Wot's all this, then? A brief, NASTY overview
NOTE: The movie is bad, but it's about to get verse. The original Italian title has inspired me to start this review with a parody of another famous Italian Inferno... and you are going to read it, goddamn it, whether you like poetry or not; because terza rima is extremely difficult to write...
I. Inferno dei Morti Viventi
(with apologies to Dante)
Inferno, I infer... no?
— Chris Mandra, Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur
Once, in the middle of the road of life,
To Blockbuster my weary footsteps led
(much to the disappointment of my wife)
to find a film about the living dead --
to lose myself in some outrageous gore,
and wash away the blues in streams of red.
It's normally my practice to ignore
the "normal, decent" people's kind of stuff —
That day, though, I decided to explore.
Naïvely thinking that I'd had enough
experience with bad films to prepare me
for anything… and thinking I was tough
(that nothing save a horror film could scare me),
I took the risk of one who deeply delves,
and waited for the crap to rise and snare me…
Then, from the movies, scattered on the shelves
like rugby fans run riot in the bleachers,
one film leapt out at me -
The gods themselves
could not inspire such dread in mortal creatures!
The face upon the box! I did not dare
ignore the threat I read upon the features
that sneered beneath obnoxious rasta hair:
"My name is John Travolta, hack of hacks:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
(But that's a different poem, so relax.)
Then, even as I turned away to flee,
amid the faces staring from the racks
I spied another hideous goatee:
Tom Greene! The nadir of the human race
was sitting on the shelf in front of me!
I would have turned and bolted from the place,
but, as I tried to block him from my view
by throwing up my hands before my face,
I stumbled, and my elbow knocked into
the shelf behind -- and something truly vile
(Mariah Carey's feature film debut)
fell from its dusty niche into the aisle.
What could I do but scream and run away,
back safe to Horror? Swallowing my bile,
I thanked the Elder Gods and Anchor Bay,
for there before me, I found my salvation:
A movie by Fragasso and Mattei!
I seized it from the rack in jubilation:
"Hell of the Living Dead": scion of badness,
a masterpiece of cheap-jack exploitation!
Great spurts of blood to wash away my sadness!
Great gobs of gore to wipe away my care
and every trace of mainstream movie madness!
I turned to go. At once I was aware
of heat, and smoke, and monstrous sulfur-smell.
I saw a crowd of dead-eyed people there,
a throng disdained by Heaven as by Hell,
clutching the latest mega-budget schlock,
their line far longer than my words can tell.
I looked ahead, and I recoiled in shock,
For "Charon" was the name of the cashier;
And o'er the sign marked "Guaranteed in Stock",
I saw these words (through eyes gone wide with fear)
Inscribed above the door in fiery rune:
"ABANDON HOPE, WHO ARE A RENTER HERE!
Plus five bucks. Bring it back by Thursday noon."
II. Zombie Creeping Flesh
My attitude to Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso's infamous zombie-chomp spectacular has mellowed a great deal over the years. I still think it's one of the very, very worst zombie films ever, but I'm no longer as angry about it as I used to be. Sure, it's mostly a waste of film and a waste of the audience's time, but by comparison to the stuff that passes for cheap entertainment on our movie screens over the last few years, Mattei and Fragasso's efforts seem relatively harmless. To paraphrase a Will of greater stature, you can still watch a good $100,000 B-movie... the trouble is, they spend $40 million to make 'em.
Although I feel more kindly disposed to this wretched movie, I haven't forgiven it everything. True, these days I'm more amused than offended by its incompetence, since I have a better appreciation of the cultural climate that produced it. I've even suffered through later works by the infamous duo, such as RoboWar and Shocking Dark, so I have a much better standard for comparison. But there are still aspects of the movie that bother me. These troubling details have nothing to do with the movie's excessive gore. Rather, it's the movie's idiot anthropology and its ridiculous attempts to establish itself as a political allegory that make me mad. Nevertheless, although I personally have no trouble with the movie's cartoony gore, I have to admit I understand why somebody — such as the British Board of Film Censors — might be offended enough by the film to make the tragically inappropriate decision to ban it.
