When There’s No Room In Hell, The Hacks Will Milk A Genre’s Worth
Review Date: October 13, 2013
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: August 26, 2014
Codec: AVC, 1080p
Widescreen 1.85 | 16x9: Yes
1980 & 1983
Whenever discussion comes up about Bruno Mattei, the discussion inevitably switches to his most notorious picture, the stock-footage instilled Hell of the Living Dead
, and to a lesser extent the post-apocalyptic rodent attack movie, Rats: Night of Terror
. Looking back on them again today in this loving new double feature from Blue Underground, perhaps the focus should instead shift to another director, Claudio Fragasso. He of Troll 2
infamy, Fragasso helped carve quite the mutiny on bad Italian cinema throughout the 80s and 90s as Mattei’s right hand man on 20 pictures (serving usually as writer or co-director), but looking deeper he might have been driving the bus. Fragasso was the writer for both pictures in this set, and if choice dialogue like “When did you start worrying about our balls, Danny?” is any indication, it’s definitely in the Troll 2
school of character interaction. Fragasso also served as a co-director (as “Clyde Anderson” on Rats), so at least from an artistic perspective I’m more inclined to give credit to a writer and co-director than I am someone like Mattei who was making multiple movies of dubious quality each year. It’s the same reason why I credit movies like Poltergeist
and The Empire Strikes Back
more to Spielberg and Lucas, who wrote and produced, than I do their respective credited directors.
But before I embarrass myself further by bringing in the guys behind Star Wars
and Jurassic Park
in a conversation about two guys who made a disc in my BD-ROM player labelled “HELL_OF_LIVING_RATS_NIGHT”, let me just say that Fragasso did a lot more notable(ly bad) films on his own (Alice Cooper’s Monster Dog
, Zombi 3
, Beyond the Door 5
and of course cinema’s first T2
) than Mattei. We all know Tobe Hooper’s track record after Poltergeist, and Irvin Kershner after – okay, I’ll stop. Let’s get to the bad movies!
We usually try to devote three paragraphs to plot at Horror Digital, but in Hell of the Living Dead
’s case that might be longer than the entire script, so well keep this brief. Aptly predicting the apocalypse that is to follow in Rats: Night of Terror
, the film begins with a chemically poisoned rat getting inside the hazard suit of a chemist and invariably leading to the spread of a deadly flesh-eating virus. Meanwhile, a SWAT team is snuffing a terrorist siege intent on closing down top secret government Hope Centers. Once the contain that site, it’s off to New Guinea, where the first Hope Center has mysteriously lost all form of communication. The commandos meet up with a sexy reporter (Margit Evelyn Newton
) and her cameraman, who both look like they got separated from their Cannibal Holocaust
crew. A zombie attack brings the two groups together, and when even an isolated native tribe falls prey to the undead, they realize that there is no escape. We learn the virus, “Operation Sweet Death”, was made to thin out overpopulation in the Third World, but its spread is much larger, and in the end, not even city folk are safe.
Credit where credit is due: Hell of the Living Dead
is actually a fast-paced and pretty enjoyable bit of zombie yarn for the first half-hour. The action plentiful, the gore gleeful, and the cinematography capable, all to the tune of cues from Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead
starts off like a legit contender for king of the Italio-zombie contagion, but then the stock footage starts. And the actors start talking. And the plot gets forgotten. And so on. It’s for these later, erm, “quirks”, we’ll call them, for which the film is now known, and, for good reason. The first time it happens, during a Jeep ride between the starring characters when dialogue lines are broken up with a shot of a kangaroo rat listlessly bounding along some Savanah, you’d think it was Godard discovering the jump cut for the first time in Breathless
. It’s so jarring and out of place, it had to have just been a bad splice at the lab. But then it happens again, and pretty much continues with reckless abandon throughout the rest of the film. And history was made.
