(The following article was first published in Weng’s Chop #9, August 2016)
In the years following Bruce Lee’s untimely death in 1973, legions of imitators (including Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Dragon Lee) and dozens of rip-off movies (including THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, ENTER THE GAME OF DEATH, and BRUCE LEE: THE MAN, THE MYTH) attempted to cash in on the Little Dragon’s enduring popularity. But of all the Bruceploitation movies, none exploitat Bruce more shamelessly – or hilariously – than FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH. For anyone who stumbled on one of its innumerable public domain DVD or VHS releases expecting a real Bruce Lee movie, it has become the stuff of legend.
FIST OF FEAR is set at a real-life Madison Square Garden event held in 1978 by New York martial arts promoter Aaron Banks, which would allegedly “determine Bruce Lee’ successor.” Adolph Caesar (perennial grindhouse trailer narrator and future Academy Award nominee) hosts, playing himself as a TV news reporter covering the event. We see him “interview” the late Bruce Lee (fraudulently, with new dialogue dubbed over stock footage) and actually interview Fred Williamson, who boasts, “Bruce Lee was good at what he did – I’m fantastic at what I do.” There are barely-related scenes featuring kung-fu stars Ron Van Clief and Bill Louie (dressed as Kato!) saving women from rape, which play like demo-reels for the actors. There is an interview in which Aaron Banks claims Bruce Lee was killed by a mysterious “touch of death.”
The film’s lengthy midsection is devoted to a supposed biopic of Lee, comprised of footage from THE THUNDERSTORM (1957), a black-and-white Cantonese melodrama starring a teenage Lee. Dubbed WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY?-style, this completely fictionalized version of Lee’s life also has flashback scenes featuring Lee’s grandfather, “one of China’s greatest samurai warriors,” taken from INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN (1971). That samurais are Japanese, not Chinese, should indicate that not one single detail of this “Bruce Lee story” is true.
FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH is widely reviled by serious Bruce Lee fans for its total bastardization of Lee’s life and philosophy, but it is unique among Bruceploitation movies for its tongue-in-cheek tone, making the very idea of “Bruceploitation” its central subject. With its strange, dare-I-say dreamlike blend of documentary, staged scenes, repurposed footage, humor, and sheer carnival-barker chutzpah, there’s no other movie quite like it. I have seen it approximately (conservative estimate) five thousand times.
We can thank Aquarius Releasing, the 42nd Street distributor headed by the legendary Terry Levene. The company specialized in kung-fu, porn, and Italian horror imports, and their releases are a roll call of exploitation classics: DEEP THROAT, FACES OF DEATH, A BOY AND HIS DOG, RITUALS, BRUTES AND SAVAGES, BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE, THE BODYGUARD (originally KARATE KIBA), DR. BUTCHER M.D. (ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST), MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (CANNIBAL FEROX), BEYOND THE DARKNESS (BUIO OMEGA), SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH (THE BEYOND), and many others. Though Aquarius regularly shot cheap new scenes to Americanize their foreign acquisitions, FIST OF FEAR was their first original production.
FIST OF FEAR is also the sole feature-length directorial credit of Matthew Mallinson, an erstwhile editor and post-production supervisor at August Films (a regular collaborator with Aquarius). As he is the only man to direct Fred Williamson, Ron Van Clief, Aaron Banks, Bill Louie, Adolph Caesar, and a posthumous Bruce Lee, I was naturally filled with questions. All were answered when we spoke by phone.
You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH anymore.
Well y’know, it’s funny, because it does crop up every now and then. I guess it’s attained a cult status of sorts. My daughter, who’s in college, came across is, and she sat down with her friends and they watched it, and they had a hoot.
I saw this movie for the first time when I was 13 or so, and it kind of put a cigarette burn in my brain.
Like I say, some people see it and kind of get where it’s at. Other people probably want to seek me out and hang me or something. And y’know, I think people have to kind of get a life.
I saw one review I thought was hilarious where the person was really irate, but in the review it says, “Sid Caesar’s outside Madison Square Garden…” I said, “No, not Sid Caesar… Adolph Caesar.” (laughs)
It seems to have fallen into the public domain, so it’s been ubiquitous on VHS, DVD and now the internet.
