Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hell of the Living Dead (Bruno Mattei, 1980)

Rolling around on the floor, clasping at the casing I keep my brain in with both hands, isn't something I do often. But when it does happen, it's usually for a good reason. Now, I understand it when, oh, let's say, a shoe salesmen or a bank teller fails to grasp subtle nuances of your average zombie apocalypse, but highly trained members of a super-elite squad of commandos? They should flourish in a world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls, as the skills possessed by shoe salesmen and bank tellers are no longer required. Whether it's a geriatric zombie with a cat living inside its chest cavity or a child zombie with their dad's entrails dripping from their once cute little chins, these men should be front and centre when it comes to killing zombies. However, when a colleague, one who is obviously cognizant to the problem's head ventilating solution, tries to tell them where to aim ("shoot them in the head!") his words seem to go, rather ironically, straight over their heads. The inability to follow basic instructions wasn't the only thing had me writhing on the proverbial shag carpeting in Hell of the Living Dead (a.k.a. Virus Cannibale), the characters can't seem to do anything right. If there's any film where the dead have a distinct advantage over their living peers, it's definitely this one. Filming in a vast wilderness filled with nature, director Bruno Mattei (The Private House of the SS) captures humanity at its most useless. Unable to carry out even the most basic of tasks with any effectiveness, these people don't stand a chance against the hordes of radioactive zombies who desperately want to gnaw on their supple limbs. Mocking the human characters at every turn, the animals are always present, yet, at the same time, they seem like they're not there at all. And judging by the way the monkeys, the elephants, the jackals, and the water fowl appeared to frolic with an untroubled form of panache, you would think the zombie plague was the figment of a troubled turtle's turbulent imagination. But that's the brilliance of Mr. Mattei as a storyteller, he manages to trick you into believing that humankind and the animal kingdom are completely separate. But as everyone knows, they exist at the exact same time.

When a fox captures its prey, it goes straight for the jugular. Suffocating it until it is no longer living, the fox learned how to do this by watching its parents. People, on the other hand, boast a natural inclination to penetrate the brain matter of their fellow human beings. To put in another way, we don't need to be educated when it comes to jabbing foreign objects into the skulls of others. Whether it be articles of faith, nationalistic tendencies, cultural traditions, or hollow point bullets, the innate desire to poison/alter the human mind is something that lives within all us. What I want to know is, why don't these intuitive skills kick in when it comes to destroying the brains of zombies?

Instead of watching your friend get ripped to shreds by a group of dermatologically-challenged monsters, one's who, by the way, clearly have no qualms when it comes to invading your friend's personal space, why not help them out by shooting as many zombies in the head as you can with the machine gun you're currently holding in your hands? You know, give them a fighting chance. I'm sure they would do the same for you. The first instance of what I like to call, "don't just stand there syndrome" occurs almost immediately when two technicians working at a super-secret nuclear power plant on the island of New Guinea are confronted by a radioactive rat while performing a routine inspection. Somehow the rodent has managed to crawl up the pant leg of one of the technician's radiation suits and has started to eat his skin. While the rat is snacking on his face, his colleague, you guessed it, just stands there as his partner begins to spew blood all over the inside of his poorly tailored radiation suit.

Incompetence aside, the film has been nothing but wall-to-wall lab coats, nonsensical science jargon, plumes of green radioactive gas, and the sound of Goblin throbbing on the soundtrack, what more could you want? Yeah, hi. Long time listener, first time caller. I would like to see a scene where a guy in a lab coat, wearing a gas mask, inexplicably takes off said gas mask just as a radioactive zombie is about to bite him in the shoulder. We can do that. In fact, what you just described is about to happen. Let's watch. Ewww, that was nasty. I wonder why he took off his gas mask? Weird. Anyway, I liked how some of the radioactive zombies were still wearing their hard hats when they began to attack their non-zombie co-workers, as it added a sense of realism to the proceedings.

What we just witnessed at the nuclear power plant was the complete and utter failure of "operation sweet death," and with the name like that, it's no wonder it failed. Meanwhile, over at the U.S. Consulate, "a bunch of crazy goddamn terrorists" have taken the staff hostage, and are threatening to kill them all if their demands aren't met. This segment was the most tedious in the entire film as it features no plumes of radioactive green gas, no garland thongs, no animals frolicking, and definitely no zombies. It's sole purpose for existing is to introduce us to the members of the elite commando unit I alluded to earlier and to show them receiving a dire warning from a dying terrorist. And while it was a tad on the long side as far as introductions and the communicating of dire warnings go, it gets the job done.

