Is it really all THAT hard to make a halfway-effective zombie movie? It shouldn’t be. There isn’t any elaborate mythology to set up. The “shoot-em-in-the-head” idea is so well known it needs no explanation. All you need is a bunch of people willing to slap on some crusty makeup and stagger around, a screenplay that puts some cannon fodder in the vicinity of the undead, and voila! Let the brain-eating and gut-munching commence.
Well, apparently director Bruno Mattei found making a half-decent zombie movie to be an insurmountable task because Hell of the Living Dead (also known as Virus, its Italian title) is easily one the lamer 80s-era Italian zombie movies you’ll see.
The fun begins at a power plant. I mean, a secret installation in New Guinea run by the Hope Center (it just looks like a power plant). (Note: Secret installations are never up to any good, particularly when they’re run by a group with an “Everything’s fine! Really!” name like Hope Center.) All seems to be going fine (at least according to the panels of blinky, buttony widgets that are shown for about five solid minutes). Then two guys find a dead rat in what is supposed to be the installation’s most sterile area. In a matter of ten seconds the dead rat reanimates, attacks the man holding it, chews through his radiation suit and kills him. As his partner watches, the zombie rat victim flails about in his death throes and hits a lever that sends a greenish gas all through the place. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how ALL of New Guinea falls victim to a zombie plague. Yep, one guy hits a switch. And did I mention that the project responsible for the zombie plague gas is called “Sweet Death”? Just thought I’d bring that up.
Meanwhile, in what seems to be a completely different film, the most unprofessional special ops team ever is taking out a terrorist group that’s holding the American consulate hostage. If you’re not paying close attention to a throwaway line of dialogue (and you’d most certainly be forgiven if that’s the case), you miss that the terrorists are demanding the closure of all the Hope Centers. Seems those terrorists know something we don’t. Maybe they could help stop the zombie plague! Wait, nope, they’re dead. Never mind. Let’s follow our special ops team to New Guinea.
On arriving, our crack force has limited supplies, no transportation, and only a vague sense of what they’re supposed to be doing there. After commandeering a jeep they soon run into our other characters, a shrewish journalist (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her Yanni-ish photographer (Gaby Renom). The muckracking duo are riding around with a bitter married couple and their zombie-bitten kid. This scenario plays out pretty much as you’d expect, with the added bonus of seeing what it would be like to watch Yanni vomit.
Soon the journalists and special ops team are making their way lackadaisically across New Guinea to get to the secret installation (remember it?). This is when Hell of the Living Dead achieves its true purpose. Not because of zombie attacks, which we’ve already seen. And not even because of some completely gratuitous nudity (courtesy of the journalist lady stripping and slapping on body paint in her attempt to go native). But it can be summed up in two words. STOCK FOOTAGE!
Yes! Because what every zombie movie needs is to have its running time expanded by a third with completely irrelevant footage of wildlife and indigenous peoples. During a scene of driving through the forest, one of the characters will look out the window and then we’ll get a jump cut to what seems to be National Geographic footage of animals, many of which (elephants!?) aren’t even found in New Guinea. I can’t complain too much, though, because these animals (particularly the fruit bats and what I think is a kangaroo rat) are way more likable and fun to watch than the human characters. Unfortunately, the use of New Guinean natives is used in a similarly shoddy and but far more exploitative fashion, with traditional dance and funeral rituals passed off as fallout from the zombie plague.
It all ends just as you’d imagine it would, with what’s supposed to be a dramatic and downbeat ending. Frankly, I was so delighted to see the demise of the unlikable characters (not to mention the end credits) that I was all smiles and laughter.
Aside from a few bits of effective makeup, there really is nothing to save this movie beyond unintentional hilarity (and the awesome fruit bats and kangaroo rat). During the last half, when boredom begins to set in, try amusing yourself by counting the number of times you start to question the inane happenings. Or by speculating if the zombies hypnotize their victims into merely standing there gawping and leaving themselves vulnerable to becoming zombie chow (it certainly would explain a lot). Or by wondering if director Bruno Mattei paid anyone for the mondo and stock footage he appropriated, let alone Goblin’s score for Dawn of the Dead, which seems to have been lifted note-for-note.
For what it’s worth, the Anchor Bay DVD looks great. Extras are minor but amusing, and include a brief chat with Mattei in which he admits that his films aren’t very good and he’d reshoot them if given the opportunity.
If nothing else, this movie makes things like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi look a lot better by comparison. And maybe, just maybe, that’s enough.