Dr. Butcher, M.D./Zombie Holocaust/Island of the Last Zombies/Queen of the Cannibals/Il Rei dei Morti-Viventi (1979) -***
Zombies and cannibals, the two great tastes that taste great together. Or at any rate, thatís what the creators of this movie seem to have been thinking. In some ways, I think Dr. Butcher, M.D./Zombie Holocaust/Island of the Last Zombies/Queen of the Cannibals/Il Rei dei Morti-Viventiís release marks a high point in the golden age of the Great Italian Rip-Off Machine. This is not to say that I think itís the best example of 70ís and 80ís Italian schlock horror, but itís difficult to argue against the proposition that such an unashamedly mercenary melding of those two most prolific and distinctive (and lucrative, if sheer numbers are any indication) genres of Italian gore films represents a remarkable achievement. We are, after all, talking about a cinematic tradition that explicitly adheres to the maxim that derivative = good, and in such a context, a movie that manages to rip off two superior films at once, one of them already a rip-off itself, while still remaining enjoyable in its own right deserves special attention. Those two superior movies are, of course, Ruggero Deodatoís Cannibal Holocaust and Lucio Fulciís Zombie/ Zombie 2/ Zombie Flesh Eaters, and the fact that both films were made earlier the same year as Il Rei dei Morti-Viventi only increases my admiration for this ambitious exercise in plagiarism. Likewise for the presence here of so many familiar faces from the cast of Zombie.
Like Cannibal Holocaust, Il Rei dei Morti-Viventi begins in New York City. Thereís been some very bad business lately at one of the cityís hospitals; somebody has been stealing body parts from the morgue. In fact, we witness the theft of a cadaverís arm in the very first scene. The leading doctors, for the sort of opaque reasons that are typical of Italian movies, are dead set against alerting the police to the problem-- something about giving the hospital a bad name. (Hey! Do I detect a hint of the Jaws rip-off there?) Anyway, this idea doesnít sit well with one of the nurses, an attractive blonde named Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli), but she agrees to go along with it nevertheless. Somebody has clearly been talking, though, because one day she is accosted at her apartment by an extremely pushy reporter by the name of Susan (At least sheís called Susan in the version I saw most recently-- other versions call her Kelly, but either way, sheís played by Sherry Buchanan of Tentacles), who knows a thing or two about the hospitalís problems. Things begin to move very swiftly after Lori banishes Susan from her place. First, somebody breaks into her apartment while she is away and steals a ceremonial dagger that the natives of a certain South Pacific island chain used for human sacrifice. (Did I mention that Lori also has a degree in anthropology?) Then, the hospitalís corpse-mangler reveals himself. The culprit turns out to be an orderly, an immigrant from the very same island in the Moloto Archipelago from which Lori got her stolen dagger. When the orderly is caught literally red-handed, he makes an ill-considered attempt to flee by leaping from one of the hospitalís windows-- ill-considered because said window is at least five stories off the ground, and the man dies in the fall. (When the camera cuts to a view from the window, the falling body is portrayed by a department-store mannequin-- look closely, and youíll see its left arm launch away from its shoulder upon landing!)
As it happens, Loriís hospital is not the only one in New York that is plagued by limb-stealing cannibals. Apparently thereís a lot of that going around just now, and in all cases, the perpetrators are found to hail from the same remote island and to be adorned with identical tattoos. This gives Loriís anthropologist friend, Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch, of Zombie) the idea that he and Lori could be of assistance to the police by traveling to that island and looking into what conditions might be causing its stone-age cannibals to flock to the Big Apple. (Thereís some more of that opaque Italian movie reasoning for you.) Chandler thinks it would be best if he brought along another of his friends, a certain George Harper (Peter OíNeal, in what appears to be his first and only film role), and Harperís reporter girlfriend, Susan. Yes, that Susan. Chandler makes the arrangements, and the team heads off to the Pacific.
Once they arrive on one of the more civilized islands in the Moloto Archipelago, Chandler and his party are greeted by a Dr. Obrero (Donald OíBrien, from 2020 Texas Gladiators and Trap Them and Kill Them/Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals [another genre-blending triumph of the Great Italian Rip-Off Machine]), who tells Chandler that, where they are going, the natives are so primitive as to be almost bestial, and that they are extremely hostile to outsiders. Just what he wanted to hear, right? Chandler is not dissuaded, though, even after one of those natives sneaks into Loriís room and leaves a bloody, maggot-ridden human skull on her bed (one gets the feeling the natives have a big, industrial-grade refrigerator full of such things hidden in one of their huts), and Obrero somewhat grudgingly entrusts them to the care of his loyal native assistant, Moloto (Dakkar, from [you guessed it] Zombie, and no, I donít have any idea what happened to his last name, or why his character has the same name as the island chain where he lives). The next morning, Moloto takes Chandler and company out on Obreroís boat, bound for the island of Kito, at the far end of the archipelago.