It's true, I don't recall why four of the elite commandos were sent to the jungles of New Guinea, but that's where they end up going after the showdown at the U.S. Consulate. I'm willing to bet their arrival in New Guinea has something to do with the incident at the nuclear power plant. At any rate, the four elite commandos, Vincent (Selan Karay), Lt. London (José Gras), Osborne (Josep Lluís Fonoll), and Zantoro (Franco Garofalo), are seen milling about near a wall of skeletons. In the meantime, a passive-aggressive married couple, Steve (Pep Ballester) and Josie (Esther Mesina), and their injured young son (he's got a bloody lesion on his neck), and a couple of journalists, Mack (Gaby Renom) and Lia Rousseau (Margit Evelyn Newton), have parked their vehicle in, what looks like, an abandoned missionary town about a mile away from where the commandos are.

While it's inevitable that the two groups are going to merge with one another, there's no way I'm gonna be able to keep track of all these people. No, I'm afraid some of you are going to have to die. Any volunteers? Hey, Josie. Why don't you go exploring–you know, poke around inside those empty buildings over there. If you're lucky, you might get attacked by a zombie dressed like a priest. And, hey, badly injured little boy. Would you hurry up and die already? The sound you struggling to breath has grown tiresome. What would really cool is if you died while lying in your sleeping father's lap, turned into a zombie, and began to consume his internal organs as he napped. As for the reporters, you can wander around a bit. But don't go too far, I like your overall look, and would be mildly upset if you were to be torn apart at this juncture.

Let's see, so that's four elite commandos and two reporters. Yeah, I can work with that. After all, six is a much lower number than nine. Some quick notes about the scene in the abandoned missionary town: Children, say what you will about them (they're annoying, pretty much useless in every possible way imaginable, and contribute nothing of value to the zombie apocalypse), but the kid in the Hell of the Living Dead sports the best zombie face the genre has ever seen. And if Esther Mesina's voice sounds familiar while she's screaming for help, well, that's because her voice was dubbed by none other than Carolyn De Fonseca (the dubbing artist who provided the voice for Albina in Women's Prison Massacre and Iris in Beyond the Darkness).

"These mothers have got more lives than a cat," and it's with the utterance of that line that we're officially introduced the greatest zombie killer in the history of zombie cinema. His named is Zantoro, and he's only one who know how to kill zombies. While firing his submachine gun at a couple of zombies in an abandoned classroom, Zantoro notices that they only drop to the ground when you pierce their skulls with a bullet (any object will do, but bullets seem to work the best). Dying to tell the rest of his squad, he runs over to his commanding officer, who is currently blasting a little boy zombie in the chest with multiple rounds from his pistol, shoots the kid in the head, and says, "The head! Shoot them in the head!"

It's evident that "shoot them in the head" is too difficult a concept for them to grasp, because the very next day the group find themselves besieged by a throng of zombies in a jungle clearing, and everyone not named Zantoro seems to be shooting them everywhere but in the head. Frustrated by this pathetic display of marksmanship, Zantoro tries to give them another demonstration on how to properly kill a zombie. This time pointing to his own head, Zantoro puts his life in jeopardy to teach them the proper way to dispatch a zombie. Toying with the undead as they crowd around him, Zantoro calls the zombies "a bunch of turds," while, at the same time, periodically shooting a few of them in the head to hammer his point home.

Whether or not his comrades were able to comprehend what he was putting out there with his improvised how-to successfully put down a zombie in a jungle setting seminar is still up in the air. However, the fact one of the members of his team does manage to kill a zombie while investigating a suburban home soon afterward was a promising step in the right direction. It's true, the zombie he ended up killing was an old lady who couldn't even walk (she had a cat living inside her thorax), but you know what they say, baby steps. You could tell the pressure that ultimately comes with being the only person on earth who knows how to kill a zombie was starting take its tole on Zantoro's delicate psyche. Turning his hat backward then turning it forward again almost immediately during a rare quiet moment in the back of their sport-utility vehicle was the hat turning turning point for the unhinged commando. Slowly realizing that the last remnants of his sanity are beginning to erode, Zantoro struggles to maintain his grip on reality as the particulars of their mysterious mission start to become more clear.

While the bug-eyed Zantoro represents the pinnacle of zombie-killing efficiency, Lia Rousseau is the master when it comes to screaming while in the presence of zombies. She's also quite proficient when it comes to looking sincere while staring at natives. Removing her standard issue journalist shirt, Lia's nipples are painted and her probably Italian crotch is covered with garlands faster than you can say, where did they find a garland thong on such short notice? Told to look at New Guinea tribesmen while wearing a chocolate vanilla swirl teardrop on her face, Margit Evelyn Newton must have jumped at the chance to go native, because she goes native like no other actress has ever gone native before.

