Zombies: The Beginning was also Bruno Mattei: the End. The Italian director died in May 2007, just as his last three films were being presented to potential distributors at the Cannes Marché du film.
It figures that Mattei would end his career with a film called The Beginning. After all, the man seemed to have learned little or nothing about directing in in four decades of film work. In fact, Zombies: The Beginning may be the perfect summation for Mattei's career as a director, in that it doesn't really sum up anything: it's more of the same from a veteran underachiever.
When I say this movie is "more of the same", I mean it literally. Mattei was well-known for doing low-low-low budget rip-offs of other people's movies: Robowar was Predator by way of Robocop; Cruel Jaws was another version of... oh, come on. Three guesses what Cruel Jaws was another version of. Then there was the incredibly awful Shocking Dark, a movie that managed to graft a little of The Terminator onto a virtual word-for-word remake of Aliens. The lesson is clear: when you watch a Mattei film for the first time, you can expect to see many things you've seen before. But Zombies: The Beginning even more "more of the same" than most — it's actually another remake of Aliens! Yes! Mattei, for his last movie, ripped off himself ripping off James Cameron!
To be fair to Mattei, some of the credit for this multi-layered rip-off goes to the movie's writer/producer, Giovanni Paolucci, who was Mattei's main producer from the early 90's on. Paolucci had been involved in the production of several of Mattei's earlier movies, including Shocking Dark. Funny thing: Claudio Fragasso, Mattei's longtime co-conspirator, dissolved their partnership after Shocking Dark — and if you've ever seen Shocking Dark, you'll understand why. But Paolucci had the opposite reaction from his work with Mattei: he believed he'd found his creative soulmate; and starting in 1993 he began to produce exclusively Bruno Mattei films. Paolucci, unlike Fragasso, seems to have been untroubled by Mattei's willingness to steal just about anything (including actual footage) from other movies. And it just so happens that their last collaboration turned out to be a Shocking Dark for the 21st century.
But because of Paolucci's enthusiastic efforts, we really have to wonder: does this movie exist only because movies like Shocking Dark came before it? Is this a conscious attempt to add a new entry to a sub-subgenre Mattei helped create with his naïve film-making style? If so, then their Matteification of the material is so complete that it raises the film from mere entertaining awfulness into the realm of conceptual art.
Zombies: The Beginning starts where Mattei's previous film, Island of the Living Dead, left off1. Sharon, the only survivor of the previous film, is found drifting in
(Sharon is played by Phillipine actress Yvette Yzon, the star of six — count 'em, six — of Mattei's late films. It's easy to see why Mattei and Paolucci took such a liking to her: she's gorgeous. It's hard to judge her acting skill, since these movies have a tendency to drag everybody, even experienced actors, down to their level; but she's hardly the worst actress ever to head a Mattei flick. She throws herself into some very silly roles and even more ridiculous situations with enthusiasm and complete commitment. Certainly she inspired Paolucci to make the best decision of his entire career: he married her (thereby showing better judgment than I would have expected from a guy who considered Bruno Mattei his creative soulmate). Perhaps the most amazing thing about Yzon's working relationship with Mattei is this: after her first three films, which were all erotic movies, Mattei decided not to cast her in any more sex films. He thought she deserved some better, less-exploitative roles. That's right: Yvette Yzon convinced Bruno Mattei to take the High Road. For that alone, she deserves some sort of award.)
The Philippine Coast Guard brings Sharon back to a hospital, where she lies in a coma. She remains unconscious for a whole week, plagued by nightmares about the horrible things she's witnessed. Finally she opens her eyes; but just as she seems to be recovering, she falls into a violent seizure. Could it be? She's survived the monsters, only to bring the infection back with her! She's become a host for the horror she thought she'd survived! Oh noes! How shockingly...
And then, as expected, she wakes up again: she was only having nightmares about her nightmares.
Equally predictably, once she's discharged from the hospital, Sharon is hauled up to face a board of inquiry for her role in the destruction of the (cough) research vessel (in Island of the Living Dead, Sharon and her colleagues were private treasure hunters, but this film has re-written their backstory to make them employees of a large corporation). The board points out that there is no island on the charts where Sharon says the ship went down. Thus it's hardly surprising that nobody believes her crazy story about the dead returning to life and eating all the crew (good grief, what's next? Chest-bursting alien parasites? Pfff.).
