By Aaron AuBuchon
2006, Intervision DVD
The producers of Italian genre cinema are often accused of stealing from successful movie trends from around the world, especially from America. Fulci hopped on the bandwagon started by Romero, Leone did the same thing with John Ford. And then there’s the late career work of Bruno Mattei who was just breathtaking in his thievery. Other films from this period of his career are talked about as (Name of a Film) crossed with (Name of a Different Film) because of the sheer audacity of their weird mish-mashing. Want to see Cannibal Holocaust (Lite) mixed with Predator? In the Land of the Cannibals (2003) is for you. But if you want to see something that stays mostly inside the horror genre for the mixtape it crafts, Island of the Living Dead is the one.
But it’s not The One. If you only know one Bruno Mattei film, I hope it’s the 1981 nunsploitation classic The Other Hell, because that one has a weirdness and a menace that mixes into a potion that I find irresistible in good horror. Importantly, though it was one of many in its subgenre, that film was its own animal, and there are no other films exactly like it. Island of the Living Dead, however is such a patchwork pastiche of a film that sometimes you can see through the stitches holding it together and on to the great big nothing that is behind it. But sometimes you want something that has no pretense, and my friend; Island of the Living Dead is completely pretense-free. This isn’t smart horror, this is fun horror and if you approach it as such, and recognize that it’s derivative as hell, you might have a good time with it. Let’s dig in.
So, there are these treasure hunters and they’re idiots. How they managed to ever get themselves together, get everyone on a boat, and find some treasure under the sea became ever more incredible to me as I watched this thing. That they could tie their shoes and feed themselves was pretty astonishing, to tell the truth. Anyway, they go out and royally screw up a treasure hunt, and then unsurprisingly, they find themselves on an island crawling with… zombies, I guess? I mean, most of the zombies are zombies. Some of them are probably also vampires and/or demons and/or whatever the zombie merman version of a starfish is, but they all come from the genus zombie… or is that zombus? Taxonomy isn’t my strong suit. But the important thing is some of them have two fangs, and some have mouthfuls of filthy, hungry razor teeth, and a single one of them inexplicably grows a floppy little hand back after its arm is lost. So here’s a thing that happened: at one point, I paused the film so I could say the following out loud to the screen:
“Remember when that zombie grew a new arm and then no other zombie did anything like that again? “
So, yeah… they are zombies, and some of them are like Zombie Plus. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think that the plot was really just an escalating series of dares Mattei made with his crew about how stupid the treasure hunters can be and how inexplicably diverse this zombie hoard turns out to be. The harrowing stupidity of the characters is really the most fun part though. Let’s stop for a little quiz. It has one question:
Question 1) If a figure in torn, ancient clothes and visible signs of rotting flesh and grievous, obviously lethal, bleeding wounds shambles towards you in a graveyard, what is the correct response?
A) Make some jokes about it with your friend.
B) Talk to it.
C) Fucking run.
Well, if you’re anyone who’s ever seen a single movie ever made, read a book, or lived outside of captivity for some part of your life, the answer is C. But, you know, to these idiots, the answer is A and B, which turns out pretty well for them.
Okay, I lied; let’s have a second question. It’s short answer.
Question 2) Based on everything you know about zombies, how well do you think that a kung fu attack will work on them?
Take your time.
If your answer was badly then you get a gold star. This one idiot in this movie? No gold star. But man, his attempt to fight a zombie with his fists is one enjoyable bit of tomfuckery. If you are fond of b-movie headscratching, this pile of hand-to-hand buffoonery will light your fuse. In a film that lifts liberally from Fulci’s Zombie (1981, more on that later), this must be the shark fight.
There’s a guy amongst the treasure hunters who I kept referring to as “Knockoff John Leguizamo Guy” (Alvin Anson) who receives a heck of a fright at one point, prompting him to exclaim that he thinks that he shit his pants. It’s somewhat rare to “think” you shit your pants, it’s rarer still to announce it in mixed company, and it’s downright unique to test your pants-shitting theory by sticking your finger into your ass, pulling it out and smelling it in front of people, one of whom is cackling like an unhinged methhead while you do it. But that’s what KJLG does, prompting me to wonder who decided add that rotten stankfinger bit of business; the actor or the director? Either way, I’m blaming Mattei because it’s fun to blame Mattei. As I write this, a brand new virus is scaring the hell out of the world, and I think that I’ll blame Mattei for that too, though he’s been dead over a decade.
Speaking of Knockoff John Leguizamo Guy, the award for Most Inexplicable Moment In a Zombie Film goes to: Knockoff Jon Leguzamo Guy for the “help yourself asswipe” line delivered while offering his arm to be eaten by a gaggle of the immensely out-runnable undead. The zombies respond by (spoiler alert) eating him. This scene is so hilariously infuriating- there’s no reason for any of what happens here to happen, but it does, and Mattei tries to make it poignant, which is the cherry on top of this fecal sundae.
But again, don’t get me wrong. One of my favorite things in Italian horror is the inexplicability factor. Fulci is famous for this stuff, especially in films like The Beyond (1981) and my favorite, The House By the Cemetery (also 1981… Jesus, Fucli did a lot in 1981). Mattei, like Fulci in that latter film, has a character who inexplicably gets mad at inanimate objects. In fact, getting mad at inanimate objects that themselves didn’t do anything wrong is the lion’s share of his character. For example:
Commenting on a missing lifeboat: “Damn lifeboat. Somebody took it.”
Commenting on the jungle: “Damn place!”
And so on.
It’s hard to take someone like that seriously, so I recommend not trying. Hell, I recommend not taking the movie seriously, as much of the fun is in taking it the opposite of seriously. This movie is dumb in the most delightful of ways, like a puppy’s dumb or Troll 2‘s dumb. My take is that being delighted at the sloppy dance steps the plot takes while stumbling all over the dialogue, characters and story is what makes this film entertaining. Enjoying the one-off activities that happen and aren’t explained, and just being wowed at the audacity of Mattei and his merry band for pulling off such a wild monstrosity is half the point. The other half of the fun is playing “holy shit, that’s from __________” and filling in the blank. Keep an eye out for ideas from Night of the Living Dead , themes from Tombs of the Blind Dead (sort of) and a lot of shots stolen straight from Fulci’s Zombie. Trust me, if you know ‘em, you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.
And last but not least, there’s the music. I think that somebody found all the people who got a Casio keyboard for Christmas in 1988 and who then attempted to make scene music for the TV show Miami Vice, glued all the tape from that together, and that’s the soundtrack for this movie. This thing is saddled with the funniest action movie music I think I’ve ever heard. I kept wondering if they used some sort of stereotype filter to get it to sound like that. Imagine someone making a gag action movie, and then putting gag music to it, but the director didn’t know it was gag music or a gag film, and you’ve got the soundtrack to this film. Or did he? Who knows.
Bruno Mattei might just have been a genius. He certainly hid it well, but when I was watching this film, I admired his moxie so much I kept thinking that maybe he was brighter than I gave him credit for. Then I realized that it’s not about being bright; that’s not the point. This is twin-barrel, high-octane, idiot fun; analogous to drinking three beers at the county fair and then climbing into a bumper car: it’s probably a bad idea, but it’s a good bad idea. If the goal is something that you will turn over in your mind for weeks, its probably not Island of the Living Dead, but if you want something that that will make you holler and pump your fist as it goes around turns and crashes, then you might have a winner.