There was a weird, otherworldly quality to way Margit observed the natives in their natural habitat; it almost seemed like she and the natives were from totally different planets. In fact, it felt like Margit wasn't even there at times. But that's not what drew me to Margit as a performer. No, it was her ability to scream on cue. You know how celebrities like, Cary Grant (a.k.a. Archibald Alexander Leach) and Charo (a.k.a. María Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Gutiérrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa Rasten), have official biographers, men and women whose job it is to chronicle the lives of their chosen subject? Well, I would like to be Margit Evelyn Newton's official Hell of the Living Dead scream biographer. Of course, I realize I'm going to need to do more than just count the number of times she screams in this movie to be considered her official scream biographer (by the end of the film, I had counted eleven unique screams). But I believe, with a little elbow grease and some good old fashion sticktoitiveness, that I can make this woefully misguided dream a reality.

First of all, I know the inside of Margit's mouth like the back of my hand. And secondly, um, you know what? I don't have a "secondly" right at this moment, but I'm sure if I did, it would be pertinent as all get out. Speaking of her mouth, with a hefty eleven screams under her belt, I wonder how many lozenges Margit popped during the making of this film? I'm gonna say, "eleven," as in, one lozenge for each scream. Anyway, my favourite screams were the ones she tried to stifle. The best examples of this particular style of scream were the double-fisted scream stifle that occurs as a result seeing a small child eating his father's intestines (scream #2) and the open-palmed, back-handed number she employs while helplessly watching her male companion ripped apart in an elevator (scream #8).

Creating a world where straightforward lessons pertaining to head ventilation are completely ignored, Bruno Mattei is one of the few filmmakers who fully understands the important role nature plays during the zombie apocalypse. With humans hunting one another for food, nature is free to stretch its wings. This freedom is best signified when we see a herd of African elephants running through the brush. Now, you're probably thinking to yourself, how did a herd of African elephants wind up in New Guinea? Well, that's easy, they swam. But the reason they swam in the first place was because they no longer fear humans.

However, not everything in this film is as easily explained. Take, for example, one of the female lab coat-wearing zombies we spot during the film's action-packed, eye-popping finale. If you look closely, you'll notice she's wearing a pair of white high-heel cowboy-style ankle boots. What kind of person wears high-heel cowboy-style ankle boots to their job at a remote nuclear power plant on New Guinea? While her decision to go with a white pair made perfect to sense me, as they looked amazing paired with a regulation length white lab coat, I couldn't fathom her fashion choice in relation to her line of work. The only logical explanation I could think of was that she was going to a Mötley Crüe concert after work, and didn't feel like going home to change. They say that even the greatest films have flaws, and if the only one I could find in Hell of the Living Dead involved a five second shot of a zombie's inexplicable footwear, someone is doing something right.


uploaded by revokcom

Special thanks to Kev D. over at Zombie Hall for making me acutely aware of this zombie epic.
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4 comments:

  1. I had left a comment, but I guess Blogger ate it. Nom nom nom. Appropriate, I guess, for a review of a zombie movie.

    I always wonder what happens to the animals when the supposed end of the world comes. Are they left behind?

    Great screenshots. :)

    Happy Boxing Day and Merry Christmas!

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  2. Yeah, maybe they did eat it. I mean, technically they're should be thousands of comments here (Bruno Mattei + Zombies and Stock Footage = Awesome). ;)

    I saw something recently on the History Channel (you know, the channel that shows Pawn Stars thirty times a day) about what animals might get up to after people vacated the earth. The coolest part had lions thriving in California (escaped lions from California zoos would apparently shoot to the top of the food chain).

    Thanks. I tried to capture the subtle nuances Margit's many different scream faces.

    Happy New Year!

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  3. This movie was known as NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES on VHS, as was a Nazi zombie movie starring Jaimie Gillis (!), and these 2 were often confused with each other. I myself fell into this trap, and therefore did not rent the Gillis one when I had the chance because I thought it was the other movie. It's one of those tiny tragedies that slowly eats away at my soul.

    If you wanna check out a similarly stupid but more entertaining Mattei film, check out RATS: NIGHTS OF TERROR, where a post apocalyptic gang fights spray painted guinea pigs (if you haven't already).

    Also, if I haven't said it already, HAPPY NEW YEAR! Also, happy belated boxing day, whatever the fuck that is. ;)

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  4. Rent? VHS? Jamie Gillis? You crazy kids and your complicated lingo. ;)

    Similarly stupid is my middle name, so, of course I'll check out Rats: Nights of Terror.

    Happy New Year! Oh, and nobody knows what the fuck is a boxing day.

    ReplyDelete