“The Dragon Lives Again”: Bizarro 70s Bruceploitation with post-mortem boners and more

By on May 28, 2016

The Dragon Lives Again — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — begins with a title card stating “This film is dedicated to millions who love Bruce Lee,” which is immediately followed by a scene in which the sheet-covered corpse of “Bruce Lee” (played by actor Bruce Leung, aka Leung Siu-lung), wakes up to find himself in the royal court of the “Underworld” sporting a massive boner. That’s right, a stiff Lee with a stiffy.

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Considering the real Bruce Lee had died just a few years earlier — on July 20, 1973, from cerebral edema caused by his hypersensitivity to an ingredient in a prescription medication — you might think that showing the beloved martial arts actor popping up a pup tent while dead on the slab isn’t the most respectful way to honor his legacy, but this is just the first scene in this bizarro Bruceploitation flick.

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The real Bruce Lee

Lee’s death had shocked everyone and his fans weren’t the only ones who were reacting to the sudden loss of the legendary screen hero who had become a box office sensation and made Kung fu flicks hugely profitable.

After struggling for years to make a living, playing sidekick parts in American films and TV shows, he became an “overnight” success and top box office draw and many Hong Kong-based film studios feared that their martial arts films — without the charismatic actor’s name attached to it somehow — were not going to be very successful.

Some of those film studios decided to continue making films which starred a Bruce Lee-type by having actors (some who looked like Lee, some who didn’t) change their screen names to something similar: “Bruce Li,” “Bruce Le,” “Bruce Chen,” “Bruce Lai,” Bruce Lie,” “Bruce Ly,” “Bruce K.L. Lea,” “Brute Lee,” “Myron Bruce Lee,” “Lee Bruce,” and “Dragon Lee.”

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Some of these actors had facial features that resembled Bruce Lee (most didn’t) or they copied his fighting moves — some of them had been co-stars in Lee’s movies (e.g. Bolo Yeung, Dan Inosanto, Wei Ping Ou), or they were stuntmen and not really actors.

Other films were deceptively marketed and advertised as genuine Bruce Lee pictures when they simply weren’t (like Fists of Fury, and The Big Boss), or they were bio-pics that detailed aspects of Lee’s life and death, mixing re-enactment scenes with real footage of Lee — sometimes showing him training or blocking out the fight moves he was going to use — which were then inserted into otherwise unrelated movies.

As you might expect, his fans flocked to these films and some of the first films using some of these exploitation tactics, rush-released soon after Lee’s death, and they were successful at the box office but often were dismissed as trashy rip-offs that were deemed disrespectful to the memory of Bruce Lee. The quality of the films vaired widely, depending on the film budgets and production values, and eventually they were simply referred to as “Bruceploitation.”

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The weirdest Bruceploitation films were those which acted as if the audience was in on the joke, spoofing the very concept of Bruceploition, films that used Bruce Lee’s name as merely a vehicle for going super weird, having the Kung fu superstar deal with supernatural forces or fight sci-fi/horror villains.

The best (or worst, depends) of these was the 1977 action-comedy The Dragon Lives Again — originally released as Li san jiao wei zhen di yu men, but also known as Deadly Hands of Kung Fu — directed by on of the unsung geniuses of Hong Kong exploitation, Law Kei, billed here as Lo Ke (English name: Joe Law).

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The film stars the talented Bruce Leung (real name: Leung Siu-lung), who, despite wearing Bruce Lee’s trademark sunglasses, looks absolutely nothing like Bruce Lee (we’re informed that despite having him having the name Bruce Lee the reason his face is so unfamiliar is that “your features change a little when you die”).

Even so, Bruce Leung — who also appeared billed as “Bruce Liang”, “Bruce Leong”, or “Bruce Leung Siu-lung” — was one of the better Bruce Lee clones, having been a long-time practitioner of several martial arts styles, including Goju ryu Karate, and Wing Chun, so he at least looked like he could replicated Lee’s patented martial arts moves onscreen.

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In the 1970s and ’80s, he appeared in a large number of martial arts films, appearing with Jim Kelly in The Tattoo Connection (he’s only briefly in the movie, which featured choreographed fight scenes by Jackie Chan!), and Magnificent Bodyguards, the first Hong Kong film lensed in 3D, but he’s best known for The Dragon Lives Again.

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We really don’t think we should give away too much of the plot here, because it’s fun to watch what happens to Leung’s “Bruce Lee” after that initial boner scene, but we can tell you that during the course of the film, which shows Lee in “The Underworld,” fighting against a dozen bad dudes, including Dracula, James Bond, and Zatoichi (the famous Japanese chambara character is billed here as “The Blind Swordsman,” and he gets some of the best lines, like “He’s really a pig ignorant twit!”).

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There’s also an actor portraying Clint Eastwood in his “Man With No Name” spaghetti western guise, someone resembling “The Godfather,” Laurel and Hardy, “The Exorcist,” a bunch of poorly-wrapped mummies, and even an actress who resembles the 1970s softcore porn character “Emmanuelle” (one of her victims utters the priceless dubbed line, “Her pussy’s in this plot too – she was using it to murder me!”).

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Our hero doesn’t have to do it all by himself, however, as he also gets a little help from his friends, including The One-Armed Swordsman, “Caine” from TVs “Kung Fu,” and Popeye the Sailor Man (played by actor Eric Tsang, who is today known for his appearance in the Lucky Stars series — My Lucky Stars, Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars — and for appearing in a number of films with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.