It will probably damage my credentials to argue that Mr. Vampire is a zombie film. Hell, I don’t really think it’s a zombie film. But it’s an interesting movie to look at in the context of zombie films, as it draws on the Chinese tradition of hungry ghosts, rather than the European vampire tradition. The film tells the story of a mortician, his bumbling assistant, and a local dignitary who wants to re-bury his father in order to gain … um … some kind of mystical blessing for his business. But when they dig up the man, he’s not decayed at all, and he turns out to be a hungry ghost, intent on stealing the life-breath of the people in the village.
Traits of the creatures in Mr. Vampire that seem vampiric:
- They have fangs and pursue people, trying to suck the life force from them.
- They only come out at night, usually.
- One must conduct elaborate rituals to kill them.
- They don’t like mirrors.
- The succubus character, who seems entirely disconnected from Mr. Vampire himself, seduces and drains her victims.
Traits of the creatures that are exclusive to the Chinese hungry Ghosts:
- They move by hopping with their arms held straight out like a Universal Mummy.
- They can be restrained by magic string, prepared with a blood sacrifice and the right incantations.
- They have claws, and use them to pierce and kill their victims, despite their fangs.
- They can only see people who are breathing. Holding your breath and plugging your nose makes you invisible to them.
- They can do a limited form of Kung-Fu.
Traits of the creatures that are zombie-like:
- Like the Haitian Voodoo zombies, they can be controlled by spells, and ordered about.
- Like Romero zombies, when they’re out of control, they hunger for human beings.
- They are very hard to kill, and keep coming relentlessly.
- They often go about with their eyes closed, not unlike Fulci’s zombies from Zombi and subsequent films.
- Being killed by one of these creatures turns you into one, and being injured will also send you down that road.
I’d been meaning to see the film for a while, but my interest was really piqued when a student in my class two years ago introduced the Chinese zombie during his presentation. He showed clips of Mr. Vampire and discussed how the hopping ghost was more like a zombie than our vampire. A few more thoughts:
- The bumbling assistant and his love interest were both amusing. I particularly liked the scene where the assistant cast a controlling spell on the officious chief of police, making the latter tear off his clothes and hurl himself around the room. A close second to that scene comes when the mortician and the assistant attend an English tea and don’t know how to eat or drink any of the food.
- The ghosts/zombies can be controlled by putting a special scroll on their forehead (or, apparently, a daub of one’s own blood). With these scrolls on, the zombies are in control and can be bossed around (though they move by hopping). It reminded me of the Golem story, in which the Rabbi controls the clay man through the scroll placed in the man’s chest (or mouth?).
- About a third of the way through the film, a beautiful woman shows up on a palanquin and begins pursuing the bumbling assistant’s best friend, a suave shop clerk. She seduces the clerk and turns out to be a succubus, even manipulating the young man to see danger in his own master and to fight on her behalf. When they capture her, they decide to let her go, presumably so she can ensnare some other lonely man along a different road. Odd choice there, master.
- Particularly entertaining was the breathing aspect and the humorous ways the filmmakers found to play out the idea that you must hold your breath to become invisible to the ghost. That said, it wasn’t clear to me why one couldn’t run away from the ghost while holding one’s breath. Movement didn’t seem to matter to it.
All in all, this isn’t a zombie film. It isn’t really a vampire film either. It’s really a Chinese film, including all the stereotypes and characters that you’d expect. An enjoyable romp — well worth a view.