For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
CW: Sexual Assault
I’ve written before about the Fuck, Yeah! Film Festival — our (generally) biannual gathering of like-minded film-fanatic friends for an all-day marathon of carefully curated cinematic curiosities. It started in 2016 as an excuse for GenXers Joe Shearer and Nick Rogers to introduce Sam Watermeier and me to the action films of their youth, centered around a midnight screening of Road House.
For the first few years, these were three-day affairs, with 15 movies or so spread across an entire weekend. As life has gotten more complicated and our numbers have grown, we’ve settled on single-day programs with films generally running around 90 minutes or less — creative parameters that have paid off quite handsomely in our collective descent into new depravities.
Since the first marathon, we’ve held 17 events, with such themes as The Island of Misfit Joys, COVID Outdoor Edition and 7eventh Heaven (erotic thrillers). The only repeat theme has been our No Sleep October edition, a horror-centered day that has rarely failed to deliver. When I look at the FYFF films that have had the greatest effect on me — chronicled in this list, FYFF Made Me a Man — nearly half of them are from NSO days. Although I’ve taken on a much more active role in programming these events, I’ve often been most surprised and delighted by the strange perversities provided by my friends during long evenings in Lafayette and Noblesville. This time around, though, I managed to surprise myself with a film I discovered over a year ago and held in my back pocket, knowing the only time to watch it would be with these gentlemen.
That film? Ebola Syndrome — one of the most notorious released during the 1990s heyday of the Hong Kong Category III rating and probably one of the most hysterically despicable films ever released. So relentlessly upsetting, in fact, that I probably won’t buy the recent 4K release from Vinegar Syndrome, just to prevent the possibility of my sons showing it to friends before they’re grown up and out of my house. It’s kind of difficult these days to find a film that challenges the level of lunacy available 24/7 on social media, but goddamn it, director Herman Yau and absolute acting legend Anthony Wong really made a monstrous movie for the ages.
Kai (Anthony Wong) is possibly the worst person in the world (photo credit to Andy Carr). The story opens with Kai about to sleep with his boss’s wife before being caught. Threatened with castration, he summarily murders his former employer, an associate and the woman he was about to sleep with — and then starts pouring gasoline on his boss’s young daughter before he’s caught. He flees the scene to South Africa, where he becomes one of the worst restaurant employees of all time, committing all the classic acts of puerile petulance — spitting in tea, insulting customers and serving slices of meat in which he masturbated and ejaculated. The usual.
The first part of Ebola Syndrome is just one utterly profane moment after another, culminating in the sexually repressed Kai’s rape of a random African woman while he and his boss try to buy cheap meat from local villagers. Unfortunately, Kai’s victim is also suffering from Ebola and unfortunately for the rest of the world, Kai is a one-in-ten-million virus carrier who does not succumb to its guaranteed mortality. Already big on sharing his bodily fluids with others, Kai is now the ultimate Typhoid Mary for one of the most horrifying viruses on planet Earth.
Yau is not in a hurry to show Kai purposefully spitting in the faces of random passersby while cursing them with certain death, although we eventually get there! First, he has to murder his new boss and rape and murder his boss’s wife, both of whom he feels mistreated by, before turning them into special hamburger patties that happen to be infected with Ebola. In my experience, it wouldn’t be a Cat III classic without at least one distressingly violent rape sequence. I don’t like these sequences; it’s just that I went in prepared, and the film delivered some of the more shocking ones I’ve seen in this spectrum of films.
The back half of Ebola Syndrome slows down somewhat, with an enriched Kai returning home to Hong Kong and his ex-girlfriend to start a new life. He’s no less horrible than he was before, of course, except now his repulsive everyday behavior is responsible for a horrifying Ebola outbreak on a different continent. For instance, he immediately sleeps with two prostitutes, paying them extra to ejaculate without a condom. Guess which fluid spreads Ebola? While shopping with his girlfriend, Kai sneezes and wipes his nose on the folded shirts and other linens in a department store — actively throwing fluids around that fell the stock-girls and saleswomen unfortunate enough to work that day. Kai is a repulsive monster whose evil knows basically no bounds, taking the lives of men, women and children with no role in his broader narrative.
Yau even takes the spread of Ebola one step further, giving us a unique perspective from inside Kai’s mouth as the particles of disease float, ready to be expelled by the smallest sneeze or the most seemingly innocuous cough. Southeast Asia has had a longer history than the United States of serious respiratory viruses, and the influence of those cultural experiences has a clear influence on fundamental anxieties at play here. Perhaps it’s more recognizable as a horror visual to American audiences in a post-COVID context.
After the film, our crew briefly discussed what makes a film like Ebola Syndrome truly one of the most stomach-churning films I’ve ever seen but still more fundamentally entertaining than, say, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom or other similarly nasty films. Why would I ever want to own a film like this? To show it again at a future FYFF: All-Stars edition? I think the answer — and the same reason I’ve spent a few years now seeking out other Cat III exploitation classics — is that the insanity is so profoundly cartoonish. It’s pushing against and breaking the limits of good taste for the sake of shocking audiences, but it does so with such a gleeful nastiness that it’s hard not to enjoy the willingness of Yau and Wong to simply go there with their stories. It’s an exercise in excess and extremity for the simple sake of doing it and they somehow make it fun to watch. I’d never rewatch something like The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film, which take themselves so seriously and transgress without any sense of real playfulness or glee.
Perhaps the secret weapon here is Wong, wielding the greatest face in the history of bad men. He’s all over Hong Kong films of the era, portraying everything from sympathetic monsters in Taxi Hunter, furry-tailed sex demons in Erotic Ghost Story, good cops in Infernal Affairs and everything in between. His Kai is so immediately horrible you can’t look away. “What if the worst possible human being was given the power over life and death?” is a juicy premise, especially when the film takes its sweet time showing the full depths of how horrible he is. Ebola Syndrome isn’t for everyone — so much so that it’s very nearly a film I wouldn’t admit watching in polite company — but goddamn if I didn’t immediately want to watch The Untold Story, a similarly legendary sicko sister film from Yau and Wong, right after the credits rolled.
I’ll save that for next year’s marathon.