Written by: Claudio Fragasso, José María Cunillés
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Starring: Margie Newton, Franco Garofalo, and Selan Karay
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What's the matter? Disappointed? Sorry, boys! I guess I'm not on the menu after all! Ha, ha, ha, don't let it worry ya! I figure we'll all meet again... in hell!"
We’ve seen plenty of films explore the horrors of European imperialism throughout the years, sure, but how many times have we seen it in a Dawn of the Dead/Zombie/Apocalypse Now no-budget rip-off helmed by Bruno Mattei? Not enough times, that’s for sure. Of course, there was only a brief, flickering moment in time when something like this was even possible: you might remember the 80s as the golden age for slasher movies, but I remember it as the Italian z-movie industry’s heyday, when intellectual property and copyright felt more like suggestions instead of actual laws. There’s something inherently compelling about how shameless this trend was, and Hell of the Living Dead endures as one of its more unbelievable efforts. It has just about everything you want from one of these things: the sneaking feeling that it was all made up as Mattei and co-writer Claudio Fragasso thought of different movies to rip off; zombies with heads easily mistaken for meatballs; tons of stock footage; and plenty of bad taste masquerading as social consciousness.
It begins in a logical enough place: with a chemical plant fuck-up that turns everyone inside the facility into zombies, which means it should be off and running. Instead, the story ping-pongs around for like 45 minutes, following the exploits of an expert commando tactical unit. After they defuse a hostage situation involving eco-terrorists, they head off to New Guinea for a well-deserved getaway. Their idyllic vacation ends, however, when they happen upon a pair of journalists investigating a bizarre phenomenon: apparently, the dead are returning to life as flesh-eating ghouls, an outbreak that might eventually destroy the entire nation.
Okay, now it’s a zombie movie, right? Well, about that. Because cannibal movies were en vogue at the time, Mattei and Fragasso detour into that territory for a bit, presumably because they had footage from Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallee at their disposal that they just had to use. In all seriousness, it’s actually a pretty inspired aside, at least by these standards. Remember that fantastic, intense scene in Dawn of the Dead where the citizens in the projects refused to kill their undead relatives? It’s like that, only it involves an entire village. Also, the sequence here starts with the female journalist stripping with gusto in order to blend in with the tribe and observe their customs. I don’t think the Romero had that.
Like most of the rip-off maestro’s efforts, Hell of the Living Dead is weirdly singular despite cribbing from so many obvious sources. Paradoxically derivative and wholly idiosyncratic all at once, it’s some kind of genius hack work in the way it exploits superior sources (Mattei pretty much lifts Goblin’s Dawn score, for example) and strips them down to their pulpy essence. Mattei’s films are rarely boring, and this one is certainly no exception with its endless sideshow of spaghetti-flavored violence: zombies chomp down on human flesh, undead kids make mincemeat of their parents (unsurprisingly, it doesn’t make you wait around for this as a climactic shocker either), and the ghouls’ heads often splatter like watermelons at a Gallagher show. Hell of the Living Dead is just wonderfully messy in the way it drips with latex, karo syrup, slime, and sleaze. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a bathtub that hasn’t been cleaned in months and is covered in a film of sticky, gooey scum.
Fittingly, whatever nonsense Mattei flings at it sticks. In addition to the usual crimson and vomit, Hell of the Living Dead also boasts its share of Eurotrash nonsense. That sense that you’re watching something being made up on-set is backed by Fragasso’s own recollections of the budget being slashed before the crew even arrived on-set, resulting in a somewhat improvised production. Mattei did what he often did by cobbling together ragtag elements and stitching them into the craziest quilt imaginable, one where the ragged and irregular patchwork is the charm. Oddball flourishes, like a cast member doing a rendition of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain routine, create indelible moments, even if the characters themselves are underwritten clichés who owe most of their personalities to the typically overdone dubbing. Other jagged edges, like its casual racism, definitely leave you wincing.
It also makes the film’s awkward attempt at social commentary that much more galling and clumsy. You might recall that Hell of the Living Dead actually opened in a chemical factory, which presumably served as ground zero for the undead epidemic ravaging the entire country. Lest you think Fragasso and Mattei forgot, the film actually returns there for the final act and digs up an entirely new subplot that introduces a political dimension that would feel trenchant and vital had Hell of the Living Dead not spent 80 minutes exploiting indigenous cultures and reducing them into an undead “other” meant to be blown away by our European heroes. Hell of the Living Dead essentially talks out of both sides of its mouth: “yeah, it’s awful how European powers have historically brutalized these regions—but aren’t zombies cool?”
To its credit, Hell of the Living Dead does reserve a grisly fate for just about everyone. Mattei is not one to discriminate: if you are of able body and can shuffle onto his set, he’ll likely find some way to rip you apart, melt you into some primordial ooze, blow up your eyeballs, or even have a rat inexplicably burst from your chest (Alien was popular around this time too, you see). And that’s exactly what you want when you scrape to the depths of Bruno Mattei’s work, sort of like when you really crave gas station pizza. Sure, you could go to a respectable pizza joint and order something that’s been exquisitely crafted with care. Sometimes, though, you just want the gas station pizza, specifically the slice that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for hours, accumulating grease and melting into an amorphous blob of ingredients.
All the familiar flavors are there when you bite into it, even if they are just a little bit off. You know it’s not good for you, and you can practically feel the indigestion rumbling in your gut before it ever settles. Will you regret this? Maybe just a little. Will you inevitably come back for more sometime later? Absolutely.
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