Blu-ray Release: April 25, 2023
Audio: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English LPCM 2.0 Mono (Theatrical and Cruelty-free Cuts); English Dolby Digital Mono (International Cut)
Run Time: 86:16 (Theatrical Cut), 86:52 (International Cut), 76:40 (Cruelty-Free Cut)
Director: Chang Chi
A developer discovers a snake pit full of thousands of deadly serpents on the construction site of a new apartment building. To avoid any construction delays, the developer brutally exterminates the snakes. Believing the problem has been solved, he allows the new tenants to move into the building. However, not all the snakes have been killed and the many survivors and their kin are out to avenge their murdered brothers and sisters. Soon, all hell breaks loose and the building’s new tenants come under vicious attack by a squirming army of angry and vengeful serpents. (From Unearthed Films’ official synopsis)
If there’s one thing ‘70s & early-‘80s East Asian horror filmmakers loved, it was exploiting audience fears of writhing gnarls of snakes. They threw them at actors, they skinned and chopped them into pieces, and they milked their venom to stir it into black magic brews. Shaw Bros. horror tastemaker Ho Meng-Huathe had his characters barf up snakes in Black Magic 2 (1976) and The Boxer’s Omen (1983) director Kuei Chih-Hung set them at the center of the appropriately titled The Killer Snakes (1974, a strange pseudo-remake of William Grefé’s 1972 Willard rip off, Stanley). Released towards the end of Shaw’s dominance over the market in 1984, Chang Chi’s Taiwan-made Calamity of Snakes is sort of the logical endpoint for East Asian snake-based horror. Chang, who was also known for low-budget kung fu films, brings a lot of action expertise to the film, especially during the literal kung fu battles against the largest and most agile of the calamitous snakes, but his narrative cues tend to borrow from ‘70s indie American ecohorror, like Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1976) and William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976), while his graphic excesses are straight out of Italy’s Mondo shockumentary playbook.
Calamity of Snakes forces me into a moral dilemma, because it is exactly the type of unhinged, anarchic horror I look for from ‘80s Hong Kong/Taiwan, but the filmmakers also killed a lot of snakes. Unfortunately, those of us that devote ourselves to watching low-budget international horror often have to contend with animal cruelty, sometimes from countries that don’t have the same standards as North American audiences, but more often because slaughtering animals is simply a cheaper alternative to creating gory special effects. There is no denying the shock value, but each of us has to decide where we draw the line. I can accept a movie like Eloy de la Iglesia’s Cannibal Man (Spanish: La Semana del asesino, 1972) including slaughterhouse footage or Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) tagging along on a kangaroo hunt, but, ike most viewers (I suspect), I’m less tolerant of stuff like Italian cannibal movies, where crews capture and kill exotic animals for the express purpose of filming it.* Calamity of Snakes falls more into the latter category and even includes an impossibly long, very Cannibal Ferox-like scene of mongooses and snakes fighting to the death. I can extend the benefit of the doubt for scenes shot at market or in restaurants, but the utter number of creatures slaughtered in detail is stomach-turning. Even people who hate snakes will probably find Chang’s ruthlessness incorrigible and, personally, I genuinely love snakes.**
Scenes of snakes killing humans, which mostly occur during the final 20 minutes of the film, are, on the other hand, very entertaining. These are shot with infectious energy (again, Chang’s kung fu pedigree really pays off) and their frenzied tone is often quite funny, making up for the script’s intrusive situational comedy elements, awkward slapstick, and lame fat jokes (the overall social satire is still worthy of a few hearty laughs). There’s also a guilty joy in the inescapable feeling that the actors were in genuine danger when they were shooting some of these scenes, similar to Godfather of Mondo Franco Prosperi’s animals-on-PCP shocker Wild Beasts (Italian: Belve feroci, 1984) or Noel Marshall’s utterly deranged family drama Roar (1981). The snakes shoveled onto the cast were almost certainly not venomous (I hope!), so they aren’t as dangerous or unpredictable as lions, tigers, and hyenas seen in those movies, but they could still bite in order to defend themselves against thrashing actors and other frightened creatures. Just the sheer weight of dozens if not hundreds of snakes must have posed a serious injury risk.
Calamity of Snakes was barely released outside of Hong Kong, but did have footage of its many snake calamities edited into John Howard & Niels Rasmussen’s action/adventure The Serpent Warriors (1987), an American/Hong Kong co-production co-starring Clint Walker, Eartha Kitt, and Christopher Mitchum. Additionally, there was a Korean version entitled War Between Men and Snakes that included alternate footage.