There’s a lot of negative feedback associated with it – people think it trashes the legacy of Bruce Lee – and I never really took it very seriously to begin with. The whole thing was kind of a fluke the way it came about. I knew Terry Levene – I had worked at this place called August Films. We had done all of his post: he’d acquire a picture and release it in the States, and we had to do, I guess what you’d call “Americanize” it. Depending on what it was – whether it needed dubbing, whether we had to… I used to shoot stuff and create a trailer, and we’d put in scenes that were New York and American locations to make it look like the picture was an American-based picture.
Would THE BODYGUARD be one of those?
THE BODYGUARD is a classic example, with Aaron Banks. It gave people an impression that it was an American picture when he was actually just acquiring the U.S. rights. He wanted to give people the impression that this wasn’t just a foreign import. Terry was acquiring a lot of stuff like, there was this picture BRUTAL JUSTICE, which was an Italian picture that he distributed. One of my favourites, but I don’t think it was his, was MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. We did all the work on that.
Of course, Terry’s big picture was HALLOWEEN, which I actually got to recut. Which gave me some insight into the process, because I said to Terry, “How can I cut this picture, HALLOWEEN? It’s a director’s picture.” He indicated to me that John Carpenter – because he didn’t think the picture would make any money – sold the rights to his shares back to Moustapha Akkad, who financed the picture. So Terry said, “Well, if you can cut out however many pictures from this picture, we can get an extra screening in every day.” That’s the kind of stuff we did at August Films.
What was Terry Levene like as a boss?
Y’know, a lot of people did not like Terry because he was a tough businessman. But I liked Terry, because he would always negotiate, but once you came to terms with him, he lived up to whatever he bargained with you. There were times when Terry would come to me with projects and I would say, “No, I’m not interested” – not that I’m the only answer in town, but there were a lot of times when he would almost beg me to come and do the work, because I was just the type of person where I felt I had to deliver, and I would deliver regardless of whatever I thought of the product. A lot of people would look at this stuff and thought it was trash, and I’d say, “Well, it has a certain appeal…” Like, there was a picture Terry had called DR. BUTCHER, M.D., and he actually came to me and said, “Look, I need to recut – I’ll make you the director of the film!” I hadn’t even worked on the picture, and he was asking me to do post because his alternative – and I won’t disparage the individual because he’s a nice guy – but the alternative was this guy who Terry had had problems with just delivering the goods properly.
Like I said, he was a businessman – he would bargain. But the day FIST OF FEAR opened, I had every cent that he and I had negotiated. The notorious thing is you hold the last payment and you screw somebody over, and that wasn’t Terry’s style.
We had a great back-and-forth thing – he and I would always trade barbs in public. We were at a screening and he said something to the effect of, “Matt, you have a lovely outfit on today – did your mother dress you?” I said, “No, Terry – your girlfriend did when I left her apartment this morning.” In the right circle of people, we all took it in the manner it was intended to be.
He was very supportive. He had never really produced a picture before FIST OF FEAR – he was just a distributor. I told him what I was expecting out of him, because I was kind of line-producing the picture at the time, but I needed somebody who could get in there, run and gun, when things had to be done. Like the last scene in the picture when Adolph Caesar’s walking through the arena and it’s empty. The whole thing had to be shot with a crew, and I needed the arena for a while and I needed lights, so I went up to the guy who controlled the electrical closet – a union guy – with Terry and said, “Look, we need to have access to this.” He said, “Well, I’ve got the only key to this closet.” I said, “Well, I think you need to go for a coffee break.” He says, “For, like, 30 minutes?” I said, “No, about an hour. Terry, you take care of this man going on a coffee break for an hour.” So Terry went, peeled off a few bills, the guy locked the electrical closet, nobody was going to go in and turn off the lights, and we were able to get the shot.
The whole thing with the television crew – that was an imaginary crew that Terry had thought up to get us into the Garden. The Garden is very much a union shop, and the crew that Terry wanted me to hire were all non-union people, so his approach was, “Well, let’s make up an imaginary TV station and we’ll go in to shoot coverage of Aaron Banks and his karate exhibit.” “Okay Terry, if that works for you.” If you look at Adolph Caesar and you see him standing there doing the interview, he’s got this little thing that says “WAQU.” Terry’s art department made that up. There is no WAQU.
I was always curious about that, because that’s something about the movie that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. Why is Adolph Caesar a reporter? Who is he broadcasting to? The context of what we were seeing was never clear.
