In the late 1970’s, the two Italian filmmakers Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei teamed up to become a duo, a collaboration that lasted ten years. Neither of them had much of a talent, but was sure driven by a lot of naive, eccentric passion and will power. It’s basically two Ed Woods we’re talking about, to describe them in the easiest way.
Fragasso wrote most of the scripts while Bruno Mattei probably tried his best to transfer his incomprehensible and demented screenplays to celluloid under the pseudonym Vincent Dawn. And the fact that Bruno Mattei wasn’t the greatest director, to put it mildly, they never got that phone call from Hollywood. A lack of resources and budget was also a common thing. Fragasso also had to step in as an uncredited co-director when Mattei presumably needed a siesta from the insanity, and sometimes vice versa.
Still, they cranked out a film for each year throughout the 80’s, most of them being complete obscurities that are hardly seen by anyone, while three or four have been picked up to become cult films in Italian Trash Cinema, or so-bad-it’s-good, if you will. Rats – Nights of Terror, Zombi 3 (poor Lucio Fulci), Night Killer can be mentioned, and of course Hell of the Living Dead, their first feature. Fragasso also wrote The Other Hell, which I’ve mentioned some years earlier.
After the duo went their separate ways in 1990, Claudio Fragasso made his magnum opus Troll 2 for which he will always be best known for. Mattei continued with an active career of making fast n’ cheap genre films under several weird pseudonyms such as Pierre Le Blanc, Frank Klox, Herik Montegomery, until working himself to death in 2007, aged 75. The 70-year-old Fragasso still lives in his own bubble somewhere in Nilbog, where he still makes films and is still convinced that Troll 2 is a genuine good work of cinema. Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen would probably agree.
Hell of the Living Dead, also known as Virus, Night of the Zombies, Zombie Creeping Flesh, and let’s just add What the Hell of the Living Dead while we’re at it, starts out in the traditional way with a virus that leaks from a lab in a tropical island and causes a zombie outbreak. So, who’s here to save the day? A blonde newsreporter, a camera guy and a crew of four commandos with a lot of bullets and gunpower to waste until one of them is smart enough to figure out that the only way to kill them is to shoot them right through the skull.
A bunch of random shit happens from here on. We witness a family whose son is infected and turns into zombie, to get brutally executed in RoboCop-style by the commandos. As they drive with their jeep further into the jungle, they stop by a village of natives. The reporter gets her clothes off, rubs some symbolic paint on her body so she and her crew can enter the village. And since there wasn’t any time, resources or budget to film in a real native village, the gaps gets filled in with a bunch of stock-footage clips from the documentary Nuova Guinea, l’isola dei cannibali (1974) to add some cheap shock value and random filler content. We have a glimpse of a bloated corpse getting ready for a disturbing burial ceremony, random dancing natives, cannibals eating maggots from a rotten human skull, more random dancing natives, clips of exotic animals, and did I already mention the obscure newsreels? Whatever. Back to the plot: Their visit goes of course to shit when they get attacked by zombies and have to escape to the next scenario with more flesh-eating, cheap gore, retarded zombie action, bad acting, and I almost forgot to mention the cheesy dubbing.
Hell of the Living Dead is an incoherent, chaotic and schizophrenic mess from start to finish. It’s really telling when Fragasso stated that the film had no budget, nor even a script when the crew arrived in Spain to start shooting. That really says it all. The only thing they had left was to rewrite and improvise and hope for the best. The acting is overall cheesy and just plain bad. Zero instructions seems to be given to them other than to run, scream, look scared and try their best not to laugh. Most of them just looks goofy and clearly don’t give a shit. Margie Newton as the news reporter is one of the worst actresses of all time. She has several scream-queen moments and can’t even bother to try to look a bit scared. My favorite is the dude with crazy eyes, played by Franco Garofalo who looks like an uncanny version of Klaus Kinski. His unpredictable and over-the-top performance adds most of the fun in the movie and is one of those who knows exactly what kind of a film this is and goes full, ballistic force with it. The zombie priest performed by Víctor Israel is also a highlight, ans so is also the soundtrack by Goblin although it’s recycled tracks from the Dario Argento’s cut of Dawn of the Dead.
So … even though most of the production value is something straight from a sewer, Hell of the Living Dead is an entertaining trashfest for those of us who love funny-bad movies, and is a great start to dive into the Mattei/Fragasso universe.
Directors: Bruno Mattei, Claudio Fragasso
Writers: Claudio Fragasso, José María Cunillés, Rossella Drudi
Also known as: Virus, Night of the Zombies, Zombie Creeping Flesh
Country & year: Italy, Spain, 1980
Actors: Margie Newton, Franco Garofalo, Selan Karay, José Gras, Gabriel Renom, Josep Lluís Fonoll, Pietro Fumelli, Bruno Boni, Patrizia Costa, Cesare Di Vito, Cesare Di Vito, Bernard Seray, Víctor Israel