Island of the Living Dead

Around the time the bottom fell out of the low-budget Italian exploitation film industry, at the beginning of the 1990's, something strange happened to the career of Bruno Mattei.

Up to this point, Mattei had established a reputation — a very, very bad reputation — for cheap commercial films that were made to bring in a quick buck. Mattei, who started his film career as an editor, had eventually turned to directing sexploitation films and "mondo"-style pseudo-documentaries. In the early 1980's, he teamed up with the younger film-maker Claudio Fragasso, who was establishing a name for himself in horror. Together, Mattei and Fragasso made the films that made them famous: Hell of the Living Dead, Rats: Night of Terror, and a handful of other, equally-bizarre flicks that united Mattei's moderate technical skill with Fragasso's loopy imagination. But after a while, Mattei's lack of vision began to irritate Fragasso, and when Mattei turned their last collaboration, Shocking Dark, into a word-for-word Aliens rip-off, Fragasso dissolved their partnership.

And that's more-or-less the point when things got weird for Bruno.

Always one to exploit a current trend for short-term gain, Mattei suddenly turned anachronistic. In 1993, he made his first quasi-giallo, Attrazione Pericolosa, which was followed almost immediately by two others: Omicidio al telefono and Gli occhi dentro... in spite of the fact that the genre had run out of steam about fifteen years before.

Then, the man who (with Shocking Dark) had combined Aliens with The Terminator just in time to cash in on James Cameron's Terminator 2 made another blatant imitation of a Hollywood blockbuster: Cruel Jaws (1996). But by 1996, the original Jaws was twenty years old. Over those past two decades, other film-makers all over the world had tried to rip off Spielberg's movie, only to fall afoul of Universal's legal department. So why on earth would Mattei not only guarantee a lawsuit from Hollywood, but also irritate his fellow-countrymen by stealing footage from their Jaws rip-offs? Was it really worth all the trouble to remake a movie which had long ago passed into the cultural vernacular all over the world?

In the meantime, though his focus may have changed, Mattei's technique (what there was of it) never altered. His scripts were still naïve; his actors still delivered their lines in the same declamatory, finger-pointing style; his music was still usually stolen from other, better productions (like Star Wars, in the case of Cruel Jaws — Mattei was never shy with the copyright infringements). So why did Mattei, the least introspective of all directors, suddenly start looking backwards for inspiration? I've never been able to figure it out...

... until now.

Now that I've seen some of Mattei's last films, things are starting to make sense to me. The key to understanding Mattei's late career is the involvement of a man named Gianni Paolucci. Most of Mattei's late movies were Paolucci productions, and by the same token, an even larger percentage of Paolucci's productions (nearly all of them, in fact) have been Bruno Mattei films. Paolucci started his partnership with Mattei just after Fragasso ended his, and the things that drove Fragasso to distraction — Mattei's willingness to sacrifice originality for box-office appeal, for instance; and his tendency to steal liberally from other films — seem to have appealed to Paolucci.

I get the feeling Paolucci saw Mattei's habits as substance rather than manner. Perhaps the chunks of other people's movies embedded in Mattei's own seemed to Paolucci like the hymn-tune quotations in Charles Ives's symphonies, or the soup cans in a Warhol exhibition. Perhaps Mattei's sloppy directing style, combined with his genuine talent as an editor, could be compared to the splash-paintings of Jackson Pollock, which turned out on examination not to be quite as random as they seemed. Seen in this light, the Mattei film was a brand-new, highly post-modern, excruciatingly 20th-century form of art.

Let me try to put this bizarre notion into context: in 1917, the French artist Marcel Duchamp bought a cheap porcelain urinal and submitted it to an exhibition — pseudonymously, since he was on the exhibition's board at the time. The urinal was rejected. But Duchamp had made his point, a point which he defended strenuously in a newspaper editorial (also issued pseudonymously) — a urinal, or any "found object", could be art if the artist said it was art. It was the conscious act of the artist to define the "ready-made" object as a "work of art" that transformed it, and gave it meaning and status that was totally unrelated to its mundane purpose.

