Written by: Antonio Tentori & Giovanni Paolucci
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Starring: Yvette Yzon, Alvin Anson, Paul Holme
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
When the dead first walked, they had no time for appetizers.
During the course of his infamous career, Bruno Mattei helmed a few films—such as Zombie 3* and Cruel Jaws—that were marketed as unofficial sequels to more famous works. Outside of the Strike Commando duology, however, he was hesitant to revisit his own films. Maybe self-plagiarism was somehow beyond the pale. And even when he returned to the notion with his final two films, it appropriately didn’t make a lick of damn sense. Ostensibly, Zombies: The Beginning is a sequel to Island of the Living Dead, but just barely: it might return that film’s sole survivor (who really wasn’t a survivor seeing as how she succumbed to the undead at the end), but its events are merely a suggestive launching point for Mattei to rip off his latest easily-identifiable target.
Returning is Yvette Yzon as Dr. Sharon Dimao, who was last seen turning into a zombie after being fished out of the ocean in the previous film. Turns out she only dreams about becoming undead, and, haunted by the experience of losing her fellow crewmembers, she pleads with the shady boardroom cabal of the Tyler Corporation to return to the haunted island and eradicate its undead. When she’s rebuffed, she does the logical think and becomes a Buddhist monk, at least until a company emissary reaches out to her with news that confirms that she was right along. What’s more, the Tyler Corporation wants her to join an expedition to investigate and destroy a zombie-infested island.
Let’s see: we’ve got a traumatized woman haunted by her experiences with an unholy creature and working at the behest of a crafty corporation who has nobody’s best interests at heart. She’s surrounded by a team of badass grunts outfitted with loud weaponry and even louder personalities, and everyone skulks around dilapidated facilities shooting monsters. I’m not saying it’s Aliens, but…it’s Aliens. With zombies. In the year 2007. I’m now further convinced that Mattei was never aware that the 80s ended. As ever, this is a pretty shameless poaching, which is part of the charm, of course: when we talk about poetic license, we should reserve some time to discuss how Mattei consistently pulled this off with an impish charm. You want to bust him for plagiarism, but it’s not like he didn’t a trail of obvious citations laying around like a trail of blood-dripping breadcrumbs. He definitely knew what he was doing.
In this case, he seemed to be keenly aware of just how different Aliens is from its predecessor. Not to be outdone, it’s like he throws down a fucking gauntlet in response. You may recall that Island of the Living Dead involved a land haunted by weird ghost-zombies forever doomed to roam a decaying island fortress because of curse on their ancient gold. Nothing of the sort returns for The Beginning, which trades a mystical, organic setting for sterile, grungy laboratories and dimly lit corridors. The undead here are apparently results of genetic experimentation gone awry, and the plot is much less dense than its predecessor’s: it’s a straightforward brain-splattering, gut-munching romp up until the last ten minutes, where it treads over into some bizarre territory involving some of the more disturbing experiments. It’s more Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection than it is Aliens, which is something nobody ever wants to hear unless Mattei is involved.
Anyone hoping to see his take on Ripley’s showdown with the xenomorph queen may be left disappointed, but Mattei delivers otherwise. Like always, most of his budget is concentrated on the symphony of gore effects, where flesh-eating carnage, jugular sprays, and headshots are grace notes. Some of the sequences are noteworthy, particularly one where a zombie child emerges from an undead womb only to be incinerated. There’s a mean streak here that’s reflected in the film’s ragged camerawork and frenetic editing; where Island of the Living Dead is oddly elegant for Mattei, The Beginning is roughshod and delirious. As it burrows deeper into its own brand of madness, it meets with increasingly inhuman creatures, including more childlike zombies and a talking brain stem, on its way to the feverish climax. What The Beginning lacks in the gothic-tinged atmosphere of its predecessor, it makes up for with the feeling that it’s just all wild, synaptic firing.
Maybe that makes sense. At the time, Mattei had been diagnosed with the brain tumor that eventually claimed his life, and you have to wonder if The Beginning isn’t some subconscious effort at shoring fragments against his ruin. All of the typical shards wash up: the ludicrous dubbing, the obvious cribbing of stock footage, and a complete disregard for logic or taste. The Beginning is a thoroughly inexplicable production, from its blatant ignorance of its predecessor to a curious bit where the score borrows Bill Goldberg’s entrance music (a moment where it felt like Mattei had crossed the streams in my brain). One could not expect Mattei to go out on any other note: this is both the peak of his prowess and its nadir all at once, an appropriate purgatory for a career that transcended the binary notion of quality. Every Mattei film is somehow the best and worst thing you’ve ever seen. It’s incredible.
As they have done in with Mattei’s late-career work in recent months, Intervision has preserved Zombies: The Beginning on DVD with a nice edition. The digital video quality feels a little inkier here than it does in Island of the Living Dead, but it’s an otherwise strong transfer (save for the bit where the stock footage throws the anamorphic aspect ratio awry). Along with the film’s trailer, a 17-minute conversation with screenwriter Antonio Tentori provides the disc’s supplements. In the featurette, Tentori discusses his history with both Mattei and Lucio Fulci before specifically reminiscing on The Beginning. During the course of his discussion, he also touches on his screenplay for A Cat in the Brain, and attributes its success to Fulci’s performance in the film, noting that “no one but Lucio Fulci could have played Lucio Fulci.” Maybe this is true, but that sure didn’t stop Bruno Mattei from trying—and mostly succeeding.
The closing credits here bid him farewell with “ciao, Bruno,” but it might be more appropriate to say “ciao, Maestro.” Buy it!
*Zombie 3 of course being a "sequel" to the film that popularized this trend in the first place. It seems like everything Mattei ever did was at least a second generation copycat.
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