WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS!
It’s been over four years since the world lost James “Doc Terror” Harris, one of the greatest champions of Italian Horror cinema that I had ever known. To honor the memory of my much-missed friend, I decided it would be a fine idea to review a fright flick hailing from the boot-shaped land of pizza and pasta. But as the saying goes, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” and (unfortunately for me) I must’ve added a new paving stone when I selected Bruno Mattei’s notorious HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD.
I originally discovered HELL’s existence (Ha!) several decades ago thanks to a review at BadMovies.Org, under the film’s alternate title NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES. At that time I was a teenage Horror sponge that was eagerly soaking up everything the genre had to offer. I had just started up this website and was working nights at a Suncoast Motion Picture Company that was populated by a gaggle of horror nerds. So it was inevitable that I would eventually stumble across a VHS tape of NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES and review it.
Having just revisited my old [terrible, eye-searing] “review” of this film, it is quite obvious that I absolutely abhorred Bruno Mattei’s zombie disasterpiece, which makes me wonder why I own it on Blu-ray (I keep lying to myself by saying that it’s because RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR is also included on this disc), and why I thought it’d be a great idea to revisit it. Why? WHY?! WHY DID I PUT MYSELF THROUGH THIS TORTURE AGAIN?!?! ARRRGGH!
HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD starts off by establishing a factory/research center filled with technicians and scientists in white lab coats. Dubbed a “Hope Center,” this secret research facility is ground zero for a program codenamed “Operation Sweet Death.” As scientists continue running tests on their equipment (i.e. randomly pushing colorfully lit buttons on a large console), two employees in protective suits are in the middle of a safety check. The two men come across a dead rat which has apparently caused a small gas leak in one of the pipes. But before they can report their findings, the rat returns to life and attacks!
The zombie rodent manages to kill one of the unlucky workers who, during the scuffle, ends up blowing open a valve and unleashing a green-hued gas into the air. Said gas fills up the Hope Center, turning any who succumb to its deadly effects into ravenous zombies. The film then shifts gears to a hostage crisis occurring somewhere in Barcelona, Spain (?) where a group of “eco-terrorists” have barricaded themselves into a building with numerous hostages. Their demand? That all Hope Centers across the globe be shut down! With the perimeter secured by local police, a squad of Interpol agents secretly infiltrates the building.
Made up of Osborne (Josep Lluís Fonoll), Vincent (Selan Karay), Zantoro (Franco Garofalo), and led by Lieutenant Mike London (Jose Gras), the commandos quickly sweep in and take out their targets with extreme prejudice before any hostages can be killed. As the leader of the failed terrorists breathes his last, he warns of impending death, doom, and devouring. But before they can contemplate the man’s final words, the blue-jumpsuited Interpol agents suddenly find themselves on the island of New Guinea. Wait, what? How did they suddenly appear halfway across the world?!
I wouldn’t normally nitpick something this inconsequential, but there’s almost nothing leading up to the instant change of venue, other than a throwaway line of dialogue from Mike London about “going on vacation to a tropical paradise!” Typically you’d have a short expository scene explaining the whys and hows (e.g. a higher up briefing Mike and his team), or even some stock footage (which Mattei LOVES using) of a plane or helicopter landing with some narration or dialogue laid over it. But nope, they are just awkwardly there and it’s definitely more than a bit jarring.
Shortly after their surprise teleportation to New Guinea, Mike London and his team cross paths with news reporter Lia Rousseau (Margie Newton) and her cameraman Max (aka Pierre, played by the very Frank Zappa-looking Gabriel Renom) moments after their fellow travelers (an arguing couple and their soon-to-be-bitey son) become zombie chow. The reporters and their Interpol entourage then travel deeper into the jungles of New Guinea to escape from small pack of zombies. Along the way, they come across oodles of stock footage, as well as a tribe of natives that takes them in after Lia jogs into their village wearing nothing but body paint.
But their respite is short-lived and soon Lia, Mike, and the others are once again on the run after a chaotic nighttime zombie raid in the village. They manage to escape to a seemingly abandoned plantation but are again accosted by more of the undead, resulting in the death of Osborne, who gets munched during an improvised dance routine. The remaining members of the group flee to a nearby beach by daybreak where they board a conveniently-placed raft, and head towards the Besòs Power Plant in Barcelona… err… I mean the Hope Center that we saw during the film’s opening sequence.
