While some are swooning over Argento’s visual design, Bava’s atmospheric giallos, and Fulci’s colorful gore during Italian Week, I’ve decided to share some laughter over one of the epic failures of Italian horror. Whatever name you call it — Virus, Hell of the Living Dead, Night of the Zombies, Zombie Creeping Flesh, Zombies of the Savanna, Cannibal Virus — Bruno Mattei’s 1980 zombie film can surely be labeled in the diasterpiece genre. For the sake of clarity, I’ll only refer to the film as Hell of the Living Dead from now on, as this title most accurately captures the essence of the film: a cheap Romero knock-off that feels more like the seventh circle of a strange Hell than a cinematic experience.
Before we plunge into the murky substance of the film, it helps to understand the men responsible for birthing this Italian zombie abomination. Meet the film’s credited director: Bruno Mattei. Commonly referred to as “The Italian Ed Wood,” Mattei made a name for himself with seedy softcore and shockumentary films, ranging from Nazisploitation to Nunsploitation. It was while executing his artistic genius on Women in Prison movies that Mattei met Claudio Fragasso. Enter the writer and uncredited co-director of Hell of the Living Dead. You may recognize this name from its relationship to award-winning films like the illegitimate sequel, Troll 2 and the Fulci-abandoned, Zombi 3. Fragasso and Mattei instantly formed a creative bond that would change the world of Italian horror forever.
What started as a simple film treatment eventually became an elaborate script in the hands of Fragasso and his wife, Rosella Drudi. Eager to capitalize on the success of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, a cheapo production company soon picked up the script. However, there was one small problem: money. Fragasso had dreamed up grandiose set pieces in Africa, such as a literal Third World army of zombies and a corpse mincing plant (you’ve heard of those, right?). Alas, they brought in expert low-budget filmmaker Mattei to assist in capturing Fragasso’s vision.
Filming on location in Spain and on set in Rome, Hell of the Living Dead doesn’t amalgamate into full disaster form until post-production, when the filmmakers realize that a) much of the footage they shot was unusable and b) the film didn’t make any sense. Mattei came to the rescue with a brilliant plan that had worked so flawlessly in his past productions. They could fix problem “a” by borrowing stock footage from a mondo (taboo shockumentaries) film, La vallée, which depicted a real burial scene and daily rituals from a New Guinea tribe. Filling out the runtime with inserts of wildlife, topless natives, and dead people, they now had a full-length movie.
Despite the fact that Mattei’s solution didn’t address problem “b” and in fact, exacerbated problem “b,” the filmmakers prepped the film for release by shooting some quick last-minute gore shots and miscellaneous zombie action. So, now that the film had an acceptable minute count, body count, and boob count, what was missing? Oh yeah, a score. Putting all of their heads together, the filmmakers came up with yet another inspired plan: just use Goblin’s music from Dawn of the Dead without asking permission from the band. The musical talents of Goblin worked for Romero and Argento, so why wouldn’t the synthesized sounds synonymous with Italian horror work for Mattei and Fragasso? Well, does sugary cereal mitigate the taste of rotten milk?
So, after all this, we have a film about a leak in a chemical plant that turns people into flesh eaters. As the infection spreads, we follow a group of commandos and a pair of journalists, as they navigate through the New Guinea jungle and abandoned buildings in hopes of escaping the zombies and uncovering the source of the epidemic. Shockingly, the plot sounds like a mixture of Zombi 2 and Dawn of the Dead, but rest assured, there truly is nothing like Hell of the Living Dead. From the seamlessly integrated stock footage to the carefully blocked action sequences, Fragasso and Mattei overcame countless adversities in order to form a film that can best be described as a dream, especially if that dream is an incoherent nightmare in which your synapses are firing so randomly that every situation is inconceivably stupid.