Hell of the Living Dead (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Mondo cane, Cannibal Holocaust, and Dawn of the Dead were thrown into a blender and then the mixture was combined with vomit, maggots, inappropriate stock footage and horrible dialogue? You would have Bruno Mattei’s (or Vincent Dawn’s, according to the opening credits) Hell of the Living Dead, a Dawn of the Dead wannabe that is so desperate to be Dawn of the Dead, it even has commando heroes and lifts the iconic Goblin score from Romero’s masterpiece. A grind-house classic of the highest degree, Hell of the Living Dead is the anti-Romero, a film so blank, slapped together, and poorly dubbed, it’s a wonder it has even seen the light of day. Rising from the grave in Italy, this ziti zombie film is practically the definition of a guilty-pleasure midnight movie, only for those who are zombie fanatics.
Hell of the Living Dead picks up at a research facility called Hope #1 in Papua New Guinea where a chemical leak and an infected rat cause the entire staff to be turned into flesh eating ghouls almost instantly. After the accident and the loss of contact to the facility, an elite SWAT unit led by Lt. Mike London (Played by José Gras) travels to the island where the research center is located. When the commandos arrive, they find the island infested with zombies and the local tribes in mass hysteria over the outbreak of this strange virus. After teaming up with a beautiful journalist named Lia (Played by Margit Evelyn Newton), the group sets off through the jungles to find Hope #1 and discover the secrets behind the mysterious chemical named Operation Sweet Death.
Hell of the Living Dead is a film so bad, so outrageous, and so asinine that it actually manages to be bareable in a weird way. It is almost like seeing a horrible car accident that you just can’t look away from even though you desperately want to. The film tries to pass itself off as a horror film but there isn’t a scare to found. Well, that is unless you find cross-dressing terrifying. Truth be told, there are a few scenes in Hell of the Living Dead that echo with slight potential. A zombie army descends on a secluded home in the jungle and it manages to be properly claustrophobic and eerie even if every character acts like a complete moron. Some of the shots of zombies staggering out of the jungle are slightly uncanny but quickly grow corny due to their uniformity.
Whether you’re shaking your head at missed opportunities or gaping at the dreadful dialogue the film is notorious for, the reason the film is at the bottom of the barrel as far as zombie films go is because it is so desperate to be Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it even slathered its zombie extras in blue make-up. To be fair, Romero’s blue zombies were not intentional. Make-up artist Tom Savini wanted them to be a pale, grayish color but when they were photographed, they turned out blue. In Hell of the Living Dead, I feel like it was no mistake. The film brazenly lifts Goblin’s iconic score from Dawn of the Dead, completely out of place for this film. Mattei’s use of blue jumpsuit clad soldiers is also glaring noticeable. If you are new to zombie films and you begin with Hell of the Living Dead, it is best to shut it off and put in Romero’s epic classic instead of watching this. But if you are a seasoned pro when it comes to this stuff, my advice is to make a drinking game with your buddies. Call it “Spot the Romero Reference!”
Hell of the Living Dead has it all for the exploitation fans. It has senseless nudity, jaw-dropping gore, and copious overacting from elapsed actors. The film has also become infamous for its improper use of stock-footage that serves only to add a few more shocks to an already fairly deplorable experience. It doesn’t help that much of the plot is unintelligible either. Long forgotten by most, Hell of the Living Dead isn’t a film for staid film viewers. You’ll be turning it off in the first five minutes of its runtime. If you are like me and you get a kick out of forgotten Z-grade pictures like this, then seek out Hell of the Living Dead. I enjoy making the film a beer drenched double feature with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, as it creates a nice balance between beyond awful and surprisingly respectable. Hell of the Living Dead falls into the beyond awful even if it does make the trash fan in me smile.
Hell of the Living Dead is available on DVD and yes, it is a part of my exploitation collection.