Once inside, they wander around the seemingly empty facility only to be rapidly picked off by zombies until only Lia and Vincent remain! Seconds after they are cornered by their reanimated companions, Lia makes a “startling revelation” about the actual purpose of the Hope Center before meeting her eye-popping demise. The film then wraps up as a young couple get ambushed by zombies elsewhere in the world (wait… the zombies set a trap?! We’re doomed! All doomed!), assuring us that the undead menace is no longer limited to the second largest island in the world!
HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD was one of fifteen films that Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso partnered on between 1980 and 1990. And while Mattei is listed as the director of HELL, Fragasso supposedly shot a large portion of the film himself and directed the cast members because Mattei was more adept at editing footage than he was at working with actors. According to Fragasso himself, there was a behind-the-scenes agreement where Mattei essentially told the young screenwriter “We work together, but I’m going to be credited as director.” Yeesh. This sounds more like a group project in high school where one person does the bulk of the work while everyone else takes credit, than it does a fair and equal partnership.
But perhaps that worked out best for Fragasso in the long run because HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD is a chore to sit through and remains one of my least favorite Italian zombie films. From its terrible pacing (this movie feels a HELL of a lot longer than 99 minutes), to the blatant overuse of stock footage from numerous sources (which include DES MORTS, NEW GUINEA: ISLAND OF CANNIBALS, and THE VALLEY), to the sheer idiocy of the main characters (they absolutely refuse to shoot zombies in the head!), every frame of this movie is dripping with glorious ineptitude!
Initially conceived by screenwriter and Assistant Director Claudio Fragasso as a strange mashup of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and 1973’s SOYLENT GREEN, HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD’s premise had to be substantially cut back because the co-producers in Spain didn’t come through with the necessary funds. Because of this, Mattei and Fragasso had to make due with what they could: The S.W.A.T.-style jumpsuits worn by the leads were tailored from material that was found in a dumpster, the bulk of the extras portraying zombies were migrant workers and gypsies, and oh, did I happen to mention the relentless parade of stock footage that was inserted into the film to pad the running time and give the illusion that everything was taking place in New Guinea?! (Ugh!)
Claudio Fragasso initially wanted Goblin to compose new music for HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD but it (like so many other things) was not in the budget. He instead used his limited resources to cobble together a soundtrack using several of Goblin’s tracks from Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (aka ZOMBI), Joe D’Amato’s BUIO OMEGA (aka BEYOND THE DARKNESS), and a bit of Luis Bacalov’s score from BLOOD AND DIAMONDS. The end result is an eclectic mix of music that actually works quite well with the proceedings, and gives HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD a much-needed boost.
The cast of HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD is clearly doing their best with the nonsensical script, with the two standouts being Margie Newton and Franco Garofalo. Margie’s news reporter character has the two most memorable moments in the film, namely her topless jog/meet & greet with some natives and her demise at the climax, while Franco absolutely shines as the increasingly frantic Zantoro. From yelling at his comrades for wasting ammo (“You gotta shoot ’em in the head!”), to playing “keep away” from the undead (thought up on the spot by Franco), to having silent improvved moments of madness with a crazed look in his eyes, Zantoro is the one character you want to see make it past the finish line!
To create the film’s rotting, shuffling corpses, and the gory wounds they inflict upon their victims, HELL’S director(s) hired Giuseppe Ferranti (makeup f/x artist on MONSTER SHARK, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, NIGHTMARE CITY and over a hundred other films) and Antonio Balandín (special effects technician on both CONAN movies, David Lynch’s DUNE, and SOLARBABIES). While the bulk of the makeup and gore effects in the film often involve extras sploshed with gray-tinted body paint and fake blood, Ferranti and Balandín managed to create some great little moments of onscreen carnage in the film, including several exploding zombie skulls, Margie Newton’s tongue being torn out before her eyes are popped out of her skull, and a cat that makes a surprise exit from the innards of an old woman’s corpse.
Suffice it to say Vault Dwellers, I am still not a fan of this movie all these years later though I have to admit that it does have a strange charm all of its own, which is likely a result of Mattei and Fragasso’s can-do attitude. These guys raided dumpsters, squeezed every ounce of production value they could out of a power plant, put their cast through a grueling shooting schedule (while also giving them a surprising amount of creative freedom), and sprinkled it all with copious amounts of stock footage in an effort to breathe life into the quasi-class warfare horror epic that was originally envisioned by Fragasso.
While I do in fact look at HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD through kinder eyes these days, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to casual viewers. This is strictly a film for fans of Italian Horror cinema, (bad) zombie flicks, and/or die-hard Bruno Mattei (and Claudio Fragasso) enthusiasts, and I’m being shockingly generous in giving it a rating of: