On August 12th, 1978, five men in reptilian masks hit the silver screen and the hood was hooked.
The Toad, Lizard, Scorpion, Snake and the Centipede arrived in the U.S. in “Five Deadly Venoms” (also known as “The Five Venoms”) and struck hard. It became an instant cult classic and, arguably, the most successful and influential movie from the Shaw Brothers and director Cheh Chang. Some might argue in favor of “The 36th Chambers of the Shaolin” (aka “Shaolin Master Killer”) which arrived two months earlier, but I believe the Venoms of the Poison Clan have a slight edge over The 36th Chamber.
The film attacked our attention immediately, with the haunting music and mysterious sounding narration described the Venoms.
Before death teacher explains to his last student about his previous students and their deadly skills …
We watched intensely as the elderly, dying master of the Poison Clan informed his last pupil, Yan Tieh, of his five fellow students who preceded him, each possessing a unique skill based upon different reptiles. Number One is The Centipede, whose strike are so fast that he appears to have multiple arms and legs. Number Two is The Snake, whose hands bite and sting like snake fangs and tails, and who can fight from the floor on his back. Number three is The Scorpion, whose kicks, like a scorpion, can paralyze or kill. Number Four is The Lizard who’s fast and agile and can stand and walk on walls. Number Five is The Toad, who possesses incredible strength and impenetrable skin, but suffers from the Achilles complex as he has one vulnerable spot. Tieh’s mission is to find these men and make sure that their skills are not being used for evil. He possesses some skills of each style, but to defeat them, he must pair with one of them.
These are the five men of the Poison Clan yet they don’t all know each other’s identities. Centipede and Snake know each other and Lizard and Toad know each other, but they don’t know the others, and no one knows who the Scorpion is. This all makes Tieh’s job harder and more dangerous, especially as word gets out that they’re being sought out. And once the Toad’s power is exposed and he’s killed once his weak spot is discovered, things get dramatically more complicated for Tieh and the Lizard.
Director Cheh Chang and the Venoms sent the hood into a frenzy, as kids ran to the park to try and run on building walls, perform high kicks and fight on their backs while sliding on the rubber matting in the playground. It was something no one had seen before. Even with “Five Fingers of Death (King Boxer aka The Invincible Boxer) and the aforementioned Shaolin Master Killer preceding this film, Venoms generated a different impact, captivating audiences with super powers and unique fighting styles.
Some might say that the Blaxploitation movies of the early 70s or Bruce Lee films such as “Way of the Dragon” and “Enter the Dragon” had a similar effect, and that’s true as they set the table years earlier, carving out their own places in pop culture history. But when the Venoms hit the screen, Times Square movie theaters, and ultimately VHS sellers on streets across Harlem and Brooklyn, saw their futures brighten significantly.
The five Taiwanese actors who portrayed he Venoms would appear in future Shaw Brothers films such as Kid with the Golden Arm, Crippled Avengers aka Return of the Deadly Venoms and Shaolin Daredevils. But they would always be known as the Venoms from the Poison Clan, with fans calling their future films Venom Movies and the group the Venom mob, titles which still stick to this very day.
The movie is one that all martial arts fans will stop and watch, especially the final ten minute fight scene where Tieh finally finds and confronts two of the evil students (the Centipede and the Snake), partnering with The Lizard to take them on. Then the Scorpion finally reveals himself, and it turns into an all out battle complete with big kicks, special moves, betrayal and death.
Five Deadly Venoms , watch this epic final battle between the student and the Lizard against the Centipede and Snake. The Scorpion would eventually come in to fight the student and the Lizard.
Five Deadly Venoms would watch its influence continue more than a decade after it hit the U.S., further solidifying it’s cult classic status. True fans of the martial arts movie will recognize it’s integration into pop culture in things like Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, where he featured the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and the start of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.”
The toad style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon. When it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible.
Those are the obvious ones, but there are many more examples that most wouldn’t even recognize unless you knew about the film. In the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the Five Venom Fists are based directly on the Five Deadly Venoms, complete with similar fighting styles from the film. In the 1993 movie “Iron Monkey,” featuring Donnie Yen and Rongguang Yu, the Iron Monkey (Yu) is struck with the deadly Buddha’s palm, and must have his assistant create a healing potion comprised of venom from a centipede, snake, scorpion and lizard, with the final ingredient being assumed as the venom of a toad (Dr.Yang/Iron Monkey passed out before revealing the final ingredient).
After releasing their martial arts films to the US in the late 70s, the Shaw Brothers went on to carve out a niche in urban culture that still stands strong today, and “Five Deadly Venoms” is a big reason of that success.
They capitalized upon the raw martial arts styles in Blaxploitation films and mass market appeal of Bruce Lee and gave fans something new to immerse themselves in. Comedians such as Michael Winslow created routines based upon the voice overs of their films, Wu-Tang developed their identity and music through their movies and 80s stars such as John-Claude Van Damme, David Carradine, Cynthia Rothrock, Michael Dudikoff and Steve Seagal owe much of their success to the Shaw Brothers and the doors that they opened when their films hit American screens. For those of us who grew up in NYC, Fox WNYW aired their Saturday afternoon “Drive In Movie” series from 3-5pm in the early 80s, featuring Shaw Brothers films such as Five Deadly Venoms, which brought everyone indoors from the basketball courts for two hours each Saturday. Even El Rey Network, recognizing the power and influence of these movies, ran Shaw Brothers films when they first launched.
While Five Deadly Venoms wasn’t the first of the Shaw Brothers films to be released in the U.S., its influence is undeniable four decades after its American debut. And with Entertainment Weekly ranking the film #11 in its “Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time” I would argue that it was their most successful film (I would also argue that “The Warriors” should be #1, not #16, and Five Deadly Venoms should be #2, on that list, but that’s another story).
Happy 40th to the “Five Deadly Venoms”!