It could well be argued that Duchamp was taking the piss with the art world. Still, his notion of "ready-made" art caught on with a surprising number of people who should have known better; and by the 1950's, when Duchamp's notoriety was at its peak, museums started inquiring about the original urinal. Ironically, by that time, the piss had been taken back: that particular style of urinal was no longer manufactured. So Duchamp had copies of the "ready-made" urinal specially fabricated for him, so he could sell them to the museums.

A few years later, an Italian artist named Piero Manzoni canned his own shit and sold the numbered cans as a series of "sculptures". These were originally sold for the per-ounce price of gold. Recently, the surviving cans1
1. A number of the cans exploded after a few years, which Manzoni confessed was the effect he was hoping for.
have been selling for quite a bit more.

These two examples alone should help illustrate the way artists of the 20th century attempted to blur the line between art and excrement; between philosophy and profit; between theory and charlatanry. Thus, in light of 20th century art history (and purchasing patterns), it makes perfect sense that someone would look at the earlier films of Bruno Mattei, with their "style" created entirely from lack of vision and budgetary necessity, and realize they could be transformed into... shit art. That's the only explanation I can come up with why any sane man would start a production company solely to encourage Bruno Mattei to make Bruno Mattei movies, in his usual style... with little or no attempt to get him to expand or improve, or even change with the times.

Maybe Paolucci was right. To find out, I've taken my bootleg disc of Shocking Dark and written across its face: ceci n'est pas un film (and I doubt anyone would argue with that statement). I call this resulting artwork Extrapolations IX, and I'm offering it as a sculpture to the Tate Gallery in London for a mere 1.6 million dollars. If it sells, then I owe Gianni Paolucci an apology. Hell, in that case, I'll start making Bruno Mattei films...

Island of the Living Dead (a Paolucci production) opens with a prologue, set in the late 17th century. A terrible plague has hit a Spanish settlement on some colonial island. The governor and his priest are busy gathering up the bodies of the local natives who have succumbed to the illness. We're not entirely sure where this island is supposed to be: on one part of the island, black peasants are holding a Caribbean-style voodoo ceremony, complete with sacrificial chickens and ecstatic dances (though one celebrant takes an undignified flop trying to do a somersault). One the other side of the island, everybody looks decidedly Asian. I guess we're somewhere between Hispaniola and the Philippines, if that helps any.

It turns out the plague is the least of the Spaniards' worries. As Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique plays in the background, the dead natives start coming back to life and attacking them. In a direct quotation from Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2 (1979), a number of shrouded bodies sit up, only to have their heads blown off by gunfire. It's fortunate that the Spanish soldiers are equipped with muskets that never need reloading, because the living dead outnumber them by a huge margin.

The zombies are really pretty well-realized for such a low-budget production. They're grey and covered with oozing sores. Their makeup is not overdone, as some of the zombies in Mattei's Zombies: The Beginning (2007) would turn out to be.

Some of the zombie extras clearly have no idea how they're supposed to behave. But most of the others really throw themselves into their parts... especially one very attractive young woman, who seems to have caught Bruno's eye: she keeps coming back, even though we see her get her head blown off early in the film. The odd thing about Bruno's use of this particular actress is that her zombie rags have been strategically glued to her body, so that she always remains discreetly covered (a Mattei movie with no nudity? What has the world come to?) Bruno also makes good use of a couple of extras who are real-life amputees: in several scenes they get prosthetic limbs blown off in a frighteningly convincing manner.

But Mattei seems to have been unable to decide on ground rules for his living dead. Most of the time, in classic Romero style, you can kill them simply by shooting them in the head. But then you get zombies like this one:

Look, ma... no head!

Then, too, there's a moment when one of the amputee zombies gets his arm blown off. For no apparent reason, in a moment that never repeats itself either in this film, or the sequel (or any other zombie movie I can think of right now), the zombie grows a new arm.

But hey — if we're honest about it, the whole idea of zombies is so preposterous that it doesn't make sense to complain about the lack of consistency or realism. Let me give you something much better to complain about. When the colonial governor and his surviving men attempt to flee from the horde of walking dead, they run into some unexpected adversaries: the crew of the ship La Natividad. We'll eventually find out why the sailors of La Natividad are so unhappy with the colonists, but that's not the important thing right now. What is important is they are all undead... but just when we're expecting another zombie attack, the cutlass-wielding revenants open their mouths to reveal vampire teeth just before springing on their victims.

