A poor orphan girl (Polly Shang Kwan) earns a living as a professional mourner. She’ll blub beside the grave of anyone whose relatives will stump up the cash. Yet her heart is pure. While trying to return a lost wallet to a deaf swordsman, she stumbles onto a cave full of fabulous treasure. Instead of grabbing the gold, she decides to bury the skeleton of what she presumes is its rightful owner. A wise move, as a note reveals the dead man placed a booby-trap around his treasure to punish the greedy and left a reward for the virtuous: a magic sword.
On the advice of the note, our nameless heroine - let’s call her Polly - seeks out the Heartbreak Girl (Yee Hung), a princess in hiding, who guides her to a mystic cave lined with twelve totemic symbols from the Chinese Zodiac. Eleven animal heroes already mastered the other styles, but only the wielder of magic sword can penetrate the twelfth chamber and learn the all-powerful Dragon style. One year later, Polly emerges with a glam makeover (maybe its Maybelline?) and supernatural kung fu skills. Which proves handy when the Five Elements, a quintet of colour-coded villains in big bamboo hats, attempt to abduct the Heartbreak Girl for their master, the evil Tiger Shark (the ever-oily Lo Lieh) who, of course, wants to rule the world.
Although Angela Mao remains the most famous kung fu diva of the Seventies, the most beloved was arguably Polly Shang Kwan. Pretty Polly shot to stardom at eighteen in the classic Dragon Gate Inn (1967) from legendary director King Hu and won the prestigious Golden Horse award as best actress with Back Alley Princess (1972), but truly endeared herself to a generation with a string of outlandish fantasies in which she routinely fought killer kung fu squid, golden robots or talking animals. She wore skimpy outfits and projected a spirited combination of sweetness and good humour quite unlike her more intense kung fu film contemporaries. Polly kicked ass and looked good doing it. Zodiac Fighters is a fine example of what she did best.
The film, which was sold to American video under the name: Dragon Zombies Return, is a precursor to the popular Hong Kong-Taiwanese children’s fantasies of the Eighties and Nineties. Like the elaborate Twelve Animals (1990), this draws on the fabled twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac but the episodic plot makes less of the squabbling animal heroes than one would imagine. They range from a cute girl in a bunny costume (Rabbit) to a grown man clucking and flapping his wings in a chicken outfit (Rooster). In order to summon the eleven animal heroes Polly performs an array of barnyard noises, which she does with gusto, and at one point even shakes her ass to attract the horny rooster. Now that, folks, is what you call committing to a role. Each of the animals practices a distinctive kung fu style, though one imagines real students of Dog style kung fu don’t pee on their enemies. At least, I don’t think they do...
Typical of Taiwanese fantasies, goofy humour sits alongside straight melodrama, though amidst the zaniness there are moments of surprisingly heartfelt pathos. Director Hou Cheng had a few other Polly Shang Kwan vehicles to his name, including the rather more sober Seven to One (1973) and equally zany Fight for Survival (1977). He also made the notorious Shaolin Invincibles (1977) which features kung fu fighting gorillas - in other words men in shoddy ape costumes - and evil sorcerers with extendable giant killer tongues. His zany chop-edit style of action is not the best showcase for Polly’s considerable skills (she held black belts in tae kwon do, karate and judo), but the set-pieces remain lively and entertaining. The mind-boggling plot builds up to an epic scrap on the beach wherein special guest star Lo Lieh (wearing a ridiculous albino fright wig) unleashes his army of kung fu lobster men. He also sits on a throne that shoots lethal shark jaws and flying rubber sharks that chase our heroes around the beach till Polly and the animals form some kind of kung fu conga line, their actions strangely dubbed with the sound of motorcycles revving engines. No, you are not hallucinating. This stuff is actually happening. Music stolen from Ennio Morricone’s Satanic disco score for Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), which somehow fits this perfectly.