Night of the Zombies / Zombie Creeping Flesh / Zombies of the Savanna / Zombie Inferno / Hell of the Living Dead / Cannibal Virus / Virus / Inferno dei Morti-Viventi (1981/1983) -**½
Director Bruno Mattei embodies pretty much everything that’s wrong with Italian horror movies. The screenplays to his films (most of them provided by Mattei’s frequent partner-in-slime, Claudio Fragasso) rarely make any real sense, his direction is plodding and clumsy, he never uses enough light when shooting indoors, he always hires the very worst actors available, he is entirely too fond of padding his movies with stock footage, and in his entire career as a filmmaker, he has had exactly one original idea (it shows up in Zombie 3, and I’ll address it whenever I get around to reviewing that kidney stone of a movie). However, every once in a while, Mattei does somehow manage to make a movie that a person with a great deal of patience and a very forgiving attitude toward the vices of Italianate filmmaking can actually enjoy. Night of the Zombies/Zombie Creeping Flesh/Inferno dei Morti-Viventi is one of these rare films.
The secret to its success (such as it is) is simple: if you liked any zombie or cannibal movie made between 1968 and 1980, you’ll find something to like in Night of the Zombies, because it rips off every single one of them, with the sole exception of the Blind Dead flicks. The movie begins in the jungles of New Guinea (now where have I seen that before?), where a scientist named Professor Barrett (Victor Israel, from Horror Express and Night of the Howling Beast) has set up a massive chemical plant in which to conduct his research. Exactly what the lab is working on isn’t clear, but it evidently involves a nuclear reactor and some kind of poisonous, greenish-blue vapor. The trouble starts when some of that vapor leaks out of its containment unit, apparently because a rat chewed a hole in something important. The technicians sent down to isolate and correct the problem find the now-dead rat and the leaking tank, but get the shock of their lives when the rat comes alive, crawls under one of the techs’ gas masks, and begins chewing his face off. The tech somehow knocks a giant hole in the gas tank in his struggles with the zombie rat, and before long, everybody in the entire chemical plant has been exposed to the gas and turned into a flesh-eating ghoul.
Meanwhile, a special, S.W.A.T. team-like squad of Interpol agents, under the command of Lieutenant Mike London (The Other Hell’s Franco Giraldi), is busy back in Europe with a terrorist-hostage situation. (Now where have I seen that before?) London and his squad (it consists of all of three other men) sneak into the building where the terrorists are holed up with their hostages, and slaughter the lot of them, without even trying to take a single one alive. With his dying breath, the terrorist leader mumbles something about “Hope Centers,” and tells London that he, and presumably his men as well, will soon be killed and eaten. London probably figures this for a load of shit, but after he tells his team that their next assignment will take them to New Guinea, a “tropical paradise” where the “broads” are all “naked and wild,” we in the audience know that the dying terrorist had a pretty good idea what he was talking about.
Back in New Guinea, a reporter named Lia Rousseau (Margrit Evelyn Newton, from The Last Hunter and The Adventures of Hercules) and her cameraman, Max (Selan Karay), are hitching a ride with a woman named Josie (Patrizia Costa) and her family for no readily apparent reason. Josie’s husband is an overbearing asshole who spends the entire drive yelling at her, while their young son is rapidly sickening from an infected bite he received from one of the “natives”— naturally really a zombie from Barrett’s lab. (Now where have I seen that before?) Eventually, Josie convinces her husband to stop the car and let her, Lia, and Max out to get some fresh air. This is a bad idea, as even a brief look around the spot where hubby picks to pull over would tell you. All around the car are what appear to be the buildings of an abandoned mission (now where have I seen that before?), and we all know what that means in a zombie movie. Sure enough, Josie is attacked by a zombie priest the moment she’s out of her companions’ sight, while the ailing child suddenly turns zombie himself, and begins eating dad. (Now where have I seen that before?) Lia and Max are saved from ending up on the menu only by the arrival on the scene of London and his men, who happen to be driving along the same road, bound for the chemical plant. The usual scene follows in which the soldiers waste dozens of rounds gut-shooting the zombies before one of them (Private Zantoro [Piero Fumelli], in this case) figures out that only a bullet to the head can kill them. (This is apparently one stupid bunch of fuckers, because they’ll have to re-learn this lesson every single time they encounter a group of the undead.) After the last of the zombies is slain, London grudgingly agrees to let Lia and Max accompany him and his team on the ride through the jungle.
