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A Horror Short Story from the author of PROGENY and THE CRIMSON CALLING. Natalie and Evie are sisters celebrating Nat’s recent engagement. But the history between the two sisters holds some serious sibling rivalry.
If you are one of the millions of devoted viewers of AMCs’ The Walking Dead or any of its spin-offs/imitators, you can say a little thanks to George A Romero for creating the genre to which they belong.
I say “genre” and not “SUB-genre” because that is what the modern zombie narrative has become. Zombies are no longer confined to direct-to-vid horror flicks. The shambling, vacant, flesh-eating resurrected corpse which has come to define the word zombie now appears in comedies, cartoons, fantasies, action adventure films, music videos and even soap operas (looking at you, The Walking Dead) and that’s just film and television. Countless videogames, comics, and fiction works feature the same species of “walker” that first appeared in Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, way back in 1968.
When horror magazine Fangoria began bringing horror filmmakers to the fore in the 80s and turning them into recognizable superstars, the name George A Romero rose to the top of the heap based almost entirely on his original trilogy of zombie films known as the Dead series. These were all low budget affairs, crafted with love and passion by a man who found the perfect stand-in for the most basic, perhaps the worst, aspects of his fellow man.
In trying to reach the warm food bags holed up in that Pennsylvania farmhouse, the first wave of Dead clambered over each other, unconcerned with the unbreathing brethren trampled en route to achieving their singular selfish goal.
As their Dawn rose, they moved outward from their various necropoli, Romero’s legions finding their way to the shopping malls, where thoughtlessly they roamed, only occasionally finding the gristly goodies they sought behind store windows.
As living folk began to haltingly re-organize, in vast military bunkers for instance, and further, began trying to corral and control the Dead, they demonstrated that sheer numbers and mindless appetite will always win the Day; even over any concepts of hierarchy or supposed intellect.
George A Romero milked the zombie genre, perhaps not for all it was worth, but certainly, for its most meaningful elements. He did so almost entirely without the help of the Big Bully studio system, even while lampooning it in many ways.
Many images from his work stand stark in my brain forever. That first stumbling cadaver, zeroing in on Barbara, while her cruel brother mocks her in a Karloff voice.
The nightmare of a hundred hungry hands punching through a wall to claim Lori Cardille.
The agonizing wait for David Emgee to “turn.”
That effing nerve-shattering Thing In The Crate, with its bottomless stomach, swimming up even now from some less-bottomless gulch.
Milquetoast Jason Flemyng, waking to find himself beautifully faceless.
Psychotically jealous Capuchin Elle, screeching somewhere in the dark, wielding a straight razor.
He was by all accounts, good to his family, his friends, and his fans. He was never less than generous, not only in sharing his talents, but in sharing his time.
Cliche’d as it is, one truly wonders if there can ever be another horror auteur like him. Another cliche’: there simply isn’t enough of his work for us.
But when I watch The Walking Dead, or play Resident Evil, whatever the given origin story, I will always realize I’m in the universe he made.
In my short story Unto The Earth I attempted to integrate symbolism that served as both foreshadowing and “easter eggs” of a sort, in that they gave the story what I hoped is a connected sense of doom that cannot be forestalled; karma that must be satisfied.
In case you haven’t read the story and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now and find it in Sekhmet Press’ Wrapped In Black anthology, or just skip this installment.
Our protagonist Lyle is a decent guy who suffered a severe, memory-robbing accident. Brought back to physical health by the patient love of a nurse named Agnes, he has fallen in love and married the Haitian beauty, only to find himself falling into uncontrollable fits of rage he takes out on her.
Lyle is something of a partial man; missing pieces of his psyche that might give his life, already ideal on the outside, the meaning that would fill a vast hole in his soul. The first easter egg is his dog ; another slice of normal pie that should fit easily into a very simple puzzle. But I chose for the dog to be black, and named him Shucky. If you’re familiar with supernatural lore you might know of the Anglo legend called the Black Shuck; a massive demonic dog, black of course. Encountering or even just seeing the beast is said to foretell of death, either to the seer or his/her immediate family.
