From among the Video Nasties

The first thing to do is to simply identify the movie I'm about to review, which isn't easily done. It's one of those Italian exploitation pictures with such a daunting number of titles that the full list runs well into the teens; but an English-speaker only needs to know that the film was originally produced, in 1980, as Virus. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, there was an extremely high-profile Japanese horror film by the same name that was released the same year, and the Italian title of "our" Virus was quickly changed to Inferno dei morti viventi. This translates into English as Hell of the Living Dead, the title you'll find on the DVD cover and at Netflix, but when it was first released in anglophone countries, it was as Night of the Zombies in the U.S. and Zombie Creeping Flesh in the UK. Since this last title is the one that ended up on the Video Nasties list, it's the one I'll be using for the rest of the review (not without regret: Hell of the Living Dead is a pretty damn sexy title). However, more than any of its myriad names, the truest is one that has never, as far as I know, been given to it in any release in any country: That Fuckawful Bruno Mattei Zombie Flick.

Ah, Bruno Mattei... Bruno Mattei. Where does one begin? Against the backdrop of early-'80s European trash horror, a culture that includes the unfathomably sleazy Joe D'Amato, the hypnotically incompetent Jesus Franco, and the crude violence-monger Umberto Lenzi, Mattei still manages to stand out as, arguably, the least-talented of all of them. I'd hesitate only a moment to declare him the worst film director in history (that hesitation I call "Albert Pyun"), though merely stating that opens up a bigger can of worms than I especially care to deal with at the moment.

"Worst of all time" or not, the fact remains: Mattei was a massively bad filmmaker, and Zombie Creeping Flesh finds him operating down to exactly the level that you'd expect of such a luminary. I can't in good faith call it his nadir (I haven't seen remotely enough of his work for that); I certainly hope it is, though, for the thought of a whole clutch of films worse than Zombie Creeping Flesh... the soul recoils at the thought of it.

Coming in the period when Italian horror filmmakers were falling over themselves to rip-off George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Mattei managed to outshine them all in his unabashed eagerness to copy that film in as many specifics as one could imagine. It's not set in a shopping mall; that's probably the single concession to "originality" in the scenario (no, the scenario pretty much just pilfers from Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2). The Romero aficionado will observe the first note of copycatting almost immediately. Several notes, in fact, all strung together in a melody - the opening title music is nothing more than one of the most recognisable cues from Dawn's soundtrack. The credits optimistically suggest that the film's music was by the Italian band Goblin; a more accurate way of stating it would be that the score consists mostly of instantly-familiar lifts from Goblin's work on Dawn and Contamination.

By the way, I can't let the credits go by without mentioning the other luminary responsible for the festivities. The two credited writers (Mattei makes an uncredited third) include J.M. Cunilles, a producer of all sorts of schlock who wrote just a handful of other movies, and Claudio Fragasso. In America, at least, I expect that Fragasso is a more famous name than Mattei; for Fragasso is the director of the notorious Troll 2. As undoubtedly wretched as the film is, it's as a writer that Fragasso made his worst mark, for his collaborations with Mattei (sometimes including Fragasso's writer wife, Rossella Drudi) represent a sort of theoretical low for how vengefully incoherent you could manage to get a story without drifting into surrealism. Fragasso also served as the assistant director of this film, even a co-director by some rumors; small wonder that so much anti-talent gathered in one place resulted in such an epic botch as we have on our hands now.

Zombie Creeping Flesh opens at Hope 10, a laboratory in Papua New Guinea. We do not know what is done here, but it involves read-outs on which lines of green lights blink on and off with the sound effect of a ray gun, accompanied by ginormous piles of technobabble about the Antares Module and things like that. We also know that when whatever is being done goes wrong, it releases a vapor into the air that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. And the reason we know this is because that's exactly what happens, when two men in hazardous material aprons (they're not suits, just sort of hoods that go to the waist) find a dead rat in a putatively sterile location of the facility. I'm sorry, not a dead rat:


In short order, half of Hope 10 is eating the other half, which turns that half into zombies themselves. All that's left is for the site leader, Professor Barrett (Joaquin Blanco, says the IMDb, but I wouldn't trust the IMDb on this movie as far as I could throw it, which is not far at all, given that the IMDb has no physical manifestation - still, I'm obliged to use its records) to record a voice memo explaining what went wrong with project... what was that? Would you say it again, Professor Barrett? Okay, you did say "Operation Sweet Death", I thought so.

Whatever Sweet Death is, it must be great; "sweet" is right there in the name! But some damn hippies are getting their protest on anyway, and have taken over the U.S. consulate in some country whose name I don't think is ever thrown out, but parsimony dictates it's either Italy or Spain. A team of cop-like people - who they are, I have no fucking clue, but they have international jurisdiction - defuses the situation with minimal damage to anyone but the damn hippies, whose leader gasps with his final, blood-soaked breath, that everyone is doomed to be "eaten". Which is our first indication that apparently everybody on God's earth knows that Hope 10 is a zombie factory, which makes no sense given later developments, or basic logic.