So we not only have headless zombies and zombies that grow back missing limbs... we have zombie vampires. Aren't you glad Mattei passed away before he could get his hands on Twilight?

Cut to the Present Day. Out at sea, a small trawler sits at anchor. The crew, consisting of the usual gang of Mattei-movie cretins, is crowded at the gunwales, waiting expectantly for something to happen. The heads of two divers suddenly pop up: they've got it! they cry. As the others mug for the camera and rub their hands in glee, the ship's winch pulls an old wooden treasure chest up out of the water.

But just as the chest is about to swing over the deck, the bottom rots out. Gold doubloons pour out of the chest and back into the water. The crew aboard ship howl with disappointment; one of them even dives into the water in time to retrieve a single coin. But nobody does anything else about retrieving the treasure. Oh, sure, they're supposed to be treasure hunters, and they have divers & diving equipment... but once the chest is broken, there's absolutely nothing they can think of doing. Makes perfect sense to them: that's that!

This should come as no surprise: they're a typical Bruno Mattei cast of characters. Idiots, in other words... much like the post-apocalyptic survivors of Rats: Night of Terror, or the "marines of Megaforce" in Shocking Dark. There's Max the mechanic, a feeble non-character who is only around as zombie fodder. There's Tao, the Fat Guy who's sort-of the comic relief; Snoopy (action film star and Mattei regular Jim Gaines), who is so named because he does at one point wear a Snoopy T-shirt (though I doubt any royalties were payed to the Schulz estate); and Mark, the big lug. Then there's Victoria, who probably would have been played by Geretta Geretta 20 years earlier (though Geretta went on to much bigger and better things). As played by Ydalia Suarez, Victoria is incredibly irritating: Suarez gives the worst performance of the movie, though it's the sort of shrill, wide-eyed, over-emphasized performance that Mattei always seemed to want to bring out of his actors. Rounding out the list of characters are Fred, who's as close as this movie gets to a male lead; Sharon, our heroine, who's played by Yvette Yzon (Mattei's regular heroine in his later films); and Italian genre film veteran Gaetano Russo as Captain Kirk.

Wait a minute.

Island? Spanish zombies? Trawler? Captain Kirk? Could it be? Is it possible that, in Island of the Living Dead...


Yes. It's true. Island of the Living Dead does steal quite a bit from Boll's House of the Dead, though not as much as you might think. As absurdly thrilling as it may be to think of Mattei stealing from one of the only film-makers worse than he was, Bruno has other targets in mind for his plagiarisms, and those targets will make you forget all about House of the Dead. The real surprise is that Mattei's movie, as awful as it is, is still a far better-looking, better-edited and more entertaining film than Boll's.

Our crew of would-be treasure hunters is heading back to port that night when they are suddenly overtaken by a mysterious fog bank. The most mysterious thing about this fog bank is its ability to spring up in the middle of a torrential downpour. Anyway, confronted with this fog bank, that old sea-dog Captain Kirk decides the only thing to do is for everybody to give up and go to sleep. They'll decide what to do in the morning, when the weather clears (assuming the boat is still afloat at that point). Makes perfect sense to them: that's that!

In the morning — Fred being awakened in typically-classy Mattei style, by a seagull taking a dump on his face — the crew finds they've drifted to an uncharted island. An enormous, mountainous uncharted island, with what looks like a fairly large city visible in the distance in a couple of shots... an uncharted island that, if you look closely, seems to be frequented by lots of other watercraft... but an uncharted island nonetheless.

City in the distance.

The city is much clearer on a large screen.

Small craft off the 'uncharted island'.

LARGE craft off the 'uncharted island'.

Snoopy immediately suggests trying to radio the Coast Guard (presumably Snoopy knows which coast they're off, which puts him ahead of the screenwriter). But Captain Kirk tells him he doesn't want to let anybody know where they are... for now. The rest of the crew shrugs and says, "OK." Makes perfect sense to them: that's that!

Kirk suggests they all go ashore and explore the island, while Max stays behind and repairs the boat from the previous night's storm damage. While Max descends into the bowels of the ship, grumbling, the others grab firearms and (apparently) an inexhaustible supply of ammunition and take the lifeboat to the island.