Why do I say "tragic", then, if I am willing to admit the movie is practically worthless? Two reasons: first, a ban is much too severe a judgment for a movie as brainless as this. Even if you accept the questionable argument that horror films corrupt a nation's morals, it's difficult to see this particular movie inspiring anything other than laughter. Trust me: nobody's going to take the lessons they've learned from this film as a guide for daily life. The second reason is that by banning the film, they'd conferred upon it a sort of mythic status, giving it an appeal it would never have earned on its own merits... and thereby creating an audience that hadn't existed before. Still worse, it forced those curious souls to pay exorbitant fees for black-market copies. Can you imagine not only spending a lot of money, but actually risking prosecution — even imprisonment — by getting a copy; then popping the movie into the VCR, and getting... this? The mind rebels.
The movie, like many low-budget horrors, has gone through a bewildering number of titles. It was originally filmed as Virus, though it seems to be about a chemical or radiological agent rather than an infection... it also came out the year that the Japanese disaster movie Virus came out, and this fact may have influenced the decision to rename the film Inferno dei Morti Viventi: "Hell of the Living Dead", which is the title of the U.S. DVD. The new title was a slight improvement, since the movie truly is hell to watch; but I don't believe it was ever released in English-speaking countries under that name. The American title was Night of the Zombies. This title was an obvious attempt to cash in on the fame of a certain other zombie film whose title begins with "Night of the..."; perhaps you've heard of it? Occasionally exploitation film-makers forget that unlike Dawn of the... or Day of the..., which had symbolic titles, the original Night of the... was literally about the events of a single night. Mattei's film takes place almost entirely during the day, and over the course of several days... making nonsense of the U.S. title.
But the British title is probably the worst of all: Zombie Creeping Flesh. Zombie... creeping... flesh? Honestly, if they were going to remind us of a Peter Cushing movie, they should have chosen one of the worst: wouldn't Zombie Blood Beast Terror have been more appropriate?
So it was Zombie Creeping Flesh that was officially banned by the BBFC. Under any title, Hell of the Living Dead was a perfect candidate for inclusion in the Video Nasties list. Cannibal Holocaust remains the classic example of a movie that practically begged to be legislated against; but with Mattei's film, the politicians and Guardians of the Public Morality had the great good fortune to stumble on yet another movie that nobody in their right mind was going to step up and defend. On the one hand, the censors and their supporters could point to the gallons of stage blood and buckets of offal that spill during the film and enlist the sympathies of most "normal" folk. On the other hand, the horror enthusiasts who'd actually seen the film were unlikely to protest much after it disappeared from the screens and video store shelves, since it was so disappointingly, frustratingly awful. Read the liner notes — yes, the liner notes! — from the Anchor Bay DVD release, and you'll see what kind of hostile response the movie got even from a hard-core horror audience (and as far as the whole liner-note controversy goes: I too have had a few critical things to say about Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso in DVD liner notes, but even I tried to say something positive about the film and its creators...).
Hell... begins on a familiar note. Literally. It quotes the actual Goblin soundtrack from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. This is neither the first nor last rip-off of Dawn... in the movie. The next "homage" comes a few seconds later, as we see Mattei's pseudonym for this film: "directed by Vincent Dawn". Phooey. The movie proper begins in an enormous refinery-like building, where a group of technicians push random buttons on huge control panels and try to look like they're doing something useful. In the meantime, voices on the intercom call out every single thing that's happening in the building. This must be a really irritating place to work.
From the labels on the workers' helmets, we can tell that this installation is called "Hope 10". They are apparently working on some kind of project involving radiation, in a module called "Antares". Everything seems to be going along just fine from the perspective of the folks in the control room (including one technician who looks remarkably like a young Tomas Araña). But down in the Antares module, two technicians doing a spot-check run into something strange. He notices that one of his detectors is going wild... of course, this might have something to do with the fact he's twisting the control knob next to the gauge, but that may be sheer coincidence. The other tech discovers that rats have got into the supposedly-sealed module. He picks up a dead rat off the floor... only to have it suddenly come back to life, jump down his pants and start eating him. The tech erupts in a fountain of bright-red blood...
