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)
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.
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.