With the Chinese government’s strict prohibition of the depiction of paranormal activities on screen to prevent audiences from being exposed to what they see as archaic forms of superstition, the country has never made much of a contribution to the horror genre. So it’s perhaps a surprise to see a Chinese horror film – and one that’s produced by Roger Corman to boot.
The Living Dead, which premiered at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival on Thursday, is set in the city of Guangzhou, and revolves around a team of US filmmakers who find their original mission of making a documentary about the Chinese Ghost Festival derailed – in an increasingly gory fashion – by a deadly female spirit seeking vengeance from her brutal death in the royal courts hundreds of years ago.
While The Living Dead is the product of the Chinese company ACE Studios, the premise originated from Corman. And rather than just having his name tacked onto the project, the famed B-movie master was very hands-on throughout, with the producer actually demanding a complete overhaul of the CGI scenes featuring the murderous apparition, according to the film’s Australian-Chinese director Antony Szeto.
Szeto also said Corman overruled the Chinese crew’s suggestions about the film’s cultural authenticity. “Most of the films in the film are inaccurate – Chinese audiences who watch this film might find it annoying,” he said during a meet-the-audience session after the film’s premiere, in response to a number of questions about the logic of the story and some of the historical discrepancies (the type of clothes being worn in scenes taking place in the distant past) and geographical inconsistencies (the characters are supposedly making a film in Beijing’s Imperial Palace, but are somehow staying in the southern city of Guangzhou) in the film.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter later, Szeto said the film wasn’t made for Chinese audiences anyway: notwithstanding the fact that mainland Chinese censors would not allow the film to be released there, the director said Corman has always had the American market in mind – it was made as a TV movie – and thinks the audience there will not care about such minute culture-specific details.
However, during a test screening in the U.S., viewers said they found it “weird” that characters in the more ancient periods of the film were speaking English. Those scenes were eventually dubbed into Cantonese, the director said.
Szeto previously made his name helming or choreographing the action of Chinese-language martial arts movies – he was the director of the Jackie Chan-backed Wushu, which stars Sammo Hung. His work with this film, his first in the horror genre. began when his boss, ACE Studios president Henry Luk, met Corman’s wife Julie, who in turn introduced him to her husband.
“Within two to three minutes of meeting him, Roger said, ‘I have a film if you’re interested and it’s set in China’,” Szeto said. The screenplay for what eventually turned into The Living Dead was turned down by two or three production companies because of Corman’s low budget.
When Luk suggested Szeto as a director to Corman, the U.S. producer refused, Szeto said. “He looked at my CV and said, ‘no’ because he thinks I’m an action director,” he recalled. When Corman visited ACE Studios, Luk asked the director to quickly come up with something that would convince Corman he was the right man for the job, so Szeto pulled together a test scene of a ghost attacking an archaeologist (played by the actress Juju Chan, who eventually would be cast as an evil concubine in The Living Dead).
Szeto admitted working with Corman is “very challenging” in terms of communication, but the relationship has grown since then – and now he’s already close to finishing his second Corman-produced film, the martial-arts vehicle Fist of the Dragon (which also stars Chan).
And the latest film will have an even smaller budget than The Living Dead, Szeto said. “It’s a good thing I’m not a new director – I know how to work with tight budgets. I’ve made Hong Kong films after all,” he said, adding that he does not know when the two films will be released and how they will be distributed.
Having described The Living Dead as a “made for hire” effort, Szeto said Corman has intervened less in Fists of the Dragon. “He said, ‘You must have all the dialogue but for the action scenes, you just do what you want to do.’ When I heard that, I thought, great! And for The Living Dead we had to make seven [cuts before locking the film]; it only took four for this next film.”
The Living Dead will be released in the U.S. as Hell’s Haunted Palace.