1891: en route to an island prison, the French transport the Cayenne is sunk, leaving one member of the crew, ship's doctor Claude de Ross (Claudio Casinelli), with six of the convicts on a lifeboat.
After seven days and nights drifting in the ocean a current catches the liferaft and smashes it to pieces just off an island. In the chaos one of the prisoners is killed by a mysterious creature, assumed by the others to be an giant octopus.
Of those who make it ashore one dies as a result of drinking from a poisoned pool, a third after going off alone and being attacked by another one of the creatures, now seen to be some sort of fish-men, while a fourth falls into a spike-filled pit that almost also does for de Ross.
Continuing on their way de Ross and the two surviving convicts – the superstitious, frightened José and the bullying, antagonistic Peter – find a cemetery with empty graves and signs of voodoo rituals:
“There are zombies here”
“Stop it José, you're talking nonsense. Zombies don't exist. They have never existed.”
The living dead don't appear, which is probably just as well given the range of dangers the island has already presents and those soon to emerge as the real story gets underway after de Ross is saved from a poisonous snake by the timely intervention of the beautiful Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach).
Contrary to appearance, not a zombie hand
Keeping her distance, she advises the men leave the island immediately. It is the property of one Edmund Rackham (Richard Johnson), who does not take kindly to intruders.
This is easier said than done, however, with the men having little choice but to continue on their way regardless, eventually happening upon Rackham's plantation style house. He proves surprisingly welcome given Amanda's warnings, inviting De Ross to join him at their table while accommodating the two convicts in an outbuilding.
After Amanda leaves, Peter follows after her with rape on his mind, only to be himself attacked and slain by one of creatures.
One of the fishmen
The next morning José decides he has had enough and flees. Rackham says to let him go, but de Ross goes off in pursuit. He doesn't find José but is knocked unconscious by one of the creatures and only saved from certain death due to Amanda's intervention. Awakening back at Rackham's estate, he finds her denying all knowledge and saying he must have been suffering from hallucinations – an interpretation Rackham also seems keen to foster, but which doesn't accord with de Ross's physical wounds.
Just what is going on? Let's just say it doesn't really get much clearer, though with a mad scientist and his experiments (think The Island of Dr Moreau in reverse); the lost continent of Atlantis; a fortune in treasure; a volcanic eruption, and all manner of pulp villainy and derring do still to come, there's is plenty more to keep you entertained.
Johnson's Rackham is a great villain, sadistic, superior, sneering and seemingly relishing every moment of it. Maybe not appearing on stage for Royal Shakespeare Company as Iago or Richard III but somehow comparable in its own little way...
Cassinelli again impresses as a thinking man's action hero, equally adept at using brain as brawn. The one noteworthy exception is when he destroys the mad scientist's greatest / most questionable achievement, where instinctual revulsion takes over and ironically makes him into just about as much of a criminal as those he was once transporting. (“In one moment you've destroyed the results of a lifetime's work. That was the only specimen with full human intelligence!”)
Bach is primarily there as eye candy and love interest and proves adequate to both tasks. At the level of prurient interest the absence of nude scenes, as distinct from wet, diaphanous dress ones, may however disappoint the male members of the audience – especially compared to Mountain of the Cannibal God, where Ursula Andress again displayed her charms.
Note the way in which Martino and Geleng co-ordinate the primary colours of the test tubes to provide a nice little visual touch; it's the kind of thing which shows they care and which helps elevate the film that little bit
Sergio Martino's direction is assured, helping, along with Eugenio Alabaso's crisp editing and Massimo Antonello Geleng's designs (including the fishmen, made with Rocchetti Carboni make-up) to overcome most of the obvious budgetary limitations. There are also some nice underwater sequences, along with a bit of model work and some stock volcano footage.
The dynamics of Rackham's black servants (including Beryl Cunningham as a Haitian voodoo priestess, Shakira) and the fishmen strongly resemble those of the cannibals and zombies in Zombie Holocaust, with 'primitive' practices in both cases having been encouraged by the white colonial master intent on exploitation. (Rackham's boat is ironically titled The Enterprise.)
Zombie, of course, presents a neat through line connecting them thanks to the presence of Johnson there and its sets in Zombie Holocaust. The key words, in line with the origins of the fishmen themselves, are perhaps mutation and hybridity, the thinking presumably that of refusing to stay confined and defined by one filone when three provide a wider palette of ideas and images to draw from.
The film also features some curiously forward thinking / anachronistic remarks for 1891 about the neo-malthusian threat of population outstripping food supply, a theme also seen in the contemporaraneous Hell of the Living Dead with decidedly more apocalytic consequences.
The future of mankind?
The soundtrack further suggests zombie or cannibal connections, with plenty of percussive jungle / voodoo drum type cues reminiscent at times of Nico Fidenco's work.
Mention must finally be made of the film's complicated distribution history in the US: Initially receiving a limited released in a dubbed version, the film was later bought by United Pictures Organisation who, together with Roger Corman's New World, recut it and added in new scenes featuring Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell. This version, released as Something Waits in the Dark, wasn't a success, however, prompting the Screamers retitling and a more exploitative advertising campaign promising that viewers would actually “see a man turned inside out”.
Though they didn't, in truth there was already more than enough for it not to matter. If exploitation cinema is about selling the sizzle and not the steak, as David Friedman puts it, Island of the Fishmen was already a steak, with side dish of onions.