So “Shucky,” even as a seemingly harmless family pet, is a portent of death to give the story an early sense of the supernatural mixed in with the commonality of Lyle’s everyman (apologies for this cliche’) life. In retrospect, it seems rather wedged in. Something closer to the story’s vodun (voodoo) connection would have been more appropriate. Still, Shucky plays his role and adds some spice.
Lyle also visits a therapist to discuss his growing outbursts of abusive rage. Absently, he handles a figurine replica of a Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Maternity -of a kind- is also a theme, and with the goddess now hovering in the reader’s subconscious, the finale will theoretically carry its weight and imbue a sense of connections, a thread that weaves in and out of the tale along with many others to make a whole cloth.
I was intrigued to see, some months later, a similar scene in the film “Hellions,” whose antagonist is a teen who fears she is pregnant. The girl visits a counselor. As the session winds down, she sees a decorative sculpture on the desk that begins to seep blood. There is no further discussion of this; the narrative simply moves on. While we watch the movie with most of our brain another part continues to ponder this image, becoming more and more uneasy.
A funny thing about symbolism is that once you’re aware of it, you start seeing it everywhere and pondering what a seemingly meaningless placement of an item or color or sound might actually mean. Symbols will seem to present themselves in your daily life. Make of that what you will, but this awareness can translate to your writing . Many authors (or screenwriters/directors) when learning of symbolic meaning that has been read into their work, will deny that it was ever their intent. However, if symbolism is deeply subconscious, would even they know?
More on the Black Shuck:
Call it simple instinct.
We see a snake or a spider and our initial reaction is revulsion — because we perceive it as a threat. Our ancestors learned the hard way, in countless separate tribes, that some creatures are dangerous, others are not. Few of us fear budgies or warblers for instance and might even find them cute or otherwise pleasant. Yet, most spiders are much smaller than these birds, not to mention completely harmless to us. Still, we have a natural revulsion to them.
There is more to our little eight legged boogieman than we see at first glance. Spiders have eight legs and eight eyes. The number eight has significance in many esoteric belief systems, and we are aware of this too, though at a deeper level. Numbers mean something to us beyond the amount of things they count. Some people even see numbers in terms of gender or even color or taste.
When you put a spider in your story, the reader’s natural fear or negative baggage will arise, and you must take advantage of this. Thus, a spider can represent something related to the number eight. Perhaps your protagonist is an outlaw in a western, riding across the desert to start a new life. He encounters a tarantula and gets a bad feelin’. Well, turns out there’s a posse on his trail; eight hard men, aimin’ to kill.
Let’s take it a step further; our hero brings down his knife, severing one of the spiders’ legs. But it gets away; he either chose not to kill it or simply wasn’t able. Of his pursuers, one is an adversary whom he wounded and should have killed.
This also falls into the realm of both foreshadowing and subtext. But the important thing is — you never spell it out. Some readers might catch it but most won’t — yet their subconscious will, and the reader will have a richer experience. It’s like the barest pinch of a spice in a stew that takes the whole meal from “delicious” and elevates it to “unforgettable!”
This is an entry level example of symbolism, which admittedly, is pretty much where I am. But it’s a start, and if you want your story to work beyond just the gut level -meaning a pure celebration of scares and gross outs and shock factor, which is just as legitimate a form of horror I might add, in the same way that slapstick is just as powerful a form of comedy as the most sophisticated Greek tragicomedy- then it’s not a bad idea to research symbolism.
NEXT TIME: Part 2. Duh.
If the Avengers and The Expendables franchises have taught us anything, it’s that more is better, or at least…morier. And while horror fans may enjoy the classic scenario of a small group facing a singular implacable menace, sometimes it’s fun to engage in sensory overload via a film filled to the face with a variety of menaces.