The stock footage of animals throughout is unequivocally hilarious, never meshing with the current environment of the characters, nor adding even the faintest metaphor for their situation or the story in a grander sense. They just somehow snuck into this movie, and it’s kind of awesome. But then there is the endless cavalcade of tribal footage from yet another stock source (which, depending on what you read comes from a combination of Des Mortes
(1979), Nuova Guinea, l'isola dei cannibali
(1974) and even the Barbet Schroeder hippie flick, The Valley
(1972)) and that has the opposite effect. It slows the picture dead, taking away that building, frenetic pace of the first third and literally throwing it into the fire. Even the dialogue stops, and suddenly for close to twenty minutes in the middle of the picture the film just aimlessly flounders around with some random jungle tribe. We get guys dancing in Ooga Booga masks and an elderly woman with the most misshapen breasts you’re likely ever to see on 35mm washing her legs and you’re wondering if Hell
has somehow made its way out to the viewer.
When the documentary footage finally runs out, the plot decides to take over once more, and the final act again proves to be more capable and entertaining than one would expect for a film of such bad movie notoriety. The gore by Giuseppe Ferranti (responsible also for perhaps the only other 1980 movie worse than this, Umberto Lenzi’s hilarious Nightmare City
) is actually quite ghastly and the deaths show more variety than your usual walking dead pictures. As per usual with the Italians, the production value and cinematography exhibit more craft than the material deserves, although in this case it lacks a distinctive visual style. Watching Hell of the Living Dead
you notice the difference between the look of an Italian picture from an auture like Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento to one of simple artisans like Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso. Both would often utilize the same crews, but the style is pretty much night and day.
When it comes to dialogue and story though, that’s where Fragasso definitely leaves his stamp on Hell of the Living Dead
. Only a guy so assured of his vision would have the audacity to have his characters verbally recite a quote from Mahatma Ghandi in the same film as the choice line “it’s as hot as a horse’s ass in fly-time here”. There’s plenty of that awkward Engrish that Troll 2
fans love in here as well, like the bit where one of the main characters confidently assures to his colleagues “buildings have people in them”. Knowing Fragasso today, he probably still thinks that’s profound. This is a movie about zombies decimating all factions of society and one of the first bits of dialogue is “I’m a tit man, myself.” Bless your little heart, Claudio Fragasso. It’s his stamp all over this picture, or at least the bits that are memorable. Well, his stamp and George A. Romero’s.
It’s true that most zombie pictures are always indebted to the films of Pittsburgh’s pulp prophet, but in the case of Hell of the Living Dead
that debt is quite literal. Almost all of the music cues are lifted verbatim from Dawn of the Dead
(as well as Contamination
and, for the title track, Luis Bacalov’s riling theme from the polizi Diamanti Sporchi di Sangue
), and the story probably lifts even more. They don’t even bother trying to change the SWAT uniforms worn by Roger and Peter in Romero’s film, they’re identical. You’ve got your rooftop escapes, TV talk shows about the apocalypse, an infected kid turning over to the undead, makeshift barricades destroyed by hungry zombies and a bit of urban malaise. Romero never had a scene of his leading lady shamelessly getting buck naked in order to try to blend in with a New Guinea tribe though. Thanks again, Claudio.
Hell of the Living Dead
in the end is a real oddity, a shoddy patchwork of all things from batty to boring, voracious to vile, and culled from different sources in a manner that in no way ever seems the least bit cohesive. It’s the AIDS quilt of horror movies; a sad, sorry contagion of all things bad, but a film that nevertheless still entertains in its almost surreal absurdity. There’s a little something for everyone: Goblin, gore, zombies, cinema verite, topless rituals, cranes flying in slow motion, bad dialogue, you name it. This bad movie potluck, if nothing else, is definitely worthy of its reputation.
“In the Christian Year, 2015, the insensitivity of man finally triumphs and hundreds of atomic bombs devastate all five continents…Terrified by the slaughter and destruction the few survivors of the disaster seek refuge under the ground. From that moment beings the era that will come to be called “After the bomb”, the period of the second human race…A century later several men, dissatisfied with the system imposed on them by the new humanity, choose to revolt and return to live on the surface of the Earth as their ancestors did…So, yet another race begins, that of the new primitives…The two comunities (sic) have no contact for a long period. The people still living below ground are sophisticated and despise the primitives, regarding them as savages…This story begins on the surface of the Earth in the Year 225 A.B. (After the bomb)…..”
