In 1983, someone made a movie called The Undertaker In Sohwa Province, apparently this someone was a Korean filmmaker named “Kim Jung-Yong”, but I can’t find much else about him. The HKMDB credits Jung-Yong as the director of films like Magnificent Natural Fist and Dragon From Shaolin but, on the films themselves, these are attributed to Godfrey Ho. Frequent Ho collaborator Joseph Lai (IFD) released an English dub of The Undertaker In Sohwa Province in 1985 and renamed it Gravedigger. In 1987 a completely re-dubbed and re-cut version of the film (credited to the pseudonym “Charles Lee”) appeared with about 20 minutes of ninja footage spliced in that feels like the work of Godfrey Ho (although “Charles Lee” has been used by frequent IFD co-conspirator Lee Chiu so it’s entirely possible he directed the ninja footage?)… So did Ho/Lee take an old Korean film and mash it up with ninjas or was Ho ninja-remixing his own earlier films? Hard to know for sure but, flying in the apparent face of reason, this last version – now known as Zombie Rival : The Super Ninja Master (aka Zombie vs Ninja) – is by far the most widely released version of the film.
The version I watched was the UK VHS Zombie Rival released on the mysterious Cine Ninja label (with a Conan-esque fantasy cover that has only an abstract connection to the film itself). The story starts with a bucktoothed old master named Master T summoning hopping vampires in his psychedelic magic chamber. He beats them up as the credits roll and we move into more conventional kung fu plotting. There’s a bad guy called Titus who’s controlling the province, charging extortionate taxes, persecuting villagers and being an all-round rotter. He and his cohorts steal a bunch of gold from an old ginseng seller named Chen, killing him in the process. Chen’s son Ethan (played by Ho regular Elton Chong) swears vengeance.
Ethan isn’t up to much but he stumbles upon Master T whom, it transpires, is the local undertaker and rides a cool bison wagon. Ethan takes a job with him. I mean, why wouldn’t he? That bison is awesome! The work is pretty vague though. Mostly, Master T says things like “Go get us a body and some business!” and sends Ethan out on various goose chases that lead to a fight. Meanwhile, all sorts of ninja maneuvering is afoot behind the scenes. Ninja Master Duncan is another of Master T’s students (“Duncan Somebody, number one pupil of some unknown master!” is how he’s described by one character and that’s as much as we really ever know about him). He wears a natty yellow suit, giant silver shoulder pads and a headband that says “NINJA” and he’s doing his best to wipe out all of Titus’s ninja apprentices. Unfortunately, a highly trained evil ninja (who wears giant gold lamé shoulder pads, obvs) is on Titus’s side so you just know it’s going to end with more fighting…
If you wondered where the zombies come in, this is all thanks to Master T and his unique brand of training. As well as giving Ethan some much-needed tuition in coffin fu (and it is undeniably entertaining watching a dude duff up another dude, with a coffin strapped to his back!), he also frequently raises the dead to use them in combat exercises. Ethan fights his way through a series of reanimated corpses to the point where his own fighting style is influenced by them. When he hands Titus and his henchmen their asses at the end, Ethan integrates into his regular kung fu a stiff fighting style like a zombie (and looks kinda like he’s doing a particularly kicky robot dance).
As you can gather, there are actually some very cool and original ideas in the source film but either they weren’t enough to sustain a whole movie or something’s gone horribly wrong in its transition from The Undertaker In Sohwa Province to Zombie Rival : The Super Ninja Master (beyond just the title). Although it’s all well shot (certainly better than your average Filmark/IFD stuff) the final piece doesn’t hold together. The first third is entertaining, the second third is incoherent as it gets bogged down in irrelevant comedy side characters, and the final third super-slow; an endless final fight with choreography that’s competent but never dazzling.
It also sets stuff up that sounds more exciting than what it delivers. There’s a scene where two characters disguise themselves as dolls to infiltrate a building but, sadly, discard the doll masks before the fighting starts, which is disappointing as I was all geared up for some doll fu. Also, Ninja Master Duncan is constantly talking about “Dragon’s Fire”, an ancient kung fu style that hasn’t been used for hundreds of years. Apparently he learned it from Master T but neither T, Ethan nor Duncan use anything that could possibly count as such a rare, powerful style. I kind of hoped that, at least, the final ninja fight would deliver Dragon’s Fire (especially after the wonderful – almost Flight Of The Conchords-esque – threat “TELL HIM DRAGON’S FIRE BURNS HOT!”) but there’s nothing more outrageous than a bit of swordplay and backflipping. That said, “I told him dragon’s fire burned hot” is a wonderful closing line to anything, even if no one’s quite earned the right to say it…
On the whole, this is quite low-key in terms of its ninjing. There are a few black-clad swordfighting ninjas in the source film and plenty of Power Rangers/Mortal Kombat style Ho ones tarting about in the other footage but no real standout scenes of crazy magic or insane stunts. Instead, you end up feeling that the source film would’ve been better if they’d just kept the ninjas out of it, and this isn’t what you want from IFD at all.