A so-so story is saved by a solid cast and some great atmosphere in this throwback comedy-horror.
“Close the door to heaven, open the road to Karma close the door to life, open the door to death.”
For a time in the 80s and 90s, Hong Kong had kind of an obsession with comedy-horror films, especially ones about Jiangshi, those hopping vampires with Qing dynasty clothing. I wrote about this in my review for Sammo Hung’s Spooky Encounters, which was one of the seminal titles in the genre, along with Ricky Lau’s Mr Vampire but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the movies were the result of the craze, or vice versa. Either way, it eventually died down, so it’s only natural that, like their ceaselessly undead subject matter, the genre would get some sort of return.
Vampire Cleanup Department is something along those lines. It focuses on Tim (Babyjohn Choi), a student who lives with his trash-collecting grandmother in Hong Kong. Believing he comes from a long line of garbage people and sweepers. However, after trying to rescue an old man from being attacked, Tim learns that vampires are real, and the only defence against them is the Vampire Cleanup Department, led by Chung (Richard Ng). Chung informs Tim that his parents were members of the department, who died on duty and that Tim’s blood, somehow, is immune to the vampire’s curse.
Tim meets the rest of the team – battle master Chau (Chin Siu-ho), weapons expert Kui (Lo Mang) and priest Ginger (Yuen Cheung-yan) as they train Tim to be the newest member of the team. However, his idealistic views don’t always gel with the department, and after successfully capturing a female vampire (Lin Min-chen), decides not to cremate her. He learns she was buried alive as a funeral object for another vampire, and takes pity, bringing her back to his home, where he believes she can be helped. Little does he know that this other vampire is tracking her down.
There have been a few attempts to revitalise the genre, such as the Yuen Biao film Sifu vs Vampire but where those have failed, Vampire Cleanup Department manages to keep much of the charm that made those 80s movies so enjoyable. It does this by basically coasting by on a simple (if predictable) story, a good mix of characters and by never really taking itself too seriously. This is a film that isn’t trying all that hard, which works both in its favour, and against it. Let’s look at one of the strongest aspects: the cast.
Everyone here is really quite likeable, even some of the douchier ones like Chau, which means that even if the movie is going sort of nowhere (as it tends to sometimes), at least the on-screen shenanigans are fun to watch. Leads Lin Min-chen and Babyjohn Choi have great chemistry, and Lin is definitely in the running for Cutest On-Screen Vampire. Richard Ng’s mere presence is always welcome and nudges the audience into nostalgia mode almost immediately when he’s reunited with his Lucky Stars co-star Eric Tsang.
I was convinced, going into this movie, that it would be a total disaster, that it would be loaded with unfunny gags and over-the-top acting. I’m not really sure why; it must have been something in the trailer. Thankfully, Vampire Cleanup Department hits more often than it misses and you’ll probably not be disappointed you went and saw it. I can see this being put on at a film night at Halloween. There are enough good gags, atmosphere and scenes to carry this film over the finish line. Chances are you won’t remember much of the story after you’re done, but while it’s on, you could do a lot worse.
Verdict: A decent retrospective of old HK horror-comedies, Vampire Cleanup Department won’t blow you away, but thankfully by design.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Unintentional 500 Days of Summer Reference: Right at the end
Mr Miyagi Bullshit: One instance
Cellphones: Apparently powered by stomach acid. How is it still on?
Half-vampire-human: Why does every vampire movie have to have this trope now?
Vampire Cleanup Department (2017)
Also known as: 救僵清道夫
Directors: Yan Pak-wing, Chiu Sin-hang
Writers: Yan Pak-wing, Ho Wing-hong, Ashley Cheung
Babyjohn Choi – Tim Cheung
Lin Min-chen – Summer
Chin Siu-ho – Chau
Richard Ng – Chung
Lo Mang – Kui
Yuen Cheung-yan – Master Ginger
Siu Yam-yam – Grandma
Eric Tsang – Officer Lee