Sharon's attempts to defend herself don't exactly endear her to her jury: "But these creatures exist!" she says; "And they are there." When this philosophically-complex statement doesn't convince them, she goes on: "If one of those monsters happened to get here, you won't be able to say, 'This hearing is over'. And all this bullshit that you think is so important... will only be able... to use to wipe your ass!" This sounds to me like what you'd get if you run the lines from Aliens through Google translator, from English to Italian to Tagalog and then back to English again2. Somehow even this fails to make her case, so Sharon ends up grabbing one woman by her lapels and screaming "YOU UGLY WITCH!" in her face.
Disgraced, fired from her job and branded "mentally unbalanced" — something tells me the "ugly witch" comment had something to do with that — poor Sharon retreats to a Buddhist temple. But the peace of the temple does not extend to Sharon's dreams. Hell: it's torture for us to watch the same zombie attack footage over and over again... imagine how difficult it must be for her!
Then one day, six months later, Sharon gets a visitor: a stranger who calls himself "Paul Barker, from the Tyler Corporation". Someone in the company did take Sharon's story seriously, and seemed to think there was some sort of pharmaceutical value in dead people that have come back to life. Perhaps they intended to grind them up and sell them as a powdered aphrodisiac on the Asian and Middle Eastern markets? Who knows? Anyway, the Company sent some zombies ("samples", he calls them) from the Island of the Living Dead off to another island for research. And then, as anyone who has seen Aliens will have figured out, the Company lost touch with the research station.
In a situation like this, it's clear what must be done: first, send Paul
I can believe that a large pharmaceutical company might have its own private army. I have a slightly more difficult time believing the company would send them out on a nuclear submarine. It's not that I think a pharmaceutical company couldn't afford one; I just don't think it's the best vehicle for the job. The sub turns into a U-boat for some footage at the end, but I don't think that's much of an improvement. I should also point out that the nuclear submarine footage is presented in the wrong aspect ratio, which [along with the two 3-second cameos by Viggo Mortensen] suggests that it came from some other film.
But I'm willing to suspend my disbeleif, because we're headed into familiar territory. Now, for the very last time, we are treated to Bruno Mattei's idea of military preparedness... which hasn't changed a bit since the days of the "Megaforce" in Shocking Dark:
"Ready... aim... HAMBURGER!"
Nevertheless, the group's arrival on the island is genuinely atmospheric. The first thing they encounter is an abandoned van, which immediately brings to mind the scene with the zombie child in Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead. Mattei reinforces the reference by having something nasty spill out the passenger side when the door is opened. In the rear of the van is a mobile communication unit, which Captain Jurgens decides to use as a base of operations (while his soldiers do the actual work). The sound of the rain pattering on the roof of the vehicle gives the scene a realistic feeling of loneliness; it might almost convince us we're not filming on a soundstage, until we realize that this "van" is more than half again as large on the inside as it is on the outside.
Captain Jurgens, Sharon and Barker watch from the van-mounted video monitors, while Sergeant Zamora leds his team into the research station. When one of his men finds spent shell casings on the ground, Zamora's keenly-honed military instincts tell him exactly what's happened: holding up a casing in front of the video camera, he tells Jurgens: "These were made by firearms!" Sharon, however, is more interested in something the monitor cameras have revealed on the ground behind them, something the soldiers themselves seem to have missed: severed limbs dripping with blood, and what appears to be a malformed fetus.
"What in God's name went on here?" gasps Barker.
"I don't know," replies Sharon, in her most serious tone; "but it doesn't... look... good."
No; no, it doesn't. But at least the building isn't overrun with monsters, so it should be safe for Captain Jurgens to come in.
If things didn't... look... good before, they look even worse when the team discovers an abandoned laboratory. Cannibal zombies seem positively wholesome compared to the things the Tyler Corporation scientists were up to. There are carved-up zombie corpses on slabs... more withered fetuses... and rows of dead women, in cages that would be inhumanely small for a medium-sized dog. The women were Tyler employees who were experimented upon: they seem to have been held prisoner and then forced, alien-style, to give birth of a new generation of monsters. Except, of course, it's not their chests that have burst out. And even though they're dead, at least one of them is still surprisingly mobile ("She didn't seem dead," shrugs Jurgens, after an attack).
