Monday, January 15, 2024

"Legends Are Full of Phantoms" - Island of the Living Dead (2007)

Before his death in 2007, director Bruno Mattei released two final zombie films: Island of the Living Dead (2007) and Zombies: The Beginning (also 2007). Island of the Dead, despite its crisp digital provenance, is an ambitious and creative grand tour through zombie mythology that highlights themes of colonialism and religious persecution while paying homage to the zombie films of the past.

Of course, some critics in your universe don't appreciate Mr. Mattei's magnum opus. For example, reviewer Uriah43 writes, "this was a typically bad low-budget film by Bruno Mattei which suffered from a bad script, bad character development and bad acting." Reviewer Platypuschow writes, "If I were to make a zombie movie the blue print I'd make is taking everything they've done here then do the literal opposite." 
And reviewer Michael_Elliott writes, "On a technical level pretty much everything here is bad."

Please continue reading for a fuller appreciation of Bruno Mattei's Island of the Living Dead...

The film begins as a company of Spanish conquistadores and priests oversee a ceremony in which island natives place sheet-covered corpses around a bonfire. One growling corpse sits up, whereupon it is shot in the head by a Spaniard. This happens repeatedly as the locale seems to have a problem with corpses returning to life. In fact, a cart dumps dozens of corpses, all in nice white sheets, in front of a church, after which shirtless young men carry the corpses into the chapel while a Spaniard yells bilingually, “Let’s go! Hurry up! Andale!”

In a startling image, a young dead girl emitting a series of squeaky grunts rises as the Spaniards cower in fear.

After several minutes, a soldier shoots the girl in the head, but it appears too late for the Spaniards as the zombies overrun the church. The armed men run, led by an aristocrat who bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Richard Kind, but they too are attacked and eaten by the symbols of their colonial ambitions.

The filmmakers cut to the present day as a pair of scuba divers loads an old treasure chest onto a ship. However, in a twist both comedic and tragic, the bottom of the chest breaks open before the chest reaches the ship, and a chest load of gold coins falls into the sea.

Of course, the crew of the ship simply gives up, preferring to sit in the galley drinking beer instead of returning to the water to collect the coins. 

The crew’s bad luck continues the same night as they find themselves running aground on an island in the middle of a fog bank. In the morning, they determine their position, but consulting a chart, their captain (named Kirk) finds there are no known islands in the area. They decide to explore the island, and of course to forego contacting the Coast Guard. 

All but one of the crew members take a Zodiac to shore, armed with a shotgun. Two men reconnoiter quickly. “There’s nothing in that direction, just a bunch of jagged bushes,” says one man.

“Not a goddamn living soul,” says his companion.

“Well,” says Captain Kirk, “what else do you expect from an island that in the middle of the night just pops up?”

They split into two groups. One group searching for drinking water stumbles upon a graveyard. Here, they literally replay the cemetery scene from Night of the Living Dead (1968) (perhaps the most famous scene in modern horror) as Mark taunts Sharon with “The dead! They will get you, Sharon!”

“Stop it,” Sharon replies. “Stop being such an idiot.”

Mark continues: “Careful, they will get you. Look! There’s one coming now!” A dead man walks toward them, but their friend Tao defends them by kicking the zombie and using what appears to be kung fu. (I believe this is also how Johnny and Barbara dispatched the first ghoul in Romero’s film, though I don’t remember all the details.)

At the same time, the other group finds an abandoned structure and begins exploring. Unbeknownst to the group, a zombie stands nearby watching. Then, in a surprising move in a film of this sort, the zombie turns directly to the camera and growls — at us, the audience watching the film! (This, in addition to the Night of the Living Dead reference, is an early example of the film's ambitiousness as a work of metafiction.)

The group investigates a building where, in the basement, they discover torture devices, skeletons, and a cache of dusty old books including De Necronomicon, De Vermis Mysteriis, and other cursed volumes. Captain Kirk reads what he calls a prophecy: “Every cadaver that is not destroyed immediately becomes one of them. He revives and begins to kill. People that have been killed rise anew, and then altogether they kill more.”

Meanwhile, the sole engineer on board, Max, is attacked by zombies, including the Spaniards, and killed in the engine room. For some unknown reason, however, Max reaches out to push the single red button in the engine room, which of course blows up the entire ship.

