Originally published on this site here, in Italian.
Produced by: La Perla Nera
Directed by: Vincent Dawn (Bruno Mattei)
Written by: Bruno Mattei; Gianni Paolucci; Antonio Tentori
Cinematography: Luigi Ciccarese
Editing by: Daniele Campelli
Special effects and Make-up by: Cecille Baun (as Cecille S. Baun); Digital Vision; Eddrick Sto. Domingo (as Dick S. Domingo)
Music by: Daniele Campelli; Bruno Mattei
Running time: approximately 93 minutes
WARNING – THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Looking to the filmography of the mysterious but actually famous director Vincent Dawn, alias Bruno Mattei, one can see any kind of movie: eccentric, violent and often interesting movies, full of madness, references, horror, blood, irony, eros, macabre, at times mere bad taste combined with the search for shock.
And there’s more: during his long career, Mattei found himself coordinating international actors, helping to launch genres and sub-genres, shooting on the same sets of timeless masterpieces (for example his Rats, shot on the set of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America).
And this despite budgets certainly not comparable to those of blockbuster movies, and sometimes not even to those of the so-called B movies.
In short, a whole film history enclosed in a director, a small mine for references lovers, a breviary1 for independent and amateur directors.
Even this site, sooner or later, will perhaps dedicate some monographic articles to Bruno Mattei, adding itself to the many which have already written about him, but that’s not the case to further weigh down this review.
Let’s get to the movie, Island of the Living Dead.
As the title says, the plot revolves is about an island and some living dead. More precisely, a crew of treasure hunters ends up off course and lands on a cursed island, the scene of a massacre at the end of the seventeenth century and now inhabited by living dead.
For the purists of the genre (including myself and with pleasure) we must say that the living dead of this movie are of a particular kind.
When we talk about living dead, in fact, many will think about zombies, and indeed we see many of them in this movie.
Now, zombies, albeit with great simplifications, are classifiable in some macro-categories.
The most famous is certainly the one invented by George Romero with Night Of The Living Dead in 1968 and perfected with Dawn Of The Dead in 1978: clinically dead individuals who, resurrected or perhaps even killed by mysterious factors (mostly related to side effects of scientific experiments), are characterized by slow movements and (at least in the first phases of the epidemic) a rather poor intelligence.
A further category, which also has some precedents2, has reached its definition with 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle in 2002. In truth, in this second case we are not talking about true zombies, but rather clinically alive individuals, infected with viruses or else, who can run and perform other complex actions. These creatures, not surprisingly, are more properly called infected.
A third category, which in truth is the first in order of appearance both on the screen and in literature, is that of the Caribbean zombie: an individual, in the original legends in a state of apparent death, but subsequently presented as a real revived corpse, which performs actions on command under the influence of a voodoo ritual, a drug, a curse. The main examples of this category are 1932’s White Zombie by Victor Halperin and 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie by Jacques Tourneur.
Here, the zombies of this movie pertain, even with some poetic licenses, to this third category.
And in reality there are not just zombies: the living dead brought on stage by Mattei are here a mix of these zombies, spirits gifted both with the ability to materialize and to speak with the human characters, and vampires.
A successful mix, after all.
The zombies of this movie will not disappoint the viewer: the cold and impersonal digital cameras of the first years of the third millennium, combined with the excellent make-up, make some of the extras appear, yes, for what they are, but make many of them quite scary, like those in the cover below.
Of course, there are some flaws, and someone may not like the Caribbean/magical concept, but even today we can see comparatively worse zombies, from certain CGI zombies that seem to come from the introduction of one of the first PS2 video games, to others whose make-up artists seem to have took the minimalist realism of the 1968’s Night a bit too literally.
Even the spirits and the vampires are well made: cadaveric, with lots of gothic dark circles under their eyes and a bit of dark charm.
The only real sore point about visual impression, it must be said, could be seen in the costumes of the prologue, but we must also understand that it could be due to the low amount of budget.
In short, make-up and special effects do their part. And it is no coincidence: at the top of these departments is Cecille Baun, with her long list of titles (among which Platoon stands out), here working on the same setting of her most famous movie. Together with her, a series of make-up artists, effect artists, painters, carpenters who make the effects and scenography some of the strongest points of the movie.
All of this, obviously, with the imprint of Mattei, who, between a neorealist use of local extras and his propensity for the low budget, seems to have used actors with limp limbs specifically for the scenes in which the limbs of the zombies are amputated by gunshots3.
The screenplay is by Antonio Tentori, a historical figure of Italian horror, and his signature can be seen: the tropical setting and the voodoo, which echo, in addition to the American classics of the first half of the twentieth century, Zombi 2 by Lucio Fulci, director for whom Tentori himself has had the opportunity to write; the mix of zombie-movie and gothic horror with spirits and castles. All characteristic elements of several phases of Italian cinema, and Tentori knows it.
