive Once Upon A Time In Shanghai. Ng also gets a brief appearance in front of the camera in the film's final third, and seeing Ng and On go at each other in a full-on fight to the death is one of the film's few genuine pleasures. The fact that neither of these characters is a zombie only complicates matters in a way Chien clearly has no interest in explaining.
Ultimately, Zombie Fight Club proves just as frustrating as its predecessor, if marginally less revolting in its treatment of women. Admittedly almost every female character on screen has been deliberately cast for her looks rather than talent, and is perpetually fetishised by both the camera and her co-stars, but it is a step away from the zombie rape sequences that featured in Zombie 108's most depraved moments. In fact the only female character not presented as attractive becomes the butt of a joke for precisely that reason.
It is in fact Jessica C's Jenny who is the closest the film has to a central protagonist, and the young model-turned-actress certainly gives it her all. Under Chien's direction, however, Jessica is given little more to do in the film's first half than scream and cower, only to make a remarkable volte face into a capable zombie killer when thrown into the ring (complete with a new haircut and alarmingly small sweatpants). The odds were stacked against any actress hoping to survive a Joe Chien film with their dignity intact, but Miss Cambensy gives it her best shot.
All those (myself included) who continue to clamour for Andy On to be given more lead roles, will look at Zombie Fight Club and shake their heads. I have no doubt the film was a laugh riot to make, but that simply doesn't translate onto the screen. From the inexplicable flip-flopping between English and Mandarin, to the lopsided two-act structure, to the cartoonish characterisation and shameless objectification of women (although to be honest, Andy and Phil's abs get plenty of screen time too), Zombie Fight Club just isn't going to cut it. Andy On and many others involved can and should be producing far better work than this, but that isn't going to happen until they start making more responsible career choices.
This sentiment applies to Joe Chien too. I honestly believe that Chien has the know-how and talent to make far better movies than Zombie Fight Club. While zombie purists may object to the use of CGI make-up for a large proportion of the effects, the film is pretty slickly handled on a technical level. It's the content and attitude that are the problem here. In many ways, Chien feels like the petulant younger brother of Michael Bay, infatuated by gorgeous women, grand scale spectacle and high octane thrills. Chien has nothing like Bay's budgets to play with, but the cinematic sensibility is remarkably similar. My only hope is that Chien has aspirations that go beyond mere titillation and base humour shock tactics, because if he does set his sights higher, there's a chance he can rise out of the gutter and start making genuinely exciting genre films.