Up in the control room, the sensors have registered a large amount of radioactive gas escaping from the Antares module. When the staff goes pouring down into the module to investigate (not the most logical thing you'd expect them to do, but positively sane compared to the behaviour of the investigators in the Resident Evil movies), they run into the zombified technicians, who begin noshing on their colleagues. Soon the head researcher is the only one left, dictating what sounds like a confession into a tape recorder as clouds of green gas fill the hallways.
Without warning, we find ourselves back in Dawn of the Dead. Just like the beginning of Romero's film, we find ourselves in the middle of a SWAT team siege. This time, though, their bandana-ed hippie adversaries aren't holdouts trying to protect their zombie relatives. Rather, they're "political terrorists" of the least convincing sort, who have taken control of the American consulate in Madrid (terrorists in Madrid... oh, how innocent we were!). Their demand is that the Hope Centers worldwide be shut down immediately, but the Powers that Be have ordered the real nature of their demands withheld from the public. Censored, if you will. An "elite squad" has been chosen to go in and deal with the terrorists, a squad consisting of four soldiers: London, the commander; Vincent, the "sensitive" one; Santoro, who looks like a zombie from the very beginning; and Osborne, whom we can tell is the wild and crazy one from the fact that he wears his cap backwards.
The problem here is that Mattei and Fragasso misunderstood the movie they were quoting. Willy, the obnoxious racist jerk of a SWAT team member, wasn't meant to become one of the heroes of the piece. What we really have in our four commandos is a squad full of Willies, which is unfortunate.
While the commandos attempt to sneak into the building, television crews film the siege. In a better film, I'd have expected the terrorists to be able to see the SWAT team approaching on the live coverage... but this is not nearly such a clever film.
The commandos' plan is simple: two of them go in through the totally unguarded back door, while the other two try to get in through the equally unguarded roof. You don't need to be an expert in military tactics to realize these four have no idea how to conduct a rescue operation. We watch them imitating moves they've seen in other, better action movies and wonder to ourselves that they don't kill each other standing in the line of fire. The terrorists, for their part, have no real defenses set up, which makes us wonder why the police didn't just walk in and arrest them. At any rate, the SWAT team does come across one terrorist making a desultory attempt at patrolling. They kill him after they've disarmed him and he's surrendered, making us think hard about whether we want to spend the rest of the movie in their company.
The SWAT team does manage to kill the terrorists without harming the hostages, though this is more a result of the terrorists' ineptitude than any actions on the part of the commandos. As the lead terrorist lies dying in his own gore, he manages to splutter: "You're all doomed to a horrible death... doomed to be eaten up!"
Without any attempt at transition, we find ourselves (and the SWAT team) in Papua New Guinea, the site of the Hope Center disaster. The team is sitting in a native graveyard (in alternating stock footage from somebody's documentary and new footage which is actually reasonably well integrated with the other clips). The commandos make rude, dismissive remarks about the native bodies, while the stock footage leers over the decaying remains.
Down the valley from the native graveyard is a ruined mission. Here, in a small truck, sit the family from the original Night of the Living Dead — a squabbling mother and father with their fatally-injured child — and two others: Lia Rousseau, a traveling journalist, and her cameraman, Max. The husband of the quarreling family takes the opportunity to hint at the movie's stand on sexual politics by criticize his wife's decision to bring the kid with them on their vacation: "You're the living image of the modern mother!" he says.
Lia and Max go off to look for water or medical supplies in the remains of the mission, while the "living image of the modern mother", who is as sick of her husband as we are, goes out to take a walk. The mother finds the mission priest slumped over, as if in prayer, in a filthy outbuilding. When she goes up to ask him for help, he turns around to reveal... he's a grinning zombie! Actually, he looks a lot like the guy playing Osborne, so I thought at first they'd run out of actors and had to double up. The mutilated mother tries running back to the truck for help, but it's too late: inside, the little boy has completed his transition into the least-frightening zombie you've ever seen, and is busy eating his dad.