The cinema of Bruno Mattei is cinema of the absurd, but also of recycling, homage, quotation, and even here it does not disappoint: the first zombies, awakened wrapped in shrouds, are cooled as in Zombi 2, and even other scenes recall Fulci’s movie; there is the inevitable and always welcome romerian “They’re coming to get you!“; also The Fog by John Carpenter receives a tribute, moreover at the limit of plagiarism4; a scene resembles Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship of 20025; another scene tributes Shining by Kubrick; a framing perhaps refers to the first Demons by Lamberto Bava.
Several pseudobiblia appear, including the Necronomicon, the De Vermis Mysteriis, the De Masticatione Mortuorum In Tumulis6, the Cultes Des Goules. A prophecy is finally read from one of these books, which is then a Latin tribute to Romero’s Dawn7.
That said, the movie is full of irony and self-mockery, like many Mattei movies. We must also say, however, that this humour may result out of tune: we hear bar jokes in apocalyptic moments; some self-quotes by Mattei do not exactly coincide with the situations in which they are inserted.
In addition to this, then, there are some not understandable things: in the engine room of the ship, the mechanic calls the captain when he has been on the ground for hours8; the jokes above make one doubt the perception that the characters have of the context around them.
About direction and cinematography, we have partly said above: the digital cameras of the first phase of the relative revolution are cold and maybe impersonal. It follows that even cinematography, although entrusted to the veteran Ciccarese, does not always succeed in giving those nuances that would also be useful (for example in the scenes with the spectra), while instead it’s more than effective in some shots (for example in the corridor with the chained zombies).
In short, the yield is fluctuating, and like in many Mattei movies it breaks through the wall of an amused sloppiness, but the movie as a whole is not too far from so many other direct-to-video and, more generally, horror movies.
Indeed, perhaps this is precisely the most delicate point. Island Of The Living Dead, like so many other movies, although not much inferior to others that are regularly seen on TV and on demand services, has never been transmitted or put into a legal streaming catalog in Italy, to the point where even the irreproachable Davinotti, on this matter, can do nothing but be silent.
In short, Island Of The Living Dead is a movie that perhaps bears a semi-unknown production, a budget that is still unknown but that must not have been exactly excessive and a homemade director, and yet it’s a nice movie, not too much inferior to other low-budget horror movies, and I’m a bit sorry for never having seen it on the TV guide, maybe late at night on a local network.
And I’m sorry not because it’s a great movie, indeed, but because, as mentioned at the beginning of this review, Mattei’s filmography, even in a negative sense, contains valuable lessons for cinema lovers: excellent ideas, good ideas, sometimes even very bad ideas, good or fluctuating results, glaring errors and sometimes even deliberate ones.
Here: it is said “learn from the best”, and this is certainly true. And yet even giving a glimpse to the so-called or alleged “worst” can sometimes help to progress, to be more informed, to see the merits and defects of a work with a more detached eye.
Braineater.com – https://www.braineater.com/iotld.html (last visit 02/03/2019)
Il Davinotti – https://www.davinotti.com/index.php?forum=30014891 (last visit 25/02/2019)
El Blog Ausente – http://absencito.blogspot.com/2007/05/bruno-mattei-visual-experience-iii.html (last visit 24/02/2019)
IMDB – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898925/mediaviewer/rm3674334720 (last visit 24/02/2019)
Weirdletter – http://weirdletter.blogspot.com/2011/05/diceria-del-vampiro-de-masticatione.html (last visit 25/02/2019)
- Maybe in a negative sense, why not.
- An example may be Return Of The Living Dead 3 by Brian Yuzna, dated 1993, but also Claudio Fragasso claims himself a precursor with his 1989 After Death, in which zombies can talk and use firearms, also maintaining the consciousness of their previous life. Looking for some characterizing elements even further back, we could think of Romero himself with 1973’s The Crazies, or the seminal The Last Man On Earth by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, dated 1964.
- As explained by the evidently well informed Braineater.com.
- More details here.
- With some maggots that I have not yet figured out if they are real or are yet another great little effect by Cecille Baun.
- Which is actually an existing text but which, being the prologue set in 1688, could not have been present in the Spanish fortress as it was written later.
- Among other things, it should be noted that this Latin, apart from (at least in the Italian version) an “ex nimatum” which in reality should be “exanimatum“, is perhaps scholastic but grammatically correct, which objectively does not happen often.
- In the same scene, then, the mechanic even manages to blow up the ship by pressing what might seem a sort of improbable self-destruction button, but which perhaps is just a button to turn on some boiler that, with the gas escaping from a pipe just before, could actually trigger an explosion. Since the realization is what it is, all hypoteses are possible!