[review by JA Kerswell]
When is a zombie movie really a slasher movie? When it only has one zombie (putting in a two minute cameo) and a smelly, machete-wielding killer dressed as a cross between a shrub and Big Bird from Sesame Street. That's when. ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE was filmed under the title THE LAST PICNIC in 1983 which makes no sense either (there's no picnic in the film!). Still, zombies or lack of are just the start of the problems for this Troma pick up. Not quite bad enough to be often laugh-out-loud funny and not good enough to be, er, good, the film is still entertaining enough for undemanding aficionados of bad early 80s horror movies. Plus, it plays like a middle-aged slasher variant on the FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) template for most of its running time. Even down to Harry Manfredini shamelessly recycling his score from that franchise for the umpteenth time. However, the real-life stories of some of the people involved are almost certainly more interesting than the film itself including a near death experience; tangential connections to Errol Flynn and infamous African dictator Idi Amin; the lead actress who fled the production because she thought a voodoo curse had been put on her and an infamous ex-congressman's wife whose nudity scandalised America and who eventually became an Italian princess. More on those later
A group of American tourists holidaying at a Caribbean resort have booked an excursion to the nearby island of St Marie to witness a voodoo ritual first hand. As with many horror films of the time using exotic locales as a backdrop for their mayhem, the makers get as much bang for their buck with almost endless travelogue type shots of calypso bands and locals enjoying festivities. The boggle-eyed tourists watch all this from their bus as they inch towards the port in seemingly real-time; bringing to mind the similarly doomed holidaymakers in EYEBALL (1975).
When they finally reach St Marie, they are shepherded to the advertised voodoo ritual and witness a man seemingly brought back from the dead with freshly spilled goat's blood. We are thankfully spared any real animal killing (but the goat sadly is visibly in distress). The zombie is then subsequently dispatched with a machete. Something to write home on a postcard about! All this is too much for a honeymooning couple, who retire to a nearby clearing for some a spot of lovemaking. This is cut short when the man is bashed over the head with a log and we later see the bride strung up bloodily from a tree. At this point the film firmly pins its colours to the slasher mast with POV shots aplenty and a heavy-breathing killer lurking behind the bushes (although strangely it sounds like snoring rather than heavy-breathing). Perhaps a sound replicated in drive-ins and multiplexes across North America at the time.
The rest of the tourists don't seem too bothered by the zombie killing. They head back to the bus to find, to their horror, that the driver is gone and there is blood everywhere. Even worse, the bus has been sabotaged and won't start. Soon afterwards their tour guide goes looking for help, but doesn't return. They decide to hotfoot it to a large house they passed some miles back (actually Errol Flynn's old home on Jamaica near Ocho Rios on the island's North coast). But before they can make it the killer picks them off one-by-one. The race is on to get to safety before the killer gets them all. However, nothing is really as it seems ...
ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE is a bit of a mess, but it has its charms. It reminded me of the truly insane JAWS rip-off UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979) although it isn't blessed with the wonderfully bad post dubbing (after the original soundtrack for that film was lost). It also had me wondering for one hot, delirious minute if it hadn't influenced Adam Green's HATCHET (2006)? The cinematography is surprisingly good, too. And, as it wasn't made by Troma (they just distributed it for its 1984/85 theatrical release and on home video), it doesn't have the forced zaniness of many of their home-grown productions. However, its stubborn refusal to stick to one genre may irritate some viewers. Certainly, anybody plonking down their $5 expecting to see a zombie gut-muncher in the style of Romero or Fulci will be sorely disappointed (as countless IMDB reviews will attest). Troma's decision to retitle the film to highlight the barely there zombie aspect was certainly a commercial one and showed, once again, the diminishing appeal of the slasher movie (at least on the big screen) by 1984. However, whilst the majority of the film owes a large debt to the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise (not least of all Manfredini's recycled soundtrack) it takes a last minute detour into something more akin of a TV show of the time such as THE A TEAM or MANIMAL. The film actually more resembles a variation on the THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) in many ways.
ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE positions itself as a bodycount movie, with its large cast being bumped off one-by-one. However, only occasionally does it try to match the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise in its over-the-top gore. Most notably a rather low rent recreation of the infamous Pamela Voorhees decapitation which adds the novel touch of the severed head having enough muscle strength to right itself when it rolls to a stop on the grass (!). Some of the other death scenes are fumbled badly such as the couple that are pulled into a fast flowing river by someone grabbing them off a bridge (presumably the killer had been waiting under water in case they passed by). Only one body is seen and the other cast member simply vanishes. The film stumbles into the realms of sheer ridiculousness at times (how much of it was intentional is very much up to debate). One character finds a gun in a bush within five seconds of searching the house. Another says the only reason none of the other bus passengers saw the house they passed because they didn't possess her fine painter's eye. Said house has a well-stocked library composing books in many languages all on the subject of cannibalism. But it is the revelation about why all this is happening that really takes the biscuit!
