Written by: Antonio Tentori, Bruno Mattei, & Giovanni Paolucci
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Starring: Yvette Yzon, Gaetano Russo, and Alvin Anson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Where the hungry dead feast on the flesh of the damned!
Hereís a theory: maybe nobody ever told Bruno Mattei that the 80s ended. Itís arguably the only way to explain how Island of the Living Dead was released in 2007 when it looks and feels like it could have easily been released in 1987. While the Eurohorror scene that gave rise to his infamy largely crumbled around him during the 90s, Mattei soldiered on rather obliviously by directing over a dozen movies all the way up until his death at the age of 75. Watching them is like glimpsing into an alternate universe where this industry continued unabated and just kept churning out shameless rip-offs. In an actual world where several filmmakers tried to constantly recapture the feel, Matteiís films feel remarkable because itís like he never lost it in the first place.
Figuring out his inspiration for this one doesnít take long. Island of the Living Dead begins like so many other Eurohorror films, with a group of seafarers (in this case, treasure hunters) stumbling upon a desolate island. Thanks to previous films and an informative prologue, we know this island is fucked. Details from opener are a bit scarce, but itís obvious that the dead returned to life and terrorized the living at some point during the islandís history. As the crew of this soon-to-be ill-fated vessel makes landfall, this is but one discovery that awaits them. Weirder still is the centuries-old curse that has reanimated the dead and doomed them to walk the island as shades of their former selves, forever destined to ward off and consume intruders.
Weíll start with the dissectionóor the post-mortem, if you will. Picking Island of the Damned apart reveals some obvious traces of Zombie, the progenitor for this specific brand of Italian horror. Both the setting and the dreamlike atmosphere especially harken back to Fulci, not to mention the voodoo-tinged undead warring with religious figures during the prologue. As the characters burrow deeper into the islandís fortress and learn the haunted nature of their treasure, you begin to pick apart other influences, such as The Blind Dead series and The Fog. One of the most famous bits of dialogue from Night of the Living Dead is pilfered, and thereís even a bit where a character wards off zombies with kung-fu in what must be a reference to Raw Force. Hell, at one point, he lifts a sequence from his own Hell of the Living Dead. As always, these brazen echoes are bizarre but innocent, sort of like a teenager playing his favorite songs on a shitty, out-of-tune guitar in his parentsí basement. Itís charming but kind of hilarious.
More fascinating here, however, is an instance that seemingly reveals Matteiís self-awareness. For once, itís his refusal to completely plagiarize thatís most noteworthy. At a critical point, he obviously sets up the infamous eye-gouging scene from Zombie, only to pull back without going through with it. Is it a rare meta-cognizant moment from Mattei that acknowledges what his career was built upon? It certainly feels like an attempt to break the fourth wall in order to screw with audience expectations: hereís a time when you absolutely want him to rip-off a famous movie and he refuses. Maybe itís what weíve always wanted from him all alongóin many ways, he carved this niche into a work of absolute art.
Matteiís other tics are also abundant: the loopy dubbing, the confounding character decisions, the deranged gore, all of which are realized on an expectedly meager budget. In typical Mattei fashion, none of these are excuses to just goof off, though. Island of the Living Dead may feature all of these detrimental elements, but itís nothing if not sincere about being the best goddamn umpteenth rip-off of Zombie it can possibly be. It turns out that it can be remarkably effective, particularly because its director embraces both the zany plot (which sees the zombies evolve into conversational spirits) and some wonderfully eerie locales. While the Philippine exteriors reflect the filmís cheapness, the sets provide a sumptuous tour of decrepit buildings and dusty labyrinths bathed in ethereal lighting and flowing with ghoulish zombies. Even a sluggish stretch that finds the group wandering around and stumbling upon information doesnít drag too terribly because Mattei is painting on a moody, atmospheric digital video canvas that accentuates the dreamlike feeling.
Of course, Island of the Living Dead is also the sort of movie that features a character hitting a self-destruct button on a doomed boat, and the resulting cut to an exploding model ship is a hoot. So, too, is the stock footage that fills out the backstory of the undead curse. Mattei has never been at a loss for such outrageous moments, and itís almost reassuring that he refused to change. Island of the Living Dead feels like it could have followed up the likes of The Other Hell or Rats two decades earlier. Itís an old-school gut-muncher from the guy who built the damn school in the first place. The gore-soaked lesson is as lively as it ever was during Matteiís prime: you could argue that itís only because he set the bar so low in the first place, but it takes talent to accomplish something as wildly entertaining as this. Mattei is one of the few people who can shoot for Zombie and end up with something thatís more like Zombie 4 without it feeling like a disappointment.
Thankfully, Intervision--who has become an invaluable curator of latter-day Mattei--has rescued it from permanent obscurity. Their disc preserves the filmís surprisingly decent production values quite well with a nice anamorphic transfer, while the stereo soundtrack adequately delivers every silly dubbed line and the hilariously bombastic score. An 18-minute featurette with producer Giovanni Paolucci and screenwriter Antonio Tentori allows the directorís collaborators to reminisce on a man they considered to be a friend and a mentor; more than just a specific reflection on Island of the Living Dead, itís a nice little retrospective on this final stage in Matteiís career. Both the filmís original trailer and its international sales pitch round out a disc any Mattei fan will want to add to their collection. Better yet, itís for a film that can easily slide onto the shelf right beside his previous workógo ahead and put it right next to Hell of the Living Dead. I doubt youíll notice much of a difference between the two despite the 25 years separating them. Buy it!
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