This list focuses on the over-the-top monster mashes that leave us sated like scary smorgasbords. No ALIENS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, zombies or other multitudes of the same species here; the following focus on flicks with several different kinds of monsters.
Back in 1933, horror and monster pictures were just beginning to take hold and prove their box office worth. But Universal’s nascent house of black and white horrors must surely have paled (literally) in comparison to RKO’s monster fest KING KONG. O’Brien had worked on a silent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD nearly a decade earlier, but comparatively speaking, KONG was light years ahead in the FX department, featuring stop motion special effects work by Willis O’Brien that included not only the titular monster monarch but a stegosaur, bronto(or pleisio?)saur, styracosaur, a giant lizard and the triple threat of an allosaurus, eel monster and pterosaur engaging Kong in epic battles.
As if that wasn’t enough. O’Brien and crew devised an icky menagerie of smaller insect and reptile critters that attacked crew members forced off a log bridge and into a swampy pit by Kong. Reportedly, this scene was deemed too horrific by studio suits, so it wound up on the floor. Sadly, that footage is long lost.
In 2005, Universal released a fun -if overlong- remake created by The Lord of The Rings director Peter Jackson and his New Zealand effects house WETA, which featured more of everything, including the pit scene.
This would not be Jackson’s first shot at the infamous sequence though, as he lovingly recreated the lost footage based on the original script and various descriptions. See it here!
THE BLACK SCORPION
There was plenty of dino-filled matinee fare after KONG, though most were not nearly as well realized. Japanese films mostly just pitted single monsters (including Kong) against their reigning champion Godzilla until the mid-sixties, but this entry in the giant bug brigade, coming in 1957, brought back O’Brien and his creepy stop-mo aesthetic for a unique, if rather cheap effort that, aside from the titular mutants (their were actually many of the big arachnids) presented an unnerving subterranean sequence filled with spiders and worms that had all the nuclear age housewives shaking out their bouffants and sleeping with their kids’ Daisy BB repeaters for months.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS!
Japan’s Toho Studios followed Universal’s formula of one film containing multiple monsters in 1965 by bringing their Big Three, Godzilla Rodan and Mothra, together to battle the new menace of GHIDORAH THE THREE HEADED MONSTER but it wasn’t until 1968 that they assembled no less than eleven kaiju for a proper monster party set in the far away future of 1999, when daily moon trips were/will be the norm and all the giant menaces that have so plagued the world have been corralled onto a pacific island affectionately termed Monsterland. But as we all know, the future will bring with it alien contact, and in this case the aliens are hostile. They’ve devised a method to control the monsters and promptly release them to raze the world’s capitols. Godzilla and friends, Rodan, Mothra, Anguirus, Kumonga and many more, eventually turn face and help defeat the aliens but the enemy has an ace up their silvery sleeves: King Ghidorah. The space demon, vastly outnumbered, quickly succumbs, finally dying after three films. It’s fun to see the 90s through the eyes of the 60s, but all those monsters onscreen at once is a 12-year-old sci-fi geek’s dream come true.
AT THE EARTH’S CORE
Exploitation studio stalwarts American International and Amicus came together for this very very 70s B pic based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale featuring western star Doug McClure, Peter Cushing and the irresistible Caroline Munro, in a tiny animal skin bikini no less. The plot: Victorian era scientists ride a drill machine past the earth’s upper crusts, where they find a neolithic civilization enslaved by a race of rodent men who are in turn working for telepathic flying reptiles.
But wait, there’s more. Along the way, our heroes encounter dinosaur-like beasts unseen in the above-ground fossil record, such as a giant bulldog lizard thing, two bipedal wild boars fighting over a mansnack, a beaked allosaurus, a fire breathing toad, and a creepy carnivorous plant. The same producers followed up with the equally monster-filled THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS, but neither of those carries the weird charm of this bad boy.