Who are these brave heroes of ours, anyway? The leader is named London (José Gras), the tough one; Vincent (Selen Karay) is the quiet one; Osborne (Josep Lluís Fonoll) is the one who wears a cap; Zantoro (Franco Garofalo) is the one who has terrifying buggy eyes. The film's attempt at characterisation basically consists of making one alpha male and three little dickish alpha males in training, and we kind of hate all of these people from the first second.

Having ended the siege in a sequence not one little bit like the apartment siege in Dawn of the Dead, we meet even more new characters, international news icon Lia Rousseau (Margit Evelyn Newton) - her last name proves to be every inch as obnoxious as you've probably guessed - her cameraman Max (Gabriel Renom), and the insipidly awful couple (Bruno Boni and Patrizia Costa) that they're riding with for some completely inexplicable reason. Apparently, Ms. Awful insisted on bringing their child to Papua New Guinea while they did they thing they came to do, and Mr. Awful is peeved because now the child is dying of a horrible infection following an attack by one of the natives. Their shrieking battle of wits is diverting only because you get to have a thoughtful internal debate over which one of them you detest more. Happily, they both die really soon. For as Lia and Max get out to explore an abandoned mission, Ms. Awful storms out of the car, Mr. Awful falls asleep, and Little Boy Awful dies and starts eating his dad, in a sequence that will remind you of Night of the Living Dead only because of the shamelessness of Mattei's plagiarism, not because it is in any way as effective as the most haunting scene in Romero's debut.

Right about the same time that Ms. Awful is killed by a zombie priest (Victor Israel), London and his team show up in the same mission, in Papua New Guinea for a secret mission that obviously involves destroying Hope 10. They save Lia and Max, but are too late to stop the Awfuls from their fate, a sight that so unnerves Max that he pops some Alka Seltzer tabs in his mouth to unconvincingly simulate vomit.

Since it makes no sense to do so, the reporters team up with the soldiers, and they all go traveling to Africa. Seriously, we now finally get to the most famous of all Zombie Creeping Flesh's uncountable flaws: the parade of stock footage, chosen haphazardly and arbitrarily from whatever was available. Before the movie is done, we'll see animals from all over the world, and numerous different ecosystems, all chilling in Papua New Guinea like nothing's going on. This, in and of itself, is a problem; it is compounded by the inexplicable way that the stock footage is jabbed into the movie, as though Mattei was just bored of his actors sometimes, and wanted to see, oh, a monkey flying through the trees while they were talking.

The path to Hope 10 makes a stop at a native village, which Lia alone can navigate, and she can only do this by getting naked and painting her body, for she apparently spent time among them once before. This is Lia Rousseau, I hasten to remind you. This is, unarguably, the most flat-out offensive part of the movie; above and beyond the fact that anyone who would stoop to stealing ideas from Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals can no longer command the respect of even the most craven cinephile, the stock footage now includes genuine funeral rites of Papuan natives, crudely woven into the film's cheap plot with not a hint of tact, shame, respect, anything. Nope, we need to establish that the indigenous people are dying and coming back as ghouls, so let's just toss in some B-roll indiscriminately. Most of the film is too hacky and embarrassing to be anything but funny; this part is actually kind of hateful.

The white folks escape from the Papuan village with all due haste and none too much cultural sensitivity, just as soon as the zombie villagers come to call. Along the way, they get ambushed, and the oddest scene in the whole movie takes place: Zantoro, disgusted by his comrade's fecklessness (and well he should be: every single goddamn time they encounter zombies, they have to re-learn the trick that you can only stop the undead by shooting them in the brain) simply stomps right into the middle of the zombie mass, taunting them and offering his arm as bait and then excitedly shooting them when they get close. Y'know, just in case we still didn't absolutely hate him. Next, a quick aside at the UN Building - you read that right - finds the representative from Papua New Guinea railing against the West for failing to stop the cannibal plague devastating his country. One can complain about many elements of Zombie Creeping Flesh, but this much I can certainly say is true: none of the other films I'm aware of in this subgenre take as given that the whole world knows about the zombies, and doesn't give a shit about stopping.

Back to the journey of Hope 10, where our protagonists - even ironically, I can't think of them as "heroes" find an isolated, abandoned house, clearly the property of a wealthy family. Here, we finally get the onscreen death of a named character, which happens when Osborne ends up in the basement during his explorations, and finds it rather un. At the time of his death, I would be remiss in failing to point out, Osborne is dressed in a tutu, and he is humming (in the English dub, at least), "Old Folks at Home". Which is an even better example of something that, try though you might, you will almost certainly never find outside of Zombie Creeping Flesh.

