Director and writer Dave Parker's low budget, tongue-in-cheek noughties zombie nonsense screams enthusiasm, spirit and passion, and clearly a lot of time and energy has been invested into capturing early eighties Italian esoteric absurdity and mashing it with the high energy pop-influenced horror comedy that proceeded the decades after. And in many ways it works; one moment dark, strange and uncomfortable, only to seconds later shake off all pretence, and entertain with a more literal, whimsical and contemporary look and feel. It's a unique experience, exclaims Tom Savini on the cover, and I can't argue. The thing is, and looking at it as a complete work, this schizophrenic approach has also led to a film that’s undeniably a bit rubbish. Putting aside the poor pacing; a slow start is a given flaw in amateur horror, and the forgettable and generally uninteresting characters, the biggest problem with The Dead Hate the Living! is the disjointed and utterly unconvincing story. At no point does it ever appear Parker knew where he was going with a tale that seems to be built on random and confounding directorial and narrative decisions. Though maybe that's the point and the continental je ne sais quoi I was alluding too; and there's no doubting the feature is quite the experience…
No doubt Parker thought turning the tables on young and naive teens playing at making their own zombie opus such that they themselves become the stars of the show was clever and original. And it is, with the springing of the joke as dramatic, bloody and entertaining as one could hope. It's the bits leading up and the bits after that’s the problem with Parker seemingly struggling to really know what to do other than play it cliché, corny and hope the narrative itself would telegram the next obvious steps.
The first mistake first time b-movie film maker David Poe (Eric Clawson) makes after discovering the hidden, dark and nefarious lab complete with intimidating coffin was to persuade the rest of the vulnerable and remarkably gullible crew to see it as a good thing to incorporate the corpse of Dr Eibon (Matt Stephens) in their feature, arguing who wouldn't want to watch a Night of the Living Dead film with real dead in. The second, was put his body back into the strangely inscribed sarcophagus. The third, and definitely the one with most post-regret resonance would be plugging it back in and getting your leading man to place the nearby medallion back into its central socket all the while shouting about opening the gates of hell. I'm always torn when narrative is so staged, as to whether I feel it's all brilliantly cheesy, or dreadfully insulting; and the truth is probably both. I know a laughable unforced mistake is at the heart of the zombie trope, but this is perhaps going too far, as at no point watching was I ever thinking, heck screaming, anything other than what the f are you doing?
With the zombies out the chamber, so to speak, it's part slasher, part cat and mouse, part traditional low budget zombie, but plenty of the same baffling survival tactics from the survivors, and nonsensical world domination from the now fully locked and loaded zombie master. So there's some back story explaining his wanton desire to see all the living dead because his wife died of cancer and his desperate search to find an answer so he could break the veil. What doesn't quite complete the narrative though is why he'd shove her now successfully animated zombie shell on a slab in the morgue with all the other stiffs to be killed so easily by the now desperate rag tag survivors. Again, I don't think overthinking it would be good for me. What we need to know is he's an undead lord, turning the key didn't just resurrect his beardy arse but threw the whole hospital in to some space time limbo, and a pivot between the real world, and the world of the dead (think The Beyond and Army of Darkness), and he has quite the motley assortment of mutant zombies ready to help him with his scheme.
Later, with Parker seemingly running out of ideas these towering, monstrosities Barker Hell-raiser inspired zombie-demons are joined from nowhere by a plethora of Romero clones who act and behave according to all accepted traditional tropes, except they're easily fooled by men with the right bit of make-up; which is handy as that's all David and make-up artist Paul (Brett Beardslee) have at their disposal. Refreshingly they both look and act the part, and I can have no quibbles for what was obviously a small budget. Gore and effects are always in your face too, but though it has its moments, it could never be a film that could be considered dark; the light and trite dialogue make sure of that.
What we have again is a baffling little zombie movie that somehow kind of works because one is able to transcend critical analysis to actually find enjoyment in, and despite, obvious mediocrity. The plot, a baffling, incongruous mess is more than often entertaining, the characters, bar Paul and perhaps Topaz (Jamie Donahue) are dry and hard to get behind; yet as vehicles to react to the zombie threat there's merit to their laboured and uninspired presentation. Matt Stephens is undoubtedly the star of the show and his camp and excessive b-movie performance warrants acclaim despite appearing somewhat ham-strung again with writing and directorial decisions that don't seem to want to ever push him beyond what you'd expect. So, an odd zombie film that demonstrates an awful lot of potential yet seems happy to squander much of it by being a little too scared to really stick to the dark recesses itself suggests; instead becoming a half-way safer and more whimsical house, that satisfies neither position. Still, there is fun to be had with some genuinely nice touches, and as Savani said, it's certainly unique - 4/10.