Hell of the Living Dead Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
An accident at a chemical plant unleashes a horrific virus and an elite SWAT team is sent to New Guinea to investigate. But, when they arrive on the hellish island, they discover a plague of flesh-eating zombies as well as a beautiful female reporter who practices nude anthropology. Can the commandos survive this cannibal rampage, uncover a shocking government secret, and still find time for the occasional cross-dressing before the ravenous hordes of the living dead infect the entire world? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
When we talk about “the bottom of the barrel,” we’re usually implying that the barrel in question has a potential top. However, when referencing trashy Italian exploitation movies, it’s easy for detractors to claim that the entire barrel is nothing but a bottom. I understand how difficult it is for non-fans to parse the fine lines of quality between various spaghetti-flavored zombie, cannibal, and mad killer movies, and hope they know that even the most ravenous enthusiasts among us have some measure of standards. By most of these standards the unadulterated, artless junk made by director Bruno Mattei is designated the true bottom of this barrel. The vast majority of Mattei’s career was made up of blatant rip-offs of everything from Hollywood hits, to B-movies and even other Italian rip-offs of Hollywood hits. During his tenure, Mr. Bottom of the Barrel, dipped his toes in almost every single exploitation wells, including Nazisploitation (SS Girls [Italian: Casa privata per le SS, 1975]), nunsploitation (The Other Hell [Italian: L'altro inferno, 1981), women in prison/WIP (Women’s Prison Massacre [Italian: Blade Violent, 1983]), spaghetti western (White Apache [Italian: Bianco Apache, 1986]), and even hardcore porn (mostly in an assistant director capacity). His Jaws (1975), Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) carbon copies – Cruel Jaws (1995), Shocking Dark (aka: Terminator II, 1989), Robowar (Italian: Robowar - Robot da guerra, 1988), and Strike Commander parts 1 and 2 (1987/1988) – are among the most laughable in the Italian rip-off pantheon. He was infamous for shooting more than one film at a time on the same set or reusing sets and footage from other movies. And, yet, there are still some Bruno Mattei movies that are so genuine in their disregard for intellectual property that you can’t help but kind of admire them.
Hell of the Living Dead (Italian: Virus - l'inferno dei morti viventi; aka: Night of the Zombies and Zombie Creeping Flesh, 1980) was released during a brief window when Italian cannibal films were giving way to a wave of zombie movies inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (titled Zombi in Italy, 1978). Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979) was released within months of Romero’s film and was (by some accounts) even more popular at the Italian box office. As a result, most of the spaghetti flesh-eater movies ended up following Fulci’s lead, rather than Romero’s. Apparently, Mattei and the producers decided not to chance a fickle public’s attention spans and ended up doing impressions of both Dawn of the Dead – including lifting music directly from Goblin’s soundtrack, which initially and rightfully caused legal problems between the band and the producers – and Fulci’s newly established Italian style. Then, because there was still a little gas left in the Mondo and cannibal genres, Mattei and a small army of screenwriters – José María Cunillés, Rossella Drudi, and Claudio Fragasso (a long time collaborator who worked as second unit director without credit) – opted to include some jungle and tribal antics for good measure. This mix & match approach was arguably more successful when done a year earlier for Marino Girolami’s excessively silly Zombi Holocaust (aka: Dr. Butcher M.D., 1979).
Hell of the Living Dead begins with surprisingly evocative scenes of the deadly zombie virus’ initial escape from an industrial chemical company, giving us an origin story for the plague that is missing from Romero and Fulci’s movies (both of which imply causes, but aren’t explicit about it). Soon after, Mattei dives headfirst bak into brazen imitation, during a flat, clumsy introduction to a group of SWAT officers borrowed directly from Dawn of the Dead. Soon after, the police commandos journey to Papua New Guinea, where they meet up with a journalist and her friends. The journalist protagonist is, of course, borrowed from Fulci’s Zombie. The unlikely ensemble unites to investigate rumors of flesh-eating cannibal attacks. However, because Mattei didn’t have the budget to shoot anything outside of Europe, he was forced to mix footage shot on Barcelona-based sets with stock clips from Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée (1972), Akria Ide’s Nuova Guinea, L'isola dei Cannibali (a late, Japanese-made entry in the Mondo cycle, 1974), and Jean-Pol Ferbus/Dominique Garny/Thierry Zéno’s Des Morts (an acclaimed documentary about death, 1979). The cuts between set and stock footage are laughably rough, made extra funny by the utter lack of correlation between the images and the fact that the poor editor, Claudio Borroni, seems to have been working from 8mm, 10th generation dupes. The inadvertent comedy wears thin by the end of the first hour, but amusing asides help usher us through to the somewhat remarkable climax, such as a bit where our intrepid journalist strips and covers herself in body paint to greet a native tribe that looks nothing like their stock footage counterparts.
Despite filmmaker intentions, it’s easy to say all Italian cannibal movies, save perhaps Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (Italian: Apocalypse Domani; aka: Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, 1980), are inherently racist. This racist streak is particularly farcical when genre filmmakers attempt to expressing anti-racist sentiments, usually via self-righteous diatribes spoken by the predominately white lead characters (“I wonder who the real cannibals are?”). Mattei’s film is no exception, but does get special acknowledgement for its genuinely creative statement on racism and class warfare. You see, it turns out that the zombie plague was cooked up by an evil corporation that thought it could contain Third World populations by making them literally eat themselves into oblivion. That’s some pretty high-level, socially conscious sci-fi conceptualization for a movie intent on cashing in on the gore craze, not to mention one of the more imaginative reasons behind a zombie outbreak. But it’s still merely the punchline that follows 90 really, really racist minutes of scary Black/native zombies chasing around the lily white heroes (lily white heroes who aren’t particularly concerned with helping the non-zombie black people who are also under attack). The socio-political statement is interesting, but the cognitive dissonance is fascinating.