GALAXY OF TERROR
Just get a look at the poster art and there can be no doubt that this ALIEN-inspired Roger Corman production, despite its budget shortcomings, delivers monsters galore, and yes, a full galaxy’s worth of terror, not to mention a cast to kill for: Robert Englund, Edward Albert, Ray Walston, Erin Moran and Sid Haig. But its Taafee O’Connell who is best remembered for the dubious distinction of being raped by a giant maggot thing. So yeah, this is that kind of flick. Quite a departure from the above-mentioned films in terms of subject matter. Aside from the maggot thing, there is a tentacled brain sucker, a malevolent disembodied arm, a glowy-eyed giant demon, sentient wires, Erin Moran minus epidermis, and… okay not as much monstrage as some of the previous flicks, but just the idea of a film trying to outgun ALIEN earns it those coveted monster mash points.
THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
The legendary sailor and adventurer began his film career in 1958 with Ray Harryhausen at the helm of spectacular stop motion effects that, for my money, are his best work. Kerwin Matthews leads a cast of white folks playing Arabs doing battle with and running from, such monstrosities as Talos The Bronze Giant, a vicious horned cyclops, a two headed vulture, (aka a ‘Roc,’) a massive fire breathing dragon and an army of unsettlingly agile skeleton warriors. Spawned a handful of sequels, but none compare to the majesty and wonder of the original.
INFRA-MAN aka THE SUPER INFRAMAN
OMG, ya’ll — a Chinese kung fu/sci-fi/monster flick? No further sales pitch needed. An ancient subterranean troupe of intelligent and malevolent monsters (hmm…kinda like NIGHTBREED, but much better at jump kicks) rises to overtake the world and install as its ruler The Princess Dragon Mahm, a seriously bad bitch with a hand that is a dragon’s head sprouting a tongue for a whip. …FUCK yeah. That’s not all she has up her sleeve — er, reptile…arm/neck. She turns into a full blown winged dragon that can re-grow its head, countless times! So, a scientist creates an implant or something that allows bad ass Danny Lee to turn into the titular hero via a series of aerial flips. Just in time too, because the princess’ horrific hordes are as brutally destructive as they are ugly. Infra-Man’s seemingly unlimited powers serve him in battle against: a reptilian bulldog/gorilla beast with one metal drill hand and one metal boxing glove! A green tentacled fellow who can plant himself like a seed and sprout to Godzillian heights as a bundle of flailing tentacles! An orange bipedal arachnid who traps dudes in web spheres! An armor plated demon with a red mustache! A chick with eyes in her hands, that, of course, shoot lasers! Infra-Man is obviously China’s answer to Ultraman, Kamen Rider and countless other Japanese heroes, but I have to admit — I’ve always liked INFRA-MAN better than any of those shows.
More MONSTER MASHES to come!
A few days ago my latest short story CINDERBLOCK released as an ebook. It’s unusual in a number of ways, most obvious being that it’s a horror story set in a sporting environment. As far as I know and with few exceptions, the closest horror has gotten to athletics is Jason donning a Detroit Red Wings goalie mask in Friday the 13th Part 3.
By now, it’s clear to most of my social media associates, readers and imaginary friends that I have a more than passing interest in martial arts and all forms of unarmed combat. Most horror writers are deeply peaceful folk who actually abhor violence, and while I share that perspective, there are few things I enjoy more than watching a good match between trained combat athletes, and on a good day, stepping onto the mat myself.
One of CINDERBLOCK’s principals is an old Polish fight trainer named Doc Lubinski, who is not unlike Burgess Meredith’s Mickey in the Rocky films. This is what people who spend too much time thinking about storytelling refer to as an archetype, which is a way of saying “stereotype” without sounding demeaning. But as a martial artist I’ve certainly had a few Doc Lubinski types expressing encouragement and enraged disappointment at my own humble efforts. By far, the most influential and colorful is Billy “Pops” Wicks, to whom the story is dedicated.
