The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Hell of the Living Dead (dir by Bruno Mattei)


Hell of the Living Dead, a 1980 Italian zombie film, is a movie known by many different names.  Some of these names are more memorable than others.

For instance, it’s known as Virus, which isn’t a very good name.  It’s kind of boring.  Plus, a virus could lead to anything.  Sure, a virus could turn someone into a zombie but it could also just mean a week in bed.  Plus, there’s already a thousand movies called Virus.

Night of the Zombies is a bit more specific, though still rather generic.  Just about every Italian horror film that came out in 1980 was about zombies and most of them took place at night.

Island of the Living Dead, at the very least, let’s you know where the majority of the movie takes place.  That said, it’s kind of a dishonest title.  The island isn’t just occupied by the living dead.  There’s also a primitive tribe, the members of which pop up occasionally to throw spears at a group of soldiers and a journalist.

I absolutely love the title Zombie Creeping Flesh.  Seriously, I don’t know why they bothered to come up with so many alternate titles when they already had Zombie Creeping Flesh.

However, this film is best known as Hell of the Living Dead and, actually, I guess that’s a pretty good title.  I mean, it’s totally and completely over the top.  Add to that the title almost feels like a challenge being specifically issued to the fans of George Romero’s zombie films.  It’s as if the film is saying, “If you can’t handle the Night or the Dawn, the Hell is absolutely going to kill you!”

Anyway, this is an extremely low-budget film from director Bruno Mettei and screenwriter Claudio Fragasso.  The team of Mattei/Fragasso were famous for producing some of the most ludicrously silly horror films to ever come out of Italy.  (Outside of his collaboration with Mattei, Fragasso is best known for directing Troll 2.)  A typical Mattei/Fragasso film is entertaining without being particularly good.  They were never ones to allow a thing like a lack of money to stand in the way of their narrative ambitions.

For instance, in Hell of the Living Dead, there’s one isolated scene that’s supposed to take place at the United Nations.  The scene appears to have been filmed in a lecture hall at a small university.  One delegate angrily declares that he is sick of everyone exploiting his zombie-occupied country.  Someone else suggests that maybe they should take a break until tomorrow.  It’s an incredibly inauthentic scene that adds nothing to the story but that didn’t keep the team of Mattei and Fragasso from including it in the film.  They were determined to have a UN scene and they weren’t going to let a lack of money or access stop them.

Anyway, the majority of the film deals with a zombie outbreak on a small tropical island.  The island is almost exclusively made up of stock footage.  A typical scene will feature a character like journalist Lia (played by Margit Evelyn Newtown) standing in the middle of the frame.  She looks to the right and we get some grainy stock footage of a bat or something similar.  She looks to her left and we get some faded stock footage of a tiger.

As I mentioned previously, the island also has primitive natives.  Whenever you hear the drums in the distance, it’s important to toss off your shirt, paint your face, and start jogging.  Otherwise, you might get killed.  You know how that goes.

And then there’s the zombies, of course.  The zombies get an origin story, something to do with an accident at top secret chemical plant.  At the start of the film, a rat attacks a scientist.  I’m assuming the rat was carrying the virus but it’s just as possible that Mattei just decided to throw in a random rat attack.  (His best film was literally just 90 minutes of rat attacks.)  Regardless, the zombie effects actually aren’t that bad but the problem is that whenever the zombies show up, they have to compete with all of the stock footage.  When the zombies aren’t dealing with animal footage that was originally shot for a mondo film, they keep busy by eating nearly everyone that they meet.  A group of soldiers have been sent to take care of the zombies but since none of them are particularly bright, they don’t have much luck.

Hell of the Living Dead has a reputation for being one of the worst zombie films ever made.  I don’t know if I would go that far.  It’s watchable in a “what the Hell did I just see?” sort of way.  And in the end, isn’t that kind of the point of a film like this?

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