Blu-Ray Review - Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror - Blue Underground

Fans of 1980s Italian schlocky and splatter filled horror will, hopefully, be over the moon that Blue Underground has released two such titles together on Blu Ray from the infamous Director Bruno Mattei (here going by the awesome sounding pseudonym Vincent Dawn) and Co-Writer/Co-Director Claudio Fragasso.

First up is Hell of the Living Dead AKA Virus AKA Zombie Creeping Flesh
COLOUR. 1980. 99 Mins

Sounding innocent enough, the Government financed 'Hope project' is actually engaged in scientific testing to create something that will reduce the growing, under developed population. However, as all nefarious Government schemes are destined to do, something goes wrong and their toxic green gas turns the people in to cannibalistic and carnivorous zombies. How bringing the dead back to life would reduce a population and not increase it is beyond me but who looks for logic where big Government, scientific conspiracies are at play?
Into this living dead filled jungle of Papua New Guinea drops a four man American Swat team, complete with Dawn of the Dead-like blue jump suits and caps, a feisty blonde reporter and her moustachioed cameraman. We follow them as they journey towards the Hope project, encountering natives, nature filled stock footage and plenty of blood thirsty zombies.

Contains very mild spoilers
In the 80s there was a thriving Italian genre movie making business. They admired the movies of Romero and Carpenter (arguably more than they were ever admired, at the time, in The States) and considered them, as the interview with Claudio Fragasso on this disc reveals, masters. They were also, some say inspired by and others say blatantly ripped off, George Miller's OzSploitation mega hit Mad Max and later Ridley Scott's Alien.
From the uniforms of the swat team to selections of the pinched soundtrack it would be easy to see this as just another Dawn of the Dead rip off. Most people do. It's easy to condemn a film solely for wearing its influences on its sleeves, or at least critics do for Italian genre films but when Tarantino or Scorsese do it then, of course, it's unrivalled genius. However the costumes and the music is where the comparison ends; the plot, the setting and, indeed, the end result bare no resemblance to Romero's most heralded movie. Now, did the filmmakers love Dawn of the Dead and were they trying to capitalise on it? of course! Does that mean I can condemn this film and move on? Nope, sorry. I enjoyed it.

The acting in the film veers from the little goofy to the downright awful and there's far too many single head shots of a woman badly screaming for my tastes but the zombies, the gore and a couple of the set pieces keep the movie rolling along and are gruesome fun. If your expectations aren't ridiculously high brow and pretentious then there's much to enjoy.
My bench mark for Italian made zombie movies tends to be the work of Lucio Fulci which, I think, transcends any mindless accusations of thievery and influence and, no, Hell of the Living Dead is no Zombie (AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters), but if you're looking for a gore fuelled, slightly surreal, ramshackle, midnight B movie style zombie film then you could do a lot worse than this.
As far as the effects go, while they are certainly amateur in places, they are pleasingly gruesome and drenched in the red stuff. Shoulders are bitten, fingers pulled off, a cat bursts out of the guts of a zombie grandmother, a tongue is wrenched out and eyeballs removed from their sockets. Also, through the use of stock and shot footage, a prolonged scene in a tribal camp has an odd, slightly sickening but cool Cannibal Holocaust, documentary vibe to it which certainly separates the film again from any of Romero's work.

Although you'd have to take a fair few leaps to read any 'message' per se into the movie there is an underlying, somewhat unexplored idea about tribal culture, tribal lands and how we in the industrialised nations treat and or view the undeveloped countries and the indigenous people found there. I give the film a point or two for even having that much.

I also give the film a few points because when reading up on the production's back story and hearing how this film was cobbled together it's a wonder that it's as watchable and as enjoyable as it is. The original script, for example, was much longer, more elaborate and would've required a much bigger budget than was available, so everything was reduced and changed without exactly being rewritten. This lead to a lot of confusion but also odd improvisation, none more so than by goggly eyed, tombstone faced Franco Garofalo in a joyously over the top performance. Whole scenes, including the ending, were included after Mattei started in on the editing and realised that the film they had, currently, didn't make a whole lot of sense. Vast amounts of stock footage from the French movie La Vallée was incorporated to help set the film in New Guinea when really it was filmed just outside Barcelona. The use of this stock footage is both very effective in places but also bizarre and surreal in others. Especially when one of the men is looking through their binoculars at big red birds flying and swooping gracefully but the footage is in slow motion and the scene doesn't have a point beyond to highlight some footage this crew didn't even shoot. Again it would be easy to condemn the film for reusing this footage, which more often that not does actually blend ok with the shot stuff, or you can, as I did, embrace it and marvel at it when it worked but be left laughably confused when it veered into surreal and/or unnecessary territory.
You could, also, either love or hate that Goblin's soundtracks from Dawn of the Dead and, fellow Italian schlockmeister, Luigi Cozzi's Contamination were ransacked and used to score this film. I am personally ok with it. Yes I prefer original Goblin but any Goblin is good Goblin and it's used in such an utterly random and Italian way with gusto and punch that it just adds to and improves the hastily put together jigsaw feel of this entire movie.