In the background, by the way, is the track "Connexion" from Goblin's score to Contamination. Dawn... isn't the only movie being ripped off here.
Lia and Max go off and show us what kind of journalism they're really involved in. I believe the industry term for what they're doing is... fucking around. Lia's entire journalistic approach seems to consist of looking gorgeous, and finding the best light to pose and look pretty in. In this respect, Mattei and Fragasso have summarized contemporary TV journalism relatively well... Max is busy wasting film shooting Lia stooping daintily by a filthy pond to fill her canteen, when all at once some decomposing zombies pop up from under the water. More follow from the undergrowth. Lia and Max aren't sure what to make of these creatures: are they drunk? Drugged? Whatever they are, they don't look very healthy, so the "journalists" high-tail it back to the truck.
They get there just as the SWAT team pulls in. As Lia tries to explain the situation, Max takes a look in the truck... and when he sees what's inside, he turns around and throws up (if you're expecting a discreet cutaway here, you're watching the wrong movie). London goes to investigate, and finds the little boy scarfing down Daddy's innards. While London tries to figure out what to do with a squirming little cannibal, Santoro and Osborne run into the crowd of zombies that was chasing Lia and Max. After a little creative target practice, Santoro discovers the only way to stop one of the creatures is to "shoot it right through the head". Santoro gets a chance to demonstrate his technique when he gets back to the truck and finds London struggling with the kid.
Lia, in the meantime, goes looking for the missing Mom. She finds her... dangling from a roof beam, with blood pouring from her mouth (you can see the "dead" woman helpfully moving her jaw to get the blood to flow better). Shortly thereafter, she's attacked by the zombie priest, who clearly has to struggle not to have an excuse to catch his prey before the director yells, "Cut!" That's when the SWAT team arrives, and Santoro gets to demonstrate yet again how to kill a zombie. And yet, in spite of all these illustrations, the other SWAT team members forget to follow Santoro's advice in every single zombie encounter that follows.
The remainder of the film consists of the little group's attempt to cross Papua New Guinea and reach the Hope Center. The commandos need to do this because it's apparently their job to investigate the Hope Center disaster and find out why things are going haywire across the whole island. Later, we'll realize London's real mission is to get to the Hope Center and destroy the evidence of what the Center was really meant to do. Lia's mission is slightly different: she's there to document what's going on, and if possible, to find and expose the truth about the Hope Center projects. Naturally, neither side trusts the other completely. Lia at one point pulls a gun on London, when he threatens to throw out their reels of film to make room for their commando toys. Unfortunately for Lia, it turns out the gun isn't loaded. In spite of this, the commandos actually trust her and Max with loaded weapons a few scenes later.
One of the first problems they have, aside from the zombies, is that they need to pass through a native village. Lia warns the commandos that the natives are on the verge of panic, and it would be a mistake for them to try to blunder their way through. She convinces them that she's the only one who can make their passage safe. Warning them not to follow her for one hour, she strips down to a leafy g-string, paints her body with various colors of mud (including little bulls-eyes on her nipples) and goes bouncing off down the road to meet the locals.
Here again the action is mixed with documentary stock footage, as we're expected to believe Lia is walking into a real Papuan community. We see what appear to be authentic funerary rituals, including mourners taking mud from a painted corpse and smearing it on their own bodies, and bearers taking a swollen body out on a palanquin for sky-burial. It's extremely disturbing to see these actual displays of mourning used in an exploitation film about the living dead.
Ah, but it gets worse: when Lia enters the village, we see a procession of stock-footage men in masks who (through the magic of editing) appear to be approaching her warily. An extra in a mask a little like those in the stock footage comes up to Lia and is apparently satisfied with what he sees. He takes off his mask and hands it to Lia, who then puts it on.
All right. I don't know much about Papuan traditions, but I do know one or two things about ceremonial masks. In many if not most cultures that practice mask rituals, the masked celebrant is considered no longer to be the person he was before he put on the mask. He — and it's usually a "he" — becomes the actual manifestation of the powerful being represented by the mask. I think it's more than a little unlikely that a man in the middle of a mask ceremony would ever take off his mask... let alone hand it to an obvious stranger, and a woman at that.