Shortly thereafter, the soldiers endure an attack by a zombie Little Person. Perhaps this is supposed to be one of the fetuses that didn't die immediately? In any case, it's very small, very angry, and it's got a wobbly eyeball growing out of the top of its head.
By now we're starting to get the idea that these may not be ordinary zombies. They're... mutant zombies. But there's no time to worry about zombie taxonomy: the rescue team has been able to locate the survivors — or what they assume are the survivors — all huddled together in a single building at the far end of the research complex (they locate them by the identification chips that all Tyler emplyees have surgically implanted in them [!]). The computer (and the script of Aliens, if I remember correctly) identifies the building as the Generator Room, but Barker (who should know) refers to it as the "powder magazine".
The powder magazine?! Well, now we know why the zombies were able to overwhelm the scientists: it's those damned muskets! Those muzzle-loaders take too long to reload.
Obviously the rescue mission is going to be risky, so delicate, spun-sugar Captain Jurgens retreats to the safety of the communications van with Sharon and Barker. This leaves Zamora to do the dirty work, which turns out to be very dirty indeed: first, the team discovers a network of pipes leaking some viscous goo. Next, they find yet another bloody fetus lying on the ground. Finally, in a genuinely eerie moment that harks all the way back to the hanging dolls in Mattei's The Other Hell, they find a room full of corpses, all bagged in plastic and dangling from chains. To make matters even more delightfully revolting, the corpses have been dripping a little.
Just beyond the room with the hanging bodies is another room, in which the bodies of four women lie rotting on tables. Three of the woman look as if their abdomens had exploded — apparently they've found some of the sources of the fetuses that litter the complex. However, the abdomen of one of the women is covered in a sheet, and it looks as though she died still pregnant. When one of the soldiers goes to investigate the unmutilated body, the woman opens her eyes: she may be partially zombified, but the remaining human part of her begs her "rescuers" to kill her.
And then, in apparent homage to Mattei's and Lucio Fulci's Zombi 3, the monster baby claws its way out of its mother's womb... while in the background, the eviscerated women sit up on their slabs.
I feel there's something I need to clarify: although Zombies: The Beginning has all the hallmarks of a classic Bruno Mattei film, and refers to several of his movies explicitly, this is one of the few films of Mattei's late career for which he did not receive writing credit. The credited scriptwriters for the movie are Paolucci and Andrea Tentori — if you look up Tentori's writing credits on the IMDb, you'll see he worked with Fulci on Cat in the Brain, so clearly he has some experience with films that "reference" other films (in the sense that Bonnie and Clyde were "bank referencers").
If it's true that Mattei was only minimally involved with the script, then it's amazing that anyone else was able to come up with something so faithful to the spirit of the old man's work3. In fact, you can't help but wonder if everything — the "borrowings" from other films, the inane English dialogue that's just a little out of kilter, the painful comic relief, the plot twists that either go nowhere or else completely derail the plot — was specifically designed to re-create the sort of epic bad movie Mattei made instinctively at the height (or depth) of his career. So is this a Bruno Mattei movie... or is it a Mattei pastiche that just happens to have been directed by Bruno Mattei?
There's one aspect of the film that makes me suspect it it is a pastiche: it really isn't all that bad. It's dumb, and it's derivative; but by comparison even to Island of the Living Dead, there are very few moments where you find yourself howling at the television in outrage. In fact, once you get past the fact that the whole thing's an obvious plagiarism, you can even begin to enjoy the places where the movie decides to stray from its sources. One decided improvement over Shocking Dark is that the Newt character has been written out. Probably the best twist the movie adds is the entire last portion of the film, when the frame of reference changes from Aliens to... well, I'm not sure, exactly; but superficially, I was reminded of Luigi Cozzi's Contamination, with a faint echo of one particular sequence from Silent Hill.