* In the recent documentary, Searching for Cannibal Holocaust , Calum Waddell interviewed local Leticia area residents who worked as extras of Ruggero Deodato’s film. They verified that the crew did actually eat the poor turtle.
** In a worthy gesture, Unearthed Films is helping to mitigate guilty feelings by donating “a percentage of all profits from Calamity of Snakes in all formats to Save the Snakes in continuation of their mission to protect snake populations around the world.”
Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World by Pete Tombs (St. Martin's, 1998)
As I indicated, Calamity of Snakes is a truly rare film. I can’t even find evidence of a HK VHS or DVD existing, I’m just assuming there was one, because this disc’s extended cut appears to be taken from a tape source (more on that below). The closest thing the US had was a VHS release of The Serpent Warriors and there were zero DVD releases. With that in mind, it’s worth cutting Unearthed Films’ 1080p Blu-ray debut some slack. The original material is in decent shape, but definitely old and exhibits typical signs of aging, such as scratches and other minor print damage. The obvious issue is that the cyan/blue levels have taken a sizable hit, leaving the transfer overly pink/red and generally low on dynamic rage. As a result, details are a little mushy in wide shots and black levels are somewhat weak. Still, there’s plenty of detail, especially in close-ups, and grain levels appear accurate (I’m guessing that this was a print source based on the size of grain, but do not know). Unearthed Films has thankfully avoided oversharpening edges and depleting texture with DNR, so, even when things appear rough, the transfer is consistently film-like. The disc includes an option to watch a cruelty-free cut of the film that uses the same transfer, similar to what Grindhouse Releasing did for Cannibal Holocaust.
Calamity of Snakes is presented with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English audio options, all in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono sound. Effects and music match across all three tracks, though the Cantonese dub is louder and fuller all around. All language versions are dubbed, as was still the practice at the time, so lip sync will be at least a bit off, no matter which track you choose. The English dub performances are decent or at least up to typical B-Hong Kong/Taiwan standards, though the dialogue tends to overwhelm the track in a way it doesn’t on the Cantonese dub. It’s also a bit muffled, especially when characters are talking over each other, so I kept the subtitles on while sampling it. I’d call Sherman Chow’s synth-heavy score a highlight, but I’m not sure how much of the music he actually wrote. A great deal of the soundtrack is recycled instrumental rock and cues from other movies, including “The Ace of Swords” by The Alan Parsons Project, Goblin’s “Zombi” from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Jay Chattaway’s “Subway Terror” from William Lustig’s Maniac (1980).
Commentary with historians Nathan “Son of Celluloid” Hamilton and Brad Slaton (theatrical cut) – This is mostly a hang-out style track with the focus Hamilton’s ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and that Slaton is torturing him by making him watch this movie.
Extended international version of the film (86:52, SD) – A standard definition video quality copy of a slightly longer cut of the film (apparently not the Korean War Between Men and Snakes version).
From Shaw to Snakes; The Venom and Violence of Early Chinese Language Horror Cinema (76:23, HD) – A new documentary directed by Naomi Holwill that uses Calamity of Snakes as a basis to explore the Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Chinese cinema surrounding it. It presents a Cliff’s Notes version of Taiwanese history, leading to its place in the East Asian film industry, then, after running through the greatest horror films Shaw Bros. had to offer, it digs into the making of Chang’s film. Interviewees include critics/academics Dr. Lin Feng, Calum Waddell, Sean Tierney, C.J. Lines, James Mudge, writer/director Godfrey Ho, independent filmmaker Chung Chui-yi, and actors Kam Kwok-Leung and Hsiang Yun-Peng.
Reptilian Recollections: Lin Kuang-Yung in Conversation with Chui-Yi Chung (15:50, HD) – The actor & stuntman is interviewed via Zoom by Chung about his time making Calamity of Snakes. He recalls some of the logistics of wrangling snakes and precautions to ensure they were safe to have around the cast & crew, ongoing safety concerns, and avoiding killing snakes during the climax. He remembers recording footage of snakes being slaughtered at market (called Snake Alley, according to Waddell’s larger documentary interview) and swears that some of the snakes killed on set were eaten later.
Mandarin intro and ending credits (4:38, SD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.