“8 ½ Doors of Death” Presents:
HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)
Review by Jerome Reuter
SYNOPSIS: A group of scientists are working on a top secret mission called Operation: Sweet Death. While working, something goes horribly wrong, and the workers are turned flesh-eating zombies. Meanwhile, a crack group of commandoes assemble to stop a group of terrorists from occupying an embassy. The commando group soon find themselves in New Guinea, teaming up with a headstrong female reporter and her cameraman to discover the cause of a zombie outbreak.
There’s a lot to be said about director Bruno Mattei. Throughout his career, he made some of the most entertaining schlock ever released. Despite their appeal as being ridiculously fun, they’re not of the highest caliber. In being completely objective, his filmography is littered with disasters that are enjoyable in their faults, much like a comedy of errors. Mattei was notable for borrowing ideas, using stock footage, lifting music, and capitalizing on the others’ success. Despite this, there’s something ridiculously enjoyable about his body of work.
Some of his most notable releases were his collaborations with screenwriter Claudio Fragasso. The duo worked together on titles such as RATS (1983) and THE OTHER HELL (1980). Fragasso, whose popularity is best attributed to TROLL 2 (1989), has more talent as a screenwriter than a director. The most entertaining product to come from this partnership was HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980). One of the many zombie flicks capitalizing on the success of George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), it’s the quintessential Mattei flick. Borrowing elements from Romero’s masterpiece, in both story and music, and integrating previously existing stock footage with postproduction dubbing, it’s a melting pot that struggles to maintain its sense of continuity, yet never ceases to entertain.
When exploring Italian grindhouse flicks, two things become very apparent. Many have alternate titles, with some of them bordering on the ridiculous. Case in point—the other names associated with this movie include VIRUS, ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH, and NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES. The other consistency is coming across many works that capitalize on trends set forth by more notable releases. In short: it’s not what film you want to make, but what film you want to rip off. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in this case, it’s a sure way to get a release. Mattei made no attempt to hide this, as he even credits himself under pseudonym Vincent Dawn.
While the film’s first act seems every bit like a carbon copy of Romero, it manages to shift gears later on and become its own product. That’s not to say it doesn’t fall into the same trappings that many B-grade titles fall into. Accompanying the zombie horror and trigger-happy action scenes shot in Spain, (supposedly taking place in New Guinea) are the usual suspects: bad dubbing, over the top acting, and low-budget effects. Not to mention a fair amount of inconsistencies and plot holes. The scenes that allegedly take place in New Guinea are undoubtedly the most entertaining parts of the film. Headshots and zombies with poor makeup aside, it features some of the most unconvincing editing ever assembled. While the commandos and a reporter meet up, their “location” is emphasized with lifted stock footage from a documentary about New Guinea. Out of place dubbing is placed over the footage in a haphazard attempt to maintain consistency. Stealing the show is actor Franco Garofalo (credited as Frank Garfield) as Zantoro, a commando who spouts off one liners worthy of an 80s action flick.
The faults are also why it manages to be as entertaining as it is. They’re also relatively easy to overlook. HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD isn’t trying to be socially conscious or be a vehicle for satire or commentary. As Mattei himself once said—“Film is supposed to entertain, so there’s that.” Sure, it rides the coattails of a popular film, but what zombie-themed romp released in the 1980s didn’t? When one gets right to it—this is just another entry in a craze that flooded the market. Thankfully, Mattei’s effort is jaw-dropping (and ripping) fun.
In some ways, this movie is almost a proving ground for another Fragasso/Mattei collaboration. A few years later, they would be tasked with finishing Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBI 3 (1988). But that’s another story…
© Copyright 2017 by Jerome Reuter