Ladies and gentlemen, the prose of Claudio Fragasso. And so begins Rats: Night of Terror
, the Escape From New York
crossover nobody on this earth ever wanted or asked for. Not content with ripping off Dawn of the Dead
in Hell of the Living Dead
, Mattei and his merry men decided to also poach heavily from Night of the Living Dead
this time around as well, basing his film almost entirely in a closed off complex besieged by an onslaught of emotionless, flesh-eating monsters. Or, you know, buckets of mice spray-painted grey. If you’re an animal activist, stop reading now, because it certainly gets worse. If you like good movies, stop reading now because it – oh, who am I kidding?
This is a film where the above opening text crawl is actually longer than the plot summary. Basically, a ragtag group of scavengers roll into an abandoned city on their motorbikes and shack up and have sex in some kind of apartment that conveniently has a thriving horticulture lab complete with still-running electricity in the basement. It’s in there it seems, that rats ingested some sort of science to make them “smart”. Smart in this movie means the
are able to fall on top of people at any given moment, and then otherwise just sit around in a pile while people freak out. In a sad indictment of our future, it seems that no matter how smart we become, we’ll always be saddled with sexual desire – a rat decides to crawl inside a woman’s vagina. So we get 93 minutes of the dumbest people imaginable tormented by buckets of the least-threatening rodents you’ll ever be likely to see, rather than simply just walking around them and heading to film lobby to ask for their money back. Good thing they stayed, though, because the ending is a bad movie benchmark, to be sure.
This is a much more coherent and straightforward film compared to Hell of the Living Dead
, but in this case it’s more a detriment. Rats: Night of Terror
is about as boilerplate as you could possibly get, each character as thick as cardboard, each setting and scene a mere copy of something better, and as the film goes along it even starts copying itself. The kills and attacks become almost monotonously repetitive: dude ventures off, a bunch of poor helpless mice are dumped on him from above, a few minutes later his corpse is found by the others, and then a rat bursts out from his body. Rise. Repeat. Where Bruno Mattei had a bunch of different soundtracks to lift from in Hell of the Living Dead
¸ here it appears he only has two tracks – one a terribly overwrought haunted house kind of organ, and the other some really canned synth pop. He seems to interchange them throughout the film the same way he does the rat attacks. It’s all just so plodding, there’s no pacing or spontaneity like there is in Hell
As slovenly as the film is, it certainly isn’t without its moments. The aforementioned sleeping bag snatch attack certainly is one of the more tasteless moments in Italian cinema (Antonioni, it ain’t!) and Giuseppe Ferranti’s effects are still the ticket. The dialogue is Fragassoian throughout, including a bizarre moment when one of the scavengers voices his displeasure upon learning the computer controlling the lab is not a video game by saying “God dammit, I never get to find a real video game! Stupid machine needs a kick in the balls!” Coupled with the “When did you start worrying about our balls, Danny?” line in Hell of the Living Dead
and the “He’ll cut off your little nuts and eat them” bit in Troll 2
, I think we can safely say we’ve found Claudio Fragasso’s preoccupation as an auteur. Hey…Spielberg had daddy issues, and Lucas loved pastiche, so why not testicles? Fragasso proves quite the poet, too, with the idiom: “Computers and corpses are a bad mixture!” There is alsos some bad movie hilarity in the way the filmmakers try their darndest, but fail miserably, to make the mice look formidable. There’s one scene of note where there’s a macro shot of rats marching forward in rows that’s clearly a bunch of plastic figures on a conveyor belt. You understand why they did that though, because most of the other scenes are just a bunch of mice sitting in a pile in the center of a room or suddenly being dropped on someone. They don’t claw or latch on to the people when they fall, they just drop. With every attack I couldn’t help imagining the poor helpless grips dumping the mice onto all these terrible actors. As it turns out, though, all these flourishes are just tidings for the film’s real raison d’etre, the ending.
