Friday, 9 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

Director: Bruno Mattei (with additional material by Claudio Fragasso)
Screenplay: Claudio Fragasso, José María Cunillés and Rossella Drudi
Cast: Margit Evelyn Newton (as Lia Rousseau); Franco Garofalo (as Zantoro); Selan Karay (as Vincent); José Gras (as Lt. Mike London); Gabriel Renom (as Pierre)

Synopsis: A zombie outbreak occurs in Papua New Guinea due to a failed experiment of an organisation called Hope. Can a group of soldiers, on a secret mission to investigate the source of the cause, and a news reporter (Newton) they encounter by accident survive as the end of mankind starts to take place?

Another Italian genre film but of an different tone entirely. There are those known for their style like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, and there are those who use a lot of stock footage and make films that rip off Predator (1987) and Jaws (1975). There are those who make films like Troll 2 (1990) too. Two such individuals in the later camps collaborated here, Mattei notorious for films like Strike Commando (1987) and Rats: Night of Horror (1984), while Fragasso, who contributes additional scenes and story ideas, directed Troll 2. Hell of the Living Dead is one of the imitators who came about after Fulci's Zombi (1979) did so well internationally, itself an unofficial sequel cashing in on George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). The film also known as Zombie Creeping Flesh in the UK is a peculiar stew of bits and pieces if there ever was one. The zombie outbreak is caused by a usual convention in these films, human beings messing about with science, but the result film is a hodgepodge of environmental concerns and a sociological travelogue mixed with a gore fest.

Mattei has used pre-existing footage a few times in his career. His shark film Cruel Jaws (1995) is an infamous example of this, as Scream Factory found out when they realised they couldn't release it in the USA recently  on physical media, not only having footage from other Italian shark movies like Enzo G. Castellari's The Last Shark (1981), but footage from the Jaws franchise they were all riding the coattails of. What's novel in the case of Hell of the Living Dead is that its use of a great deal of nature footage, originally from the Barbet Schroeder film La Vallée (1972), and other materials, from the likes of tribal customs to a United Nations conference, actually gives the film a hypnotic quality it probably doesn't deserve. Its origin was a movie with a greater scale of ideas that had to be made possible to film on a lower budget, with Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi helping to rewrite the film to make this possible, and despite the patchwork mess it is, this footage manages to be disarmingly fascinating by itself and in context of the film. It helps the nature footage is very well shot, from an entirely different source admittedly, seeing animals far from native to my own British shores that completely disinterested in the end of the world taking place around them. The ethological footage of tribes used as well is both engrossing and evokes the infamous Mondo documentaries from Italy from the Sixties.

Strangely the film manages to be both ramshackle but also create an appropriately apocalyptic mood to scenes. What you have to bear in mind viewing is that it'll easily betray its moodiness with silly dialogue or something schlocky a moment immediately after. A set up of a desolate town is appropriately ominous, but then the film resorts to a man dressed as a priest with an entire bottle of ketchup having exploded on his face to scare a cast member. It's strange as well this film, where the production had to cobble together an entire plot from material at hand, is the only zombie movie I've seen to directly bring up a global nature to the plot, where even if they are dubbed in the same broad way that appears in many Italian genre films, there's a Third World leader given an entire monologue about his people being mercilessly slaughtered by the idiocy of man. Footage of tribes moving on mass, representing tribes fleeing the zombie outbreak, is spliced in-between him and the result is jarring in how serious it is in comparison to what the film actually is.

As a zombie film it's just as strange. Mattei doesn't skimp away from the gore, or should that be Fragasso who filmed additional gore scenes, and there's plenty of exceptionally silly moments too to feast on. There are no qualms about a young child becoming a zombie and munching on his own father's guts, but this is also a film where a soldier puts on a green tutu over his head and a top hat in the middle of investigating a house that may be contaminated with zombies. The zombies themselves are merely cannon fodder, easy to escape background figures whose ability to kill anyone is dependent on the plot deciding a character has to die on a whim. The film itself is unpredictable as to what can happen, and that doesn't even take into consideration the odd characters we follow. From a gruff team leader to two eccentrics, everyone is a stereotype but with the English dub's more absurd dialogue they become an amusing group to travel with through the cheese of the narrative.

Technical Details:
The English language dub has a drastic effect on the entertainment value of the film, where you appreciate the silliness of the crass dialogue from male characters about the opposite sex or the way the dialogue is spoken aloud with immense exaggeration. This has some of the cheesiest line readings for an Italian genre film, bold for me to suggest as cheesy English dubs are as common as good ones in this area, and it befits the absurdity of the material itself without becoming intentionally ironic.

The music by Goblin is cherry picked from Dawn of the Dead and a personal favourite, Luigi Cozzi's Contamination (1980). The production was nearly sued for this, but this proved to be another advantage for the film as it provides an atmosphere a film would rarely have. Rather than a tin-eared, terrible score, the music by Goblin is a full sounding, elaborate series of prog rock instrumentals that gives the mishmash of content greater focus. It many ways this saves the film's bacon from merely being a jumble of absurdity, the high quality of the music bringing some artistry to what is a shambling mess.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Hell of the Living Dead the more you prod it is a perplexing creation. It's not the most extreme example of a film cobbled together from a messy production, but it's still an experience to sit through it. It's a film where it can turn on a dime from a moment of seriousness to characters joking around. There's no clear geographical map to where it's plot takes place in, even if it's supposed to be New Guinea, a mishmash of the US, Third World countries and the inevitable continental personality from its Italian actors being played out on screen, invaded by seventies nature documentary footage set to synth backed progressive rock from other Italian produced horror films. The zombies themselves are merely placeholders for the stranger incidents to take place, an environmental message scrambled between gore and silly dialogue. The ending, or at least the end for the characters before the epilogue, is almost Lucio Fulci in how the survivors are pulled to an inevitable fate, abrupt as if the film has willingly let itself end in spite of its characters' narratives before setting up a last minute shock scene.

Plus there's the dubbing and its funny broadness. The cramming of ethological footage with scenes, far from progressive, of natives running around or in one case eating the maggots festering off a loved one's corpse evoking a sensory overload. The fact Margit Evelyn Newton, to interact with a tribe so the soldiers can enter a village safely, has to strip off at one point, and go ahead naked and painted up with the same aesthetic design of professional wrestler Kamala, head shots of her looking concerned spliced with scenes of native funeral customs real or faked. There's the fact one of the soldiers figures out shooting the zombies in the head is more effective early on but still has to explain this to everyone, even his superiors, over and over again. Then there's legitimately creepy moments like a cat appearing from an unexpectedly enclosed place that still adds to the oddness of the film despite their effectiveness because of how unexpected they are. Hell of The Living Dead gets on the list merely for how much of a fever dream it is in production and content for a Zombi 2 cash-in.

Personal Opinion:
Definitely not in the top categories of Italian horror cinema, but still strangely compelling. Watched off an old VHS rip version on DVD where the sound occasionally lags it comes off even more entertaining, something outside of good taste but memorable at least.

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