A few months after bringing Bruno Mattei's pair of Italian cannibal rip-offs to domestic DVD, Intervision brings us individual disc releases of zombie rip-offs.
In ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD, a boat carrying a group of treasure hunters hits a strange fog bank in the middle of a thunderstorm and washes up near an uncharted island. While Max (Thomas Wallwort) remains behind to fix the engine, the rest of the group – lead by Captain Kirk (Gaetano Russo, THE KILLER RESERVED NINE SEATS) – head to the shore to replenish the water supply and explore. While Kirk, tough girl Victoria (Ydalia Suarez, Mattei's IN THE LAND OF THE CANNIBALS), young Mark (Gary King Roberts, ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING), and Peanuts T-shirt wearing Snoopy (Jim Gaines, AFTER DEATH) happen upon a Spanish Conquistador fortification, timid Sharon (Yvette Yzon, Mattei's THE JAIL: THE WOMEN'S HELL), oafish Fred (Alvin Anson) and Tao (Miguel Franco) stumble across an old cemetery. Fred does some "They're coming to get you, Barbara" to Sharon, but Tao is the one who gets munched on when a zombie does show up. With the boat inexplicably blown up, the rest of the team seek shelter from flesh-eating zombies in the fort and learn that an epidemic hit the island in the seventeenth century after a galleon hit a fog bank and crashed on the rocks, sinking to the bottom of the sea while the local Spanish mission recovered the gold it was carrying (in a swipe from John Carpenter's THE FOG). When they discover the treasure itself and decide to split it, the treasure hunters find themselves under attack from the greedy ghosts as well.
Mattei films are always messes, but they are more often than not entertaining messes, and ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD would probably be utter dreck in the hands of any director who tried to treat it as if it were anything but a grab bag of moments from better films held together by other random silliness (the zombies mug for the camera and spout things like "welcome to death" or whatever as if they were in a haunted house attraction). Besides the Romero cemetery sequence, the threat of Fulci-esque eye violence, zombie monks either of the Blind Dead films or the climax of BURIAL GROUND, and nods to Mattei's own HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, the film even works in references to Lovecraft and Robert Block (by way of their mythical tomes the Necronomicon and De Vermis Mysteriis), as well as Poe as Victoria and Fred come across a literal "Cask of Amontillado" (and what would Mattei film be without some mismatched stock footage, this time from a blurry black and white period piece tinted in sepia). The digital video cinematography of Luigi Ciccarese – who worked for both Mattei and Lucio Fulci in the mid-to-late 1980s – is much slicker on the cannibal films while the Gregorian chant-heavy score is credited to both Mattei and editor Daniele Campelli (Mattei's THE TOMB), which means they probably compiled tracks from the Flipper music library. The make-up effects were created by Cecille Braun – veteran of many Filipino-lensed productions from PLATOON and HAMBURGER HILL to THE THIRSTY DEAD and RAW FORCE – are a bit more proficient the ones the more seasoned Giuseppe "Pino" Ferrante did for Mattei's cannibal duo IN THE LAND OF THE CANNIBALS and MONDO CANNIBAL. ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD is dedicated in memory of expatriate American actor Mike Monty who spent much of his acting career in Italy, France, and the Philippines from the late sixties onwards appearing in many low budget Italian action films (it is possible he was meant to play Kirk before his 2006 death).
ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING begins with Sharon (Yvette Yzon again) rescued by the coast guard and recovering in the hospital. Troubled by nightmares of her experience, she is not believed by the corporation that owned the salvage boat and is fired. Six months later while Sharon is recuperating at a Buddhist temple, she is approached by Tyler Corporation biologist Paul Barker (Paul Holme, STRIKE COMMANDO 2) who tells her that his corporation went to the island months ago and transported some zombie "subjects" to another island for experimentation only to lose contact with them. They have convened a rescue team and would like her to be part of it. Although she initially refuses, Sharon decides to confront her fears and joins the team as a biologist (along with Barker and DELTA FORCE 2's Miguel Faustmann) with the wise-cracking military contingent ("I hope the zombies leave us some hot babes to rescue!") commanded by Captain Jurgens (James Gregory Paolleli, ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION). Once on the island, they find a lab full of zombie fetuses and come to the disturbing realization that the missing team was trying to breed a new species with human subjects. They soon find themselves not only fending off the zombified scientists and test subjects but also zombie dwarf babies with enlarged craniums that are part of a new master race. Sharon wants to destroy the test subjects, but Barker will risk the lives of the team in order to get the valuable subjects back to Tyler Corporation (but he's more Paul Reiser in ALIENS than Ian Holm in the first film).