Once ashore, the crew splits into two groups. Kirk, Victoria, Fred and Snoopy go off and discover the burnt-out remains of the Spanish colony (the old ruined buildings are genuinely atmospheric: you almost have to think that Mattei and Paolucci found the site somewhere in the Philippines, and realized they needed to make a horror movie there. But what sort of horror movie? A zombie flick? A vampire film? A ghost story? Ahh, the hell with it: let's make all three at once!) As they enter the ruins, a rotting shape in Spanish armor appears in the foreground, looking after them... slowly it turns and snarls at the camera.

Meanwhile Tao, Mark and Sharon go off in the opposite direction, looking for water. They find what appears to be a fresh-water lake, and Tao goes off to fill their containers. But Mark and Sharon find themselves in an old Spanish graveyard, with 17th century inscriptions on the headstones (chances are you're thinking of Zombie 2 at this point, but the truth is far worse).

Sharon comes across the tombstone of a little boy, and decides to look for flowers to place on his grave. Mark thinks she's being ridiculous, and starts to make fun of her. Now... if you're watching this with a large group of people (and you really should, by the way), this is the point at which some wag, remembering the original Night of the Living Dead, will pipe up, "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" The one who does this will be the person least familiar with Bruno Mattei. Keep your eyes on this person, and watch his or her expression as the scene goes on. This is the point in the movie at which less-experienced audience members start to lose their shit.

For Mark does go into the whole NotLD "They're coming to get you!" shtick. At the opposite end of the (suddenly) fog-strewn graveyard, a single shambling figure appears.

This scene reminded me of the early 1980's, when the practice of colorizing old black-and-white films was causing controversy. One of the first movies that got colorized, using the then-state of the art Crayola method, was Night of the Living Dead. Critics pointed out that Bill Hinzman's zombie in the opening graveyard scene had been tinted green. This made it obvious from the outset that there was something wrong with him, and completely ruined the point of Johnny's taunts. Why on earth would Barbara go up and apologize to a guy who was bright green, for crying out loud?

Those critics would have a field day with Mattei's version of the scene. For the figure that appears at the far side of the cemetery is not only grey and rotten-looking... is not only staggering like a drunk... is not only clothed in bloodstained rags, and covered with great festering wounds. No. His nose has rotted off! And as if all that wasn't enough of a giveaway, when he ends up about a foot and a half away from Sharon and Mark, he stops short and begins roaring at them. A torrent of blood oozes out of his mouth. And that's the point at which Sharon figures out that something's not quite right.


Of course, by this time it's far too late; and Sharon would be zombie chow, were it not for the sudden arrival of Tao. Up 'til now, the chubby and slightly effeminate Tao's been looking like he'd be the comic relief... but all of a sudden he breaks out the martial arts skills, and starts wailing on the walking cadaver. I could be mistaken, but isn't this scene taken from early in Claudio Fragasso's Zombie 4? Mattei put up some of the money for Fragasso's film, but was otherwise uninvolved in it; there's actually something touching about the thought of Mattei throwing in a reference to his estranged colleague. Nothing bridges the years quite like out-and-out theft, right?

Anyway, like the similar moment in Zombie 4, the fight doesn't go quite the way Tao planned. Zombies don't respond to injury the way living opponents do, and they don't fight fair. "What are you waiting for?" cries Tao to the others... and Sharon and Mark, understanding him to mean "get away" rather than "come help me before I get killed", high-tail it. With Tao's dying screams echoing in their ears, Sharon and Mark pause for the following Immortal Dialog:

SHARON: It's Tao! He sacrificed himself for us! We've got to go back...
MARK: No, no! Tao sacrificed himself for us! We've got to go to the Captain!

Mind you, things haven't been going especially easily for the Captain and the others, either. After some embarrassing misadventures, they find themselves in a torture chamber filled with skeletons. There are wooden stakes in several of the skeletons, though not where you'd expect them... they're jammed on top of collarbones, for example, or sticking out of their mouths.

Piled among the bones, Victoria finds some Old Books That Might Help Them — though this time at least the books are written in Latin and are comprehensible only to Kirk. These dusty tomes include the Necronomicon, naturally... but also De Vermis Mysteriis, Cultes des Goules, and another volume entitled De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis ("To Serve Man"). Kirk, true to form, ignores Al-Hazred and Prinn and concentrates only on this last one. There he reads of the curse of the undead, and how any cadaver left unburnt will rise and become one of them.

