Sunday, November 23, 2014
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Hell of the Living Dead
Glancing back through some of the grim and gory fare that has featured on these pages over the five years I’ve been hosting the Winter of Discontent, I started thinking about all the quintessential exploitation directors whose work I’ve considered: Joe D’Amato, Andrea Bianchi, Uwe Boll, Tinto Brass, Cesare Canevari, Enzo G. Castellari, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Lucio Fulci, Jack Hill, Tobe Hooper, Aldo Lado, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Nico Mastorakis, Radley Metzger, Amando De Ossorio, Guilio Questi, Jean Rollin, Joe Sarno, Tom Six, Michele Massimo Tarantini, Bo Arne Vibenius.
One name in particular was missing. Could it be that I hadn’t been doing my job properly? That I hadn’t fully immersed myself in the absolute worst that exploitation cinema has to offer?
I dug back through the archives more thoroughly. There was one reference to him – one minor reference – during an ill-advised overview of the Black Emanuelle films back in 2010. But apart from that, my suspicions were confirmed: in half a decade of seeking out the most venal trash I could find, I had yet to review a film by Bruno Mattei.
The time, ladies and gentlemen, has come.
And what better film with which to break this blog’s Mattei virginity than ‘Hell of the Living Dead’, a.k.a. ‘Virus’, a.k.a. ‘Zombie Creeping Flesh’?
The film starts at a “Hope Centre”, the nature of which isn’t explained until the very end*. It looks like nothing more than an oil refinery and it’s staffed by a lot of scientist types in white coats. The equipment consists of huge 80s mainframe computers, display panels that don’t seem to display very much, and entire swathes of buttons that light up, sometimes in white, sometimes in green. This particular Hope Centre is based in Papua New Guinea and its staff are working on “Operation Sweet Death”. Which seems an oddly named project for a Hope Centre. I started wondering where the other Hope Centres were based and what projects they were working on. “Operation Buy the Farm”? “Operation Swing Low Sweet Chariot”?
So anyway, there’s a sterilisation breach, a dead rat comes back to life and eats a technician, a cloud of green gas gets released and then it’s zombies a-go-go. The project director has enough time to order the centre’s complete isolation and record a message of hollow apology, then the undead are at his office and it’s goodnight Vienna.
Cut to: a terrorist group holding hostages at an American embassy (which American embassy? you ask; where? fucked if I know: the script doesn’t either) and demanding the dismantling of the Hope Centres. A crack anti-terrorist team stage an incursion and swiftly decimate them. That’s “crack anti-terrorist team” as in “squabbling bunch of macho assholes”, by the way. No sooner have they liberated the hostages than they’re sent into the thick of the inhospitable Papuan jungle to investigate the goings-on at the Hope Centre. The Hope Centre’s on the coast, so quite why their mission perameters call for them to go endlessly overland, through jungle, through town, through jungle again and then cross a freaking river in order to get to it I have no idea and neither, again, does the script.
But before we go any further, let’s take a moment to meet these gun-toting good ol’ boys. The platoon commander is called London (Jose Gras) and his small team constitutes Santoro (Franco Garofalo), Osborne (Josep Luis Fonoll) and Vincent (Selen Karay). In terms of characterisation, London is the one who barks orders, Osborne is the one who does the driving and Santoro is the frankly fucking bonkers one who’s zombie-killing modus operandi is to fling himself into the centre of a group of them and scream things like “you wanna eat me?” and “fuck you, I’ll kill all of you” before shooting them in the head**. Not that he ever manages to kill more than one zombie in any group before forcing his way out of the melee and running off.
Subject of the old shoot-’em-in-the-head rule, Santoro is the first and only member of the troop to realise this and he reminds his cronies every time the zombies show up and the guns come out. Every fucking time. And no-one listens!!! Scene after scene, zombie attack after zombie attack, when a quick point-blank to the cranium fight back would decimate their slow-shuffling attackers, these gun-toting douchebags empty cartridge after cartridge and never once go for a motherfucking head shot.
But then again ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ is rife with facepalm moments.
Take the randomly inserted bits of stock footage which suggest that monkeys, elephants, snow owls and marsupials co-exist in the Papuan ecosystem.
Take the United Nations scene, which consists of half a dozen people in suits sitting in an otherwise empty lecture hall and throwing sheaves of paper in the air.
Take the abrupt cut from London and co. beginning their mission to the arrival of intrepid reporter Lia Rosseau (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her cameraman Max (Gabriel Renom) at a deserted township. Lia is there to make a documentary on the outbreak of the virus (oh, sorry, forgot to mention: that snafu at the Hope Centre at the start of the film? it’s now apparently gone global), yet all she has by way of a crew or a production team is one cameraman.
Take the fact that Lia and Max have, for reasons the script yet again fails to explain, hitched a lift with a couple who have decided to bring their pre-pubescent son into the wilds only for him to be injured by an offscreen native and the two are having the most godawful row about whose fault it is. Only one of these two loathsome individuals is even named and they’re both disposed of as zombie fodder (the kid, no surprise, is a zombie in waiting), but not before we’ve suffered their company for five wretched and pointless minutes.
Take the coincidental arrival of London and his boys at the same township and their willingness to allow an investigative reporter and a cameraman to tag along on a secret mission.
Take their arrival at a tribal camp, where Lia Rosseau goes native (she’s previously lived among them for a year – Rousseau: geddit?) by stripping down to a loincloth and daubing herself with body paint (Mattei throws in the most gratuitous boob shot ever to make the cut of an Italian exploitation movie, and when you stop to break down the component parts of that sentence you’ll realise the degree of achievement I’m talking about here). This is the point at which ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ quits ripping off Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ for all it’s worth and rips off ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ instead.
Take the “score” by Goblin, which is basically a judicious sampling of their earlier scores for ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Contamination’, the opening credits brazenly trying to con the audience into thinking the Goblin had taken it into the studio especially for Mattei and his collaborators.
And take said collaborators. ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ was co-written by Claudio Fragasso, notorious as a director in his own right for ‘Troll 2’ (and it occurs to me that I have yet to review a Claudio Fragasso film on this blog. Shit.) We shall not speak of John Cabrera’s cinematography. The cast we’ve already mentioned, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider how bad they are. Renom, Fonoll and Karay are merely bland; Gras is incapable of delivering a line of dialogue without pouting like it’s Christmas morning and he got an Action Man when he wanted a G.I. Joe; and Garofalo does bug-eyed crazy in a manner so unrestrained that Dennis Hopper in the middle of a decade-long cocaine binge would probably be moved to advise him to tone it down a bit. But it’s Newton who’s the absolute worst of all, a vacuum into which the very concept of doing anything in front of the camera – let alone acting – disappears and is never seen again. It’s not even a deer-caught-in-the-headlights performance. It’s roadkill and the headlights are five miles distant.
The title is well earned, if just slightly inaccurate. ‘Hell of the Barely Half-Alive’ would have been better; it certainly describes how it feels to watch it.
*Without wishing to get spoilerific, the nature of the Hope Centres is kind of like if Ian Duncan Smith had chaired a think tank on overpopulation.
**He also calls them “monkey faces” at one point, which gave me a nasty little flashback to ‘Fight for Your Life’; and any film that provokes a ‘Fight for Your Life’ flashback is one that automatically loses brownie points.