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When people speak about ‘the bottom of the barrel,’ they’re usually referring to barrel with a potential ‘top’ to it. But, when I refer to trashy Italian exploitation movies, it’s easy for detractors to claim that the entire barrel is a bottom, leaving only a nebulous, empty space at the top for select Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and maybe Lucio Fulci movies. I understand that it’s difficult for non-fans to parse the fine lines between various movies where zombies, cannibals, and mad killers make mincemeat of nubile young ladies, but I hope they know that even the most ravenous enthusiasts among us have some standards. These standards designate the unadulterated and artless junk movies of director Bruno Mattei’s as the ground floor of the Italian exploitation barrel. The vast majority of Mattei’s career was made up of films that were ripping off other films – even the Italian releases that were already aping their Hollywood counterparts. During his tenure as Mr. Bottom of the Barrel, he dipped his toes in every one of the popular genre wells, including Nazisploitation ( SS Girls and SS Experiment Love Camp), Nunsploitation ( The True Story of the Nun of Monza and The Other Hell), Women in Prison/WIP ( Violence in a Women's Prison and Women’s Prison Massacre), spaghetti western ( White Apache and Scalps, both of which arrived a decade after the genre had run its course), and even hardcore porn (in an assistant director capacity) and made the worst of a number of Jaws, Terminator, Predator, and Rambo: First Blood Part II carbon copies ( Cruel Jaws, Shocking Dark, Robowar, and Strike Commander parts 1 and 2, respectively). He was infamous for shooting more than one film at a time on the same set or reusing sets and footage from other movies. And yet, there are a handful of Mattei’s films that are so genuine in their disregard for intellectual property that you can’t help but admire them.

Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

Hell of the Living Dead

(aka: Virus, Night of the Zombies on US VHS, and Zombie Creeping Flesh in the UK, 1980):
An accident at a chemical plant unleashes a horrific virus and an elite SWAT team is sent to New Guinea to investigate. But, when they arrive on the hellish island, they discover a plague of flesh-eating zombies as well as a beautiful female reporter who practices nude anthropology. Can the commandos survive this cannibal rampage, uncover a shocking government secret, and still find time for the occasional cross-dressing before the ravenous hordes of the living dead infect the entire world? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

Hell of the Living Dead was released during that brief period when Italian cannibal films were handing off the popularity baton to an equally gory, but less controversial wave of zombie movies inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (titled Zombi in Italy, 1978). Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombi 2, 1979) was released within months of Romero’s film and was, by many accounts, even more popular at the Italian box office. As a result, most of the spaghetti flesh-eater movies ended up following Fulci’s lead. Apparently, Mattei and his producers decided not to chance a fickle public’s affections and ended up doing impressions of both Dawn of the Dead (including musical selections lifted directly from Goblin’s soundtrack, which initially and rightfully caused legal problems between the band and the producers) and Zombie. Then, because there was still a little gas left in the Mondo and cannibal genres, Mattei and a small army of screenwriters – José María Cunillés, Rossella Drudi, and Claudio Fragasso (future director of Troll 2, who worked as director on additional photography, without credit) – opted to include some jungle and tribal antics for good measure. This mix & match approach was also the basis of Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (aka: Dr. Butcher M.D., 1979), my personal favourite ‘best/worst’ movie. Re-watching both films, I’m forced to admit that Mattei’s work appears more cinematic (at least in parts), but Girolami’s opus is brimming with the momentum and consistent entertainment value vital to a movie of this kind.