To backtrack a little bit, this whole thing started because I ran into Terry on the street, and I had just done some music videos for Warner Brothers. He said, “What’s up next?” and I said, “Oh, I’m not doing much of anything.” Maybe he thought it was beneath me, but he said, “Look, I’ve got this stuff that’s going to bonded” – that’s when you put your films for long-term storage – and he said, “I need somebody to go through and inventory this stuff for me. Could you go over and do that for me?” I said, “Sure.”
I always take it upon myself to be as thorough as I possibly can be. I’ll take the extra five, ten minutes to detail something. So I’m going through this stuff, and there are a lot of pictures we’d worked on for Terry – film elements, trailer elements. And in particular, there was this one 35mm black-and-white film that I had never seen before. I’m there, and I’m looking at the box, and it says “Bruce Lee” on it, and it’s got Chinese writing on the side. I said to Terry, “You’ve got this black-and-white print – I don’t see any negative elements – but it says ‘Bruce Lee.’” He got a screening room, we screened it, and it was this Bruce Lee film, and he kind of vaguely remembered he had acquired this film. It was Bruce Lee but as a very young man – he looks like he’s maybe in his late teens, early 20s at the most. I called it BRUCE LEE: DEATH OF A SALESMAN, because that’s basically what the premise seemed to be, from what we could make out. It’s two brothers, and one’s come back home, and he’s kind of unsuccessful, and Bruce ends up hooking up with this young woman who’s outside of his class, and that’s disgraceful. This was a serious dramatic film, and he was doing serious dramatic acting, not his martial arts stuff. There’s a fall from grace, and people are humbled, and a lot of people die at the end of the movie.
From that black-and-white film, and from this samurai film, he spoke to this kid Ron Harvey, who just started working for him. Ron had aspirations of being a screenwriter. Ron came up with this idea: “If we take those two films, and we built a story around them, we could make a new movie.” He alluded to the fact that this samurai film could be “Bruce’s ancient ancestor” – which I’ve heard a lot of criticism about, and it’s justifiable. I said, “Yeah, but samurais are Japanese. Bruce is Chinese.” He says, “Aahh, nah, don’t worry about it, no problem.” “Okay, alright!”
Ron came up with the story, and it so happened that Aaron Banks was going to have this Madison Square Garden thing, which he did every year. And Terry said, “Fred Williamson’s coming into town,” and this is where Terry really got it together: he negotiated to bring Fred in. And Adolph Caesar, we had used Adolph a lot – almost exclusively for all the trailers for Terry’s films. He had that voice: “Feel the terror! Feel the heat! Kill! Kill!” But he was a stage actor. He had professional chops: he wasn’t just some guy with a deep voice.
What was Fred Williamson like?
I knew nothing about Fred Williamson. He was not the nicest guy in the world. I think, in a sense, he was trying to kind-of intimidate me, because he had been a director in his own right, and I was directing this thing.
Did he think it was beneath him?
No, because I think if you offered Fred money, he’s going to do it. But for instance, there’s a scene in his hotel room with the young lady. That young lady is very interesting – she had actually been to the casting call for that music video I was talking about. I had not used her, but I remembered her because she was very personable. You might find this hard to believe, but she works in Los Angeles, and she’s an entertainment attorney – a very good entertainment attorney. But she plays a ditz. She’s so funny, because she likes to go and hang out with her girlfriends, like “La di da di da, I’m a ditz,” but I’ve been with her when she’s been with various recording companies, and it’s like when you go to the movies and see the girl with the glasses and business suit – take the glasses off and there’s an attractive woman under there. She reminds me of Lady Gaga – she’s got that same kind of personality.
He was giving her a hard time. He was saying something to the effect of, “You have to motivate me! You have to make me feel like I want copulations with you.” I’m going to myself, “Oh god, poor Holly…” But she was up for it, and over and over again she’d go, “Oh, Fred… please satisfy me!”
She really lays it on thick.
She does. At the end, I went up to her and said, “Were you okay with all this?” She said, “Oh, I loved it!” In fact, I got her a one-sheet after the movie was done, and she says she keeps it over her bed and she looks at it while she and her husband are making love! (laughs) I said, “Okay Holly, if that works for you…”
Y’know, Fred ultimately delivered.
How about Adolph Caesar?
