Some great directors die in the midst of their career and leave behind an inadvertent final film that does not reflect the quality of their larger career. Few would argue, for example, that Family Plot is a fitting capstone for the career of Alfred Hitchcock, or that Stanley Kubrick’s career was entirely served by having Eyes Wide Shut as his swan song, or that Sam Peckinpah’s career ended well with The Osterman Weekend. On the other hand, some director’s die while working and leave behind a final film so stunningly perfect as their final statement that it seems hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t planned by some benevolent supreme being. Had the legendary Bruno Mattei’s life and career ended on any note other than Zombies: The Beginning, then truly this would have been a cruel and uncaring universe. But end with Zombies: The Beginning it did, and so Mattei departed this mortal coil via a film that is the perfect summation of everything he ever contributed to the world of cinema.
Mattei is one of those figures in cult cinema whose contributions are so vast and baffling that it’s difficult to express his importance. With a handful of other directors from Europe and Hong Kong, Mattei is one of the building blocks that inspired me to start Teleport City back in the creaking, cobweb-covered year of 199…whatever. Let’s go with the scifi anime-friendly 199x. Anyway, Mattei was the director of one of the classic pillars of trash film, Hell of the Living Dead, and one of the greatest Rambo cash-ins, Strike Commando. And who but Mattei would make Rats: Night of Terror, about bikers in a post-apocalyptic hell battling giant mutant rodents? Towering above all others, though, is the brain-frying masterpiece that might be the most impressive accomplishment in film history: Zombi 3, co-directed by Mattei, Claudio Fragasso, and an ailing Lucio Fulci.
Unfortunately, as Pony Boy taught us, nothing gold can stay. By 1996, the once glorious and mighty Italian exploitation film industry collapsed, and aging emperors like Bruno Mattei faded into the night. But then someone invented cheap digital video, and suddenly, Mattei was back in the game!
Not everything was as it has been. For starters, the infrastructure of Italian exploitation filmmaking remained decimated, and so to ply his trade in the style we expect from him, Mattei had to seek financing and production facilities in a country more favorable to supporting cheap trash cinema. He found such a place in The Philippines, the very place in which he had made Zombi 3. If there was any question regarding the switch to digital video or Mattei’s age, he answered them quickly by making movies that were just as shoddy, nonsensical, and entertaining as the delightful rubbish he’d been making in the 1980s. His comeback started with Killing Striptease, then continued with a sleazy slasher film (Snuff Trap) and a duet of scummy cannibal movies (Land of Death and Mondo Cannibal). Starting in 2005, he made a trio of softcore sex films that, sadly, seem to be currently unreleased. All three starred the woman who would become Mattei’s new muse (or partner in crime), Yvette Yzon, whose boundless enthusiasm and willingness to do what was asked of her is inversely proportional to her talent as an actress. She endured the indignities typical of a star in a sleazy women in prison film in The Jail: The Women’s Hell. And then she took the lead in Mattei’s two final epic films that returned him to the fertile ground where his name became legend: the zombie film.
This was the end for Mattei, and he must have known his time among the living was limited. A brain tumor had caused a precipitous decline in his health, and yet he forged ahead, giving the world first Island of the Living Dead and then its sequel, Zombies: The Beginning. Island of the Living Dead is a work of art very deserving of its own review, but for our time here, I have chosen to skip ahead to his death bed statement. Zombies: The Beginning is a film so incredible, so perfect, and so entertainingly terrible that I actually get a little teary-eyed thinking about it. It picks up immediately after the end of Island of the Living Dead, with Yvette Yzon the sole survivor of a hapless group of people who stumbled onto a mysterious island populated by zombies. She is found floating at sea and returned home, at which time Zombies: The Beginning becomes Aliens. And I mean, it really becomes Aliens. Italian trash cinema has a long and storied history of cashing in on popular, big budget movies, but usually that means stealing some elements here and there, a few plot points, and then launching off into something similar but still marginally original. Zombies: The Beginning though is practically a scene-for-scene remake of Aliens, complete with the same dialogue and a woman doing the most awesome Bill Paxton impression ever. The only differences between the two films are the budgets and the substitution of zombies in place of aliens. Oh, and Bruno Mattei drops the “Ripley discovers her maternal side” subplot, which is fine with me.