Back on the boat, Max the mechanic is learning that particular lesson first-hand, in the last of the explicit House of the Dead references. While he's working on the crippled engines, the boat is suddenly overrun by Spanish zombies, one of whom breaks open a gas line with his sword. Before being devoured, Max manages to lurch over to the ship's Self-Destruct Button and push it...

The Button.

Looks like an OFF switch to me...


... but hey: what do I know?

The resulting KABOOM! — and the explosion of what turns out to be a really good model of the boat — brings everybody back together on the beach. There they discover that not only has the boat gone blooey, but the lifeboat's been stolen, too. Max is dead... Tao is dead, killed by "some terrible monster, not human of any kind!"... and now they're stuck on the island. (All together now:) That's that!

"We must find refuge before night falls," says Kirk... and night, obligingly, falls at once. The surviving crew members are surprised by zombies as they make their way through the ruins. It's at this point we discover that the zombies (or at least some of them) are able to grow back severed limbs. We also find out they're environmentally conscious, as one of them takes time to stamp out a cigarette with his foot.

The crew flees into the ruins, where they find a mysterious chapel. One archway is guarded by two "statues" of the Grim Reaper. These "statues" are obviously extras in makeup, holding scythes: you can see them breathing, and (naturally) they move too much to be real statues. One of the statues does open its eyes for a "surprise" at one point; but after a while you start to realize that these actors are only standing there because they're cheaper than real statues. At all the points where you'd expect them to step down from their platforms — and there are several — they don't... although one "statue" eventually disappears, without explanation.

Oh, Lord. I could go into detail about the remaining hour of the movie. For instance, I could tell you all about Mark and Victoria finding an actual Cask of Amontillado and drinking from it... but what, really, would be the point? Instead, I think it would be handy just to go over some of the movie's high and low points, as it drifts unpredictably to its predictable conclusion.

For example: we know we've had to deal with both zombies and vampires so far. Did you know we had some ghosts, too? Yes: the spirit of the Spanish governor appears to Captain Kirk and tries to tell him, a little bit at a time, the story of how he and his people came to be cursed. It turns out that the main reason for the curse is that he and his men had plundered the Natividad when it sank of the coast. It was the treasure of the Natividad that Kirk and his party found at sea.

I think.

It's also possible the ghostly governor meant the other treasure... the chest full of Mardi Gras beads that they found in the ruins. Kneeling in front of the treasure chest, they'd found a decapitated skeleton... and when they'd opened the chest, a severed zombie head swiveled on its vertebrae and snarled at them. Fred had dropped the lid back on top of it in his terror; but when they opened the chest again, they found only a dried-out skull. Fans of Zombie 3 will no doubt be disappointed the head didn't rise up out of the chest and chase them all over the room.

Look, ma... no body!

Note the extra set of teeth.

But I digress: I was trying to get to the explanation for the terrible curse on the Island. The captain of the Natividad — I don't think he's given a name in the course of the story, so let's just call him "Blake" — is the one responsible for turning everybody into zombies, vampires and ghosts.

Oh — before I forget, there's also a Grim Reaper convention in town, and "Blake" himself sometimes shows up to lead the robed skeletons.

So anyway: Sharon reads more of "Blake"'s back-story in a book she finds... evidently the journal of Padre Maloñez. For comparison's sake, let me put the tale Sharon reads from the book alongside Mr. Machen (John Houseman)'s opening ghost story from John Carpenter's The Fog (1979):

MACHEN: "One hundred years ago, on the 21st of April, out on the waters around Spivey Point... a small clipper ship drew toward land.

Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in! For a moment, they could see nothing... not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light: My God! It was a fire, burning on the shore, strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light... but it was a campfire, like this one!

The ship crashed against the rocks; the hull sheared in two... the masts snapped like a twig. And the wreckage sank, with all the men aboard.

At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open and staring into the darkness...

...and above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted: receded back across the ocean and never came again.

But it is told by the fishermen — and by their fathers and grandfathers — that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up... and search for the campfire that lead them to their dark and icy death."
SHARON: "Everything happened on the night of the 21st of May in 1688. On this day, a huge galleon ship came to this island.