Of course, one of the sole reasons the film got any publicity at all was because of the prominent role of Rita Jenrette whose life story is really begging for an adaptation all of its own. Jenrette sprung to infamy in the early 1980s when the news story that she and her then husband Representative John Jenrette (who was later convicted of bribery) had sex on the Capital steps. Despite seeming practically benign compared to today's political stories it catapulted her into the headlines and it was this infamy she used to launch her career. Her finding $25,000 of her husband's bribe money even inspired her Country and Western song 'It Gives Me the Low Down Blues Ever Since You Found Money Stashed in My Shoe' in an ill-fated stab at pop stardom. Although, in this she struggled and found it difficult to escape from the shadows of the scandal. Indeed, People Magazine described her as being: ... perhaps best known for her performance on the steps of the Capitol. As perhaps a forerunner of the modern celebrity who is famous just for being infamous she tried to capitalise on that infamy by first posing nude in Playboy in 1981 where she also described hot tub parties and working on a scheme with infamous African dictator Idi Amin to free American hostages (!). She also appeared topless in ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE most notably in an early shower scene where she is surprised by someone wearing a voodoo mask (who turns out to be her fat-assed boyfriend playing a prank on her). As Sandy, her character (as reported in press interviews in 1984) was meant to be a New York fashion designer who is about to marry for the fourth time who is taking a honeymoon before the latest wedding to make sure she isn't making another mistake (all this back story was presumably lost in the edit).
A press report in April 1983 shows her sitting next to actress Karen Lynne Gorney at a party to celebrate the start of filming of THE LAST PICNIC. Given that Gorney who had a role in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) is not in the movie suggests a troubled production. Indeed, the photo caption said that filming had begun in August of 1982. However, there were clearly delays as it was filmed (or completed) over five weeks in Jamaica from January to March of 1983 without Gorney. The truth is stranger than fiction. Gorney left the project after becoming convinced a voodoo curse had been put on her! Director John Carter elaborated in 1985: The day before we were to begin principal photography, our leading lady (Karen Gorney) got ill psychologically. She was throwing furniture around, saying the voodoos were chasing her and evil spirits were trying to hurt her. She was replaced at the last minute by Diane Clayre Holub.
To her credit, Jenrette was pretty sanguine about her appearance in the film, but by 1984 said she was putting nudity behind her (although did say she might do it for artistic reasons if she got a role in a Shakespeare adaptation (!)). Indeed, she told the press that she regretted the shower scene nudity: I would no longer do the scene it's a perfunctory shower scene. No, I wouldn't do it, and I'm not proud of it either. However, she said that she was in good company with the likes of Debra Winger and Angie Dickinson. She did admit, with a chuckle, that she wouldn't win an Academy Award for her performance not even for the monologue she delivered about her fiance being ... taken away by those voodoo people. In truth, she is most believable when being breezy, but her inexperience shines through with anything more dramatic. But who could make the best of lines such as: Are these murderers, these monsters, are they cannibals? Although the notes sent to press said Jenrette was ... in the tradition of Mae West and Marilyn Monroe a soft spoken, totally feminine actress whose acting is spontaneous and genuine. Press reports at the time reported that the director complemented on her acting by looking genuinely scared after almost falling off a cliff (which would have also been spontaneous!) despite there not being any scenes resembling this in the finished movie.
Jenrette added that ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE was: ... in the horror genre and definitely campy. She added that it was a thriller and was: ... scary, with some pretty good special effects. She told interviewers in 1984 that she had seen the finished film but had no plans to watch it again. However, when asked if she regretted making it she said: Well, that's a hard one. This is my first film and I learned a lot from it and it's gonna make a lot of a money. She also said it had been well received at the Cannes Film Festival. She continued: Zombie Island Massacre is simply a low budget, B-movie you just can't critique it. She added that she learned she wasn't a 'prima donna' unlike some of the other actors on the film. I was astounded. These total unknowns were demanding star treatment. I don't put on airs; I've always been an observer. So I watched the hierarchy of filmmaking. Somewhat awkwardly, Jenrette used the publicity for the cinema release of ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE to declare she had refound Christ: God is my agent now, she told journalists. Sadly, God turned out to be a bit of a lousy agent and no major roles were forthcoming for her. However, this wasn't the end of Rita Jenrette. She worked in a homeless hostel for a while, before reinventing herself as a Fox TV journalist interviewing other celebrities. Then she launched a successful career in real estate in NYC. She went on to become a princess - Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi to be exact! After being told by a psychic that she would marry a European and live in Europe she eventually went on to marry an Italian prince in 2009 who died leaving her to battle his sons over a historic villa initially valued at $471 million (that features the only ceiling fresco by Caravaggio). Back in 1985, she told Insight on the News magazine: I feel like at the age of 35, I have lived perhaps 10 lives in one lifetime. I've lived many, many lives.
