Few movies provide as much unintended pleasure as Dino De Laurentiis's belated King Kong Lives (1986). This reviewer fondly remembers seeing the film at a Saturday matinee at the Campus Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were just two other people in the theater -- a young couple on a date -- and when the movie ended and the lights came up, the three of us staggered out, dumbfounded by what we had just seen. They had sat in the back of the theater and were out on the street before me, and as I walked through the door, I heard a loud click behind me. An usher had locked the door and was posting a sign reading "closed forever" in the window. King Kong Lives had put the 35-year-old movie house out of business!
The picture opens with the climax of Dino's notorious King Kong (1976) in footage which, rather surprisingly, prominently features both Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Despite being sprayed with machinegun fire and falling 110 stories off the World Trade Center, beauty didn't kill the beast after all. Ten years later a down but not out Kong lies in a coma at a lab in the Deep South (convenient to De Laurentiis Studios in North Carolina, no doubt). Despite the pummeling Kong took in the first picture, the only thing wrong with him now is his ticker.
Watched over by scientist Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton), Kong's $6 million artificial heart is ready for transplant, but the big ape (now played by Peter Elliott) needs plasma -- and lots of it. "Only a miracle can save Kong now," laments Hamilton. One miracle coming up.
Deep the Borneo jungle, Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) an Indiana Jones type with a decidedly low I.Q., stumbles upon a giant female ape, known in the credits only as Lady Kong (George Yiasoumi). A Fay Wray-like attraction by Lady Kong to Hank is suggested, a role reversal along the lines of Queen Kong (1976), but this is quickly dispensed with as Lady Kong is captured and shipped for the big operation.
And, oh what an operation it is. Played without the slightest hint that anyone knew how ridiculous it all was, Amy and her team of doctors use giant clamps, a mammoth buzzsaw, and an enormous I.V. bag of blood as they operate on Kong. (There is, however, no sign of a huge hypodermic needle, the kind used to stick The Amazing Colossal Man.) As doctors scurry around the operating theater like the cast of Land of the Giants, Kong's failing heart (which resembles a bloody beanbag chair with valves) is scooped up by a crane and the robot heart put in. The tension is palpable as Amy struggles to save Kong, noting testily, "We are not lancing a hemorrhoid here, we're replacing a heart!"
As Kong recovers (with no trace of a scar where they cracked him open) he becomes attracted to Lady Kong. In the middle of the night he escapes and rescues his new girlfriend. Sourpuss Lt. Colonel Nevitt (John Ashton) is put in charged of the ape-hunt. "We should have no problem identifying the enemy," he tells his men, "They're 50-feet tall and wearing their birthday suits." Nevitt develops a completely unmotivated hatred for the pair, and in typical bad movie fashion, the cigar-chomping career soldier becomes obsessed with killing them both. Meanwhile, Amy and Hank try to find the two young lovers before the army does.
King Kong Lives has a wonderful cheesy grandeur about it. What makes the film so enjoyable is that most of the film is played straight, as if it really was something special. Such films are easy targets, but the truth is King Kong Lives is no worse or more ridiculous than any of the recent Godzilla pictures recently reviewed on this site, and this is just as entertaining. By 1986 standards, King Kong Lives actually has pretty good special effects, especially the matte work, which is often excellent and far superior to anything in the 1976 film. There's also a better integration of the Carlo Rambaldi's full-size Kong props with the gorilla suits, created by Doug Beswick and others.
One action set piece that actually delivers is Kong's first rescue of Lady Kong in a large hanger, which mixes full-size stunt gags with well-integrated miniatures and mattes. The actors insides the ape skins, Elliott and Yiasoumi, manage to generate something like sympathy for their characters, though their romance is anthropomorphised to the point of complete absurdity. They even cuddle. Appropriately, the two are top-billed over the end credits, even above Hamilton and Kerwin. (Of course, this is just the opposite of the first film, where Rick Baker's makeups were unfairly buried in the credits and his performance uncredited.)
The script, though, is hopeless. Besides Nevitt's hatred of Kong, unmotivated and unexplained concepts abound. When Kong jumps into a river and bonks his head like Curly Howard against a rock, everyone assumes the Big Ape is dead. "He's alive and I know it!" insists Amy for no good reason. Further, she knows that Lady Kong knows Kong is alive, too. Also unexplained is Amy's specialty. What could it possibly be, anyway? Giant artificial hearts? 50-foot apes?
Video & Audio
King Kong Lives is available as a Region 2/NTSC import from Japan, under the Pionner label in association with Full Media/Modern Entertainment. (It is sold under its original Japanese title, King Kong 2 though onscreen credits still read King Kong Lives.) The film was sourced from Studio Canal, which did a very nice 16:9 anamorphic transfer of the original J-D-C Scope (2.35:1) aspect ratio. The Dolby Digital stereo sound is likewise quite good, reflective of the time in which the film was made. There are no extras at all, unless you count the chapter stops and removable Japanese subtitles.
King Kong Lives would have been a perfect drive-in movie if by 1986 there had been a drive-in market left to book the picture in. Now at least, this Eighth Wonder of the DVD World can be enjoyed in all its absurd glory.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.