If you mention “spaghetti westerns” in polite conversation, I imagine most people would have some idea of what you were talking about. The concept of the Italian western movies popular from the 1960s-1980s is engrained into the popular consciousness thanks to Sergio Leone and the chiseled stubble of Clint Eastwood. But the “spaghetti zombie” film on the other hand … that’s a little more obscure.
Obscure, but fairly prolific. In fact, when they weren’t creating surreal re-imaginings of the American West, Italian directors were also apparently watching George Romero on repeat in the late 1970s. In the years immediately following Dawn of the Dead, a wave of cheapo zombie movies began to hit Italian cinemas. Some, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Joe D’Amato, were hailed as gorehouse classics. Others were made by Bruno Mattei, and as such are ludicrously incompetent. Hell of the Living Dead is one of the latter, which is convenient given that this is a column about terrible movies and good beer.
And oh, what a beer this time around. To pair with Hell of the Living Dead, I chose Clown Shoes Undead Party Crasher, a big imperial stout so burly and substantial that it could easily be used to barricade a door against any zombie horde. This beer is so commanding, so overflowing with rich aromas of smoke and dark chocolate, that it was honestly difficult to even focus on the film while drinking it. It features restrained bitterness, hides its alcohol quite well and simply revels in syrupy flavors of chocolate, iced coffee and campfire smoke.
It might well be that this beer is what the incompetent scientists who open the film are trying to synthesize as they scurry about on a project apparently entitled “Sweet Death.” Predictably, things go horribly wrong, releasing clouds of a gas that animate the first members of a zombie outbreak. Stealing shamelessly from Dawn of the Dead, they’re covered in blue face paint. When music from that same film is stolen and worked in later, it’s certainly a surprise to no one.
Mattei is a hack of the first order here, which is only bolstered by the presence of the noxious Claudio Fragasso, who gets co-directing and writing credits. Fragasso, if you don’t know him, is only the man who directed the infamous Troll 2, always a prominent entry on any shortlist of the worst films ever made. Bringing both of them together is like seeing a monster movie co-production between Ed Wood and Coleman Francis, except with the bonus of terrible English dubbing.
This film somehow does without little things like “a premise.” We’re simply dropped into the action in a tropical locale, crawling with both natives and zombies. I was never able to conclusively determine where the movie was taking place, but online research reveals that it’s apparently supposed to be New Guinea. I can’t imagine how my confusion could have arisen—perhaps it was the omnipresent stock footage of African mammals romping around the Serengeti that are peppered through every scene. There are elephants in New Guinea, right? What about kangaroo mice?
Our “characters,” such as they are, never really get introductions either. Only Lia, played by nudie magazine model Margit Evelyn Newton, seems to be of any consequence. She plays a journalist of some sort who journeys into the dark heart of the jungle to investigate reports of attacks on the natives, which is undoubtedly selling a lot of newspapers back home. She’s joined by a four-man crew of incompetent commandos who just happen to be going the same direction. I love these guys’ first appearance, as they casually roll into a hostage situation and shoot the place up. Note to terrorists: Taking hostages is a really bad strategy when the police force’s operating policy is “just shoot everybody.”
Things then take a turn for the racially insensitive in the film’s stand-out moment . Approaching a native village, Lia announces “I’ll have to go and meet them alone,” before casually stripping off all of her clothing and applying some of the worst “tribal” facepaint ever seen in the movies. She then strolls into the village, where the dark-skinned natives marvel at her perky breasts and anoint her as a white god. It’s like something straight out of a 1930s jungle epic, except, you know … in 1980.
All this could probably be forgiven in favor of good zombie action, but Hell of the Living Dead features zombies that are by and large the least threatening of all time. Even the character who seemingly has a death wish manages to survive being surrounded by them multiple times, because the zombies don’t make even the barest effort to attack him. He even mocks them by offering up his arm at one point, and they just hover less than a foot away, pawing at the air and wishing they had actual choreography. They’re less like zombies and more like your significant other half an hour after taking an Ambien.
In some ways, the beer is just as shlocky, with its professed ingredients of “holy water” and malt smoked over “ash and hickory vampire-killing stakes.” Yes, all undead are represented in Clown Shoes Undead Party Crasher. (Don’t worry—there’s a zombie hiding in the label’s background.) But unlike the film, it at least knows which crowd-pleasing aspects it should revel in. It’s not the most complex imperial stout in the world, but it satisfies because it’s a decadent treat. Hell of the Living Dead would be so much better if it could follow the beer’s example and offer the one thing its audience really wants: Solid action.
—We get a totally out-of-nowhere kernel of strangely specific character development when Lia pulls a gun on one of the commandos and hisses, “In case you got the idea that a woman would be afraid to shoot you, just forget it, because you wouldn’t even be the first one I had to shoot in my life, either. I took care of one jerk who thought he was tough enough to rape me.” She’s then immediately and effortlessly disarmed of her weapon. Nice message, movie.
—There is so, so much stock footage in this thing. Every scene has random, contextless cut-aways to jungle wildlife. All of this film stock appears about 10 years older than the rest of the film.
—The zombie capabilities vary wildly. Most of the time they just stand there idly. This one, on the other hand, manages to casually open a moving car door. Another is clearly not buying the idea of his character’s limitations and goes fully airborne.
If you want to inflict Hell of the Living Dead on yourself, you can start with the trailer, which, at four minutes long, is essentially five percent of the complete film.
Five minutes later, check out Clown Shoes Undead Party Crasher.
Jim Vorel is a Central Illinois-based entertainment reporter and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.