Ed. note- As part of our Mon-Day of the Dead, here’s a retro review from my old gig. Bruno Mattei’s HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD has to be seen to be believed. Even revising this piece, I don’t think I quite captured just how awful it is. And George Romero should definitely have sued.- P.F.
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 Hugo Stiglitz- starring NIGHTMARE CITY, Mattei verges on the absolute nadir of the cycle with his ultra-trashy HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD. But Mattei’s flick deserves special consideration for reasons that should make George Romero’s blood boil.
As with many of the films from the cycle, HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD liberally rips off from Romero’s freshly released DAWN OF THE DEAD, but in ways so bold that no other Italian even considered trying. It combines some SWAT-type soldiers with two people who work for a news station; a bunch of blue-faced, Romero issue zombies that shamble after the ragtag group, creating plenty of gore as they rip, tear and munch flesh and shed gallons of blood; poorly rendered copies of a bunch of Savini’s gore effects; and even a scene with zombies in an elevator. But by far the most ballsy move Mattei made was in the matter of the music. Through his connections with a record company owner, Mattei managed to thieve DAWN’s main theme. To mimic much of Romero’s greatest achievement is heinous enough; but to cop Goblin’s familiar track and paste it over this piece of trash is outright dastardly. To add insult to injury, Mattei goes under the pseudonym “Vincent Dawn” for this flick. Mattei holds to no moral code, nor does he concern himself with any level of taste.
Want proof? Just look at the movie I’m reviewing. From its opening moment, it’s absolute trash. 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, folks). 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 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, both of whom they want to leave behind to die at every stop.
This plot is outlandish enough, but Mattei layers plenty of other factors in to escort it. The SWAT guys are testosterone driven pricks, cartoonish and one-dimensional. The reporters are arrogant and annoying. 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 fall prey to the Law of Annoying Characters’ Pleasing Deaths. 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, “Why do you keep asking yourself about logic, Phillie? This is HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD. The filmmakers didn’t care, so why should you?”
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.
If you own the DVD, you’re in for a treat. 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 talent, 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.
One more thing. Hell also goes by so many other titles I can’t keep track, which makes it a member of the Horror Movie Relocation Program. Maybe it knew what filth it was, and wanted to go into hiding.
There’s no two ways around it: HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD is atrociously bad. Sure it’s audacious. Audaciously sloppy, gory, and tasteless. And Mattei is not only an audaciously poor director, but an audacious thief as well. If Dante had concentric circles for Italian spaghetti zombie flicks, this one would reside in the 8th layer of the trash heap. And that’s the kind of Hell even Dante wouldn’t want to touch.