They never reach Kito, though, because the boat breaks down on the way. Instead, they must land on another tiny jungle island a few miles nearer at hand. And as you might imagine, it takes no time at all for the cannibal attacks to begin. Chandlerís first mistake is to get off the boat in the first place. His second mistake follows from his first action upon landfall, which is to call Obrero on the radio for assistance. The doctor tells Chandler that there is an old mission building on the island, and that he will come to meet them at this mission as soon as is possible. Thus it is that Chandlerís party end up slogging through the jungle, where they are forced to pitch camp when the sun sets. They lose their first porter the very first night, and the next day, the search for his body takes them deeper into cannibal territory. Later that day, Chandler and his people are attacked again, losing both their remaining porters, and George and Susan as well, to the cannibals. George and the porters are killed where they stand; the cannibals drag Susan off to wherever it is they came from. Indeed, things probably would have gone even worse for the outsiders, were there not one thing on the island that even cannibals are afraid of. Thatís right-- Chandler, Lori, and Moloto owe their asses to the timely arrival on the scene of a small pack of zombies! They themselves donít quite seem to realize that this is what happened though; Lori and Chandler seem genuinely puzzled by the power that these slow-moving, fantastically ugly, and fiendishly bad-smelling interlopers hold over the natives. But fortunately for them, they donít stick around very long to figure things out, but rush off instead to the mission, where they are unexpectedly greeted by Obrero, who seems to have taken an awfully short time to respond to their earlier call for aid.
Thatís the first tip-off that something is amiss. The second comes when Obrero advises Chandler and Lori to use the rubber dinghy on the other side of the island to make their way back to the less savage parts of the archipelago. This dinghy, you see, proves to be guarded by a zombie, which Chandler dispatches by pulping its head with one of the dinghyís outboard motors. And then, with the immediate danger past, Chandler has an epiphany. He never told Obrero that they didnít reach Kito! Obrero ought to have thought they were on a different island, and yet he was able to come to their rescue and give them directions to the closest thing to a safe place that the island on which they landed offered! Obviously, Moloto had wanted to keep Chandler and company away from Kito, but was forced to land there anyway because of the boatís engine trouble. So then, in light of this revelation, who do you suppose the ďDr. ButcherĒ of the American title is? Very good. And what do you suppose Dr. Obrero is doing with his free time out on his island? Absolutely right-- heís making zombies (ďIl Rei dei Morti-ViventiĒ means ďThe King of the Living DeadĒ, by the way). More to the point, heís making zombies out of the cannibals, and in fact, it was Obrero that led the natives to re-adopt their old cannibalistic ways in an effort to keep his refrigerators stocked with raw materials for his zombie-making experiments.
And as we soon learn, the cannibals sometimes provide him with living subjects, too, provided he lets them keep the scalps. This is what happened to Susan, and when we next see her, she is strapped, scalpless, to a gurney in Obreroís lab, while Obrero spouts incoherent foolishness about transplanting her brain into the body of one of the dead cannibals. The operation is well advanced when Chandler breaks in to interrupt Obrero, and our heroes suffer yet another setback when the anthropologist is overcome and captured by Obreroís zombie bodyguards and Lori is carried off by the cannibals. The next couple of scenes will tell us all weíll ever learn of Obreroís motives (it never quite gets around to making anything like sense) and provide us with the only explanation I can think of for the decision on the part of one of the filmís distributors to re-title it Queen of the Cannibals. The cannibals (and donít tell me you didnít see this coming) have a thing for women with blonde hair. They apparently have a myth or legend or religious custom that ascribes some kind of supernatural power to blondes, and (after a very lengthy and completely gratuitous sequence in which a nude Lori has little flowers painted all over her body and is then forced to lie spread-eagled in the perfectly Lori-shaped depression that adorns the tribeís big stone altar) the resourceful girl is able to use this to her and Chandlerís advantage. While Obrero gets ready to perform some sort of zombie-related experiment on Chandler, Lori leads a raiding party of cannibals against the zombies guarding the doctorís lab, with the aim of freeing Chandler and giving Obrero whatís coming to him. Zombies vs. cannibals, man. You canít beat that with a stick.
This is one of those rare movies that I have seen in more than one form. For the most part, this review is based on the Dutch edition of the English-language version that circulated in Europe under the title Zombie Holocaust. However, some years ago, I had seen the American edit, which goes by the name Dr. Butcher, M.D., and Iíd like to take a few minutes now to compare the two. The American release is widely disparaged among fans of Italian gore films because its distributor is supposed to have cut the movie to pieces extracting the wildly excessive violence for which Italian horror flicks are justly notorious. But I canít think of a single thing I saw in Zombie Holocaust that I donít remember from Dr. Butcher, M.D., despite the presence in the former version of such pieces of elaborate nastiness as George Harper having his eyes gouged out and eaten by the cannibals and the graphic onscreen destruction by outboard motor of the zombie head when its owner ambushes Chandler and Lori by the dinghy. In fact, the American version actually adds something to the film, though that something is nothing anyone would particularly want to see. The version known as Dr. Butcher, M.D. has an additional prologue sequence, shot on conspicuously different film stock from the original Italian footage, in which a zombie of strikingly different design from those that appear in the rest of the movie (the original Italian zombies shamelessly ape the makeup from Zombie, despite the fact that these zombies are supposed to start out being the bodies of people who look completely different) rises from a grave amid the output of a sorely overworked fog machine. The headstone above this grave reads, as I recall, ďMaximus CarnageĒ or some such thing, and lists the dates between which old Max walked the Earth as one of the living. From what Iíve read, this footage was shot for a stillborn anthology movie called Tales Thatíll Tear Your Heart Out!. Why would Il Rei dei Morti-Viventiís American distributors stick something like this on the front of the film? My guess is Dr. Butcher, M.D. was distributed by the same company for which Tales Thatíll Tear Your Heart Out! was being produced. When it became clear that the anthology movie was never going to be completed, the producers probably decided that they were going to use at least some of the footage theyíd already paid for, in whatever way presented itself. Why graft it onto this movie in particular, though? Who knows? Sometimes, thereís just no explaining.