If you've seen Aliens, you'll remember the sublimely sticky scene in which the Mother Alien was revealed, dropping eggs into place from its grotesquely swollen ovipositor. Well... in place of a Mother Alien, Mattei's film gives us a completely different Level Boss — a gigantic brain in a glass container:
Wow. Just... wow. Normally, this is not the sort of thing you'd want to introduce into your story without preparation... or, come to think of it, without explanation. But this movie is determined to be a Bruno Mattei flick, no matter who actually wrote it; so... here it is, shot and lit a bit like the controlling Alien Cyclops in Cozzi's film. And instead of laying eggs, the Level Boss here is harvesting its young... from his zombified female slaves. The ductwork full of glop the soldiers found earlier is some sort of nutrient system, feeding the women whose writhing bodies are embedded in the walls. When the women's zombie babies are, um... ripe... the ductwork attached to their bellies switches direction, sucks the little monsters out of the wombs, and spits them out in a bloody mess onto some sort of processing machine. It's probably the most revolting scene in Mattei's entire output — and no, I haven't forgotten the woman eating maggots out of a skull in Hell of the Living Dead.
And what happens to the zombie infants? The grow remarkably quickly, becoming weird cone-headed monsters with black eyes:
These zombie kids easily out-weird anything else in Mattei's oeuvre. They don't actually do anything, but their presence alone is enough. They're mostly naked, except for the cone-shaped headpieces and strategically placed prosthetics on their groins — oh, lord, the Google hits I'm gonna get from that sentence. Mattei apparently ordered the fake eyeballs just minutes before shooting began, forcing the effects artist to scramble (or face his wrath)... but the effect, while obviously low-tech, works pretty well.
The best part about the zombie kids? Their movements. They don't so much walk, as... boogie. The kid actors themselves are clearly having a great time on-set, throwing themselves into the absurdity of it all with broad grins on their faces. Combine their obvious enthusiasm with their makeup and the gruesome surroundings, and the effect is very unsettling.
But for everything that works in Zombies: The Beginning, there are many, many things that don't. The problems with the script should be obvious from the examples I've given so far; but in addition, some of the prosthetic effects just aren't up to par. For example, take this zombie I like to call "football-head":
While we're on the subject of prosthetics, let's take a look at the credit for the prosthetics artist himself:
Doesn't get more generic than that, does it? Umm... actually, yes; it does. Here's the end-credit entry for the Sound Editor:
Even the title of the movie has some Quality Control issues:
And this brings us to the movie's ending... which, while not technically a mistake, is nevertheless an unfortunate decision. Island of the Living Dead had had a definite conclusion; and since that conclusion had been pretty damned pessimistic, it turned out to pose some problems for the sequel. Thus the end of the first film and the beginning of the second don't quite match up. Somewhere along the line, Mattei and Paolucci decided they'd turn their zombie film into a trilogy; so, in order to avoid the problems caused by the end of the first movie, they left the ending of Zombies: The Beginning open.
And then Mattei died.
Paolucci has stated he hopes to complete the trilogy with a different director. It won't be the same. Even if other people have successfully internalized the elements of the classic Mattei film, there's no substitute for the original. Yes, I know: it's odd to use the word "original" to describe a man whose movies haven't a single truly original moment in them. But that's part of the paradox of Bruno Mattei, and the main reason why there will never be an adequate replacement.
Zombies: The Beginning illustrates the Mattei paradox very well: because it's a reasonably satisfactory film (as modern zombie flicks go), it's a slightly less-than-satisfactory Mattei film for those of us who are used to such things. But because its relative strength makes it a disappointing conclusion to Mattei's career, it's the perfect conclusion for Mattei's career. Does that make any sense? Of course not. It's Bruno Mattei. For better or worse, the world will not see his like again.
1. ...thus further undermining its own title.
Island of the Living Dead, by the way, is Mattei's answer to Uwe Boll's House of the Dead, if you can imagine such a thing. A separate review is forthcoming.
2. I tried doing this, and it turns out I'm wrong. When you feed the actual lines from Aliens through Google translator, you get: "Because if one of these things and after all! After all this - the drivel that you think is important, you can kiss all that goodbye!"
Actually, this still more grammatically consistent.
. Nowhere is this clearer than in the scene, again cribbed from Aliens, where one of the soldiers teaches the heroine how to use his weapon. While Corporal Hicks in the original says simply, "I want to introduce you to a personal friend of mine...", Zombies: The Beginning goes for a familiar weapons-related Scarface quotation. If Mattei really didn't have a hand in this, somebody had his style down cold.