Not comfortable just copying Escape From New York
and Night of the Living Dead
, Mattei-Fragasso decided for their finale to, uh, ape one of the classics of science fiction, Planet of the Apes
. Imagine if Claudio Fragasso wrote the ending for Tim Burton’s remake, but wrote it in another language and then used Google Translate to put it into English. That’s what we’re approaching here. I can’t hold back from including a screenshot in this review, but believe me, that spoils nothing of the WTFness of the proceedings. In a way the ending is almost too good – I want to watch the movie that happens AFTER this, or to parse nomenclature from the opening text crawl, ATR (After the Ratdude). Between the two films, that’s a whole lot of bad movie for one double feature, but that ending definitely makes up for the slog that is the first 90-minutes of Rats: Night of Terror
Both Hell of the Living Dead
and Rats: Night of Terror
were originally released on DVD in 2002 by Blue Underground through partnership with Anchor Bay. Twelve years later, it’s no surprise that they both look much improved on Blu-ray. The first film, Hell of the Living Dead
, looks particularly impressive, with a much expanded dynamic range, bringing out more detail in the darks of the frame. Where before, the darker areas would band and block up in digital ways, this new transfer exhibits Blue Underground’s now trademark film-accurate grain. The film is noticeably sharper without adding any additional noise, and many of the film aberrations found on the original DVD (like some big creases during the opticals at the end of the film) have been removed. There’s still the odd spec here and there, but it looks more like a film print making its first rounds rather than one that’s been shredded through the grindhouse. So much detail was put into restoring the picture, it appears as if both the start and end credits have been completely redone for this disc. Whatever they did, they really pop, while still looking as if they were part of the original print. That’s love.
You could say that the transfer on Hell of the Living Dead
even has TOO much love, at times, though. The added resolution now makes the grainier stock footage stand out even more compared to the near-pristine footage from the film proper. Also, the lab looks to have been a little overzealous in color correcting scenes, as the dusk scenes in particular near the end of the film look unnaturally blue. Other than a few isolated instances like that, though, timing is near-perfect shot to shot, and in every measurable detail, this new Blu-ray transfer is one, yep, hell of an improvement over those well-worn DVDs.
Rats: Night of Terror
shows substantial improvement right from the opening frame, as the text crawl now looks natural compared to the DVD. On the DVD you could humorously see the actual optical plate with the text upon it slowly sliding up the frame. That’s fixed here, and like with Hell
this print looks much cleaner and fuller in detail. The color timing folks here were also eager to put their stamp on this film, and as you can see from the screens, there are some pretty marked differences between DVD and Blu-ray. This new transfer seems to embody a look closer to Dean Cundey’s dark, but colorful apocalyptic look from Escape From New York
, with redder, more saturated hues and darker blacks. For the most part, I think it’s a change for the better, but I also noticed that the dynamic range seems to be somewhat compromised by the added contrast and saturation, exhibited by the lack of detail in highlights on the skin or in flames in the fires. While the film undoubtedly benefits from a higher resolution, the sharpness isn’t as noticeable of an improvement as it was in Mattei’s first sacrilege of cinema.
Both films were originally Dolby Digital Mono on their original releases, and they remain mono on the Blu-ray, but the almost 10 times improvement in bitrate on the new DTS-HD masters make for a fuller sounding track. During the louder, more frenzied beginning in the laboratory in Hell of the Living Dead
, for example, it just sounds more layered and palpable compared to the DVD track. This is true throughout the films, since both were done the Italian way in post with ADR and dubbing, and thus those studio-recorded tracks all sound that much richer in DTS-HD. Everything sounded clean and full on DVD, and it is even moreso on the Blu-ray. There’s a low noise floor, no audible hiss, and no hiss, pops, or other track deterioration. For thirtysomething year old audio tracks, you can’t ask for much more.
