Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; take any Zeitgeist creating movie and the wave of films that come in its wake for example. Gareth Evans’ The Raid is a classic example of this; the hyper-violent multi-story siege film has since enjoyed a massive rise in currency. Zombie Fight Club sees Zombie 108 director Joe Chien return to the undead minefield with a film that plays like an amalgamation of Gareth Evans incendiary hit, Sakichi Satô’s under-appreciated comedy Tokyo Zombie and video game institution.
In the Taiwanese cityscape, one solitary tower block is home to the Cartel and all the violence and decadence their lifestyle entails. Among the smattering of other bodies is a rap collective celebrating the successful release of their first album with their flatmates, a science teacher and his daughters’ friends, and a deceptive elderly man. Fulfilling the other half of the obligations needed for a film to be inspired by the Raid is a fully armed SWAT squad led by Andy (Andy On) and Captain Ma (Michael Wong). Between the scattered Sex and nudity that litters the opening 10 minutes, the zombie virus pokes its ugly head into this menagerie.
Expectations have to be mitigated when dealing with a film titled ‘Zombie Fight Club’. Chien’s film occupies the same airspace as Noboru Iguchi (Dead Sushi), Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police & Helldriver) and countless fellow Asian ‘trash’ auteurs. Don’t misunderstand, this is a tradition that has seen birth directors as accomplished as Tsukamoto and Miike, the connotation of trash isn’t as severe in the East as it is the West. Be that as it may, this doesn’t prevent the film from doing some interesting work. For one, the film cuts itself in half preventing itself from becoming too flat. Around the hour mark, two survivors miraculously escape the multi-storey behemoth which claimed countless others before them. Jumping forward a year the film proposes a future lived underground in a society predicated on slavery, sex, and domination – with added leather. This leap sees Zombie Fight Club miss a beat or two by creating a new world order and neglecting to put the work in to make its dark turns connect with the viewer. Nonetheless, that ambition needs to be credited; few directors have the gall to cut their film in half this mercenarily.
Zombies have become common currency in cinema; it’s somewhat refreshing then that Chien borrows some tricks from the legendary Capcom Series Resident Evil and critical darling The Last of Us. There are more zombie types than the simple ‘walking dead’. One of the more crushingly violent scenes sees the emergence of a zombie type whose chest opens as if a massive Venus fly trap jaw – even if the CG is dire, the image is arresting in a way reminiscent of Nishimura’s gore theatrics. Later into the second half, there is a fantastically staged martial scene as the two best slave fighters are pitted against each other in mortal combat in an arena surrounded by zombie kind. One of the zombies on his own is strong enough to flip a bus on its end, neither this nor the jawed monster are explained, but having a universe vivid enough to facilitate these aberrations keeps stakes high and the zombies legitimate in their threat. Sadly that’s where the positives dry up.
Practical effects are seen as one of the defining rods by which to separate good and bad horror, but Zombie Fight Club smudges that somewhat with the ever-present negative of Asian cinema violence – CG blood, and massive amounts of it too. Having the heroes shoot, punch and kick zombies into oblivion may be cool, but destroying the undead in a flurry of incredibly poor red splashes hinders suspension of disbelief. This is doubly true when upon the corpse hitting the ground amidst that poor CG is swiftly replaced by hideously deformed practical effects that any horror film would be proud to have – it’s simply a contrast too far.
The word hero is also a bone of contention as no-one stands out as a sympathetic lead – everyone is deeply unlikeable and the treatment of women (as the transporters of breasts) is dubious. Andy On is the only character to come out of the film favourably both as a moral epicenter and as the core of the film’s best work even just by being bland.
A film of startling contrast, for every instance of bravura there are two or three that are fantastically dull. The joy of MC Hotdog’s bedroom battle, the elderly man’s hidden past emerging for one last outing and the aforementioned slave fight to the death make it worth sticking through the slower moments. The sub-sub-genre of Trash cinema has countless hidden gems for those who dare to brave the B-movie zone, and whether Zombie Fight Club is among that company hangs on how much the core concept syncs with your tastes. Does the idea of a video game-centric martial arts zombie crossover tick your boxes? That’s a question only you can answer.