Hey, at least the zombies don't run, there's no shaky cam, it's not a remake, it's not found footage and there's no possessed girls or dolls in the film. That already makes it better than 95% of the horror movies released in the last decade!
These stills are just illustrations and do not represent screen shots from the Blue Underground Blu Ray of Hell of the Living Dead and should not be considered representative of the image quality of that Blu Ray.

Next on the disc is Rats: Night of Terror AKA Rats of Manhattan AKA Blood Kill
COLOUR. 1984. 97 Mins

It is 225 years after the nuclear destruction of damn near everything on the earth as we know it. Only buildings, motorbikes, neckerchiefs, hair stylists, guns, vans, food and, actually, pretty much everything survives, just in a sort of rundown, post apocalyptic, Italian B Movie from the 80s type way. Oh and rats, rats have survived, lots of rats and now, of course, they feed on humans and have a slightly higher brain function.
We are told in a wonderfully long text scrawl and voice over that some humans live underground but some live on the surface, presumably as the half life of these particular nuclear blasts was just a couple of months rather than the thousands of years modern science would have us believe.
Some of these surface dwellers have taken to riding around on motorbikes, in the latest Milan fashions and in the same gravel pit from all these post-apocalyptic, Italian, biker films
(Warriors of the Wasteland, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, Warrior of the Lost World - you get the idea), presumably having lots of barbaric fun and scavenging for food.
They eventually drive into Incir De Paolis Studios where they hope to settle in for the night before finding that their night is just beginning and the rats, most definitely, do not want them there.

Contains very mild spoilers
With, freely admitted, strong John Carpenter, George A Romero and James Herbert overtones, Rats: Night of Terror is a movie that looks great, has amazing lighting and atmosphere, makes great use of its obvious set and, of course, comes with a killer soundtrack. Stylistically, too, in the costumes, hair and make-up it's a delightfully, heightened, very 80s and Italian version of the post-nuclear future. The rats in question, the co-director Claudio Fragasso says, were actually guinea pigs but they don't look like guinea pigs they look like the white, red/pink eyed rat, also known as the albino rat. However, whatever they are, to get them black they, apparently, had them running about in troughs of coal. The end result is a small greyish rodent but with effective, creepy red eyes.

Realising early on that rats weren't really scary so much as just plain gross, directors, Mattei and Fragasso set about trying to give the film some tension in some of the set pieces and also, of course, pile on the splatter. They are not so successful building the tension as while the lighting creates a suitable atmosphere, very often the sequences can come across as either overly slow and/or frustrating as they often rely on a character doing something abysmally stupid and contradictory. There's also an annoying amount of repetition in the film, both with the stupidity of certain characters' decisions but also in the constant bickering between the leader of the gang, the budget Italian Kurt Russell, played by Ottaviano Dell'Acqua and the constant, loud mouthed, bane of his existence Duke, played by Henry Luciani complete with Napoleonic tunic and annoying laugh.
In the splatter, however, they are somewhat more successful and scenes of a rat burrowing its way out of a dead woman's mouth and a body literally exploding because it's full of rats are pretty enjoyable.
Also, on the plus side, there is some nice exploitation nudity and an utterly bizarre ending that will have you either confused, laughing, slapping your face in disbelief or all three!

