Hell of the Living Dead

The whole Italian zombie cycle of the 1980s seems to be an exercise in trash. With each new film in the cycle, the director attempted to out-trash the guy behind him, and set the bar so low that the next to come along would have to break his back to out-trash him. One of the outright winners in the competition was Bruno Mattei. Coming within inches of Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City, Mattei verges on the absolute nadir of the cycle with his ultra-trashy Hell of the Living Dead.

As with many of the films from the cycle, Hell liberally rips off from Romero’s freshly released Dawn of the Dead, but more blatantly than just about any other. The film combines some SWAT-type soldiers with two people who work for a news station; a bunch of blue-faced, Romero issue zombies shamble after them, creating plenty of gore as they rip, tear and munch flesh and shed gallons of blood; there are copies of a bunch of Savini’s gore effects; and the film even includes a scene with zombies in an elevator. It does all of this so poorly that it’s absolutely unbelievable. It also throws in stock footage from a documentary on New Guinea that is atrociously mismatched. Then there’s the matter of the music. Through his connections with a record company owner, Mattei managed to steal Dawn’s main theme. I understand Mattei’s intent. The Goblins’ familiar soundtrack is supposed to remind the viewer of Dawn, and give this film a sort of credibility; instead, it only serves to point out what total garbage this film is, in comparison with what many consider Romero’s masterpiece.

Hell is absolute trash from its opening scene. In the huge factory in New Guinea that houses the HOPE center, scientists work on Operation Sweet Death (I could not make this up if I tried). A rat manages to sneak up a scientist’s airtight suit and rip him to shreds, turning him into a zombie. When others arrive, he bites one, and thus the Romero-style zombie plague begins. Elsewhere, the SWAT-type special forces arrive to kill protesters who bespeak the dangers of HOPE. Violence ensues, and the special forces are sent on a secret mission neither they nor the audience will ever quite understand. Their quest will take them across the Third World country, to the HOPE center. Along the way, they reluctantly pick up a female reporter and her mustachioed cameraman, whom they want to leave behind to die at every stop.

I suppose in more talented hands, this could’ve been a decent plot. But problems plague it at every turn. The SWAT guys are testosterone driven pricks, cartoonish and one-dimensional. The reporters are arrogant. A bickering couple and their child are no kinder. In fact, everyone in this film is so unsavory, that I was rooting for all of them to die, and that’s hard for any film to pull off. Add to this the rash of bizarre decisions that characters make throughout: one soldier goads a group of zombies with his own arm flesh, and another dresses up in a tutu and imitates Gene Kelly’s famous dance number from Singing in the Rain, cane and all (again, I couldn’t make this up). And just wait for the ending, when a character jumps to some outrageously big, yet unfounded conclusions about Project Sweet Death. But these are just a smattering of the insane character choices and gaps in logic throughout the film. At least 50 times, I found myself asking, "Why the Hell would that character do that??? No one would ever act that way!" Midway through the film, I gave up trying, and just told myself, "This is Hell of the Living Dead, Phil. Nobody making it cared about logic."

Nobody making it cared about taste, either. Mattei heaps gore on top of gore, as the SWAT guys are happy to kill anybody they come across, including a little kid who’s just eaten his father. Blowing a kid away on screen is usually avoided in film, and if not, then it’s handled with sensitivity. But not here. There’s no art to this, just hack work, both literally and figuratively.

Mattei basically confirms he’s a hack in the nine minute interview that is the only special feature of worth. He very openly admits how his film Rats is basically Night of the Living Dead, with vermin replacing the zombies, and that the producers of Hell of the Living Dead wanted a Dawn rip off, which he delivered. He makes no airs about being a great director, and seems to accept his lowbrow career in good spirits. Mattei states that all of his films are like children to him, but he would re-shoot them all if he had the chance. If only he had aborted this child before birth. The disc also boasts the theatrical trailer, which is insanely too long at nearly four minutes, and divulges too much. A stills gallery and Mattei’s bio round out the special features.

One more thing. Hell also goes by the title Virus, which makes it a member of the Horror Movie Relocation Program. Maybe it knew what filth it was, and wanted to go into hiding.

Hell of the Living Dead is atrociously bad, toward the bottom of the trash heap that is the Italian zombie cycle. But as with all the films of that cycle, it has its fans. There are those who love these movies, revere these tasteless efforts and how they try to out-trash each other. In some perverse way, those fans will love Mattei’s flick, and want to hang me as the true hack. For all other fans, who enjoy any modicum of plot, characterization or any other elements that make a film watchable, leave Hell of the Living Dead near the bottom of the heap.

–Phil Fasso

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