It’s difficult to casually describe the nature of a film whose primary antagonist is half-rotted corpse, from the Qing dynasty, that hops after its victims. Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire (1985) is just this sort of film, as it follows the day-to-day of an ass-kicking Taoist priest and his bumbling, girl-crazy apprentices, as they attempt to quell the mayhem wrought by a recently resurrected corpse and she-ghost with a lust for the living.
However, unlike the western-style zombies that we’re familiar with, these eastern-style vampire-bunny-zombies, known as jiang shi, come with a set of rules and mythology all their own. Although jiang shi range in appearance from wrinkled and moldy to just plain bizarre, they are particularly easy to spot as those that rise from the grave are garbed in traditional, imperial-officer uniforms of the Qing dynasty. Armed only with long black fingernails, vampire-like fangs, and the ability to track the living by their breath alone, the jiang shi’s attack is rather primitive. Yet, as unintimidating as these hopping hunks of flesh may sound, unlike Romero’s children, a mere shot to the head will not kill jiang shi. Legend dictates that stopping power comes in the form of sticky rice, chicken’s blood, and magic yellow notes. Yet performing such complex rituals can only be done by the most adroit of Taoist practitioners.
The vampire-bunny-zombie may seem like a cheesy monster mash-up, but the Stooges-like slapstick of these films adds to its self-awareness, keeping any serious analysis at bay. However, that is not to say that Mr. Vampire is devoid of any anxiety inducing moments. The film’s central characters are likable, and well developed, so it’s easy to root for the good-guys in times of terror.
Don’t be discourage by the misleading title, these films have little more in common with vampires apart from their resemblance to Nosferatu. Jiang shi are far more similar to our beloved Romero-style zombies than your every day vamp. They are decayed corpses, lack knowledge and personality, and bite and claw at their victims to spread their infectious condition. Though extremely agile for someone with rigor mortis, these guys fit the bill in terms of appearance: arms outstretched, creepy blind-man stare, and blue-green skin. Really it is the teeth that seem to be where the whole vampire thing fits into the equation, but fangs alone don’t make a vampire.
Although, Mr. Vampire may not hold up to the prestige of Sammo Hung Kam-Bo’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, perhaps due to Mr. Vampire’s inferior kung fu sequences, and a unnecessary sub plot concerning a run-in with a ghost, it is equally enjoyable and likely a top-tier jiang shi film.