Perhaps predicting their inevitable pairing on a double feature, the discs for Hell of the Living Dead
and Rats: Night of Terror
both had the same Bruno Mattei interview as their showpiece, the 8:39 “Hell Rats of the Living Dead”. It’s included here on this set, and it features this choice quote by Mattei: “the stock footage during their trip worked perfectly.” I’m not one to talk ill of the dead, but Mr. Mattei, you were out to lunch on that one! It’s great to hear his thoughts in his own words, as he seems kind of oblivious to all the bad movie readings audiences seem to put upon these films today (how can’t you?). He talks about the business-like decision about the pseudonym “Vincent Dawn”, and confesses how he dislikes all his movies and would re-shoot them all. One George Lucas is enough, Bruno, you rest in peace.
Bruno Mattei no longer with us, Blue Underground doesn’t have the ability to shoot new footage with the cult legend, but luckily Claudio Fragasso, Hell
stars Margit Evelyn Newton and Franco Garofalo, Rats
stars Ottaviano Dell’Acqua and Massimo Vanni, and a few others were still around to talk about these infamous movies. “Bonded by Blood” (50:14), directed by one of the titans of cult film extras David Gregory, is a fresh take on the usual retrospective, with spontaneous and uncensored confessionals in a pretty off-the-cuff fashion. Claudio Fragasso carries the piece, somehow weaving cooking in a restaurant and a tour through old Italian production houses into the grand story of his career with Bruno Mattei. It’s here in this doc that a lot of the lingering questions about their films, their relationship and the authorship behind these pictures is finally put out in the open. Four of the actors from the film are also able to really explain what it was like working with them on set, and they don’t hold anything back. At one point Franco Garofalo calls Fragasso a “prostitute”, to which Fragasso says that Garofalo “should be locked in the looney bin” with surprising sincerity. It’s all a pretty fun look at how they made these schlocky films during a different era in Italian film (well, other than that confession about gluing live mice to the actor during the burning man stunt), but it ends on a pretty sobering and affecting note as Fragasso explains how his professional relationship with Mattei ended, and then how eventually his life ended too in Fragasso’s arms. He asks the filmmakers to stop the camera and the doc cuts to black. Pretty rich stuff on a disc that features movie with a guy in a rat suit.
Lastly, each film has its own International (Rats
has 2) and Italian trailers and separate Poster and Still galleries featuring various covers, posters, and some candid behind-the-scene shots. My favorites were the book covers for both movies. The international trailers for Rats
is pretty hilarious too, with the voice over artist whispering and taunting the audience with the word “rats” as many times as he can. The trailers also show the different names under which each film was marketed, “Virus” for Hell of the Living Dead
and “Blood Kill” (what?) for Rats: Night of Terror
Hell of the Living Dead
and Rats: Night of Terror
are like the yin and yang of bad movies. Hell
begins with a frenetic pace that peters out amidst a baffling amount of laughable stock footage and stolen music cues. Rats
is by turns more conventional (well, as conventional as an Escape From New York
hybrid can be) and thus more boring, but saves its best for last with one of the all-time laugh out loud endings in cinema history. Together, as a showpiece for the siege that Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso laid on cinema, they’re the perfect fit in this double feature. They look and sound fantastic thanks to careful restoration work by Blue Underground, and the new documentary is a refreshingly raw and open look at the behind-the-scenes relationship of one of the most prolific duos in Italian film history. Bad movie fans, here’s your movie night in a blue box, where rats wear gas masks and stock footage of tribal women bathing themselves proves most horrific of all.
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Hell of the Living Dead
Movie - C+
Image Quality - A
Sound - B+
Rats: Night of Terror
Movie - D
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - B
- Running time - 99 minutes (Hell of the Living Dead), 97 minutes (Rats: Night of Terror)
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- "Bonded by Blood" documentary
- "Hell Rats of the Living Dead" interview with Bruno Mattei
- Theatrical trailers
- Poster & Still galleries