Friday, 1 February 2008

Hell of the Living Dead (1981)

Imagine their embarrassment when they all showed up at the
Dawn of the Dead convention dressed as Roger

The viewing public were ravenous for more zombie films after the success of Dawn of the Dead and Zombi 2, and a group of Spanish and Italian producers were ready to offer dozens of dollars to a reliable hack. Stepping up to the plate were the one-two punch that is director Bruno Mattei and writer Claudio Fragasso, showing that whatever competent genre filmmakers can do, they can do worse, but cheaper. This film goes by more aliases than a con-artist on the lam, in what is undoubtedly an attempt to fool hapless consumers. Even Mattei is credited as Vincent Dawn. However, a turd, by any other name, would reek just as bad.

Like many cheap Italian zombie films, it opens with stock footage of a chemical plant. This is the Hope Center, one of a number of UN funded installations in developing countries with the aim of solving world hunger. The project is called "Sweet Death", which is admittedly a pretty cool name. Inside the center, a bunch of guys in lab coats are doing some science. You know what they are doing must be important because there are lots of buttons and gauges. Professor Barrett is talking to Fowler, a technician who looks like he should be shooting Calvin Klein ads in wind tunnels.

Meanwhile couple of guys are taking measurements in a supposedly sterile area of the plant. I'm not sure what they're measuring, but the readings can't be very accurate because the position of the needle is being manually controlled by a dial right next to the gauge. They discover a dead rat which comes to life and starts munching away on one of the scientists while the other stands there and watches (this seems to be a common reaction in this film). Pretty soon the whole plant is being filled with a zombifying green gas. Professor Barrack manages to retreat to his office and record your standard "May God forgive us" speech before he falls victim to the deadly gas.

We now cut to the American Consulate (in Spain, I presume), where a bunch of terrorists have taken hostages and are demanding that the Hope Centers be shut down. A group of four Interpol commandos have been called in and they are wearing eye-searing blue outfits that will look familiar to anyone who has seen Dawn of the Dead. Following a reminder by their commander not to get their "balls wasted", they storm the consulate. Sure, their methods may seem brutal, slitting the throats of unarmed terrorists may not be strictly by-the-book, but you can't argue with their results! As the final terrorist gasps his final breath, he tells them that they are "doomed to be eaten up".

On their next assignment our crack team is off to Papua New Guinea, where the women are "naked and wild". Once there they get busy pissing on some native graves and generally acting like assholes. It is here that we first see one of many egregious uses of grainy documentary footage. You see, in an attempt to lend authenticity to the exterior sets, Mattei spliced in copious amounts of footage from La Vallée, a 1972 French pseudo-documentary about remote New Guinea tribespeople. It didn't work.

Meanwhile, a couple in serious need of counseling are seeking help for their zombie-bitten child. Joining them are obligatory annoying reporter Lia (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her cameraman Max (Josep Lluís Fonoll). They seek help at an abandoned mission but pretty soon the kid is chowing down on the dad while everyone stands around vomiting. The Interpol dudes show up and the kid gets blasted about a dozen times (and unlike Romero, Mattei is not above showing us the full monty). All the Interpol guys and the two journalists manage to escape.

It is about now that the annoying reporter decides she has to go ahead and meet with the natives, which involves doffing her top and painting targets on her nipples while she jogs about ten feet in front of their jeep. Needlessly to say, this is awesome. Apparently her nudity does the trick, and soon everyone is kicking back with the natives. It's now that Mattei starts splicing in documentary footage with reckless abandon. We see random shots of native burial rituals (very tasteful, Mattei) while the protagonists interact with natives that look nothing like those in the documentary. When Mattei runs out of doco footage, native zombies appear and our heroes beat a retreat.

After an argument that ends in a gunpoint confrontation and a few other shennanigans, they stumble upon a large house and split up to investigate. One commando discovers a zombie granny with a cat nesting inside her, while another, upon discovering a large wardrobe in the cellar, dons a green tutu, top hat and cane and does an impromptu dance routine. His bizarre musical interlude is fatally interrupted by ravenous zombies and soon everyone is forced to escape.

Eventually they make it to the Hope Center and Lia unravels the true purpose of the experiments. It seems that they were trying to develop a chemical to turn the citizens of the third world into flesh-eating zombies so they can eat each other out of existence. That kind of misguided, letting-the-problem-solve-itself thinking would be a neat piece of social criticism in the hands of a better filmmaker. Unfortunately Lia's tardy realisation doesn't stop her from getting a zombie hand down her throat and her eyeballs popped out from the inside. All of the Interpol guys get eaten up too. You should have listened to that terrorist, dudes!

The film concludes with a tacked-on epilogue that implies the virus has made it's way to the first world.

There is a lot to hate about this film. The acting ranges from bad to abysmal, and is often hilarious. The dubbing is atrocious and done in service of nonsensical dialogue. The gore effects, though plentiful, are mostly cheap and unconvincing. The doco footage seems to have been clumsily edited in with the use of a meat cleaver and sello tape.

Also, Mattei's shameless pilfering from better films is even more obvious than usual. I haven't even mentioned the soundtrack, which consists entirely of music lifted from Dawn of the Dead and a few other Goblin-scored films.

With all these problems and more, I can't help but have a lot of love for this film. When I'm in need of a good laugh it never fails. Invite all your friends around, crack open a beer, and give this film a go. You will not regret it, unless you are expecting competent film-making.

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