In the dark night, a great cloud fell...

...and the ship crashed into the rocky shore. The mast broke in two, and the ship sank with the entire crew.

We could have saved them — but the fog that had fallen had disappeared. It dissolved in the direction of the open sea, never to return again.

But it is written that when hellish fog will fall again on this island, the men from the bottom of the ocean will rise up and kill whoever had caused their deaths."

(Note, please, that in Mattei's version the diarist says they couldn't rescue the sailors because the fog had lifted...!)

Sharon's reading is accompanied by some additional theft: "flashback" footage from a couple of completely different films, one of which looks like it's a classic High Seas adventure from the 1940s. But all this pilfering still isn't the craziest example of out-and-out robbery that Mattei demonstrates in the course of the movie. Sure, we're used to Mattei stealing bits of other people's movies, to the point where I started hallucinating resemblances between the Grim Reaper scenes and Richard Elfman's 1980 cult film Forbidden Zone — I know there's no real connection, but I can't help singing "Minnie the Moocher" under my breath every time I see those scenes:

'Blake' and the Reapers

The boys and I have been expectin' to greet you...

Danny Elfman and friends in Forbidden Zone

Deliver me the Princess, boy...

But the real surprise — something I thought even Bruno Mattei wouldn't stoop to — was this: he steals from Bruno Mattei. Specifically, he lifts things from his own Hell of the Living Dead. There's a scene in which Sharon finds a hooded figure kneeling by the mysterious altar. She slowly approaches the figure, whispering, "Father? Father?" She puts her hand on the robed figure's shoulder, and the priest turns around slowly. And he's a rotting zombie! Aaargh!

Not only is this a shot-for-shot repeat of the scene in Hell of the Living Dead, Mattei had re-used the same gimmick at the end of the original movie:

There's also a moment when Fred turns into Santoro from Hell..., charging crazily into the middle of the zombie horde, challenging the undead to take a bite of him. He even offers them his arm, like a particularly tasty buffalo wing. Unfortunately, Fred is no Santoro. While Franco Garofalo's character survived his mad encounter with the living dead, Fred gets himself eaten.

It's bad enough ripping off Bruno Mattei in your zombie film — even if you are Bruno Mattei — but you can still go one step lower. Bruno being Bruno, this is precisely what he did. If there is one iconic moment in zombie movie history, one exquisitely managed and original moment of graphic horror that can never be imitated, it's Olga Karlatos's infamous eyeball scene in Fulci's Zombie 2. For sheer squirm-inducing discomfort, this scene has rarely been equalled. Mattei had already stolen from Fulci earlier in Island of the Living Dead, so I really didn't expect him to go back to Fulci later on... and I never expected him to go back specifically to that scene. After all, once Mattei stopped working with Claudio Fragasso in 1990, the amount of really over-the-top gore in his movies went way down; and earlier, in The Tomb (2006), he'd tiptoed coyly away from showing actual on-screen eyeball violence.

But just take a look at this:

And yet — after all that buildup, referencing one of horror's most infamous sequences — Mattei still misses the point of Fulci's original by having Yvette Yzon's Sharon be rescued at the last moment. That's right: the man who gave us a scene of Evelyn Margit Newton's eyes being poked out from behind her skull in Hell of the Living Dead pulls the punch here. It's all tease, no penetration.

But perhaps I've said enough about what's wrong with Island of the Living Dead. It's about time I mentioned the things that go right... because as hard as it may be to believe, there are a few. For example, there's a mildly effective moment when Sharon and Fred are forced to make their way through a corridor piled with long-inert zombies. The creatures have been left alone for 300 years — some of them have been eaten by rats in the interim — so they're fortunately very slow to awaken. Even when they do wake up, they're still suffering under two disadvantages: first, they're stiffer than usual from the inactivity. Second, many of them have been chained to the wall, so the best they can do is lean and snarl. Still, it's a reasonably creepy moment. It would count as a modest success... except for the fact that Mattei repeated a large chunk of this sequence as a flashback — over and over again — in Zombies: The Beginning.