Pops, the son of Norwegian immigrants, took up wrestling in his teens and soon found himself working in traveling carnivals as the guy who takes on “all comers” while a top hatted barker riled up “marks” -local boys who wanted to impress their gal. Of course, the mark would never reach the Promised Land that lay under the skirts of their preferred farmer’s daughter. or if they did, it was out of sympathy. Pops’ job was to toy with them long enough to make it interesting, then to force a submission.
This style of wrestling is called Catch As Catch Can, more recently shortened to catch wrestling. I discovered it and Pops through another of his students, Pancrase* veteran Johnny Huskey.
As one might expect of any man from that rough post-depression era, Pops is salty, outspoken, and generally annoyed with how goddamn candy-assed contemporary fighters are. Unlike Brazilian jiu jitsu fighters, catch wrestlers are expected to stay off their backs when competing or fighting. So emphatic is Pops about this that he has been known to jab young pupils with straight pins if they don’t work out of the bottom position. Believe me, no matter how big or skilled your opponent is, you’ll find a way to escape if you see an angry-faced Norwegian man coming toward you with a straight pin. The pin you see, is to remind you that you’re being “pinned.”
Eventually wrestling changed, and Pops joined the movement toward choreographed action. If a wrestling star got a bit unmanageable among his peers and promoters, he might just find himself booked against Pops, which was a fast track to either humility or hospitalization
But my main point is that Pops loves wrestling, and he loves his wrestlers. To me, his very direct approach and reliance on simple yet brutal techniques is reminiscent of the legendary Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do fighting philosophy. In fact, Lee trained for some time with Gene LeBell, himself a catch wrestler, and a good many catch techniques are found in Lee’s Tao Of Jeet Kune Do.
When my first novel PROGENY was released, Pops excitedly bought and read it. If I may be a bit personal here, that was extremely gratifying for me, considering my own father died before its release. Pops exemplifies what a great teacher of any skill should be -a man who teaches boys how to be men, how to be honest, how to do everything as well as you can. There wasn’t time for the story’s Doc Lubinski to get a very wide arc in CINDERBLOCK, so it was important to me that his love for his pupils was apparent, that the reader would understand how much his boys, both the dead and the living, meant to him.
The boxing gym in CINDERBLOCK might itself seem sort of a cliche. But any inner city kid will tell you, that’s where you find them. The athletes of whatever culture that is most persecuted in any given historical era will gravitate to boxing, and because they have little other choice, they will excel. During Lubinski’s time it would have been the Polish, now it’s black and latino kids. The story’s protagonist O.C. is that kid who could easily have gone the wrong way, if not for “The Old Pole,” as I like to call him.
Doc is not based directly on Pops so much, but is my attempt to compress my understanding of the coach/pupil relationship into capsule form and make it believable enough to fuel the story proper. What I know of Mike Tyson’s relationship with Cus D’amato is also in there, maybe some Mister Miyagi, and of course — Mickey. 🙂
*Pancrase: A Japanese MMA promotion pre-dating the UFC that emphasized submission grappling over striking.
Wiki Billy Wicks
I was once lucky to catch a midnight showing of A Nightmare on Elm Street for which there was no advertising other than word of mouth. At the theater, deal was that you got in if you wore pajamas and the showing was free; just a few days before Hallo-You-Know-When.
The joint was packed, and no doubt some spirits were sneaking about, if you can detect the low notes of the tune I’m playing here…
But this wasn’t Rocky Horror. The only participation the film’s tight narrative would allow was terror — and it was palpable. When the nightmares began, and the claws scratched steel, we all went nuts as a unit, and not via the tossing of toast, or recitation of random lines – but by screaming and holding onto one another, acquainted or not.
It built from there. When Tina was dragged across the ceiling by the invisible force of a laughing Freddy – rewind that: yes, I said dragged across THE FUCKING CEILING, the joint collectively popped in a figurative orgasm of terror and release and youthful madness that must’ve shaken the entire multiplex. Those screams, well, I should say that singular collective scream, was shrill music to me. This, I realized, was a work of genius.