Adolph was just great, but there was a big problem with Adolph when we shot the stuff in the Garden: Adolph apparently likes to have a little nip every now and then. Here we are at the Garden, and we’d been there in the morning, and he’s tipsy, and I’m saying, “Oh my god…” If you notice in the film, when Adolph is at ringside and he’s talking, he has these great bursts of energy when he delivers his lines, and then he looks down and off to the side – and he’s doing that because he’s reading the script, because he’d lose his place. I said to myself, “Well, I’ve got to do something about this,” so that’s why I devised that he’d be looking down at a television monitor. I said, “That’s the fix – we’re going to shoot and inset, and I’m going to shoot the way a lot of commentators will look down at their monitors and see what the action is on various screens, and then go back up to the audience.” This way I could justify him looking down to the side, because he just kept looking down over and over again. He wasn’t fall-down drunk, but he was drunk enough that I guess his mind was wandering.
Did you film the scenes with Ron Van Clief?
Oh yeah – everything that didn’t have the look of an old source, like the black-and-white stuff and the samurai stuff. The only stuff that I didn’t film was the stuff that Terry procured like the footage of an interview that Bruce did. Ron Harvey kept going and finding this footage and Terry would go and negotiate something to secure this footage, and they’d say, “We’ll work it into the story,” and I’d say, “Uh… okay.”
If you remember the scene after Fred has his liaison with his young ladyfriend and the Rolls pulls out, and he bumps into this white nerdy guy – that’s Ron Harvey. He wanted his little cameo, and I said, “Fine.” He had really not production background, and he’d write these really elaborate things, and I’d say, “We’ll never get out of here in this amount of time if we do this,” so I had to condense stuff and combine shots. I wasn’t going to totally compromise myself, but at the same time, I want to end up with footage because we have to be at Point A and Point B in order to get stuff done.
Even though the film ultimately was released in 35mm, the big problem was that all these sources of material – the samurai film was Cinemascope, the Bruce Lee film was flat black-and-white 1.33:1 and it had Mandarin titles, so I had to do a lot of pan-and-scan. I had to sit there and say, “Okay, how do we get this footage into a 1.85:1 release?” Back then it was more expensive, and I can’t tell you how many times I’d run into people who didn’t think it through, and they’d end up with egg on their face.
I love the audacity of a scene like the “interview” with Bruce Lee, where his voice is clearly overdubbed.
That was the other thing: Ron didn’t give me anything for that. He just gave me a basic premise of what should transpire, but I didn’t have any dialogue. I was in there winging it, and that’s why some of that stuff… there’s one [moment] where he says, “I like to have a steak – you know it’s no good for you,” because I’m sitting there with the actors and I’m saying, “Okay, we just have to get through and bridge this to the next scene. We were running the footage in a loop, and I was saying, “It looks like he’s saying ‘steak’… okay, let’s build a line around ‘steak.’” That’s why the stuff has that WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? kind of quality to it, because they could be total non-sequiturs. It didn’t really matter as long as whatever point was made, which usually was determined by what Adolph might say in his intro. “Bruce did this, Bruce did that,” and then you’d see the footage.
How long did the dubbing take?
I was running back and forth, so it might have happened over a period of two weeks, but it wasn’t two weeks. I’d get an actor in here, and actor in there… In fact, the old wise man who’s in the black-and-white footage – that’s me, because the actor didn’t show up. And also, at one point there’s a producer with a cigar – that’s me. And again, that’s because the actor didn’t show up, and that’s what happens on these kind of pictures – you kind of have to wing it. But you try to do as much as you can to prep it, because no matter how much you do, something’s going to screw up.
Some stuff just works out nicely, like the opening with Adolph when he’s interviewing Aaron Banks with the crowd of people around there. Everything about that just clicked: we went out there and shot it, boom-boom-boom, let’s move into the Garden. And it’s not like Adolph was fall-down drunk – he was just a little, y’know, lightheaded. Terry had some stuff to do with that, because Terry took Adolph into this restaurant that was adjacent to the Mayflower Hotel where I was shooting and they had a liquid lunch. Which is fine for Terry, but not fine for talent! (laughs) And I’d tell Terry, “Look, we’ve gotta cool it with this stuff.”
I want to ask about a few more people who were in the movie, beginning with Ron Van Clief.
Ron Van Clief’s a very nice guy. Very nice, very cooperative, he wanted to do the best he could to accommodate us. A little tidbit: one of the guys who’s harassing the young lady in Tompkins Square Park when Ron Van Clief comes – he’s wearing a beige pullover terrycloth shirt. You know the saying, “I’ll give you the shirt off my back”? That’s my shirt, because the guy had a shirt with this very definitive company logo. I said, “We don’t want the guy to wear a shirt with a company that’s recognized, because he’s doing something of a questionable nature, and the company can come back and sue you, Terry.” So I took off my shirt and gave it to the guy!