The other effective moment that comes to mind is when Snoopy finds himself confronted by a flamenco-dancing ghost, who steps out of her painting like a Murgatroyd ancestor in "Ruddigore". It's not the flamenco-ghost sequence that works so well... good grief, no. That's impossibly stupid. The ghost dances around Snoopy flirtatiously, and Snoopy, against all common sense, decides what the hell? and follows her. Of course, she immediately turns into a vampire zombie and kills him. But the part of this sequence that really succeeds is the occasional, creepy glimpse we get of the zombie lutenist — yes, lutenist — who plays the music for her:

Not the loot they were looking for.

There's also an encounter with a zombified old woman that has a certain eeriness to it. At first, it's likely to remind us of the scene with the old-woman zombie in Hell of the Living Dead (a scene eclipsed in most viewers' memories by the Green Tutu scene that starts at about the same time), but it turns into something much different. Victoria has a conversation with the zombie — yes, yes, I know: there's no consistency between monsters in this movie. The old woman is clearly more zombie than ghost or vampire, yet she doesn't want to be a zombie, and consequently has enough freedom to speak her mind to Victoria. Unfortunately for her, old "Blake" doesn't want her talking to mortals, so before she can do anything more than warn Victoria to get off the Island, she bursts into flame and melts away before Victoris's horrified eyes.

And overall, I have to admit that Island of the Living Dead looks as good as any shot-on-video horror film of recent years, while its pace and story flow are (as usual for Mattei) surprisingly energetic. The story itself is dumb, as dumb and derivative as anything Mattei ever filmed with Fragasso... but it's a lot more fun than the average modern DTV zombie film.

Maybe the best comparison for Bruno Mattei isn't Marcel Duchamp after all. Maybe he's closer in spirit to PDQ Bach, the fictional Baroque composer invented by Peter Schickele, who was so lacking in originality that he even plagiarized music that hadn't been written yet. PDQ Bach is brilliantly sophisticated comedy pretending to be stupid; you really can't say the same thing about Mattei movies. But I get the feeling sometimes that the very last Mattei/Paolucci collaborations — even if they weren't intended as pure parody — were deliberately exaggerated to poke fun at Mattei's own history.

Island of the Living Dead was Mattei's second-to-last film. In a sane universe, it would have been his last film, but he was able to make a sequel — Zombies: The Beginning — just before he died. The sequel, in typical Mattei style, had more to do with other people's movies than it did with the flick it was supposed to be based on; what's more, though it was called "The Beginning", it was to be the second film in a proposed trilogy. Mattei died before the last movie was even begun, but Paolucci has stated he'd like to go on and make the third film anyway. The mind boggles at the thought of a posthumous Bruno Mattei film, but fortunately we don't have to worry about that right now.

The cultural landscape has changed significantly over the last quarter century, and it's a much different thing today for someone to make a Bruno Mattei-style film than it was when Mattei was getting started. Twenty-five years ago, when something as wretched as, say, Hell of the Living Dead was released — to theaters, remember, since there was no such thing as direct-to-video — nobody ever dreamed that we'd still be watching it and discussing it after the turn of the millennium. The origin of Mattei's "style" was the age-old tradition of cashing in on a currently-popular trend as cheaply as possible, tricking enough people into seeing the film before the terrible word-of-mouth killed it, and then moving on to the next project. By contrast, the Mattei movies of the new century were made to cash in on the existence of Mattei movies in the past.

The funny thing is — Mr. Paolucci, please take note — only Mattei could get away with making a Bruno Mattei movie. OK, OK: technically Jordan B. Matthews, Gilbert Roussel, Frank Klox, David Hunt and this film's credited director, Vincent Dawn, could also make a convincing Bruno Mattei movie, but that's only because they (and so very many others) were Bruno Mattei. The SyFy Channel and The Asylum may be giving him a run for his money in the Stupid department, but when it comes to sheer, ballsy theft, nobody does it like Bruno. It's strange to think that a director so well-known for his lack of originality should turn out to be one of a kind, but that's just another part of his inexplicable charm.


The Saga Continues: read about Zombies: The Beginning in my earlier review.

More Braino at Bruneater... er, Bruno at Braineater:

The Tomb
The Other Hell
Zombie Creeping Flesh/Hell of the Living Dead
Zombie 3
Terminator II: Shocking Dark

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