Hell of the Living Dead begins with surprisingly evocative scenes of the virus’ initial release from an industrial chemical company. The pseudo-unique sheen is quickly smeared by the introduction of our first major characters – a group of SWAT officers – in a flat, badly edited carbon copy of a more respected sequence from Dawn of the Dead. The mimicry grows funny again when Mattei and his writers concoct a reason to drag their commandos to Papua New Guinea, where they meet up with a journalist and her friends (Italian horror movies were obsessed with journalists at the time). Then, the unlikely ensemble unites to investigate rumours of flesh-eating cannibal attacks. However, because Mattei didn’t have the budget to shoot outside of Europe, he was forced to mix footage shot on Barcelona-based sets with stock clips from Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée (a French film that takes place in New Guinea, 1972), Akria Ide’s Nuova Guinea, L'isola dei Cannibali (a late, Japanese-made entry in the Mondo cycle, 1974), and Jean-Pol Ferbus/Dominique Garny/Thierry Zéno’s Des Morts (a surprisingly acclaimed documentary about death, 1979). The cuts between set and stock footage are laughably rough – made extra funny by the utter lack of correlation between the images and the fact that the poor editor, Claudio Borroni, seems to have been working from 8mm, 10th generation dupe of all three films. The inadvertent comedy wears thin by the end of the first hour, but amusing asides help usher us through to the somewhat remarkable climax, such as a bit where our intrepid journalist strips and covers herself in body paint to greet a native tribe that looks nothing like their stock footage counterparts.

All Italian cannibal movies are inherently racist (including Zombie Holocaust). This racist streak is particularly farcical when genre filmmakers attempt to expressing anti-racist sentiments, usually via self-righteous diatribes spoken by the predominately white lead characters (‘I wonder who the real cannibals are?’). Mattei’s film is no exception, but does get special acknowledgement for its genuinely creative statement on racism and class warfare. You see, it turns out that the zombie plague was cooked up by an evil corporation that thought it could contain Third World populations by making them literally eat themselves into oblivion. That’s some pretty high-level, socially conscious sci-fi conceptualization for a movie intent on cashing in on the gore craze – not to mention one of the more imaginative causes of a zombie outbreak I’ve ever heard – but it’s still merely the punchline that follows 90 really, really, really racist minutes of scary black zombies chasing around our lily white heroes (lily white heroes who aren’t particularly concerned with helping the non-zombie black people who are also under attack). The socio-political statement is interesting, but the cognitive dissonance is fascinating!

Hell of the Living Dead’s gore effects, courtesy of Giuseppe Ferranti ( Nightmare City, Cannibal Ferox) and Fragasso (again), aren’t as convincing or innovative as Giannetto De Rossi’s work on Zombie, but they make up for their lack of polish with conceptual inventiveness. Highlights include plenty of eviscerated corpses surrounded by gut-munching living dead, loads of exploding zombie heads, torn throats, chewed fingers, a cat that struggles its way out of an old woman’s stomach, and our heroine’s show-stopping death, where a zombie pulls out her tongue, then presses her eyes out of her skull through her mouth.

Hell of the Living Dead has been a mainstay in William Lustig and company’s repertoire since the days before Blue Underground and first appeared on an anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay. That same transfer was then included on a double-feature disc with Rats: Night of Terror, a double feature with Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City, and another stand-alone DVD under the Blue Underground banner. Instead of sourcing this new 1080p, 1.85:1 image from the old transfer (they likely had an uncompressed file sitting in a drawer somewhere), Blue Underground has re-mastered the film (and Rats) ‘from the original uncut and uncensored negatives.’ The results are a solid upgrade over the DVD (which was notably fuzzy and rife with compression noise), but without making any drastic changes to the colour-timing. The basic colour temperature is still consistently cool (a bit cooler than the DVD), making a nice neutral palette to splatter bright red blood against. Forest greens and warm skin tones are unnatural, due to the overwhelming blueness of some scenes, but these are more or less the same hues I’m used to seeing on BU’s DVD and the old Creature Features Entertainment VHS (it also seems to match the German and Italian DVDs, based on screencaps). Details are markedly tighter, especially the more complex background textures (no edge haloes), and the overall print is cleaner, free of the SD versions minor print damage issues (except for those crummy looking stock images from other movies – those still look expectedly terrible). Contrast and gamma levels have been cranked a shade beyond the old disc, leading to some blow-out on the whitest highlights.

