Sunday, March 3, 2013

Virus (Hell of the Living Dead) (1980)

Virus (Hell of the Living Dead) (1980) is Bruno Mattei's contribution to zombie cinema, following the commercial success of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Zombi 2 (1979).  In the documentary, Hell Rats of the Living Dead (2002), included as a supplement on the Blue Underground DVD release of Hell of the Living Dead, Mattei intimates that Romero's seminal classic was his inspiration but that his take on the story would not be taken as seriously.  (1) Mattei's longtime creative partner and co-screenwriter Claudio Fragasso confirms that the screenplay for Virus changed much during shooting and reveals that, "The first draft was excellent and original, but it got mutilated because it would have been too expensive to make.  I'd conceived the idea of an entire Third World made up of an army of zombies against whom the armed forces of the industrialized nations would have had to fight.  In the end, sadly enough, although it was an excellent piece of work, the film turned out to be little more than an insipid imitation of Dawn of the Dead."  (2)

In its final incarnation, Virus is, at its heart, an episodic road movie, with strong episodes that make the film memorable and worth revisiting coupled with weak episodes that are detracting, boring, and overlong.  Its simple frame narrative involves a power plant in a Third World nation that suffers a contamination leak.  This contamination leak infects the population turning them into flesh-eating zombies.  A squad of four is dispatched (by the powers that be) to quell the menace, with Franco Garofalo's Zantoro character standing out.  Towards their mission destination, the four encounter a pair of foreign reporters, one of whom is comely Margit Evelyn Newton, who are in country studying the native culture and the subsequent outbreak virus currently infecting the people.  They reluctantly team up for the adventure.

The weakest episode of Virus begins promising.  Newton reveals to the group that she studied the locals for about a year and knows their customs very well.  She volunteers to scout the happenings at the local village to see if their group is welcome for some needed rest and relaxation.  Newton strips and covers herself in body paint.  At first blush, I thought this was an opportunity to see lovely Ms. Newton in her birthday suit, but unfortunately, as the sequence unfolds, Mattei utilizes the sequence to exploit one of his best commercial tools:  stock documentary footage.  "That movie [Virus]," explains Mattei, "was made in Spain and as there aren't any jungles there (laughs), we bought footage from a Japanese documentary."  (3)  The use of the documentary footage is almost Ed Wood-ian in its power, as it appears Mattei and company may have built the entire production of Virus around this footage.  The documentary footage is composed mostly of cultural rites, and most of the footage has a vintage, "Mondo Cane" feel to them.  A judicious use of this footage would have been welcome, but the sequence is beyond overlong.  One will easily nod off in between the cuts of Newton as observer and the various cultural rites unfolding in exacting detail.
The most famous sequence of Virus, perhaps, involves Franco Garofalo (a frequent collaborator with Mattei, see for example, La vera storia della monaca di Monza (1980) and L'altro inferno (1981)).  A group of zombies are seen by the group, shuffling down a hill and blocking the navigable path.  For whatever reason, the entirety of the group freezes and becomes oblivious as to what to do next.  Garofalo as Zantoro becomes ridiculously animated and begins to bait the group of zombies with nonsensical dialogue to entice the group to actually eat him.  As the group of zombies encroach upon Zantoro and get ready to feast, he reveals his baiting is a ploy and begins shooting the heads of the zombies at point-blank range.  For the first-time viewer of Virus, take note when Zantoro starts losing his shit and acting crazy, as the film is about to take a giant leap into quality entertainment.
The best sequence of Virus is a classic one of zombie cinema.  The group, closer to their destination yet have grown increasingly weary, find a dilapidated house and enter to take shelter.  The group splits up to search the house, and one of the soldiers finds a closet full of costumes.  The soldier mockingly puts on a ballerina’s tutu and a top hat and begins to dance around the house, alone.  No shit.  While he is playing alone, the soldier fails to note the rather sizable group of corpses on the ground in the basement:  a critical and fatal error in judgment.  Of note also in this sequence is a kitty cat found feeding with her previous owner (a scene which defies written description).  In between this beautiful nonsense, Mattei makes effective use of the classic setup:  the zombies begin a siege upon the house and the survival horror kicks in.
The final act of Virus is strong; and if Mattei had taken a serious approach to the subject matter, then I believe the final act is representative as to how it would have looked.  The group arrives at their mission destination.  The camerawork is strong as there is an overwhelming sense of dread over the location.  Mattei effectively uses the quiet atmosphere of isolation to heighten the subsequent (and inevitable) siege of horror by the zombies.  The use of Goblin’s score, here, also deserves mention.  By the way, does it sound familiar?  Mattei states that the production had no problem using Goblin’s score(s), “because we paid for the rights.  We have utilized music not only from Dawn of the Dead, but also Buio Omega/Buried Alive and the Luigi Cozzi film, Alien Contamination.”  (4)

I quite enjoy Virus but not as much as other Mattei cinema.  There is quite a bit of brilliancy within yet there is also a lot of boring bits as well.  For any student of the maestro, Bruno Mattei, however, Virus is essential viewing.

1.  Hell Rats of the Living Dead.  Directed by Gary Hertz.  9 minutes.  Included as supplement on DVD release of Hell of the Living Dead.  Blue Underground Entertainment.  Documentary date, 2002.  DVD date, 2007.
2.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed. Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books. Key West, Florida.  1996:  p. 55.
3.  “An Interview with Bruno Mattei.”  European Trash Cinema.  Vol. 2, No. 5.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  1992:  p. 10.
4.  Ibid.