It’s obvious as we set the stage that even though the actors are all speaking English, they’ve still been dubbed, presumably to make the performances even worse. Almost every line is delivered with the sneering, screaming desperation of a high school thespian imitating Richard Burton. After surviving the horrors of the zombie island in the first film and testifying before a hostile corporate board, Dr. Sharon Dimao (Yzon) retires to the solitary life of a monastery, hoping that spirituality will help her banish the nightmares. When a rep from the corporation shows up and explains that they’ve lost contact with a medical team investigating the island, Sharon is enlisted as a consultant to accompany a team of gung-ho mercenaries investigating the disappearance.
The mercenaries are the standard issue soldiers in an Italian zombie movie. We are told they are the best and toughest in the business, and then they proceed to perform with all the military precision of those lovable screwballs from Stripes. Although this is a sequel to Island of the Living Dead, it also works as a companion piece to Mattei’s rightly celebrated Hell of the Living Dead. I would pay good money to have a movie where the Klaus Kinski looking tutu-dancing soldier of Hell of the Living Dead teams up with this films fake Bill Paxton. Needless to say, the troops are soon overrun by the zombies, and it’s up to Sharon to face down her demons and save the day.
There isn’t a single thing about this movie that isn’t awesome. This isn’t so much a throwback to 80s Italian cinema as it’s like Bruno Mattei never left the ’80s in the first place. The stilted dialogue, the plagiarism, the person doing an impression of Bill Paxton where it is assumed that Bill Paxton wasn’t manic enough, the fake James Horner music, and of course, the waves upon waves of zombies rampaging through a plot that apes James Cameron’s movie almost perfectly, until the end when we trade in an alien queen for a giant brain and a room full of slow-motion child-zombies with Killers from Space ping-pong ball eyes. Yvette Yzon is so committed, so earnest, so incredibly bad.
Often times, directors who try to make a comeback in their twilight years produce films that are a pale imitation of their past glories. Don’t they, Dario Argento? Not so, Bruno Mattei, who is in exceptional, authentic form. Not surprisingly, this isn’t the first time he has ripped off Aliens. After all, no exploitation director worth his salt was going to get through the 1980s without doing his part to steal from that movie. Mattei, as was his way, went that extra mile though and in a single film — Shocking Dark — ripped off both Aliens and The Terminator, giving time-pressed film fans a chance to watch two James Cameron movies in a single go. I guess having had one practice swing already allowed him to go back to the Aliens well a second time and come out with a real home run, provided you accept that aliens and home runs are stored in wells.
A little bit of the credit for this wonder of a film also has to go to producer Giovanni Paolucci, Mattei’s collaborator and “creative soulmate” since they first worked together on…oh, what do you know? Shocking Dark. From that moment on, Paolucci acted with a freakish obsession, dedicated his entire career to almost nothing but producing Bruno Mattei films. Although, he also produced Dario Argento’s shocking terrible Dracula 3D. Yzon’s career after Mattei’s death seem to have wilted, but in keeping with his dark master’s tastes, Paolucci not only brought her back into action for his latest film — he also married her. So together, the two of them will continue to honor Mattei by steadfastly refusing to admit the 1980s over by making a trashy ‘Namsploitation flick called My Lai Four.
If you cut your teeth on exploitation films during the 1980s, this is going to be like returning home after a long journey in the wilderness. This movie may be a cheap rip-off, but no one gives it anything but their full energy and dedication. The special effects are as over-the-top as everything else in the film. The zombies are beautiful studies in toothy, slime-covered ghoulishness, and every time someone gets shot or bitten, a gallon of blood spurts from the wounds. There are some overly expository scenes that would drag if the acting wasn’t bad enough to carry you through. Luckily, it is, and between awkward words and hissing deliveries, even the most mundane of scenes is rendered a thing of beauty. On top of that, despite the fact that digital video makes everything look even cheaper than it already is most of the time, Mattei has lensed a surprisingly nice-looking film.
Shortly after completing Zombies: The Beginning, Mattei went in for surgery to remove a tumor. It was a risky procedure but his only option. Post-operation, Mattei was in a coma and eventually passed away. Cult film fans mourned his passing, but we also celebrated that his final days were spent doing what we loved him for: making terrible but highly entertaining zombie movies. It makes perfect sense that this sequel is subtitled The Beginning despite not being a prequel or explaining how the zombies came to be (which was pretty well explained in the first film anyway). At the end of his life, Mattei returned to the beginning.