Everyone ashore (except for Tao, who has died offscreen) runs back to the beach, where they see the ship has been destroyed. Captain Kirk asks Sharon and Mark what happened. Sharon replies, “Some horrible monster, not human of any kind, has killed Tao.”

Mark steps toward the camera, then says, “It’s true. That thing had supernatural strength and Tao sacrificed himself to save us.” Then Mark takes a step back, his line of dialogue finished.

Also, the Zodiac has been stolen.

“We must find refuge,” says Captain Kirk dramatically, “before night falls.”

All six survivors return to the ruined structure, where they are set upon by zombies, including one whose bulbous toes are prominently featured by the cinematographer. The survivors shoot at the zombies but many of them climb to their feet and continue to advance. (One zombie even falls suddenly for no reason.) Fred unloads several shotgun shells, yelling “Aah!” every time he pulls the trigger. In one creative sequence, Fred pushes a zombie away but its severed hand remains in his grip. Fred is transfixed by the hand, almost as catatonic as Barbara in Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Oddly, another zombie has its arm shot off, but a replacement hand begins growing out of its shoulder.

The survivors cry out the immortal line, “Let’s get out of here!” They retreat to another structure, where they separate for no apparent reason, but then they get back together seconds later. Captain Kirk tells a soldier named Snoopy (because he is wearing a Peanuts t-shirt), “Shoot at anything that moves.”

Snoopy replies humorously, “Oh, I’ll shoot the night owl. I’ll shoot at the bugs. Or maybe perhaps the odd sewer rat.”

Then they separate again.

A group made up of Captain Kirk, Fred, and Victoria enters a Spanish fort, eventually finding the chapel, where a robed, skeletal figure of the Angel of Death stands against a wall. (The figure moves, as if it is only a person wearing a costume, but none of the survivors take note of the movement.) Seconds later, all six survivors are reunited in the chapel. Captain Kirk explains that there is a legend of a missing Spanish galleon called the Natividad; another ship witnessed it sailing near the Bermuda Triangle. “It was sailing about 10 knots in the middle of the fog,” Captain Kirk relates, being questionably specific. He tells the others that the Natividad was a ghost ship. “It’s not a fairy tale. I’ve seen things you could never imagine.” He adds, “Legends are full of phantoms, of beasts from another world that kill, and the dead that rise again.”

In the morning, the crew separates yet again to explore different parts of the island. This time, they separate into three groups of two. Captain Kirk and Snoopy explore a tunnel where they find on the wall a coat of arms with the motto “Blood and death” — an unappealing prospect. Perhaps unwisely, they open a door near the coat of arms. As it creaks open, Captain Kirk says, “I don’t like this.” Nonetheless, he enters the room.

Meanwhile, Sharon and Fred further explore the chapel. Sharon sees someone wearing a black robe and thinks it is a priest. Perhaps unwisely, she puts a hand on its shoulder. When it turns, she sees it is some kind of zombie monster that resembles Dr. Phibes in a vague, non-actionable way.

Fred shoots the creature but it gets up again, until he shoots it again in the head.

In an amusing sequence, Mark and Victoria find a vault filled with wine barrels. Mark finds a cobweb-crusted cup and blows off the cobwebs, then fills the cup from a barrel with what appears to be blood. He takes a sip. Seconds later, he tells Victoria he has found amontillado. “Amontillado?” Victoria says. “A cask of amontillado? Wasn’t that a story by…Edgar Allan Poe?”

“Well, hey,” says Mark, “let’s see if Sir Edgar was a connoisseur.” Trying the wine (again), he finds it to be “really great.”

Elsewhere, however, in another room, Captain Kirk sniffs the dregs of a cup and sees a vision of an old dead man in a mirror. He concludes something must be wrong with the wine.

The filmmakers intercut three suspenseful scenes as Sharon and Fred struggle against a roomful of dead islanders, most of them chained to the walls, while Mark and Victoria drink wine that gives them horrific visions of worms and blood. Also, a woman disappears from a painting and begins to stalk Snoopy.

At the end of the sequence, Sharon and Fred find the Spanish treasure in the middle of the fortress. (Amusingly, they open one treasure chest to find a zombie head that turns toward them.)

