Cinefamily’s Video Nasties #2: HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD

Bruno Mattei's DAWN OF THE DEAD rip-off is mostly notable for a shocking amount of stock footage.

I knew something was up when I saw half a dozen sleaze fan stalwarts camped outside at 10:30PM, ninety minutes before showtime.  When this started, we thought, at best, there might be a baker’s dozen of fellow freaks to watch a second-tier Dawn Of the Dead rip-off on a Tuesday at midnight -- but lo and behold, over 100 people rejected their adult responsibilities and stayed up past 2AM on a “school night” in order to ingest Day 2 of our Video Nasties-a-thon.

There was a lot of internal debate over where Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead should lie in the progression of Nastiness.  While the film certainly has its share of gore-packed whallops (a zombie rat eating its way out of an old lady’s stomach, the repeated machine-gunning of a child, a zombie chowing down on a guy’s shoulder like corn on the cob, and a skull-shattering gut-to-brain uppercut that rivals the luridness of Fulci at its finest) -- but, it’s all pretty silly, and in good fun.  It’s more in the spirit of an underground comic, or a gory doodle by a fifteen-year-old found in the back of a textbook.  Not rife with the kind of unpleasant misanthropy, of which we have plenty of coming down the road.  

Hell of the Living Dead is a proud child of the Italian rip-off lineage.  Outside of the Turks, maybe, no country has as cheerfully absorbed and re-appropriated any film from any culture that they happen to like (or think will sell a bunch of tickets) -- there’s something very Roman Empire about their whole approach.  Directed by the man behind the Caligula knockoffs Caligula and Messalina and Caligula Reincarnated as Nero, the joint Terminator/Aliens ripoff Aliennators and the Jaws knockoff Cruel Jaws, Hell of the Living Dead is first and foremost a mutated Dawn of the Dead clone -- and in a new level of shamelessness, Mattei even lifts that film’s score wholesale.  (He must have really liked Goblin’s now-iconic music, as he also throws in a few of their cues from Contamination for good measure.) 

But what really tips Hell into parasitic paradise is the extreme lengths Mattei goes to in order to work in as much “stock footage” from La Vallée, Barbet Schroeder’s psyched-out early-’70s nature trip through Papua New Guinea.   They intercut so much from Schroeder’s flick, and in so many different ways, that it began to feel like a Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid-type conceptual piece, or some weird schtick by a cut-rate late night TV horror host. People look through binoculars at La Vallée footage, they interact with it in scenes (in one particularly stony extended sequence, one of the masked natives from from La Vallée “enters” Hell of the Living Dead), but mostly, scene after scene is blatantly intercut with extended slo-mo footage of dancing natives, cranes drinking from ponds, or wildlife hunting down other wildlife for food.  Man, if you like nature footage, then this is the zombie rip-off film for you. And for me...well seeing it on 35mm really made me want to book a print of La Vallée!  It was like a feature length trailer for a better movie, to my eyes.

When not zoning the audience out with repeated shots of slo-mo monkey tree-swinging, Hell of the Living Dead is pretty much your standard Italian schlock, which is a good thing.  The plot centers around a dubious scientific-experiment-gone-wrong premise (perhaps if they hadn’t named it “Operation Sweet Death”, things might’ve gone better).  The zombies are even slower than usual -- at times it seems Mattei is almost making fun of how harmless your typical 70s zombie is, by having one character’s defining trait is his love of running up to taunt them face-to-face (“You wanna piece?!  You hungry?!”)  In fact, the only way I can see they’re able to kill people is suddenly teleporting behind them using the magic of film editing, and a complete disregard of spatial sense.

There was one other thing that was moderately uncomfortable about the whole proceeding. Lots of white people killing black zombies.  I mean, just a couple years ago people were freaking out about the latent racism of the recent South African zombie flick The Dead, and here when white people turn into zombies, they’re treated to a nice dose of eggplant colored facial die that was really a hair’s breadth from blackface.

Like Night Warning the previous midnight, there seemed to be some kind of misguided political subtext (or cover story) about Hell of the Living Dead is certainly making much ado about the zombie apocalypse being caused by a misguided attempt to solve the “third world” problem.  The film even goes so far as to include a really weird sequence featuring a United Nations speech by the Papua New Guinea diplomat.    But I’m not buying it.  These mondo exploiters are just happy to film topless natives, and spook you about cannibalism.  But, hey, just wait ‘til we get to Cannibal Ferox!

Nasty-Meter: 4 (lots of nature footage)
Fun-Meter: 4 (lots of nature footage)
Nature-Meter: 7 (wish there was more nature footage!) 

Tonight come to the Cinefamily for The Witch Who Came From The Sea!