Nevertheless, that's what the masked dancer does, and Lia dons the clay headpiece without even a "thank you, masked man." The native drums change to a new rhythm, indicating "naked white chick in residence", and the other white folks descend into the village.
The natives are in distress because several people have died in the village over the last few days. They assume the soldiers have arrived to help them. In fact, the commandos are completely helpless to do so, a fact they acknowledge even as they it down to enjoy the natives' hospitality (Osborne is less than thrilled by the local cuisine: he shows his disapproval by giving us our second on-screen puke). As the Europeans walk round the village getting acquainted, they get to witness a few "Mondo"-style gross-out sequences. For instance, there is a clip of some locals butchering a slaughtered animal, which we get to watch in sickening close-up (at least in this film, unlike some others on the Nasties list, the animal is already dead before the carving starts). Then, Max is stopped in his tracks by something he sees in one grass hut: stock footage of a woman and her baby eating has been altered to suggest that they are really picking maggots out of a human skull as a snack.
You really have to marvel at the contempt the film-makers show for the people of Papua. This is even more remarkable because as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Fragasso and Mattei actually think they're making some sort of progressive political statement. The whole film is supposed to be a metaphor for the developed world's oppression of the Third World — a message that becomes GLARINGLY apparent in a hilariously inept scene that's supposed to take place at the UN. "Oh, the poor suffering masses!" says the film, and then goes out of its way to show us how shockingly these "primitives" behave. The hypocrisy of the whole film becomes even more apparent when, later that same evening, the village dead come stomping back into town for a bite to eat: the SWAT team members actually push the natives out of their way in their haste to get out.
After this, we settle in for an extremely repetitive series of episodes, alternating zombie run-ins with endless slow-motion nature shots. I'm not as upset at the nature footage as others are, since the bits of plundered documentary are just about the only signs of competent film-making you're likely to find in the whole movie. But the real high-point of the movie occurs shortly before the end, when the team stops to investigate an abandoned house. London goes upstairs, where he finds the corpse of a white-haired old woman slumped in a rocking chair. When he disturbs the body, a zombie kitten jumps out of her entrails. Shortly thereafter, the old lady sits up and attacks London, like Mary Whitehouse going after a bawdy sitcom... but the real action is going on downstairs, in the basement with Osborne. Searching the cellar alone, Osborne comes across a green tutu, a top hat and a cane. Since nobody's around to disturb him (or so it seems), Osborne slips the tutu shoulder straps over his uniform, puts on the hat, and starts dancing through the basement humming "Old Folks at Home".
Yes, you read that right: he puts on a tutu and dances around singing "Way Down Upon the Suwannee River". I guess, for all its plagiarisms, there are one or two things in this film you won't find in any other movie.
Much to the relief of the audience, Osborne is then devoured by zombies. By this time, the movie has completely given up trying to make the zombies look like Papuans. They're clearly just Italians in blueface.
As the survivors try to make their way on the last leg of their journey, the movie attempts a bit of pathos: mad-eyed Santoro, stricken by the death of his friend Osborne, momentarily turns his cap backwards. Then, with a little sob, he turns the cap back around. As a gesture, it fails completely for two reasons: first, it's not only too little too late to make us feel any empathy with these jerks, it's also stupid; and second, Santoro actually lost his cap in the preceding zombie attack scene. Still, this moment serves to remind us that there are two meanings to the word "pathetic".
Soon, the party makes it to "the river", which is very obviously either the Atlantic "river" or the Mediterranean (I was expecting Suwannee). Somewhere in their limited space, the commandos have been transporting a huge inflatable raft... and, apparently, an inflatable outboard motor as well. Go figure. "Connexion" reappears on the soundtrack, as they finally arrive at the Hope Center; but in spite of the reference to Contamination, the remainder of the movie reverts to Dawn... Elevator scene? Check. Undead comrade leading the zombies to his buddies' hiding place? Check... although this time, we get to see a zombified Franco Garofalo reach all the way into his victim's mouth and poke out the eyes from behind. I don't even think that's possible in real life, but it sure makes for an enjoyably nauseating spectacle.
