Judge Patrick Bromley wonders if the living dead have a heaven.
They eat the living!
There are a few legendary Italian horror directors whose contributions helped reinvent the genre and whose influence can still be felt today: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, etc. You know whose name isn't on that list? Bruno Mattei.
The director of close to 50 films in the span of his 30-year career, Mattei was an editor-turned-director best known for his work in softcore sleaze and hardcore porn. The man behind such notable titles as SS Girls and Porno Holocaust, Mattei lacked the imagination and artistry of many of his contemporaries. All he got was the shock value, which is why many of his movies boil down their respective genres to their basest elements—his horror movies become gore porn, his sexploitation movies become regular porn.
Two of Mattei's better efforts—and by "better" I mean "still not very good"—have been collected on a new Blue Underground double feature Blu-ray containing 1980's Hell of the Living Dead and 1984's Rats, a.k.a. Rats: Night of Terror. While unlikely to restore his reputation as an unsung maestro of Italian horror cinema, it does offer over three hours of often terrible, often amusing lunacy. Derivative, dull, bloody lunacy.
First up is Hell of the Living Dead (a.k.a. Virus, aka Zombie Creeping Flesh, a.k.a. Night of the Zombies), a movie that borrows wholesale from both Lucio Fulci's Zombie and George Romero's Dawn of the Dead but lacks the substance or entertainment value of either. When a gas leak at a chemical research plant causes a zombie outbreak, all hell (of the living dead) breaks loose. A SWAT team is deployed to Papa New Guinea to stop what is believed to be terrorist activity; there, they meet a reporter (Margit Evelyn Newton, The Bronx Executioner) investigating recent attacks on the local tribe. You guessed it—it's all zombies.
Even by Italian zombie movie standards—which tend to be pretty lax when it comes to things like "acting" and "logic"—Hell of the Living Dead is pretty bad. It jumps all over the place in its first half hour, from a chemical plant accident to a shootout with a group of terrorist radicals to an island jungle, introducing characters that either don't matter or are never developed in the slightest. It repeatedly steals from other zombie movies. Even the gore—wet and squishy and graphic as it may be—fails to distinguish itself in any way. Everything about the movie is a watered down, recycled version of something superior. It is a movie only for the most devoted fans of the Italian zombie genre, as even those with a taste for "so bad it's good" horror (which this movie has a reputation for being) will be put off by the things that define Italian horror, while those familiar with the genre will see only a copy of better movies.
The second half of Blue Underground's double feature, Rats: Night of Terror, distinguishes itself by combining the killer animal genre with post-apocalyptic sci-fi. There's no real reason for the mash-up—I'm inclined to guess there were some sets and costumes handy—but I kind of like it for two reasons: 1) I've never seen this particular combination before and 2) I like thinking that even in the distant, nuclear wasteland of our future, killer rats still pose the same problem they do today.
Rats, like Hell of the Living Dead, commits the unforgivable sin of being boring. The story is as follows: in the distant future of 2015 (!), a group of nuclear holocaust survivors come across an abandoned city littered with corpses, but also packed with foot, water and plant life. Naturally, they decide to take up residency there. Unfortunately, they're not the only ones there, as the city is also overrun by mutant rats with a hunger for human flesh.
Lacking the zippy pace and big set pieces of a "true" killer rat classic like Deadly Eyes, Rats has to fall back primarily on its characters. Unfortunately, they're mostly awful. They argue and fight and insult one another. They women scream helplessly. They make bad choices and get eaten by rats, but those effects are uninspired. Every once in a while Mattei will offer up an image so ludicrous that it keeps you interested to see what's going to happen next. Rats are seen tunneling out of a dead body and then EXPLODE out of it (complete with a puff of smoke?) with such velocity that it becomes comical. Then there is the last scene, about which the less said the better. If you can make it to the movie's final moments, trust that it will all have been worth it.
For not being very good, Hell of the Living Dead sure looks incredible in HD. Blue Underground continues to do incredible restoration work with exploitation and cult movies like this one, cleaning them to the point that they look like they could have been released last year. The film gets a full 1080p HD transfer that boats strong color reproduction and eliminates all wear and tear; the only scenes that look rough around the edges are the uses of stock footage Mattei incorporates to fake some production value. The mono audio track is fine and true to the movie's roots; the original Italian has been dubbed into English (no Italian option is available) and offers clear dialogue that's been balanced well with the score from Goblin, on loan (without permission, legend says) from a few other, better zombie movies.
Rats doesn't fare as well in high def. The 1.85:1/1080p widescreen HD transfer certainly looks clean and bright, but there is an overall lack of sharpness that looks worse the closer to the TV you get. For a cheap '80s exploitation movie, it's perfectly acceptable—better than we should probably expect—but it's the lesser transfer of the two films on the disc. The mono track is OK in that you can always hear the characters arguing and bickering with one another.
As if having both films on one Blu-ray isn't enough, Blue Underground has even seen fit to throw in a couple of bonus features—one of which, and hour-long retrospective documentary on Hell of the Living Dead, is brand new and produced specifically for this release. It contains interviews with writer Claudio Fragasso (director of the legendary Troll 2), who sort of ghost-directed much of the movie with Mattei, as well as stars Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo, Ottaviano Dell-Acqua, and Massimo Vanni. Also included is a collection of trailers, production stills, promotional artwork and a short interview with Mattei carried over from the original DVD release. No extras are included for Rats.
Here's the thing. Neither Hell of the Living Dead nor Rats is a good movie. Even by the standards of gory Italian horror, you can do a lot better. But if you're a fan of these goofy exploitation movies (and I become more of a fan with every passing day), there is a certain fun to be had. Besides, if you're going to appreciate talents like Bava and Argento, you have to be able to appreciate a hack like Mattei, too. Blue Underground has done a nice job restoring the films, meaning there are no technical aspects to get in the way of enjoying them. The movies themselves do a fine enough job of that.
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