Night of the Zombies now takes a short break from ripping off Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Zombie, and begins ripping off The Man from Deep River and its offspring instead. When they are hundreds of miles deep in the stock-footage jungle, London and company hear the faint sound of tribal drumming. Lia, who just happens to have spent years living among the tribe whose territory this is, orders London to stop, so that she can listen to the drums in the hope of learning what the natives may be up to. Apparently what she hears isn’t good, because she tells the men to wait for her for one hour, and then strips naked, paints a whole bunch of tribal emblems on her body, and goes to parlay with the savages. (Now where have I seen that before?) What she learns from the natives’ shaman (after another orgy of stock footage, including the ever-popular butchering of the crocodiles) confirms her fears. The village is stricken with a mysterious disease that kills its victims, and then causes them to rise from the dead. Why Lia, Max, London, and the other three soldiers decide to stick around in the village overnight after hearing this story is anybody’s guess, but their doing so has exactly the result you would expect, and the evening ends with them all fleeing the village with a pack of zombies on their heels.
Next up is the all-important trapped-in-the-house-with-the-zombies-outside set-piece, and it plays out according to the accepted formula. Max, Zantoro, and Private Osborne (Josep Lluis Fonoll) are all dead by the time Lia, London, and Private Vincent (Gaby Renom) make it out of the house where they stopped to spend the night after being chased out of the native village. The three remaining protagonists finally arrive at Barrett’s lab, where they find still more zombies, and where Lia at last figures out what the scientists were up to (not that it does anyone a whole lot of good by that point, mind you). Trust me, you won’t believe your ears— it’s the kind of thing that could only make sense to an Italian. A bit more gut-munching follows, and then the setting shifts to some big Western city for an epilogue lifted directly from Zombie.
It is my habit, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, to defend filmmakers who are widely regarded as hacks while talking shit about others for whom most commentators have nothing but praise. Sometimes, though, I think popular opinion is right on the money, and when it comes to Bruno Mattei, I side firmly with the majority. When you stoop so low as to rip off both Dr. Butcher, M.D./Zombie Holocaust and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals/Trap Them and Kill Them in the same movie, you are most definitely a hack. But even so, I had a fair amount of fun with Night of the Zombies, and I really don’t think it’s quite as awful as most people say it is. (That still makes it pretty fucking bad, though.) Its greatest weakness is all the goddamned stock footage, which not only disrupts the flow of the movie, but opens it up to heckling on yet another front— there are no fucking elephants in New Guinea, after all! The extremely poor lighting conditions during the nighttime and indoor scenes don’t help matters any, either. On the other hand, I strenuously disagree with one of the most common complaints about Night of the Zombies: the widespread disparagement of the zombie makeup. When you really look at it, it isn’t any worse than the makeup Romero used for most of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, and the best of the bunch look a good deal better. And if you pay close attention, you’ll see that something very interesting is going on in the makeup department. When Mattei is pilfering from Romero, the zombies look like those in Dawn of the Dead. When he’s ripping off Fulci, they bear a far closer resemblance to the ghouls in Zombie or The Beyond. And as the final touch, notice that the zombie who tries to pull one of the characters’ brains out through the back of their head looks very much like his counterparts in The Gates of Hell. I’m not sure what this means (beyond the fact that I devote way too much mental energy to turn-of-the-80’s zombie flicks), but there’s no way in hell it’s just a coincidence.