Everyone reconvenes in the treasure room. They are thrilled to have found hundreds of millions of dollars worth of treasure, but Snoopy is wary. “This island is cursed,” he explains. “While I was walking around, I heard music playing, and I saw a guitar playing by itself.” (It must be noted the audience saw none of these things, and also that everyone has been dealing with zombies and horrific visions for the last few hours, which also might be offered as proof the island is cursed.)

Unfortunately, Sharon is quickly attacked by a zombie bursting through a door, leading to a recreation of the eyeball scene from Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979), minus the actual eyeball penetration, as she is rescued at the last second.

When a horde of zombies breaks into the treasure room, Fred fights them but, perhaps unwisely, he offers his bare arm to one of the zombies, who bites him a la Dawn of the Dead (1978). Fred cries out, “I’m gonna see you all again…in Hellllllll!” He is then grotesquely eaten, in a scene that suggests but does not show the fate of Rhodes in Day of the Dead (1985).

After Captain Kirk wanders off and encounters a ghost who tells him, “Welcome to the island of the dead,” the other survivors read from a book that further explains the film’s backstory. In 1688, the galleon crashed on the island. “When hellish fog will fall again on this island,” Sharon reads, “the men from the bottom of the ocean will rise up and kill whoever had caused their death. May God have mercy on us.”

Meanwhile, Snoopy performs a flamenco dance with a zombie dancer appearing out of a painting, accompanied by a guitar played by disembodied hands; eventually, the zombie bites Snoopy’s neck.

Then the filmmakers decide to give still more backstory as a zombie noblewoman explains further to Victoria that not only was everyone cursed to living death when the ship arrived at the island, but also there is an evil presence that doesn’t want living humans to escape. (It is unclear why some zombies want to help the humans, while others simply want to eat them.) Then the noblewoman bursts into flames.

In the final act, the film reveals its secrets. The evil presence is a skeletal, black-robed priest who leads a group of other skeletal, black-robed priests. He kills Victoria, allowing his acolytes to devour her. Sharon, after being attacked by Captain Kirk who sees visions that he is responsible for the ship in the first place, leads the others in building a small raft on the beach. Then she returns to the fortress and douses various floors with both wine and gunpowder.

Finally, Captain Kirk reveals himself to be a zombie, or perhaps a ghost, after Mark shoots him. He confronts Sharon, telling her, “I am a collector of lives. I can give you another life. A life you cannot imagine. It will last for centuries and centuries.”

Sharon is defiant. “I’ve made my choice!” She thrusts a torch at Captain Kirk, burning him as other zombies break out of their tombs for a thrilling, fiery climax.

Finally, Sharon cuts the evil skeleton priest in half, ironically with a large scythe, and runs to the raft, though she is scratched by her comrades, who are all now zombies. Fortunately for Sharon, the zombies avoid water, so she is able to shoot many of them from the floating raft. However, in the film’s stinger, when Sharon is rescued by what appears to be a very expensive Philippines Coast Guard helicopter, she passes away in a hospital bed. The final shot of the film is Sharon rising from under the sheet, and surprisingly baring vampire-like fangs.

The brilliant conceit behind Island of the Living Dead is to use the structure of Rats: Night of Terror (1984), with a group of people wandering through a deserted building, to present a history of the zombie film. Through recreations of scenes from Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Zombi 2 (1979), and even Mattei's own Hell of the Living Dead (1980), Mr. Mattei presents the culmination of his own work as a filmmaker (not including, in this case, his erotic works). Questions about the nature of the zombies on the island (Are they zombies or ghosts? Why does Captain Kirk assume they come out only at night? Is Captain Kirk a ghost himself or simply possessed by the "collector"? What was wrong with the wine, anyway? Why does the ship have a self-destruct button?) are irrelevant because the nature of the threat facing the survivors is all-encompassing. The monsters are zombies. The monsters are ghosts. The monsters are vampires. Perhaps Mr. Mattei is saying, in his final word on cinema, that we are all monsters in the end. Why fight the monsters and the dying of the light when we will all become monsters in the dark, in the end. Perhaps this is what he is saying, and perhaps not. In any case, one cannot disagree that it is food for thought, which is of course why we watch zombie movies in the first place. And maybe that is all that is important.