Now down to five, the party finally arrives at Hope 10, which lies on the far side of a river so incredibly wide that you can't see the far shore - why, if the movie weren't right there telling me otherwise, I'd probably be such a fool as to take it for the Atlantic coast of Spain! (And how, pray tell, did this airborne plague cross a miles-wide "river"?) Anyway, it's of little surprise to anybody that Hope 10 is rotten with the undead, and that all of the main characters die pretty quickly, and in a couple of instances, extremely violently - the climactic death in the film is one of the most infamous in all zombie filmdom, as a certain character's eyes are pushed out from the inside, via the mouth. Do not long ponder if this is even remotely plausible, physiologically; respect only that it is grandly ambitious and the gaudiest bit of over-the-top gore that you might ever hope to see.

Before that, the plot hits its absolute crowning moment of idiocy. Lia, who has spent the whole movie using her international reporter skills to figure out what's really going on with the cannibal plague, has finally figured out what Hope 10 and the other Hope Centers were really about: a solution to world overpopulation. Specifically, the government behind Hope (it's plainly the United States, though it's not stated outright) founded the labs to create a foolproof toxin that will turn the populations of third-world countries into cannibals, so that they all eat each other and then the West can use their resources. I don't mind spoiling that, because I'm fairly certain that least a significant portion of the people reading this will assume that I cannot possibly be telling the truth right now.

Oh, and obviously the disease ends up spreading into the major western cities, in the film's last rip-off of Zombi 2.

The plot is what it is: stupid as shit, disjointed, arbitrary, and massively derivative. The film still didn't have to be as bad as is the case, and that's where we come to Mattei's unimaginable failings as a motion picture director. Not only does Zombie Creeping Flesh have a completely broken narrative, that narrative is made worse by Mattei's incoherent handling of the material. I've touched upon this, briefly, in mentioning the stock footage inserts; but my words can't really convey the extent to which those inserts fail. Fail is too small a word. Failure is something we can all get our heads around; Zombie Creeping Flesh gives us the feeling that the editor was blindfolded, and at moments chosen almost at random he grabbed some piece of animal footage, sight unseen, and dropped it in. Slow-motion snow owl? Fine. New World monkeys? Okay. And does it make a tiny droplet of sense for there to be anything, let alone a snow owl, at that particular moment?

All this stock footage is only the most obvious example of Mattei's uncontainable ineptitude: what of his slack staging of the attack scenes, which appear to be rehearsed about as far as "you're trying to eat her, and you're trying to escape, action!" or his misjudgment that "atmosphere" means "amateur-hour lighting fuckups?" Why does he let the camera sit still for so long - well, that one I can answer. It's because whenever he does move the camera, it looks like the film was being shot on a moving train.

Perhaps Mattei is also responsible for the actors; or perhaps they were just the only people willing to work on a film of such bottom-feeding anti-prestige. There are so many individual moments of particularly horrid acting that it's daunting to even think about - though the scene in which the soldiers find the dead Awful boy eating Mr. Awful stands out as an impossibly perfect object, in which not one out of six performers (four soldiers, Max, the boy) manages to give a remotely convincing reaction shot. Newton and Garofalo are, by no large margin, the worst in the cast, I think: Newton in particular is a beautiful portrait of inertness, giving back nothing but a bland look of thoughtfulness. She never seems to have even the most dull-eyed animal awareness of her surroundings; whether nude and painted, or holding a gun on the soldiers she deems untrustworthy, the actress always gives the impression that she is standing in line at a grocery store. She's all the more conspicuous, surrounded by a cast of chronic over-actors; an island of "deer in the headlights" obliviousness surrounded by a sea of pure ham.

The make-up effects are good. Great, even. I'll admit to that much. That might even be how it got to the Nasties list: when those eyes come out, or when any given zombie chews a bite out of any given leg, it certainly has a rawness to it that isn't the same as realism (especially not with the neon-red blood), but it's enough to make anyone a touch queasy. There is nothing else good in the whole movie, a massive implosion of horror cinema that stands proudly astride the line separating So Bad It's Good from So Bad It's Bad - perhaps a film of the awe-inspiring badness of Zombie Creeping Flesh lies so deeply into So Bad territory that it represents the point where Good-Bad and Terrible-Bad converge, not unlike the fundamental interactions of the universe converging into one in a Grand Unified Theory.

The movie leaves me in such profound, disbelieving awe, it seems only right that I shall leave it the final word: this is the English dub, of course, but I can't begin to imagine that the Italian is that much better.
LIA: "All these high-powered installations, like a factory from a future world, safely hidden, on an island, isolated and remote. It all begins to make sense. Now I can piece together the whole puzzle."

VINCENT:" What are you talking about?"

Body Count: Not as straightforward a question as one would prefer, not in a zombie film. The zombies are corpses, after all, so do we count all of them? None? Only the ones re-killed onscreen? More out of the desire to put up some number, however derived, I am counting all the people we see alive at one point who end up dead. Even if dead means "undead". I might have dropped one here or there, but I'm pretty content to say 31, which counts poor, offscreen Vincent.

Nastiness Rating: 2/10, not very Nasty. I can, on an intellectual level, understand why the DPP elected to ban a film with some of the setpieces present here; I cannot, on any level, understand how something this epochally stupid could be considered threatening to the morality of any sentient being.