The Dead and the Deadly (1982)
Director: Wu Ma
Cast: Sammo Hung, Lam Ching-ying, Cherie Chung,
Language: Cantonese (with optional English subtitles or English dub)
Runtime: 139 mins
Release Date: 21st November 2022
Jamie Havlin watches a supernatural martial arts comedy from Hong Kong, starring the legendary Sammo Hung.
Reuniting many of the key players of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Sammo Hung returned to the field of supernatural kung fu comedy with The Dead and the Deadly.
He produced, co-wrote the script and took on the lead role. He also helped out with the fight choreography but handed over the directorial reins to his pal Wu Ma. Sammo plays a none-too-bright but loyal young man employed by his ‘Second Granduncle’, an ageing Taoist priest, played by Lam Ching-ying, in his funeral paper artwork (Zhizha) store.
Sammo’s character is generally referred to as Fatboy, albeit to his dead buddy Ma Lucho (Wu Ma), he was always Dumb Boy. Political correctness wasn’t big in Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s or in general life. If you’re angered by any suggestion of fatphobia, this won’t be for you. But remember, Sammo himself was always happy to be taken to task for his large girth in his movies. He’s definitely the meatiest martial artist to appear regularly in kung fu cinema and he’s also usually cast as a highly likeable character while, best of all, he’s clearly wildly athletic. You could even argue that there hasn’t been an overweight star more empowering in the last fifty years worldwide than Sammo.
The movie starts with some adultery (of sorts), a man pretending to be a ghost and a real ghost. Cut to Fatboy’s body being found outside Uncle’s premises, where it is revealed he has just had a nightmare: what we have just witnessed.
He is to be married to Yuen, (Cherie Chung), an arrangement devised by his father on his deathbed. ‘You were engaged when you were still in your mothers’ wombs,’ Uncle reminds him, when he pleads for the plan to be dropped, as he believes she’s too nice for him: ‘What good does it do for her to marry a man like me?’
That day, Shing, the mayor of the town, introduces Uncle to Li Yuet-ying, who was married to Ma Lucho. She’s eight months pregnant with Ma’s son apparently, meaning Ma will have an heir. And while I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, it will be useful to know that the rogueish Ma is only pretending to be dead, part of a scam to claim his inheritance early, that is being aided by Li Yuet-ying and her supposed older brother, who is her real husband.
Fatboy is unconvinced by the news of the pregnancy. We flashback to a visit that he and Ma made to a brothel, where it’s revealed that Ma consistently suffered from impotence.
To investigate further, he hatches a plan to hide overnight in the funeral parlour disguised as a Taoist papier-mâché effigy of the kind often burnt at Chinese funerals in the hope that this will help ensure the dead enjoy a more comfortable afterlife – and here, I’ll just mention that funerals in South East Asia can be very different from those in the West, to the extent that there’s even a tradition in China and Taiwan of families hiring strippers for funerals to help boost the number of attendees! Surely taking it a bit far there, guys!
So that night, one friend pretends to be dead, while the other pretends to be an effigy. This is one strange film and it keeps getting stranger, all the way through to a truly bizarre ending involving frogs, beetles, a sanitary towel and some green spirits – and I don’t mean crème de menthe – together with Yuen marrying a red rooster cock. Honestly.
Believing he’s been murdered, Fatboy checks Ma’s body out but finds nothing untoward. Still suspicious, he vows to return the following night to perform an autopsy on him.
It’s time for Ma and his con artist cohorts to ensure that Fatboy doesn’t attempt to fulfil his promise and presumably end their ruse.
Hopes were high for a similar critical and box-office success but The Dead and the Deadly failed to win over audiences the way that Encounters of the Spooky Kind had or that Mr. Vampire would go on to do – with Sammo again producing and Lam Ching-ying playing a Taoist priest.
It maybe suffers from attempting to combine too many genres along with too many storylines that don’t cohere together that solidly.
Is it scary? Not remotely, but this aspect of the movie is only employed to help highlight the comedy and provide some colour.
Is it funny? In places, very, such as when Fatboy swallows some aphrodisiacs and even feeds one to a cockatoo. They work, with amusing effects on both. Demonstrating his talent for physical comedy, the ridiculousness of Fatboy disguised as a paper effigy made me laugh too. Loudly. At other times, the humour can fall flat, such as with using not one but two cross-eyed ‘comedic’ characters, one dim-witted, the other an alcoholic.
What about the action? It’s superb, especially in the second half, but there isn’t that much of it.
Sammo Hung, Lam Ching-ying and Cherie Chung (although she’s underused) all shine, and the special effects were generally impressive considering the film is around forty years old and made on the kind of budget that would likely only match the daily spend on food on the average Marvel blockbuster of today.
Okay, I’m in a tiny minority but I’d rather see The Dead and the Deadly than any of superhero movie of recent years. It’s flawed but occasionally fantastic fun and I’m glad to have finally seen it.
Special features include a limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling; a new feature length audio commentary by Frank Djeng & Michael Worth and one by Mike Leeder & Arne Venema; a featurette ‘Sammo Hung at the 2016 Udine Far East Film Festival’ and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver.
For more on the release, click here.
All words by Jamie Havlin. Jamie has written a couple of short films screened on British TV and at international festivals and he regularly contributes to the glam rock fanzine Wired Up! More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.
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