ISLE OF THE DEAD
I thought this was going to be a movie about an island of zombies. Then I realized zombies wouldn’t have existed yet; George Romero was about 5 years old, learning how to talk, read, and go to the bathroom like a civilized human being. But my automatic association with the living dead as zombies is the testament to Romero’s legacy, and I’m sure that’s the case for anybody born after the 60’s (Val Lewton produced “I Walked With A Zombie” in 1943 but it probably isn’t the kind that Romero became famous for).
I tend to forget that the dead coming back to life was routine by 1945. I think it starts with Frankenstein in 1931, and The Mummy a year after that. Both films feature Boris Karloff at his most iconic and undead. In a way he was the first zombie. There’s a lot of menace in his appearance and behavior. I think why he was so enduring in horror films was because of his consistency. His line delivery and that intimidation in his eyes must have came naturally to him. From the marketing it’s also obvious that Boris was the star, even if he didn’t play such nice guys.
From the first scene he has that creepy gait in his walk that I saw in Bedlam. Doing a bit of light research I discovered he had back surgery while making this film, which could very well account for what I thought was just creepy acting. Turns out he was probably just in a lot of pain.
In this film he’s in more grounded territory, playing an army general who visits a Grecian island with a journalist (played by Jason Robards Sr) to pay respects to his deceased wife who was buried there. The island serves as a cemetery and no one is supposed to live on it. The grave site has been vandalized, and they hear singing just as they are about to leave. Maybe whoever is on the island has some answers for what happened.
Just as they set off on their quest to find the source of that eerie voice floating through the night air, the camera holds on a statue of a three-headed dog. I had no idea what it represented so I looked it up. Apparently it is Cerberus, who guards the gates of Hades to prevent anyone from escaping back across the River Styx. In this context, it’s meant as an omen for these two new adventurers since their plan to go back to mainland has already been decided by whatever forces are present on the island.
Already I am seeing some very close connections to Shutter Island, which is why I was inspired to see this in the first place. Marty Scorsese places this film in his top 11 scariest horror movies. I don’t know exactly how far down or up it is on the list, but I was genuinely disturbed by a number of scenes. Considering how much horror I’ve absorbed that struck me as impressive. Most of the scares come from the mood and atmosphere. It starts in an unsettling manner. I didn’t expect the residents of the island to be so hospitable, and by today’s standards any modern filmmaker would have ratcheted up their creepiness. The most disturbing person on the island is an old woman who believes in a monster that is rooted in Greek folklore, called a “vorvolokas”. I had to look that up, too. Essentially it is a vampire but it doesn’t drink blood. It never appears in the film but you wouldn’t know it based on how this myth begins shaping events. Karloff’s army general is convinced that’s the reason why people on the island are dying of a plague. He refuses to allow anyone to leave, including himself, because he doesn’t want to risk spreading whatever they’ve got. The problem is, nobody really knows what it is. Could the myth of the vorvo-whatever be responsible, or is he just going crazy? Once again, connections to Shutter Island emerge.
There is a mausoleum on this island that becomes a significant location for the scariest moment of the movie. One of the girls is mistakenly considered dead (this takes place in 1912 when the best method of declaring the deceased was by holding a mirror under their nose) and placed in a coffin. She rouses awake in the mausoleum and begins pounding on the wood, screaming for help. She gets out of there eventually, but not because anybody helps her. Once everyone learns she’s been buried alive, and then discovered missing from the coffin, it sets off the creepiest sequence of the film.
In Shutter Island, a mausoleum is also present on the island. I don’t know if this film explicitly inspired it in the book but I am positive that once Scorsese read it in the script, he saw the reference.
This film was inspired by a painting, just like Bedlam. I don’t know if Val Lewton was an art collector or just an enthusiast but I think it’s pretty cool he made two movies, if not more, that originated as creepy paintings.