Hell of the Living Dead’s gore effects, courtesy of Giuseppe Ferranti (who also worked on Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City [Italian: Incubo sulla città contaminata, 1980] and Cannibal Ferox ) and Fragasso (again), aren’t as convincing or innovative as Giannetto De Rossi’s work on Zombie or groundbreaking as Tom Savini’s for Dawn of the Dead, but they often make up for their lack of polish with inventively over-the-top ideas. Highlights include eviscerated corpses surrounded by gut-munching living dead, loads of exploding zombie heads, torn throats, chewed fingers, a cat that struggles its way out of an old woman’s stomach, and a climactic show-stopper where a zombie pulls out the heroine’s tongue, then presses her eyes out of her skull through her mouth.
Hell of the Living Dead has been a mainstay in William Lustig and company’s repertoire since the days before Blue Underground. It first appeared on an anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay. That same transfer was then included on a double-feature disc with Rats: Night of Terror (Italian: Rats - Notte di terrore, 1984), a different double-feature with Nightmare City, and another stand-alone DVD under the Blue Underground banner. Instead of sourcing this new 1080p, 1.85:1 image from the old transfer, Blue Underground re-mastered the film “from the original uncut and uncensored negatives.” The results are a solid upgrade over the DVD (which was notably fuzzy and rife with compression noise), but without making any drastic changes to the color-timing. The basic color temperature is still consistently cool (a bit cooler than the DVD), making a nice neutral palette to splatter bright red blood against. Forest greens and warm skin tones are unnatural, due to the overwhelming blueness of some scenes, but these are more or less the same hues I’m used to seeing on BU’s DVD and the old Creature Features Entertainment VHS (it also seems to match the German and Italian DVDs, based on screencaps). Details are markedly tighter, especially the more complex background textures (no edge haloes), and the overall print is cleaner, free of the SD versions minor print damage issues (except for those crummy looking stock images from other movies – those still look expectedly terrible). Contrast and gamma levels have been cranked a shade beyond the old disc, leading to some blow-out on the whitest highlights.
However, Blue Underground may have taken this cleanliness a bit too far. As some fans may remember, the studio had trouble with bad scans from Italy in the past. These transfers were rife with CRT machine noise, which was counteracted with digital noise reduction software and the results were clean, but clumpy and generally weird looking. I found myself getting really nitpicky with the material and come to the conclusion that the DNR is a bit excessive. Grain levels seem a little too smooth and some of the blends appear a bit bandy. That said, Mattei and cinematographer John Cabrera aimed for a smoky and diffused look throughout the film (especially interiors and those blue-heavy night shots) that softens many of the edges. The CRT effects appear to be popping up in the form of stationary noise over these foggier sequences, which is definitely preferable to the incessant shake seen on those earlier Blu-rays.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is another big improvement over the lossy DVD equivalent. This is the original English dub and, per usual, readers should be aware that these films were shot without sound, so the bad lip-sync is a ‘problem’ for every version, even the original Italian one. Alternative language tracks are nice, but I almost always prefer to watch this brand of bad movie with the extra awkward English language dialogue. The words and effects sound about as clean and consistent as they ever have, which is to say they’re still flat and unnatural, but not distorted by compression. The canned jungle sound effects have a surprising smattering of depth and are well-balanced against the dialogue and incidental effects. The soundtrack, which, as mentioned, is lifted from Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead and Contamination (aka: Alien Contamination, 1980) soundtracks and includes a few original Goblin-esque compositions from composer Giacomo Dell’Orso, sounds very nice, including plenty of depth, warmth, and bass.
Bonded by Blood (50:20, HD) – A brand new collection of interviews with co-writer/co-director Claudio Fragasso and cast members Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo (via Skype), Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, and Massimo Vanni (the latter two of which surprise Fragasso on the remnants of the Rats set). Fragasso’s part is the most interesting, because he gets particularly personal, discussing his relationship with Mattei in more intimate terms than he has in other interviews. Perhaps Mattei’s death has opened the door to more open discussion. He also claims that the escaped rats from his film and Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) bred and created a particularly vicious breed that plagued the shared Italian set for years. The actors are all very pleasant while they recall fond and not-so-fond memories of making both movies.
Hell Rats of the Living Dead (8:40, SD) – This interview with Mattei was conducted as part of the older DVD double feature and remains one of the only on-camera interviews with the director (he isn’t even quoted in print all that much).
* Someone has written a dubious description of an unreleased director’s cut of Hell of the Living Dead that was reportedly planned as a prequel to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). This same source also claimed that Blue Underground had access to this cut, but didn’t include it because they couldn’t fit it on the same disc as the theatrical cut and Rats: Night of Terror. I contacted Blue Underground directly and was told that these plans were a complete fabrication. The only connection to Night of the Living Dead I can see here is the film’s coda, which lifts dialogue from one of Night of the Living Dead’s in-film telecasts, implying a vague connection.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression. Note: Hell of the Living Dead is currently only available as part of a double-feature Blu-ray with Rats: Night of Terror. I opted to separate the two films while re-editing these reviews for Genre Grinder.