And what was the point of the Hope Center, that mysterious project that caused all the problems? It was ostensibly some sort of development project intended to aid Third World countries... but in fact, it was all an Evil Plot by the industrialized nations — for which read the United States — to deal with the threat of overpopulation. The Hope Centers were coordinating on a plan called Operation Sweet Death, which would turn the teeming masses of the Third World into hungry zombies. The zombies would eat each other, and that would be that.
George Romero's films also had social and political meanings woven into them, and they're anything but subtle. The difference is, they reflect some sort of cogent world-view, whether you agree with him or not (and speaking personally, I do agree with him more often than not). But this? This is idiocy. There are lots of heinous things you can lay at the doorstep of the industrialized nations, but this sort of plan is ludicrous. We evil capitalist nations don't want the Third World to go away... quite the opposite. If the inhabitants of underdeveloped nations were all to turn into flesh-eating monsters, then who could we import illegally to do our dirty work? Who would clean up after our spoiled children, or tend our gardens, or build our houses? Who would make clothing in our sweatshops? Or man our call-centers? Or write our software? And to whom would American companies outsource all our manufacturing jobs, to save a few bucks for management and impress the stockholders? No, no; the global economy is already run by soulless, flesh-eating zombies, and trust me: they don't want any competition.
And as for the idea that this horrendous plan would be tried out in Papua New Guinea because it was "an island, isolated and remote", as Lia puts it...? Well, culturally isolated it my be, in many ways; and economically deprived, certainly. But remote? Not any longer, or at least not in a geopolitical sense. Papua New Guinea is half of an enormous island, and the other half (as a quick glance at an atlas might have shown) consists of the Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Iryan Jaya. When Indonesia took over West Papua in 1969, the U.S. supported them, in spite of horrendous human rights abuses which continue to this day; the area was considered too crucial to American economic and strategic interests to risk intervention with a nominally-friendly power. As for Fragasso's plot: even if the U.S. was willing to piss off its big, scary mining & timber interests on the island of New Guinea, it wouldn't want to risk contaminating & (further) destabilizing that portion of Indonesia, which (for better or worse) is very strategically important to them.
See? Even I can come up with better naïve political analysis than Fragasso and Mattei.
But enough: it's time to consider the really important question... did it make any kind of sense at all for the British Board of Film Censors to ban Zombie Creeping Flesh? On one level, it makes no sense at all, since the movie really poses no threat to the moral fibre of the community at large. It's disgusting; it insults the intelligence of its audience; it actually has the nerve to pretend to have a message, while exploiting pretty ruthlessly the very people it claims to champion... all in all, it's a dreadful little movie. But so what? For all its shortcomings, it can be an awful (extremely awful) lot of fun, if you approach it in the right spirit.
If, on the other hand, you come to it expecting to be entertained in a conventional sense... if you're expecting a movie on the general level of competence of, say, a Lucio Fulci zombie film... then you're probably going to be depressed, sickened, maybe even a little outraged. You might come out of the theatre or walk back to the video store mumbling darkly about all the things you'd like to do to the director and the movie. But to actually do those things, I think you'd have to be completely inexperienced with this sort of movie, and utterly oblivious to its charms.
I seem to have failed to mention the movie's epilogue, which shows us that the Zombie Creeping Flesh has started to contaminate the Industrialized Nations. Oh, the irony. This little tacked-on ending won't win any prizes, but it's at least a little bit better than the whole Papua nonsense. As a final indignity, the whole film concludes with music lifted from Joe D'Amato's Buio Omega.
The real irony here isn't that our fictional world-destroying conspiracy has backfired on the big evil civilization that spawned it. Rather, it's that this amusingly dreadful little movie, which should have been allowed to wither away and die on its own, keeps coming back as a brainless, unstoppable monster, with far more power than it ever had before... thanks in large part to the attempts of the British Board of Film Censors to keep it down.
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