I’m not going to be dredging up, here, all the facts in the case of Bruno Mattei… how the already astonishing cinematic career of “Vincent Dawn” continued to prosper as the Italian film industry collapsed all around him (perhaps precisely because many his pictures already resembled home movies) and flowered during his twilight years into an improbable final splatter stand, reviving the cannibal and zombie genres on which his contemporaries had long given up on account of disappearing audiences, dried up investment or, indeed, death. I’m not going to be dredging them up here, chiefly because I’ll be doing that in a major Mattei retrospective coming up (assuming Brycie’s assent) in a future issue of Dark Side.
For the moment you’ll have to be satisfied with this look at Bruno’s swan song, completed (if you’ll be generous and stretch a point) in 2007, the year of his death… and what a highly satisfying picture it is, for any trash movie addict worth their salt. Rendered (like everything he’d directed in the previous five years) on high-end video, Zombies The Beginning is the companion piece to Island Of The Living Dead, in close proximity to which (if not simultaneously with) it was shot. Discerning the exact relationship between the narrative of the two pictures, however, could give you a nasty headache. So don’t try too hard.
If Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) initiated the zucchini zombie gold-rush by pitching itself as an unsolicited cheeky prequel to George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978) then Island Of The Living Dead (which was, incidentally, the working title of Fulci’s celebrated effort) attempts to go one better (aeons after the event!) by tracing Dr Menard’s unfortunate Caribbean incident back to a little known episode in 18th Century colonial history, during which conquistadores discovered to their cost that when vampire pirates encounter plague victims, the inevitable result is an island full of flesh-eating zombies… yep, that’ll do it. Having been shipwrecked on that very island three Centuries later, feisty treasure hunter Sharon (Yvette Yzon) discovered the living dead to be very much alive… er, undead and kicking, still hungering for human flesh. Despite being rescued from the open sea by helicopter, she is revealed in that film’s closing shots as a zombie / vampire / pirate / plague victim / fuck-knows-what.
The opening of Zombies The Beginning reveals, in turn, that this downbeat ending was all a dream. Sharon is fully alive and well, bristling with determination to go back to that island, stomp some zombie butt and, by so doing, lay to rest the ongoing nightmares by which she is haunted. While the hackneyed “dream” device has become enough of a cliché for us to swallow it, however resentfully, it’s difficult to see how the events of this film can follow on from those in IOTLD and still be construed as any sort of “beginning.”
Blame for this dereliction of logic (and believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet!) cannot be laid exclusively at the door of Mattei, and certainly not that of his long-term writing / directing collaborator Claudio Fragasso (who had taken a powder on Mattei productions by this point)… much of the blame (or indeed praise) for the lunacy that is about to unfold must be apportioned to new script writer Antonio Tentori, who had single-handedly proven with Fulci’s Nightmare Concert (1990) that the auteur behind The Beyond, Don’t Torture A Duckling, et al (who’d survived his 1987 collaboration with Mattei, Zombi 3, with his reputation more or less intact by the simple expedient of bailing on the production) could be reduced to Zombie Creeping Flesh-type cut-and-paste travesties when gifted the (in)correct collaborators. Tentori’s participation in the dire Argento Dracula (2012) represents a stark ill omen to those hoping against hope for a revival in the artistic fortunes of the divine Dario. An amiable enough bloke, Tentori gets to defend his, er, artistic vision in the short featurette Zombies Genysis (in which he claims the “credit” for persuading Fulci to play himself in Nightmare Concert.) The other extra you get here is a trailer.
Emboldened by Tentori’s participation (not that he was exactly pushing against a locked door), Mattei throws just about everything bar the kitchen sink into what passes for ZTB’s plot. So Sharon, whom we left recovering from her fever dream, is now plunged into a new one as she accompanies a crack team of grunts to zombie island in her official capacity as “biological consultant”, though nothing in the previous film even hinted at her alleged expertise in this area. In the interim she’s also become a dab hand with an Uzi (was this part of the Buddhist training alluded to at the start of the picture?) … Renaissance woman, or what?
