Had 1996’s Bio-Dome been a hit for Pauly Shore instead of the Weasel’s last wheeze in cinemas, perhaps his people would have purchased rights to remake 1998’s Bio Zombie. Heralding itself as Hong Kong’s first zombie film, Bio Zombie was a breakout, low-budget horror-comedy calling card for director / co-writer Wilson Yip; in a few years, he’d deliver the iconically thrilling SPL: Kill Zone before reteaming with star Donnie Yen on the Ip Man series.
Despite working well outside the genre for which he’d become best known, Yip delivers visual kinetics and amplified aesthetics that his fans will instantly recognize. Beyond that, Bio Zombie is … well, frankly, just a few steps above most Shore selections. It’s more or less an hour of hangout movie before a modestly rousing finale that features ghoulish deaths by drill and other implements. Ultimately, it’s an even less effective mix of melancholy and mania than Shaun of the Dead.
Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee) are friends and errand boys for a Triad boss. They are ostensibly clerks at a bootleg VCD shop festooned with promotional posters and pirated copies of Titanic. But Woody and Bee spend more time robbing customers roaming other shops and restaurants in their Hong Kong plaza mall than selling discs. They’ve also racked up quite a bit of racehorse-related debt they’ll need to pay down.
Picking up their boss’s car from the mechanic seems like a simple enough task. But boy, do these slackers screw it up – striking someone in the road on the drive home and stuffing the body in the trunk to return to the mall and cover their tracks. When they arrive, the body is gone and the trunk is covered with a decrepit, foul substance. For all Woody and Bee know, the guy deposited some vile bile. But we know they’ve inadvertently dosed him with a deadly biochemical weapon disguised as a drink – a bottle of carbonated, and contaminated, soda turning those who gulp it down into flesh-hungry undead.
Eventually, the corpse starts biting other victims and passing along its infection, until Woody and Bee must lead a last stand of survivors in the shopping mall alongside new girl Rolls (Angela Tong), a Burke-from-Aliens-ish phone salesman named Kui (Wayne Lai) and perpetually lovesick sashimi slinger Loi (Emotion Cheung of The Demon’s Baby), who can only look on in forlorn sadness as Woody romances Rolls, with whom he’s smitten.
Yip occasionally has fun with the literal and figurative cramming of every-square-inch consumerism, which lends a welcome international wrinkle to the commercial critique championed 20 years earlier by George Romero in Dawn of the Dead. He also stretches his funding as far as possible into fiendish, fetid makeup effects and even just some good, old-fashioned blood-bucket tossing. The pokey pacing is a major miscalculation, though, as the film arguably spends more time on Woody and Bee’s misadventures as minor mobsters than any major carnage. It takes Bio Zombie a very long time to discover its bodily function – alternately lackadaisical and laddish and with a lot less verve than you’d expect from Yip.
Regardless, Vinegar Syndrome continues its restorative magic on cult curiosities with Bio Zombie’s Blu-ray release – which has clearly gotten more TLC than the knockoff VCDs sold by Woody and Bee. This region-free disc comes from a studio-supplied master with additional restoration from Vinegar Syndrome staff. The transfer is both what you’d expect, and want, from late-’90s low-budget horror – the verisimilitude of film mixed with purposefully vivid coloration almost as violent as the gore itself. Bio Zombie presents a stable, sturdy image that evokes both the effervescence and ennui of the decade’s commercialism, with detail often clear enough to see the acne sprouting on Woody and Bee’s faces.
The Cantonese 2.0 Stereo track is sufficiently engaging and robust as the shenanigans mount, certainly spiking amid all the anxious shouting but never feeling blown out or artificially enhanced. Newly translated English subtitles also capture humorous nuances well. Vinegar Syndrome has also included an alternate Mandarin dub but (thankfully) not an English-language dub the filmmakers never sanctioned, supervised or approved.
Extras include a commentary track with renowned Asian film expert Frank Djeng, an interview with Yip, a video essay by film historian Chris O’Neill, an alternate ending and a 20-page booklet with an essay by author Rod Lott and film programmer / writer Ariel Esteban Cayer. Packaging is once again sleek, too, with a special limited-edition spot gloss slipcover designed by Robert Sammelin, with reversible sleeve artwork.