However, Blue Underground may have taken this cleanliness a bit too far. As some fans may remember, the studio had trouble with bad scans from Italy in the past. These transfers were rife with CRT machine noise, which was counteracted with digital noise reduction software and the results were clean, but clumpy and generally weird looking. This two-movie collection marks the first two of four new Italian movie releases (the other two will be Compañeros and StageFright, I believe) and I found myself getting really nitpicky with the material. So, with my nit-pickers switched on, I do think that someone has gotten carried away with DNR application. Grain levels seem a little too smooth and some of the blends appear a bit ‘bandy.’ That said, Mattei and cinematographer John Cabrera aimed for a smoky and diffused look throughout the film (especially interiors and those blue-heavy night shots) that softens many of the edges. The CRT effects appear to be popping up in the form of stationary noise over these foggier sequences, which is definitely preferable to the incessant shake seen on those earlier Blu-rays. Bottom line: it’s a massive improvement over the problematic DVDs and I’ll be more than happy if Compañeros and StageFright look this good.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is another big improvement over the lossy DVD equivalent. This is the original English dub and, per usual, readers should be aware that these films were shot without sound, so the bad lip-sync is a ‘problem’ for every version, even the original Italian one. Alternative language tracks are nice, but I almost always prefer to watch this brand of bad movie with the extra awkward English language dialogue. The words and effects sound about as clean and consistent as they ever have, which is to say they’re still flat and unnatural, but not distorted by compression. The canned jungle sound effects have a surprising smattering of depth and are well-balanced against the dialogue and incidental effects. The soundtrack, which is lifted from Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead and Contamination (aka: Alien Contamination, 1980) soundtracks and includes a few original Goblin-esque compositions from composer Giacomo Dell’Orso, sounds very nice, including plenty of depth, warmth, and bass.

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature


Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

Rats: Night of Terror

(aka: Rats: Notte di terrore and Blood Kill, 1983)
In the year 225 A.B. (After the Bomb), a group of post-apocalyptic bikers discover an abandoned research laboratory filled with food, water... and thousands of rats. But these are no ordinary vermin; these are super-intelligent mutant rodents with a ravenous appetite for human flesh. Can a bunch of heavily armed but not-too-bright human scavengers survive a night of terror against the most hungry and horrific predators on earth? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

By 1984, zombie movies had already burned out and Italian audiences were more interested in violent action movies than violent horror movies. Key non-Italian releases that helped define the region’s middle ‘80s output included Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and George Miller’s Mad Max films. The former two films inspired a limited series of Vietnam-themed adventures, while the latter two stimulated entire franchises of super-violent post-apocalyptic thrillers. Rats: Night of Terror was Mattei’s weird attempt to cash in on the rising popularity of these dystopian romps – it was released as Riffs III - Die Ratten von Manhattanin in West Germany in an attempt to pass it off as a second sequel in Enzo G. Castellari’s popular Bronx Warriors series (technically, Castellari made his own second sequel, Warriors of the Wasteland). But, instead of shooting on vast, expansive outdoor locations, where Road Warrior-like street gangs could race and crash motor vehicles, he appropriated sets built for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and, partially inspired by James Herbert’s The Rats (source material shared with Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes, 1982), pitted his cast against an army of killer rats. Everything about the concept is wonderfully strange and enough to grant the film plenty of goodwill.

Rats doesn’t come burdened with the same behind-the-scenes kerfufflelry as Hell of the Living Dead (no one forced any major post-production changes, as far as I know) and is a more traditional best/worst movie. Instead of awkwardly mixing and matching footage to create a movie that would appeal to every popular exploitation demographic, it makes mistakes on its own terms, rendering it a more piure representation of Mattei as a filmmaker. Any artist, even a bad one, is more interesting when unhindered. Like the best good/bad movies, Rats’ ambitions vastly outweigh its budgetary constraints and its filmmakers’ abilities. The knowledge that we’re witnessing Mattei and his co-conspirators telling the best, most artistically earnest story possible adds an innocence and buoyancy to the experience that is lost in the cynicism of forced and ironic camp. This trashy purity is enjoyably universal as well and, if it wasn’t for the bad dubbing and recognizable Italian actors, Rats could be confused with a number of American-made, shoestring sci-fi thrillers. It certainly isn’t as gory as most of the region’s ‘80s output, putting it in prime contention for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment or at least a good laugh with friends that can’t stomach eye-gouging and gut-munching. The intermittent dips into boring filler are even perfect excuses to use the bathroom or get another slice of pizza.