She doesn’t need a cutlass, garlic or holy water because the vampire pirates are conspicuous by their unexplained absence, this time out. Instead we get those grunts, whose motion sensors regularly tell them that they’re surrounded in all directions by unseen zombies, whose eventual appearance obliges them to shoot their way out… and if they can’t escape they clench hands in grenade suicide… the mission commander is sinister “Barker” (Paul Holmes) from the shady Tyrell… sorry, Tyler Corporation… who seems more concerned with preserving the real estate and taking “samples” back home than with the welfare of his team (he’s not a secret cyborg but that’s the only thing you could probably say in his favour)… sounds familiar? “All the references to James Cameron’s film were intended” admits Tentori in the bonus interview (no shit, Sherlock!) and so as to leave you in no doubt, he regurgitates choice dialogue from Aliens (1986), verbatim (must save time when you’re penning a screenplay, right?)
The over familar narrative actually takes an unexpected turn for the interesting as Sharon’s exploration of the out-of-control facility continues, revealing all manner of hellish procedures whereby unfortunate woman are being farmed for zombie babies… shades of Tony Randel’s Hellbound (1988) in some of these scenes, though the xenomorphs-gone-apeshit stuff is also five years in advance of similar material from Ridley Scott’s mega-budgeted Prometheus (a film which I sometimes seem to be the only person on the planet who will own up to liking.)
It becomes clear (well, as clear as anything is ever made in this insane film) that the main aim of the Tyler Corporation’s sinister secret program was to churn out (Christ knows why!) sawn-off junior cone-headed deadfucks… and my God, what a treat for the eyes of trash flick aficionados they turn out to be!
In terms of military applications, they look about as useful as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking contest. Mattei does give them a little dance routine but uncharacteristically misses a trick by failing to dub the Oompa Loompa song from Willy Wonka over their repulsive terpsichorean efforts. If he could afford to pay for submarine footage from Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide, 1995 (well, I assume he paid) he could surely have stretched his budget to meet to meet that expense? Never mind, I’m sure readers will be perfectly able to synch up this audio-visual extravaganza at home and if they do it will enhance their enjoyment of Zombies The Beginning no end.
Sharon ultimately discovers that the Corporation is itself a front and that the whole grisly xenomorphic show is actually being run by a disembodied alien brain in a bell jar… I’ll wager three quatloos that this random plot development was inspired by Tentori’s love for the Star Trek episode Gamesters Of Triskelion (and possibly even Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination.) Braniac rallies the oompa loompas and urges Sharon to “join the master race” but her facial response is so disdainful that it apparently causes the bell jar and its contents to spontaneously explode… and that’s the bell end of the alien zombie meister.
As the facility burns down, our heroine scarpers with the remaining zombies hot on her heels. There’s a submarine waiting for her in the harbour, but it’s on out takes from Crimson Tide… how is Mattei going to match up these conflicting bits of footage convincingly? Anyone who’s ever gawped, slack-jawed at his Zombie Creeping Flesh (1981) will be only too well aware of his ability to conflate nature documentaries, bits of old mondo movies and threadbare am-dram read-throughs into seamless sequences (well… sequences, anyway) but here he does something that I believe is UNPRECEDENTED IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF MOTION PICTURES!!!
He cuts to footage of himself, trying to cut the footage together.
And that’s how the picture ends.
I’ll just leave you to ponder that for a moment (it’s worth remembering, while you do, that at the time Mattei was suffering from the brain tumour which was shortly to claim his life)…
Now, many people whose opinions I respect are (unlike me) big fans of David Lynch. They seem particularly chuffed with the moment in his unwatchable Mulholland Drive (2001) where Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, having embarked upon a torrid, minge-munching affair, discover that they’re actually microbes on a tuna sandwich discarded in a dumpster somewhere (or something like that… sorry, I kept falling asleep.) If Mulholland Drive is truly (as attested in many polls) the greatest movie of our times then, with apologies to my Lynch-loving friends, we must be living in pretty desperate times… and anyway, Bruno “despised hack” Mattei effortlessly outflanks his more feted fellow director’s Post Modern credentials with that astonishing “editor ex machina” appearance at the conclusion of Zombies The Beginning, a development that doesn’t so much shatter the fourth wall as dismantle it, brick by brick, then cram them up the gob-smacked viewer’s arse! Sideways!
Having recently OD’d on late-period Mattei (thanks to a clutch of excellent DVD releases on the mighty Severin label) I’m beginning to suspect… to fear, actually… that Bruno is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. And that is really fucking scary.