Hell of the Living Dead / Rats

Hell of the Living Dead / Rats (1981/1984)
Blue Underground
Cast: Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Geretta Geretta, Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo
Extras: Featurettes, Theatrical Trailers, Poster & Still Gallery

Always the purveyor of European cult films, Blue Underground has prepared a Blu-Ray Double Feature that offers Italian director Bruno Mattei’s “Hell of the Living Dead” alongside with “Rats: Night of Terror” on one disc. Both films are certainly hard-core cult material, all the more reason for us to check out this blood-soaked horrorfest.

Let’s start with the 1981 zombie flick “Hell of the Living Dead.” Have you ever asked yourself, ‘What would happen if Ed Wood tried to make an Italian zombie movie?’ Well, in many ways that is exactly what “Hell of the Living Dead” feels like. It has the undeniable spirit and boundless enthusiasm of an Ed Wood movie, contrasting it with the European splatter factor. This crazy film wants to be a hybrid of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” and Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie,” but winds up being resembling the “blooper” reel from these films. The plot concerns a leak at a chemical plant in New Guinea, which turns everyone in the area into zombies. A SWAT team (dressed in the bluest uniforms that they could find) arrives on the tropical island to help with the disaster. (Or are they on vacation? It’s never made clear.) Once there, they meet a journalist (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her photographer (Selan Karay) and rescue them from a zombie attack. This rag-tag group then decides that they must get past the zombie natives and fight their way to the chemical plant.

”Hell of the Living Dead,” also known as “Night of the Zombies” in the US, was shot in Spain, but director Bruno Mattei wanted the film to look authentic. To achieve this, he incorporated reams of stock footage of natives and animals from New Guinea. The result is a ludicrously edited film in which we cut from a zombie attack to a monkey swinging through the trees…for no reason whatsoever. While the bulk of “Hell of the Living Dead” looks and plays like any other Italian “gut muncher,” there are several things, which make it stand out from it’s brethren-and not in a good way, really. The zombie attacks are totally fake-looking, and when the corpse which is clearly still alive falls from the ceiling in Chapter 10, you know that this film had a microscopic budget. Still, gorehounds who are willing to fast-forward through the shots of elephant stampedes will probably find something to like about “Hell of the Living Dead.”

Along with their high calibre titles, Blue Underground is never one to short-shrift a movie, no matter how cheap or undergroundishly cultish it may be. It is therefore not surprising that “Hell of the Living DeaD” looks surprisingly good on this Blu-Ray release. Presented in a 1080p high definition transfer in the movie’s original 1.85:1 aspect ration, the digital transfer is clean and clear throughout, but also brings out the differences between the real movie and the stock footage even more strikingly. As a result the image quality varies from shot to shot. As for the film itself, the image is sharp and clear, with some very fine amount of grain. It is notable that the image is somewhat washed out and none of the colors are very vibrant, but it appears to me that this is by design of the filmmakers. The accompanying DTS Mono Master Audio soundtrack is unspectacular, but clean and clear.

The release also contain the bonus materials previously released on the film’s DVD version, including a 9-minute interview with director Bruno Mattei entitled “Hell Rats of the Living Dead,” where he discusses his career and admits that none of his movies are good. “Bonded by Blood” is another featurette included, offering interviews with the film’s co-director Claudio Fragasse, as well as the movie’s stars. It is rounded out by the movie’s trailer and an extensive image gallery.

The second film on the release is the 1984 “Rats: Night of Terror.” It is a film that exemplifies all the marks of 80s horror. The film is violent and filled with bare breasts and takes ham-acting to a new level.

Taking place 225 years after the human race has been essentially wiped off the face the Earth by a nuclear holocaust, the last survivors are struggling to make their way back to the surface after living underground for generations. A small group of renegades on makes it into the remnants of a research lab where, at last, they find food and water. Recalling the post-apocalyptic feel of “The Road Warrior”-but not its energy or class-“Rats” then tries to convince its audience that rats have taken the next step on the ladder of evolution and surplanted humans. It is therefore hardly surprising that the rats manage to take out the heavily armed bikers one by one. Somehow avoiding the onslaught of bullets from automatic weapons, the rats also have the ability to drive everyone to histrionics upon mere sight. With only their teeth and the strength of their numbers, the rats mysteriously manage to drive each of the survivors in a corner or over some ledge, where they are then savagely devoured… or something like that.

The problem is that you can always tell that the film was shot with perhaps twenty or thirty rats. The suggestion of sheer mass is really just that-a suggestion. The ham-fist dialogues, the wide-eyed acting and the shrieking hysterics make “Rats” more of a laughable attempt at a horror film than a real genre entry. In addition, the movie is ripe with non-sensical plot points-the characters feel hopelessly trapped by the rats and the idea of walking away from the research site never occurs to anyone after the rodents destroyed their bikes (no joke!).

But it’s all good fun to watch these days, with the distance of 30 years from the making of this film. They just don’t make these kinds of films anymore. “Cool” has a very different meaning these days compared to the tough-guy act of the 80s, and in a time when computer generated effects drive many movies, it is somehow truly entertaining to see a film that oozes handiwork and creativity-out-of-necessity inside out. Ed Wood would have been proud-and I mean that in the nicest of ways.

The release sports a new 1080p high definition transfer of the movie that is clean and without notable defects. It has solid black levels and colors are noticeably more vibrant than in “Hell of the Living Dead.” Level of details is generally good, making this a solid presentation of the film. This film also comes with a DTS Mono Master Audio track that is clean and without distortion or hiss, and serves the film well enough.

“Hell of the Living Dead” and “Rats” are clearly not for everyone, but they do fill a very specific niche. They are unique testament to a time in horror when filmmakers where exploring increasingly gory lore and threw them at mainstream audiences. The story lines and acting where often secondary because people went to see these films for the gut-ripping, the gore and the T&A. While not all that much has changed, films have simply become more polished but under the polish many of today’s horror films are every bit was weak and riddled with laughable premises and acting.

It is the unique charm of the times that makes these films like “Rats” entertaining upon today’s viewing, as everyone watching it will probably make the-probably incorrect-assumption that they could have made a better film than that themselves with their cellphones. Put within proper context, however, one can see that these films are more than mere amateur hack jobs. Despite their shortcomings they exude an earnest enthusiasm that I find lacking from much of today’s fare.