We open to the strains of Goblin's driving prog rock, playing over images of a chemical plant. Something is wrong at the euphemistically titled “Hope Project” in New Guinea.
Just how much becomes evident as two technicians discover a dead rat in what is supposed to be a sterile area, before the creature reanimates, climbs inside one of the men's protective suits and bites him to death.
The reanimating agent and the zombies that result sweep through the facilty with alarming celerity until no-one is left alive.
Zombie technicians / technocrats and natives
Professor Barrett does, however, manage to put out a final message, indicating that “Operation Sweet Death” must be considered a failure and pleading “may God forgive us and pardon us for this evil that we have created.”
The next sequence presents a stand-off between a “terrorist” group, who have taken the US consulate hostage, and the authorities, who are preparing to send in an elite four man SWAT team, comprising Lieutenant Mike London and his men, Osborne, Vincent and Santoro to deal with the situation.
The SWAT team
They do so, without particularly worrying about whom they are killing nor the terrorist's demand that the Hope Centres be shut down and dying delivery that they are all doomed, their attentions being more focused on New Guinea vacation they are given as a reward.
The team soon have cause to doubt their masters, find themselves deposited in the middle of nowhere without radio contact: “You can always count on the government for a perfect example of organisation,” as London says. (Coincidentally the SWAT team then proceed by “dead reckoning,” the same name as is given to the battle-bus in Land of the Dead.)
Meanwhile investigative journalist Lia Rousseau – a reference to the enlightenment philosopher and through Romanticism and Emile the notion of the noble savage? – her cameraman Max, and the family with whom they are travelling – the child having been bitten and succuming rapidly to zombification – encounter some of the flesh eaters in an otherwise deserted settlement.
The zombie child; is it just me or are zombie children and elderly under-represented within the genre?
The SWAT team arrive in time to save the filmmakers, although this poses them with a dilemma. For the nature of their secret mission, any notion of a vacation forgotten in what could either be taken as careless writing or anothercomment on official duplicity, is such that they cannot allow any witnesses to live.
Fortunately for Lisa and Max, who are here to investigate the rumours around the Hope Centre, the ever growing number of zombies provide a bigger threat to everyone for the time being...
The greatest difficulty in writing about Hell of the Living Dead is that no description can really be adequate to it, as the kind of special film which really needs to be experienced for oneself.
Directed by Bruno Mattei under his Vincent Dawn alias – the surname of course further cuing us in to the film's main inspiration, Dawn of the Dead – and written by his long-term partner in crime Claudio Fragasso, the film is nothing if not entertaining, albeit with the likelihood that you will be laughing more than anything else.
Combining the zombie and mondo filone, the film's highlights include masses of poorly integrated stock footage of animals not native to New Guinea, like elephants and jerboa, much derived from Barbet Schroeder's documentary The Valley Beyond the Clouds; characters who quickly establish that the only way to stop the zombies is by shooting them in the head Romero-style but nevertheless persistently fail to pursue this approach; a spot of dubious anthropology as Lia strips down to her thong and paints herself in order to befriend a native tribe; and a near-deserted lecture theatre seeing service as a United Nations debating chamber.
The debating chamber
At the same time, however, there's a certain idiot-savant quality to the last of these, suggesting as it does that the first world really does not care about the third except for when it is understood as a problem for the west, in line with film's discourse around population control and the way in which first world's attempts to deal with this via the ironically named Hope centres becomes an issue only at the point when it it threatens to go out of control and cause a fatal PR disaster.
The message seems to be that having the population of New Guinea or other third world country consume themselves is fine, but having the same happen in the US, whose population, per head, consume far more than their equitable share, is not.
In this regard, one also wonders if the film's recycling of ideas, music and footage from other productions could in itself be taken as a gesture in the direction of an ecologically friendly approach to filmmaking or as a comment on the inherently cannibalistic nature of Italian filone production itself. Probably not, in all honesty, but intriguing possibilities nonetheless.
The whole media aspect is also surprisingly well handled, conveying confusion, disbelief, the suppression of information and the dubious self-interest of the reporter in a manner that actually predates the recent Diary of the Dead at times, even as elsewhere – a talking head scientist indicating how a cadaver with all four limbs removed still reanimated – the film's sullo stesso filone Dawn of the Dead origins are again being highlighted.
Given that it was borrowed from other films – Romero's, Beyond the Darkness and Contamination – Goblin's music is actually rather well used, rarely feeling out of place and highlighting Mattei's long experience as an editor.
Yes, this is a man in a top hat and tutu doing a dance routine as zombies close in
The performances are over the top but impossible to assess beyond this on account of the dubbing. It doesn't really matter though, inasmuch as the two combine to impart a live cartoon or comic book like feel, with this impression further enhanced by the frequent what-the moments, the best of which is perhaps one character's donning a top hat and tutu and doing a singing in the rain routine – without regard for the small detail of being in a house surrounded by zombies at the time.
Two acceptable faces of exploitation cinema
And a less acceptable one – how would the filmmaker or viewer feel if this were their child?
Gore fans will not be disappointed by Hell of the Living Dead, though there is a clear split between the harmless comic book zombie splatter material, which culminates in one victim having their tongue torn out and the zombie them forcing their eyeballs out from the inside, and the more exploitative and distasteful footage of native practices, apparently derived from Akira Ide's 1974 mondo movie Nuova Guinea: Isola Dei Cannibali.