The film’s biggest problem, besides its glacial pacing, is the rats themselves, all of which are clearly domesticated critters. In an attempt to cheaply de-cute them, Mattei’s effects artists have wrangled naturally red-eyed albino rats and painted them an ‘evil’ shade of black, which I suppose is easier than fitting black rats with tiny red contacts. These adorable little guys are more concerned with grooming the paint off of their fur than menacing our heroes. Instead of being frightened of them I find myself frightened for them as they’re thrown at actors, shoved through tubes, crushed by set pieces, and burned by flame throwers. The Twilight Zone-inspired twist ending, where the survivors are rescued by (spoiler alert) rat-men that evolved/mutated under the streets of the toxic wasteland, implies that the humans may have won the battle, but the true heroes, the rats, have already won the war.

The Blue Underground’s press releases don’t differentiate between the two films, so we can probably assume that Rats’ new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was also remastered from a 35mm source. The results are generally the same, including a sizable uptake in overall detail, clarity, and cleanliness over the anamorphic DVD transfer shared by Anchor Bay and Blue Underground over the years. Rats has the advantage, however, because the original photography is so much more colourful than Hell of the Living Dead's more flat and desaturated imagery. Mattei, Fragasso, and cinematographers Franco Delli Colli (who shot Giulio Questi’s gorgeous spaghetti western, Django Kill in 1967) and Henry Frogers infuse the limited scope of the film’s sets with some vivid lavenders, blues, and greens that add weirdo beauty to the underwhelming production values. These colours, along with warm flesh tones and poppy reds, all bounce quite nicely without bleeding into each other too much. Grain structure appears soft, but not unnatural, and tends to clump up a smidge in some of the darkest shots, which are otherwise neatly separated. Details are only limited by soft focus and the same slight sheen of digital noise seen on the Hell of the Living Dead transfer (likely a minor DNR side effect). In general, the textures are tight and edges remain sharp without haloes.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English dub is a similar upgrade over its DVD counterpart. The dialogue is plagued with the same balance issues that effect most dubbed tracks, but, aside from some crackles in the aspirated consonants, distortion is minimized. Luigi Ceccarelli’s keyboard score is pretty underrated as far as Goblin-esque synthpop goes. His infectious title track, which would be at home in an 8-bit Nintendo game, features plenty of punchy bass and his underscore (which has a church organ tone) sits nice and surprisingly deep beneath the relatively flat sound effects work.

The extras for both films include:
  • Bonded by Blood (50:20, HD) – A brand new collection of interviews with co-writer/co-director Claudio Fragasso (who you probably last saw defending himself in Michael Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie documentary) and cast members Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo (via Skype), Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, and Massimo Vanni (the latter two of which surprise Fragasso on the remnants of the Rats set). Fragasso’s part is the most interesting, because he gets particularly personal, discussing his relationship with Mattei in more intimate terms than he has in other interviews. Perhaps Mattei’s death has opened the door to more open discussion. He also claims that the escaped rats from his film and Dario Argento’s Inferno bred and created a particularly vicious breed that plagued the shared Italian set for years. The actors are all very pleasant while they recall fond and not-so-fond memories of making both movies.
  • Hell Rats of the Living Dead (8:40, SD) – This interview with Mattei was conducted as part of the older DVD double feature and remains one of the only on-camera interviews with the director (he isn’t even quoted in print all that much).
  • Trailers
  • Still galleries


 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature

 Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror Double Feature


* Note: Someone has written a dubious description of an unreleased ‘director’s cut’ of Hell of the Living Dead that was reportedly planned as a prequel to Night of the Living Dead. This same someone also claims that Blue Underground had access to this director’s cut, but didn’t include it because they couldn’t fit it on the same disc as the theatrical cut and Rats: Night of Terror. I contacted Blue Underground directly and was told that these ‘plans’ are a complete fabrication. The only connection to Night I can see here is the film’s coda, which lifts dialogue from one of Night’s in-film telecasts, implying a vague connection.

** Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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