Story goes that a few studios rejected Nightmare because they felt that audiences wouldn’t care about events occurring in a dreamworld, versus “reality.” Seems to me those guys don’t really understand exactly what a film is meant to be, anyway.
Craven did. Like many of us horror freaks, Wes Craven came up in a religious household, banned from watching any films that weren’t from the Disney stamp pad. But of these, he favored Fantasia, itself a celluloid dream composed more of disjointed imagery set to classical music than a single narrative. It seems likely he was deeply affected by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence, with its towering devil figure (based on Bela Lugosi!) and Stygian landscape.
Last House on The Left came to me as a copy on VHS, which only added to its raw, cheap, snuff feel. A few years ago, the horror market became riddled with movies reflecting the shock and horror of torture murders committed and posted online by terrorists. Some of these “tort-sploitation” (“torture porn,” as you’ve probably seen me say, is not a legitimate term) films were rather effective, others not so much. But back in 1972, there wasn’t much of a precedent. Craven and his producer/partner Sean Cunningham were responding to the Vietnam war, a conflict equally as polarizing as our current campaigns and the first war to reach us with the immediacy of televised evening news.
Thus, it is an angry statement from passionate young filmmakers. No ghosts or living dead or vampires, this might have been a standard police thriller if not for the POV’s discomfiting submersion into the events concerning our victims, not to mention their tormentors. This gang, led by a sick bastard named Krug (sound vaguely familiar?) lures and assaults a pair of teen girls looking to score some weed.
But it doesn’t end there, (SPOILAGE ALERT!) as you probably know. Karma directs the crew to the very house where one of the vics’ parents live; and that necklace the degenerates stole from the girls as a keepsake is awwwwfully incriminating.
What follows next is, among other things, death by ferocious fellatio, death by sloppy dentistry and as far as I know, the first ever cinematic butchering of a human being via chainsaw, beating TCM to the punch by two full years.
It’s not an easy watch, even through the filter of cheap filming techniques. Its harsh impact upon one’s psyche is pretty much permanent, and it’s effectiveness as a cathartic release depends on the viewer I suppose. It’s probably a leap to think that the average viewer would detect the anti-war theme at work here, but then, that’s why it’ll never be called preachy. That’s where Craven excelled, and that’s why the tricky backdrop of the dreamworld gave him great opportunity for creating horror that works equally well on both visceral and subconscious levels.
There’s a lot of hate for 1988’s Shocker, and most of it is well-deserved. Studio control on this and a handful of other Craven flicks was far greater, and the creative results predictably suffer. Wes never conceived that the Nightmare films, and more significantly FK himself, would become iconic beyond nearly any previous horror film, and naively signed away rights to the character. It’s nice to think that, if he hadn’t, the watering down of the dream demon wouldn’t have been nearly as pervasive. No Fat Boys videos, no eye-rolling comic quips in the sequels.
However, if Shocker is any indication, Wes wasn’t above going for the commercial appeal; it’s pure paycheck. You can’t really blame him. But there is no denying that Shocker is –firstly- a cynical attempt to create another Freddy, only with Craven retaining creative control of the character, and secondly, maybe, just maybe, a bit of that Last House righteous anger showing itself in the form of a statement against commercial horror – in the form of very very commercial horror, sorta like Korn’s “Yall Wanna Single, Say Fuck That” single.
I think I’ll choose to believe the latter, because I know that ANOES and Hills Have Eyes and New Nightmare and even the Scream films were all sincere, and all impressive works, and I know that no director hits a homer at every bat, and because four or five great movies is damn sure a lot more than most directors will achieve.
They couldn’t haven’t been more different — but the two icons who passed away last week both had an immeasurable impact on yours truly, and surely on others of my generation.
