(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.
Continue reading “An Interview with Matthew Mallinson, director of FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH”