Updated: Oct 28
Find out where the Five Venoms came from, how they evolved in subsequent fight films and why they ruled drive-ins and cable television in the 1970s and '80s.
We all love martial arts movies. Right now, let's test your knowledge of one part of this vibrant genre: kung fu films. Your first task is to name the Five Venoms. For extra credit, tell me how many films the actors who played them made together. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I bet most of you didn’t get the answers right. If that’s the result of a lack of interest in Chinese martial arts movies, all I can say is you don’t know what you’re missing. If it’s the result of the confusion that was created by the way the movies were marketed in the United States, you have a valid excuse. But let's continue.
It all started in 1978 when cameras rolled to make a Shaw Brothers kung fu film titled The Five Venoms. It also would be known as The Five Deadly Venoms and Five Poisons, the latter being a direct translation of the movie’s Chinese title. Now here’s the rub: Five Venoms actually featured eight venoms. So if there really were eight venoms, why are only five reflected in the title? The answer is complicated — and confusing.
The five venoms and the actors who played them were Scorpion Gai Ji (Sun Chien), Toad Liang Shen (Lo Meng), Centipede Zhang Yiao-tian (Lu Feng), Snake Qi Dong (Wei Bai) and Gecko Meng Tian-xia (Kuo Chue). The other three venoms didn’t have associated animals.
They were Yang De (Chiang Sheng), the head of Venom House (Dick Wei) and the bookkeeper (Ku Feng). The actors who portrayed the five venoms appeared together in only three other films: The Kid With the Golden Arm (1979), Invincible Shaolin (1978) and The Brave Archer II (1978), the last of which was shot before Five Venoms. Yet an additional 16 movies were released in America under the banner of “films that featured the five venoms.” Keep reading to find out how that came to be.
In the late 1970s, kung fu films were on the decline. After all, the king of martial arts cinema — Bruce Lee — had died in 1973, and no one had been able to fill his shoes. Furthermore, drive-ins — the outdoor theaters where kung fu films ruled — were waning. Then out of nowhere, cable TV appeared. Scores of just-launched channels began searching for programs to attract audiences, and they were willing to accept movies that network-TV execs would never deem acceptable.
Cable distributors decided the solution to this problem lay with the studio that started the kung fu craze in the USA: Shaw Brothers. They immediately began asking which English-dubbed offerings were available. At the top of the list were Five Venoms, Golden Arm, The Master Killer and Chinatown Kid. Each one wound up getting lots of cable-TV airtime in the afternoon and late at night, but it was Five Venoms that had the biggest impact.
American video distributors quickly keyed into that popularity and began buying rights for films that featured those kung fu stars. The sixth venom actor, Chiang, became a replacement for one of the original five, Wei Bai. So the first follow-up film that was advertised as featuring the five venoms — Crippled Avengers in 1978 — was conveniently renamed Return of the Five Deadly Venoms. Wei suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder that causes uncontrollable motor and vocal tics. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to control the outbursts on camera. Consequently, his last appearance with the four venoms was in Golden Arm, and even by then, his martial skills were fading. It was fortuitous that Wei used a sword during his fights in Golden Arm because it minimized the direct body contact he had with the stuntmen. That, in turn, lowered the frequency of tics on the set.
After Wei left the group, films that were shot after Five Venoms
(featuring Chiang and the four original venoms) were initially branded in Asia as Five Weapon Guys movies. In the United States, the preferred marketing tactic entailed designating the productions as Five Venoms films and later as just Venom
films. Later on, any movie that featured at least one of the Venom actors ended up being called a Venom film. Now, are you ready for the quiz? (Photo of Eric Lee by Rick Hustead)