Bio-Zombie opens rather wittily with a gag that pokes fun at Chinese viewers’ preference for watching movies on crappy bootleg VCDs, by pretending the opening credits have been recorded in a cinema complete with chatty audience and heads gliding past the screen. The story proper concerns Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), a couple of teenage slackers with perfect porn star names leading aimless, dead-end lives. Stuck in a Hong Kong shopping mall, selling bootleg VCDs these cynical losers pass the time swaggering like triad wannabes, failing to charm a pair of flirty girls named Rolls (Angela Tong Ying-Ying) and Jelly (Lai Suk-Yin), and annoying obnoxious triad electronics dealer Kui (Lai Yui-Cheung). Until the day they literally run into a government agent who has purchased a deadly bio-weapon from Iraqi arms dealers: a virus that turns victims into ravenous zombies, disguised as a harmless soft drink. Misunderstanding his warning about the drink, our luckless duo pour a sip down the injured mans throat and take him back to the mall. Soon enough the zombie virus starts to spread unleashing all kinds of undead mayhem.
You can count the number of Hong Kong zombie movies on one hand, but those there are remain distinctive including Kung Fu Zombie (1982) and Witch from Nepal (1986). The latter restricts flesh-eaters to its third act but still scores a pretty high cool factor rating since none other than Chow Yun-Fat blasts the undead, using magical powers no less. Bio-Zombie was the first Hong Kong horror movie to display significant awareness of George A. Romero’s socio-political approach to zombie mayhem. Although muted when compared to the likes of Dawn of the Dead (1979) (from whence it obviously pilfers its zombies-in-a-shopping mall concept), there remains a clear satirical bent given this concerns a post-handover Hong Kong slowly degenerating with mindless zombies and the film is deeper than the zany Asian novelty flick English-speaking horror fans often dismiss it as.
Though not without precedent - Night of the Comet (1984) springs to mind - Bio-Zombie arguably predates Shaun of the Dead (2004) in pioneering the zombie-themed slacker comedy. Jordan Chan, who found fame in the Young and Dangerous (1995) series of pretty-boy triad movies, and Sam Lee, star of the edgy, award-winning drama Made in Hong Kong (1997), are wholly convincing as cynical, fast-talking, obnoxious teens who drift from petty crime to fumbled sexual encounters. Initially these are not likeable guys, going so far as to anonymously mug Rolls when she rebuffs their advances. Yet a spark of decency lies buried deep within, hinted at in wry scenes where Woody sincerely apologises for forgetting Crazy’s birthday and bonds with a big dumb security guard (Chan Chi-Leung) over their mutually dead-end lives.
Unusually for a Hong Kong horror movie the pace is not frantic but builds slowly, taking time to establish the characters and demonstrate how a world of callous triads and self-important cops would naturally spawn disaffected teens like Woody and Crazy. Even as the zombie crisis unmasks Kui as a self-deluded hypocrite (so rotten he shoves one character in front of a rampaging zombie), it brings out the latent heroism in Woody and Crazy who risk their lives to save all. Interestingly, the film further implies that decency is not solely reserved for the living, since even after lovelorn sushi chef Lai (Emotion Cheung Kam-Ching) falls victim to a zombie bite he continues defending Rolls against a zombie soccer team.
While the zombie makeup is inconsistent, ranging from the effective to the sub-par, director Wilson Yip Wai-Shun stages some thrilling action and suspense scenes. Wai-Shun went on to great success with increasingly slicker, big-budget vehicles for martial arts star Donnie Yen, but this offbeat early effort is arguably a more substantial work with winning gags and some surprisingly affecting scenes. He deftly balances the comedic and horrific elements by staging an hilarious Resident Evil spoof videogame battle (complete with onscreen statistics rating characters weapons, sex drives and personal info - e.g. Woody’s love of Japanese lingerie models) and going for an audaciously downbeat ending that proves more touching and poetic than many “serious” zombie flicks.