‘Hell of the Living Dead’ transcends nonsense

Horror has a history of reveling in disaster. Where other genres lock away their failures, horror holds a special place for its own. A lot of this is thanks to the flood of Italian horror that hit American theaters in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and thank god it did. “Hell of the Living Dead” is just one among hundreds of these disasterpieces.

Is there a plot in “Hell”? Not really. What little plot there is, is mostly incoherent. A power plant in Papua New Guinea melts down and releases a deadly gas into the atmosphere. This gas overtakes the country and brings the dead back to life. Caught in the middle of this disaster is saucy journalist Lia Rousseau (Margit Evelyn Newton, “Il piacere di piacere”), her cameraman Pierre (Gabriel Renom, “El disputado voto del senor Cayo”) and a weirdly incompetent elite military unit of four.

What follows is a patchwork horror show of epic proportions. So little of the movie makes sense that nonsense becomes a theme. Through all the useless slow motion shots of monkeys in trees and diving seabirds a strange unity emerges. At one point, all the chaos just clicks and the viewer comes to understand the rhythm of it.

Here, it’s not weird that cameramen wear lab coats, that the commander of a special ops force swings his rifle like a bat, or that characters travel dozens of miles in mere seconds. Space and time don’t exist in this movie’s world. When it’s time for the characters to get out of the jungle and into a suburban mansion, why bother showing the viewer that they walked? Just plant them there.

The painfully obvious overdubbing, typical for the time, just adds to the surrealism of it all. Choice exchanges like, “Just be careful you don’t get your balls wasted,” “Since when’d you start caring about our balls, daddy?” and apt wisdom like, “Buildings have people in them. Let’s investigate,” pepper the whole movie. These examples are as natural-sounding as the dialogue gets. Most of the things people say in this flick just don’t sound human at all.

Even stranger, the movie is just a lot of fun. That’s not to say it isn’t deeply flawed and problematic in every possible way — it’s just exciting to see how badly director Vincent Dawn butchers scene after scene after scene. It’s a lot like watching a train wreck: Once you know the crash is coming, it’s hard to look away.
That morbid curiosity is enough to compel viewers through 100 minutes of “Hell of the Living Dead.” Don’t be fooled — the movie is objectively bad, but it’s so slapdash that it transcends its own nonsense. It gets right to the core of what makes a horror disasterpiece: Nothing has to make sense, so long as blood flows and heads explode. And there’s plenty of that here.