The origins of ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE are a little murky to say the least. The original story idea is a co-credit for former stuntman David Broadnax (who also appears in the film as an FBI agent moonlighting as a tourist as well as producing the movie). The press notes suggest he will be the next Sylvester Stallone (!). It was directed by John Carter (here as John N. Carter) in his sole directorial effort. However, Carter was an accomplished editor and was hired by CBS in 1956, going on to become the first African-American editor for network television in New York. In March 1985, he told the Asbury Press of being offered the chance to direct ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE: They asked me and I accepted of course, and thanks to God I had the opportunity to work on this film, even though it is not what I would call an ambitious movie. It's a thriller and yet it's not really to be taken seriously. He showed his resolve after the film got off to a rocky start when his leading lady left the production after a mental breakdown fuelled by a fear of voodoo. Of working with Jenrette he said: To be honest, I believe the production hired her because of her box office appeal. But Rita gave a very nice performance and she was very intelligent and quick. I believe she will get better and better as she goes along. Of being informed that audiences had been laughing at the film, he charitably said: I think the fact that the people can respond in any way is good. A critic may not feel that it's the appropriate reaction, but that kind of thing doesn't bother me. Special effects were by Steve Kirshoff who worked on the first two FRIDAY THE 13TH movies. It was produced by the shadowy Picnic Productions before being picked up for distribution and retitled by Troma in 1984.
The mysteries continue around the cast. Many of whom were seemingly one-and-done performers unless they were performing under pseudonyms (and who could blame them?). Kristina Marie Wetzel (as Barbie) had previously appeared in the teen sex comedy THE FIRST TURN ON (1983) which was co-directed by Lloyd Kaufman (and a film Madonna reportedly auditioned for). She went onto a brief career in musical theatre before making headlines in 1993 as the co-pilot of a tourist helicopter that made a dramatic emergency landing in Central Park, NYC, after they had engine trouble. Handsome Tom Cantrell (as Steve) was for a time a model specialising in Marlboro Man type campaigns for tobacco companies. He went on to work on a number of big productions in the electrical departments. Diane Clayre Holub (as Connie) had a few stage credits before appearing in the film but seemingly vanished from the public eye afterwards. Ralph Monaco (as Jerry) had a long career with bit parts in notable exploitation movies such as Joe Zito's BLOOD RAGE (1980) and THE EXTERMINATOR (also 1980).
Perhaps predictably, ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE didn't get rave reviews. Playboy Magazine praised Jenrette's performance, but gave it a one bunny review calling it ho-hum beyond her charms. Lou Lumenick in The Record called it an amateurish mishmash and said The special effects gore isn't good enough to please splatter-movie fans, let alone frighten anyone over the age of 4. Bill O'Connor in the Beacon Journal accused the makers of sifting through recent hit movies and making a hodge-podge. He said, It's a dreadful thing. Really awful. The kind of movie you have fun hooting at. Richard Freedman of the Newhouse News Service also poked fun at the movie: ... filmed in a Jamaica so dark it could just as well have been a subway station at 3 A.M. Thankfully, the new Blu-ray restoration by Vinegar Syndrome shows that the film is actually nicely shot.
Troma released the film to North American screens in late 1984 on a regional roll out and it debuted in NYC on 75 screens in March 1985. Unsurprisingly, they milked Jenrette's appearance for everything it was worth teasing: RITA JENRETTE, as you've never seen her before! a tour of terror! The promotional notes suggested that ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) fans would enjoy it. Presumably only because Troma hoped that ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE would become a midnight cult hit, too. Troma released the film on a double-bill with SPLATTER UNIVERSITY (another pick up). And it was actually that film's actress Denise Texeira who prominently appears on the poster for ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE (even though she doesn't appear in it). For the video release Troma superimposed a Jenrette look-a-like head on Texeira's body for the promotional artwork. Troma even lured patrons with a promise of a free record composed by Harry Manfedini featuring the vocals of Rita Jenrette on the A side backed with the NJRS version both singing 'Di Reggae Picnic'. Although I'm not sure that was a great incentive.
Overall, ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE is not what it advertises on the tin, but if you have a pretty high tolerance for pretty low tier early 80s slashers you'll find enough here to have fun with and share a crate of Red Stripe beer with friends.
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female: 5 / male: 10
2) Female killed (method unseen)
3) Female killed (method unseen)
4) Male drowned
5) Female drowned
6) Male garrotted
7) Female found with throat cut
8) Female impaled on spikes
9) Male impaled on spikes
10) Male decapitated with machete
11) Male speared
12) Male shot
13) Male shotgunned
14) Male shotgunned
15) Female gets a flying machete to the head