Ron’s dojo was right near Tompkins Square – we shot the interior scenes, and we went right out into Tompkins Square. He was there, and those were his guys from his school, and he was absolutely out there to do the best he could. Sweetheart of a guy, just very personable – I liked the guy a lot.
Aaron Banks… ehh, I guess as to be expected, he was a bit of an egomaniac, but he could be cooperative when you said, “Aaron, I need this; Aaron, I need that.” There was a bit of a power struggle there, in that he was Mr. Karate in New York City, and there were other people like Bill Louie who were trying to say, “Well, Aaron’s old school – I’m the new guy in town.” You could see a little this-and-that, back-and-forth. But all in all, Aaron delivered when he had to deliver – you just had to kind-of coax it out of him.
Bill Louie, like I just said, he was like, “I’m the new guy in town, check me out, Aaron Banks is old school…” But he would deliver. That whole thing we did down in Battery Park City where he rescues the two girls and does the whole GREEN HORNET thing… I get this stuff from Ron Harvey and I’m like, “We’re doing why? Uh, okay… we’re doing GREEN HORNET? Okay…” Terry, I think, was looking at it from a marketing point of view.
What sort of box office did the film do at the time?
One of the things I’m proud of is, I told Terry it was going to be about $125-130,000 to do this, and it did even better than that, which you usually don’t hear of nowadays on a picture. He said with the prints and the production, it was $122,500 to do that picture – and like I said, he paid me every cent when the picture opened.
He claims that he did, like, $2 million on the picture. I don’t know – it’s not like he’s going to open up his ledger and show me what he did. I do know, for instance, that the weekend when the picture opened, he did a live show at the Selwyn Theater, and he had Ron Van Clief there on the stage – which they really didn’t do very often, even though those theatres were originally made for Broadway productions – and those houses were packed with people, because Ron Van Clief did a live karate demo preceding the picture. It played there, and it played uptown.
Terry always knew how to maximize his dollar with a film. I would guess – because after Terry did this picture, he moved up and bought on the Upper West Side – he must have pulled in a few bucks to do that. But even though it was a minimal financial risk, even back then, the guy’s risking money, and I’ve seen enough people go bust on something that was a quote-unquote “sure thing.”
What’s been your trajectory since FIST OF FEAR?
I did a stint with [North Carolina-based producer] Earl Owensby a year or so after FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH – I went down there and did a lot of his stuff. It reached a point with me – I guess it’s my frankness – they told me that I was going to be their only editor, because he said, “You don’t BS us: you just tell us that this is what it is.” I have this group called AllCreative NY – I’m one of the original Avid editors, so I have this creative group, we have meetings, and I have about 800+ members, and it keeps my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in production and post. I taught at NYU for a while. I’ve got a kid, she’s still in college, and she’s been doing this digital stuff combining theatre with video, and it blows me out of the water. I’m like, “Wow, I wasn’t doing this stuff in college – I had a Bell & Howell film camera.” I love the tools that are out there now, and I love the possibilities.
By the way, there were actually a couple of people who worked on my film who have gone on to bigger and better things. Like the guy who did the Foley for me, Skip Lievsay – he just won his Oscar for GRAVITY. He was right on the money! He came in, was very soft-spoken, did his work, left. The flipside was, the guy that I’d hired to do the bulk of the sound work, this guy Keith, just screwed up royally. I mean, I gave him an assistant to work with and he decided it was more to his advantage to sleep with her. They would just sleep in all the time, and I would end up having to pull an all-nighter to get the tracks ready.
My assistant director at the time was this guy John Gray, who has done lots of features, but he created the show GHOST WHISPERER. And a little side-note: I assigned him to do second unit for me, and his did a lot of exteriors of the Garden, and the cameraman I gave him was this guy Scott, and he and Scott were vying for the affections of the same woman. And so, John was telling me, “Scott’s not happy…” “Well, fuck him! John, you know what I need just get it!” “Yeah, yeah, I don’t have a problem, he has a problem…” – probably because John was winning.
James Kwei, who did sound and also had a cameo, went on to finish cutting GOODFELLAS. Thelma [Schoonmaker] had to leave because she was married to Michael Powell, and Michael Powell was ill, and Jimmy was working as assistant editor, so Scorsese upped him to editor and he finished editing GOODFELLAS. It was an interesting collection of people. August Films was kind of like the Roger Corman of the east coast.