On the whole, though, the concept runs its course in the first 30mins of the movie and sadly doesn't get much better after that. It doesn't help that, not only are all the actors pretty atrocious and over the top but their characters, all with Carpenteresque names like Video, Taurus, Lucifer and Chocolate, are pig headed, unsympathetic, bickering morons who, for example, when finding a room full of real food, set about tearing open all the packets and cans, wasting vast quantities of it. This seems odd behaviour for wilderness riders who I, presume, don't come across cans of meat, real sugar or flour very often.
Also, the film has the constant problem of having to convince the audience that these guys are really trapped with no means of escape, which is difficult because, even when the rats chew through the tyres of their bikes, it's hard not to think, well all pile into the van and drive your way out of there then! or, I don't know... run or walk!
It's very difficult to suspend disbelief enough when the threat of the rats is never really fully explored beyond 'if you're inside and there's lots of them about, you are at risk of being bitten a lot'. Then when it does look like they might be able to do something and escape, of course, Duke has to show up and ruin it for everyone.
Take another film like this, Kingdom of the Spiders, that film is far more effective at making you believe they really can't escape the building they're taking shelter in or the town that's over-run and it manages to do it without the benefit of the darkness and some amazing Italian cinematography.
To top it all off the film is riddled with dialogue and situations that seem to suggest that the rats have mutated into only eating humans and that they were angry when humans took over the underground but also that they won't let them leave. Presumably because there aren't many humans up top and so this evolutionary step they've taken in their diet necessitates them trapping a few when they come along or go hungry till the next batch of neckerchief fancying hairstylists wander in to town.
Normally I wouldn't care to poke holes in a ludicrous plot like this and normally I'd just go with it, sadly the film doesn't do enough to distract me and carry me along with it, although, I will say, I was really glad to have seen it.

While the film is far from the best genre exploitation film I have seen to come out of this period of Italian movie-making, it is, at the very least, expertly shot and worth a watch. When you consider these movies were, more often that not, made in just 4-5 weeks, on a shoestring budget, with actors doing their own stunts, reading a script in a foreign language (to the best of their abilities) and, in the case of this film, surrounded by smelly rodents and putting up with gore effects, the end result is, at least, an interesting, different, inventive, good looking and fun film. From the interviews on this disc it is clear that they love genre film-making. Bruno Mattei says he makes films like a cartoonist draws cartoons and Claudio Fragasso says he tried to make art films and said they were no fun and bothered him. He was happy to be in amongst the splatter and the silliness. So I will applaud the fact that far from being considered as, simply, money making rip-offs that, really, were beneath the filmmakers concerned (as you hear so often), that these guys loved making goofy, monster movie, splatter films.
These stills are just illustrations and do not represent screen shots from the Blue Underground Blu Ray of Rats: Night of Terror and should not be considered representative of the image quality of that Blu Ray.

The disc is a Blu-Ray Double Feature edition.
Considering the amount of detail there is on the disc, 2 full features, plus a nice long series of interviews, the quality of both films presented is excellent. The quality of the image in Hell of The Living Dead is, at times, slightly and understandably blurry and grainy but this mostly has to do with the age of the movie and the abundance of stock footage from an even older movie in it. You can certainly tell that the transfer is as good and as crisp as I can imagine it could be. Rats, on the other hand, benefits from having much better cinematography and this pretty clear and sharp transfer really brings this to the fore. In both films the contrast, the blacks, the lighting and the colour seems spot on and when the gore starts flying the reds are glorious and vivid.
The sound, too seemed strong and clear. The system I played the disc on wasn't fancy but the dialogue could be heard clearly and I never had to adjust the volume due to badly mixed, annoyingly loud bursts of music or gunfire/explosions/action scenes as I have to with some discs.
I can definitely guarantee that this is the best these two films have looked and sounded since they were first made.
As for the extras, while the subtitled interviews can take a while to get used to, both the long extra Bonded By Blood and the short Bruno Mattei interview Hell Rats of the Living Dead, are filled with interesting stories, charmingly told. There is free admission of the influence of filmmakers like Carpenter and Romero and massive respect paid to them but also a joy and exuberance in defence of the films and nostalgia for that period of movie making in Italy. The most charming moment though is when Claudio Fragasso is reunited with Ottaviano Dell'Acqua & Massimo Vanni (actors/stuntmen from the film Rats) at the studio where the film was made. Staged or not, their camaraderie is evident in the exciting reminiscences they have of Rats and then the movies they went on to work on together after that.
For a specific fan or collector of either Mattei's films or Italian films of this era I would say this is essential and for any casual lover of schlocky, B monster movies, if you don't have these films on your shelves yet, then this is a great set and well worth the purchase. However if you already own these films on either VHS or DVD, I would only suggest upgrading if you love the films themselves and want the best quality copy available.

August 26, 2014

DTS-HD Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Widescreen 1.85:1
Not Rated
Region: ALL
Disc: 50GB Dual Layer

Bonded By Blood - Interviews with Co-Writer/Co-Director Claudio Fragasso and Stars Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua & Massimo Vanni
Hell Rats Of The Living Dead - Interview with Director Bruno Mattei
Theatrical Trailers
Poster & Still Galleries

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