Christopher Lee was a distant relative of Charles The Great, whose life he would chronicle in a symphonic power metal album called Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. Texas-born Virgil “Dusty Rhodes” Runnels was the son of a plumber.
Lee became in a sense, Hammer Films’ answer to Boris Karloff when the upstart London-based production company re-visited the classic monsters originally brought to cinemas by Universal. Hammer’s monster cycle began in the fifties, peaked in the 60s and finally tapered off in the 70s. During this span, Lee turned in unforgettable performances as Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy,Rasputin, Sherlock Holmes, and most famously Count Dracula. It was in this role that I discovered Sir Lee (he received knighthood in 2009) one fateful sunday afternoon.
As a young fellow, I had made it a mission to see all the Universal monster films. Bela Lugosi, and occasionally John Carradine, were Dracula to me, with their menacing cape-waving, underlit overacting.
But Christopher Lee was the next gen model, you see. He lunged onto the screen with blood-filled eyes, hissing past jaguar fangs and chasing Peter Cushing about a cathedral-esque castle, vicious and defiant to the end as Cushing’s Van Helsing improvised a cross out of candleholders and swashbuckled the shit out of the heavy drapes that were the only barrier between the malignant Count and fast forward decay.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of the legendary Bruce Lee, the famous martial arts star who died at the age of 32, just as his film career was taking off. Lee completed just four films as lead actor before his death. My favorite is Return of The Dragon.
I discovered Bruce Lee as a boy. At that time, grindhouse theatres were still a thing, and it wasn’t uncommon for older films to accompany a new release as a second feature. Such was the case with Return of The Dragon. I’m not sure what the main feature was, but I will never forget the experience of seeing Return for the first time.
My father was on a deadline so he recruited one of his college students to take my brother Egan and me to the enormous, aging Plaza theatre in downtown Asheville. The lively crowd was comprised primarily of young black men who had no issue with voicing their enthusiasm for our hero’s triumphs.
Years later, I acquired a VHS copy of Return from a video store closeout sale. It was an excellent SP copy that came with a hard clamshell case, the cover of which was the original release poster, bearing the great tagline “Man, can we use him now!”
Return of The Dragon bears that title only in U.S. territories, where it debuted a year after Lee’s breakout Hollywood hit Enter The Dragon. The “Return” in the title was probably meant to give the impression that it is a direct sequel to Warner Brothers’ Enter, though it was in fact produced by Golden Harvest and Lee’s own Concord Films a year before Enter, and is a wildly different film in almost every respect. The more apt British title Way of The Dragon hints at the subtext that Lee, serving for the only time as writer and director, attempted to weave into the film.
From a critic’s standpoint, it’s not exactly a mindblowing artistic achievement. The story: Lee’s character Tang Lung travels to Rome to help his cousins fend off a small time mob boss with designs on their restaurant property.
That’s about it; a far cry from the international scope and James Bond feel of Enter. The camera work is something less than subtle, even a little clumsy at times. Plot points tend to repeat. The English dubbing is ridiculous. But I’m not a critic. I’m a geek. And what I want from my kung fu films is good characters fighting good fights, both morally and technically.
Return has been on Netflix streaming for a while and I finally got around to revisiting it, seeing as how the VCR half of my DVD/VCR combo has taken to angrily chewing to bits anything that disturbs its years-long hibernation. I can’t stand the thought of my treasured heavy-ass VHS copy being digested and pushed through the bowels of that hungry, obsolete beast. Plus, the streaming version is in glorious widescreen!
That’s not all, as I learned. As I saw it in theatres and on VHS, Return of The Dragon runs a few minutes shorter than the version Netflix has acquired. Somewhere along the distribution route, someone decided some cuts were needed–but this version is fully intact. Thus, I was delighted to see footage in this lifelong favorite that I had never seen before! Perhaps this is the British “Way” cut, but the title card says otherwise.
Do the cuts change the story? Well, let’s say that seeing them added back in adds to the story, but will probably not mean anything to the average, non-obsessed viewer.
