In late May, Italian horror filmmaker Bruno Mattei succumbed at age 75 in a Rome hospital after a short illness. Scornfully referred to throughout the 80s and 90s as the next Ed Wood, the evocation of his name within genre circles to indicate bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking has only recently been usurped by German video game adapter and gutter savant Uwe Boll. Notable for fringe explorations of cannibals, zombies, caged women and mutant rats, with Mattei's death comes the obligatory call for a revisionist approach to his oeuvre. A good starting point would be his seminal and most maligned effort, the 1981 genre mashup...
Notable if not only for being the film with perhaps the most alternative titlings (aka: ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH, aka: VIRUS, aka: CANNIBAL VIRUS, aka: NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES, aka: ZOMBIE INFERNO, aka: ZOMBIE OF THE SAVANNAH, aka: ZOMBI 2: ULTIMATE NIGHTMARE), the ubiquitously derided effort also stands as a cinematic meta-joke that most genre cinephiles were unfortunately too savvy to grasp at the time of its release.
Launched in response to the success of fellow Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI (itself riding the international box office play of George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD), the narrative follows a Jeep full of soldiers sent deep into the heart of Papua New Guinea to investigate an outbreak of cannibalistic murders following a chemical leak at a research facility codenamed Hope. Joining a female investigative reporter and her cameraman, they find that the leak has killed all those exposed and reanimated them as murder-happy characters.
As they trek deeper into the heart of darkness, the film becomes a delirious amalgamation of the exploitation tropes popular in Italian genre cinema of the era.
Upon release(s) audiences were perplexed by the seeming overuse of stock footage, the haphazard use of themes and the overt cannibalization of the soundtrack of Romero's film.
They missed the point.
As such, the movie overtly follows the template of any other zombie flick release before and after. What distinguishes Mattei's entry is a droll sense of absurdity about the genre and even the filmmaking process in itself. With the use of allegory, recurring motif and underlying subtext, Mattei's perception would be that the military/industrial complex views the indigenous peoples of the island as superfluous to the experiments that they are conducting in their midst, and when they become a problem, seek to dispose of them out of hand rather than attempt to remedy the situation in a humane fashion.
Further emphasizing the disregard held for these citizens is the absurd attempt to contain the problem -- the aforementioned Jeep full of disposable grunts sent out to eliminate evidence of malfeasance, implying the low regard held for both the aboriginals and of the military industrial spear carriers they have sent to certain death.
At times critics have facetiously evoked Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" as being the screenwriter's inspiration, seemingly without seriously considering that that may have indeed been the scribe's influence, and that elements of the film could have intentionally been satirical, if not ironic. Even Italian horror-meisters may know their Swift, and Mattei's point stands as a metaphor for the perils of irresponsible conduct at the fringe of the dystopian Global Village, as the sins of the industrialized nations are soon to be revisited upon their own citizens.
One can view HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD as being almost performance art, a film about cannibalism that wholeheartedly indulges in creative cannibalism at every turn: from over-the-top appropriation of conventions and themes from every sub-genre of Italian horror, to the cannibalizing of Goblin's score from DAWN OF THE DEAD, and on to the reliance on stock footage. However, in one case the use of the stock footage of an aboriginal tribe dancing counterparts with the protagonist's shedding of her clothing before entering the village, representing the shedding of her outsider skin. Which is also served as a nod to his professional dispatch to the outer circles of cinematic hell, a cockeyed roman á clef, if you will.
The often derided stock footage itself deserves special note, in that while it is dismissed as padding to bulk up the film's running time, the over-all benefit in that regard would be negligible. Rather, the recurring motif of this transitional technique should be admired as a cost-efficient way of utilizing montage to establish the mise en scène in a manner that imbues a certain cinéma vérité aspect to the proceedings... although it also could be argued that the device is Mattei's homage to Romero's own fondness for utilizing library tracks within the framework of the first two Dead films.
Also of note is Mattei's fondness for situational neo-surrealism that borders on crypto-farce, such as the nonsensical juxtaposition of the top hat and tutu-clad soldier whose swan song is literally "Swanee River" and in essence an evocation the Pantalone stock character of Commedia dell'arte. Absurdities exist on many levels within the film (such as the "cat-gut" visual gag on to the eventual fate of the "media puppet" character), although to claim that some (if not most) were intentional would be to prick the balloon of smugness found hovering over some critics of the film.
And while no one would argue that Mattei didn't deserve the designation as an auteur of the awful, to dismiss him as solely that would be missing the director's underlying recognition and ultimate recantation of the meta-aspects of his oeuvre, and with his death comes the obligation to realign the condescension towards his cinematic signature.