Performances were stilted even before the dubbing but were at least bearable in ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD; here, they are distractingly awful (particularly Dyane Craystan as the bad-ass female soldier and Gerhard Acao as the Bill Paxton-esque joker). ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD's Alvin Anson is also back in a different role as one of the soldiers. Baun provides the make-up effects and Gisueppe Ferranti the cosmetic make-up, and the gore quotient is upped considerably over the first film with some ropey but splashy throat-biting, limb-tearing, gut-ripping and torso splitting. Ciccarese is replaced by Rey de Leon as cinematographer, and the results are reasonable slick for a low-budget but professionally-lensed standard definition DV production. The team travel to the island in a submarine, making extensive use of footage from Wolfgang Peterson's CRIMSON TIDE (with that film's Panavision footage squeezed rather than cropped). Mattei himself pops up before the end credits in memoriam. ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING is the more eventful film but ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD is perhaps more atmospheric yet meandering. Editor Daniele Campelli ransacks the Flipper Music and Beat Records libraries for music cues including tracks from Piero Montanari's score for GHOSTHOUSE and Francesco de Masi's NEW YORK RIPPER.
Previously only available in English as hard-to-get Czech and expensive Japanese imports (I do not believe these even had DVD releases in Italy unlike the other Mattei DTV efforts), ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD and ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING come to DVD in separate dual-layer, anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfers of the "Filmated" (I'm guessing a film-look treatment) digital SD sources. There is one obvious digital glitch on ISLAND, but that looks as if it originates with the master rather than the encoding. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo renderings of the Dolby SR mixes are punchy in regards to music and effects (although the sound design is not particularly creative apart from gunfire and thunder).
In addition to the film's trailer (1:56) and an international sales promo for the film (5:10), ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD also includes the featurette "Bungle in the Jungle" (18:49) featuring producer Gianni Paolucci (DRACULA 3D) and screenwriter/critic Antonio Tentori (Fulci's A CAT IN THE BRAIN) discuss their friendships and working relationships with Mattei. Paolucci recalls being a secretary at Franco Gaudenzi's Flora Film when Mattei started working with the company (which produced ZOMBI 3 which was started by Fulci and finished by Mattei). When Mattei got back into production with Paolucci in the late nineties, the intention was to produce genre product for domestic audiences (including erotic thrillers on which Mattei handled the direction of the camera while Paolucci directed the actors during the erotic scenes) until Mattei suggested aiming for foreign sales. They initially intended to collaborate with a producer in Argentina but it proved too expensive, so they reconnected with old contacts in the Philippines. Paolucci concedes that Mattei did not so much pay homage as rip off others, and recalls pissing off Deodato by showing him Mattei's MONDO CANNIBAL. Of the zombie films, he discusses Mattei's reliance on experienced technicians like cinematographer Ciccarese and make-up effects artist Baun as well as his enthusiasm for teaching younger, less experienced crew members. He also mentions that they intended to do a third film before Mattei's death, and that he is thinking of pitching it to Mattei's protégé Claudio Fragasso (AFTER DEATH). Tentori recalls the film as being faithful to his original script, although he credits Mattei with adding in the superfluous "crazy" bits referencing Lovecraft and Poe.
ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING includes the film's trailer (2:24) and the featurette "Zombie Genisys" (17:30) with Tentori and how his admiration of Lucio Fulci's films lead to his screenwriting career (there is also an excerpt from a 1987 radio interview with Fulci and Tentori in which Fulci interrupts the introduction which credits Bava and Freda with the origins of Italian genre cinema to mention Giorgio Ferroni's early contribution with MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN). He got to meet Fulci in the mid-eighties, and this lead to his collaboration on DEMONIA (he is uncredited, although he and Fulci conceived the story while the script was penned by BURIAL GROUND's Piero Regnoli) and A CAT IN THE BRAIN in which the script – credited to Fulci and SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE's Giovanni Simonelli – needed polishing (including the idea to make the filmmaker protagonist Fulci himself). Fulci introduced Tentori to Aristide Massacessi (Joe D'Amato) – who produced Fulci's DOOR TO SILENCE – and he would end up doing some additional work on D'Amato's and actor Marcello Modugno's script for FRANKENSTEIN 2000 and would co-write with effects artist Sergio Stivaletti (DEMONS) the anthology THREE FACES OF TERROR. He recalls his fondness for HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD and how it inspired him to track down other films by the Mattei. The genre was ripe for exploitation during Mattei's partnership with Paolucci because no one had made a zombie film in Italy for some time, and that incorporating sci-fi elements from James Cameron's ALIENS was a different approach to the genre. (Eric Cotenas)
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