It opens with Tang Lung standing in a Rome airport, an Italian woman staring at him like he’s an odd creature. His stomach is growling, you see, and he doesn’t speak Italian, so he can’t ask about restaurants. Eventually, though, he finds one, and this is where the first cut fits. He sits down to order, only to find the menu incomprehensible. So he points at several random words, expecting the smaller portions common to Asia. Instead, he receives a massive tray loaded with dishes, which he now feels obligated to finish.
Not exactly a riveting flashback loaded with fascinating back story, but it illustrates that Tang Lung is not the usual kung fu bad ass, but rather a simple fish out of water. This adds a great deal of contrast that makes his later fistic exploits seems all the more violent and explosive–and tells us not to judge this book by its cover.
Even more telling is a later scene where Tang’s female cousin, played by Nora Miao, encourages him to be more receptive to the friendly overtures of Italian locals. Shortly, Tang is approached by a prostitute, and innocently accompanies her to her flat. Left in the bedroom alone, Tang finds a full length mirror and checks his techniques; first a blistering backfist, then a series of kicks so fast, it is impossible to tell whether he is throwing a sidekick or a lead leg snap roundhouse.
His new friend reappears–topless. Tang is so shocked he beats a hasty retreat. Contextually, with this scene missing, it’s easy to assume they’d had sex, undermining the notion of Tang Lung as an innocent naif.
Not surprisingly, it’s the fight scenes for which Return/Way is most remembered, but not just because Lee is a spectacular martial artist. Lee’s training and fighting method, dubbed Jeet Kune Do, was based around the philosophy he espoused in his books and lessons, which is freedom of individual expression over adherence to a set system. This applies to physical training obviously, but also to just about everything else.
The third act finds the mobsters sending out for a trio of fighters to dispense with Tang Lung and his cousins through sheer physical intimidation. These fighters include Korean Tae Kwon Do master Whang In Sik, 70s karate tournament stalwart Robert Wall and of course Chuck Norris, who at that time was a semi contact world champion and frequent training partner to Lee.
Lee puts Whang In Sik and Wall on the road to defeat, allowing his cousins to finish the job while he is lured to no less than the Roman Coliseum for the showdown with Norris’ Colt character. What we get next is pure martial genius.
Lee, who choreographed the fights in addition to his many other duties, eschewed traditional chopsocky multiple combination exchanges for a more intimate, stop-and-start style of fight that allows the characters and the audience to occasionally catch their breath and register what they had just experienced. But cooler still, and consider this a spoiler alert, Lee’s character, finding himself losing to his stronger, pastier opponent, does something truly inspired.
Rising from his strong low stances, he begins to move about like Muhammad Ali, light on his feet, constantly moving in circles and side to side, frustrating Colt by hopping in to strike then fading away. By the time the American karate champ realizes that the smaller man’s new tactic has overcome his power, he is seriously injured, his shattered arm trembling, his supporting leg useless.
And this is when Lee makes perfect use of an opportunity to create layers of psychology and subtlety rarely seen in action films. An unspoken communication takes place, as Colt struggles to rise, the determination on his face painted with pain. Lung stops his rhythmic footwork, something like shock on his face.
In what is the single most sublime moment of Chuck Norris’ acting career, his Colt character gives Tang Lung a slight smile. Lee/Lung shakes his head -not theatrically, just a tiny movement with a clear understanding of what he is being asked to do.
Colt attacks, essentially just falling into Tang Lung’s neck crank and firing a couple of weak punches to the body, knowing he will now die at the hands of a great warrior. Tang Lung snaps his neck and eases him to the ground, his bloody face now very sad.
Tang Lung fetches Colt’s gi jacket and black belt and drapes them across the American’s body, kneeling with him for a moment of reverence.
In that fight scene was drama, suspense, supreme action, and the ultimate wordless expression of Lee’s philosophy; absorb what is useful. The individual is more important than the style. All men are brothers.