Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980)
"When the creeping dead devour the living flesh!"
After a chemical leak at the Hope Centre in Papua New Guinea (an organisation devoted to feeding underdeveloped countries) turns its staff into flesh-eating zombies, a four-man commando squad led by Mike London are sent to investigate. They run into a TV news crew led by celebrity reporter Lea, who are after the same story, but what they discover is that the area is overrun with zombies and the virus is quickly spreading.
Known in various countries as anything from Virus to Hell of the Living Dead to Zombie Creeping Flesh (which is the guise under which I’m reviewing this), it makes no difference what title is slapped on the credits, there’s one thing that will never change: this is a terribly-made zombie film from the master of the exploitation hack job, Bruno Mattei. Coming in the midst of the Italian zombie and cannibal horror boom of the late 70s and 1980s, Zombie Creeping Flesh is like a ‘best of’ selection box, featuring all of the hallmarks of both exploitation sub-genres and even ripping music and clothing from Dawn of the Dead. There was never any shame to the lengths that Mattei would go to. And as terrible as the whole thing is, there's just something so gloriously entertaining about Zombie Creeping Flesh that it's like watching a car crash in slow motion. I initially hated it upon first viewing but has since become one of my guilty pleasures.
I’ll give credit to the overall plot idea – that the rich nations of the world have developed a toxin which turns the population of the Third World into cannibals, letting them eat each other so that we can pilfer their resources. There's something slightly perverse and dystopian about it but, in the hands of Mattei and script writer Claudio Fragasso, the overall idea was never going to matter in any great conviction. The narrative is a mess, flitting between locations seemingly based upon what and where Mattei could get his hands on to shoot. He also feels the need to add even more randomness into proceedings by splicing in all manner of nonsensical stock footage of animals and the rain forest. Getting bored of a scene between actors? Mattei goes ahead and slaps in some random footage of an owl in mid-flight. Or maybe a monkey flying through the trees might be more suited to your tastes. The stock footage inserts don’t even come during natural transitions – they’re just inserted into the film whenever the editor has either got bored, forgotten to edit properly or made a massive cock-up and had to put something in as a filler. Words alone can’t really describe how bad and disjointed this footage is but it pads the running time out which is precisely what it was intended to do.
Zombie Creeping Flesh has a script which continues to baffle the mind the further the film progresses. Despite knowing and being constantly reminded by their crazy comrade that the only way to kill the zombies is to shoot them in the head, the bulk of the soldiers continue to fire away without a care in the world, frustrated at their attempts to stop the hordes from getting closer. The zombies move slowly and I mean slowly. Mostly it’s meant to be for dramatic effect, as hapless victims stand petrified to the spot and allow the zombies to get closer to them, arms outstretched and moaning horribly. But it has the tendency to slow down action scenes to a crawl. It’s an agonising wait for the zombies to catch up to their ‘meals’ and some characters see it as an opportunity to prance around them and taunt them. Not a good move amidst a swarm of flesh-eaters. Some of the zombies have a habit of remaining perfectly still and allowing the humans to walk up on them from behind to see if they (what they believe to be a normal human) is ok – cue the quick turn face the camera to reveal the zombie ready and eager to bite!
For no apparent reason, the survivors run into a cannibal tribe in the middle of the rain forest. Well I say for no apparent reason but knowing Bruno Mattei, the reason is perfectly clear – it’s to pad out the running time with a load of copious stock footage of an actual tribe from Papua New Guinea. The footage of the burial ceremony was real and has been lifted from a documentary – kind of a tasteless thing to do by sticking it right in the middle of a tacky exploitation film where the recently deceased are turned into flesh-eating zombies. It’s no wonder there’s so little dialogue during the ten to fifteen minutes of screen time that this portion of the film receives. It’s such a distracting sidestep from the zombie carnage that preceded it that you wonder whether the survivors really have a clue what is going on, let alone the audience. It also gives Mattei the opportunity to get his lead actress, Margie Newton, to strip down and give the film it's requisite tick in the sleazy nudity column.
Mattei has also copiously ‘borrowed’ the soundtrack from other films scored by Goblin. I say ‘borrowed’ because apparently the producers allowed him access to the music but it still reeks of cheapness. There are cues from Dawn of the Dead and Contamination in there. Whilst the soundtracks are a little jarring because they don’t really correspond to what is happening on screen, the fact that they’re kick ass soundtracks in their own right means at least they’re getting appreciated once more. And at least there’s one thing you can expect from a Mattei film and that’s copious amounts of gore. The bulk of the film features the usual neck biting and arm chewing zombie action that you’d expect. It’s in the finale where the money shot lies: an awesome tongue-ripping, fist-smashing, eye-popping sequence in which one character suffers a horrific fate at the hands of an off-screen assailant. It’s a great set piece which comes about thirty seconds before the credits roll.
And therein lies the problem but also the perfection with Zombie Creeping Flesh. It exploits better films, even down to minute details like costumes, sticks them all into a blender and lets the results shamelessly and disgustingly ooze out. It's almost paradoxical to explain - in ripping off so many others films, Mattei creates something so singularly original and inexplainable that it just needs to be watched. Everyone in the film gets handed a horrible death and the next gruesome act is only a few minutes away, keeping the film entertaining.
Zombie Creeping Flesh is one of the tackiest zombie films ever to come out of Italy, a derivative, badly-made mess which stops and starts as much as one of its walking dead stars. A truly bad movie on every level, there is ridiculously good enjoyment to be had out of identifying how many other films Zombie Creeping Flesh rips off in some way. It should not work at all but it bizarrely does.
Zombie Creeping Flesh
Also Known As: Hell of the Living Dead; Virus
Director(s): Bruno Mattei
Writer(s): Claudio Fragasso (story & screenplay), José María Cunillés (story & screenplay)
Actor(s): Margie Newton, Franco Garofalo, Selan Karay, José Gras, Gabriel Renom, Lluís Fonoll, Pietro Fumelli
Duration: 99 mins