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Plot: vloggers travel to mysterious island and uncover terrible secret.

Now that the zombie wave following in the wake of The Walking Dead (2010-2022) is finally cresting some interesting outliers have been revealed. Whereas South Korea’s #Alive (2020) went for the introspective approach iZla channels the spirits of old grandmasters Cirio H. Santiago, Gerardo de Leon, Eddie Romero, and Bobby A. Suarez. At 85 minutes it thankfully is mercifully to-the-point and surprisingly clever when it wants to be (which doesn’t happen all that much, sadly). iZla lives (and dies) by its adherence to the exploitation maxim of the three capital Bs: babes, boobs, and blood. And it delivers just what it promises. iZla makes no qualms about what it is. A puerile and low effort romp that’s the closest to Raw Force (1982) as we’re likely going to get in this day and age. Barry Gonzalez must be aware of his country’s rich history in exploitation. Savaged by critics and detested by audiences alike iZla is unadulterated Filipino pulp horror at its best.

iZla opened domestically on 22 October 2021 and premiered internationally on Netflix about a month later. The cleverest thing about it is probably its title. Director Barry Gonzalez seems to specialize in swooning romances and comedies (or some permutation thereof) on both the big and the small screen. iZla appears to be his first foray into horror although here he retains the comedy that’s his comfort zone. Perhaps he had better focused on the romance because the humour here is painfully unfunny. Granted, iZla does work as a horror when (and if) it stops mucking about. Which doesn’t happen near as much as it probably should. Whether you find iZla funny is contingent upon your tolerance for crass and easy boob - and fart jokes. iZla never gets its head out of the female cast’s cleavage long enough to ridicule the inherent absurdities of cheap zombie horror plot contrivances and the tired conventions that come with it. iZla has plenty of story to fumble but not nearly enough to sustain what amounts to an +80-minute skit.

The year is 1942, World War II. The Japanese occupation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines has claimed several of its islands. One of these unnamed and unspecified islands armed forces mysteriously disappear into the blackness of the night by unseen assailants. Guarding the island are Japanese ninjas specialized in guerrilla warfare that the government simply dubs Ninja On Call or Ninja-Call. In the bowels below scientists have developed a serum rendering them impervious to injury and death. The locals soon believe the island to be cursed and the story of Forbidden Island becomes an integral part of native folklore. Decades pass and the legend of Forbidden Island lives on. Badong (Paolo Contis) and Entoy (Archie Alemania) are two orphaned slacker resort workers getting by on tips from odd jobs here and there. Not even the crippling debt they inherited from their absentee parents looming dangerously above them is enough to spring the unambitious and non-upwardly mobile duo into action. The two desperately need something to get out of the rut and the financial hole they’re in.

In Manila Veronica (Isabelle Daza), Valerie (Beauty Gonzalez, as Beauty Gonzales) and Venus (Elisse Joson), or the popular vloggers collectively known as the V-Sisters, are brainstorming ideas for their latest YouTube prank hit video. The sisters and their team - mascot Abi (Aiko Climaco), producer Gina (Sunshine Garcia) and researcher Lani (Analyn Barro) – are about to give up when they run into Badong and Entoy in the city of Kalimliman. Mayor Anding (Niño Muhlach, as Nino Muhlach) (who just so happens to be the V-Sisters’ uncle) has ordered a travel ban to Forbidden Island (whether it’s in the environs of Savage Beach, Warrior Island, or Taboo Island is, sadly, never disclosed) stirring the girls interest in the destination. Badong and Entoy figure that they might as well make a buck from the ditzy girls and brokers a deal with Veronica. The two agree to charter a boat and double as their guides/security detail. Things take a turn for the dark when the group discovers that uncle Anding has a marijuana plantation and his own para-military force. It’s then that the zombie ninjas break loose and left and right people fall prey to the maws and jaws of the undead. Will be Badong, Entoy, Lani, and Veronica be able to ward off the hungry undead long enough to figure out an escape plan?

It took writer Ays De Guzman (as Ice De Gusman) and 5 (!!) others to come up with a halfway coherent “story concept” that’s essentially the first half of Angel Warriors (2013) combined with the second half of Raw Force (1982). Really? That’s not even counting various scenes and plot elements lifted wholesale from Hell of the Living Dead (1980), Cross Mission (1988), Zombi 3 (1988), and After Death (1989). You halfway expect Yvette Yzon to do a cameo but iZla is never smart nor self-aware enough to capitalize on its collective legacy and multiple decades of domestic cinematic traditions. Writer Ays De Guzman and Barry Gonzalez commit to some Claudio Fragasso / Bruno Mattei level hackdom here. It’s perfectly okay if you mistook this for a spoof because iZla seems to operate on that mindset. More charitable and forgiving minds might call this a semi-comedic deconstruction but that’s giving this one far more credit than it deserves. Shaun Of the Dead (2008) this most certainly is not. Nor is it Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) for that matter. The cringe-inducing dialogue is both terribly written and helps nothing with exposition. What passes for humour alternates between fart and boob jokes almost exclusively and some situational slapstick would’ve worked wonders here. Since none of that will be forthcoming we’re stuck with characters either too dimwitted or self-absorbed and ditzy to be of any interest. No amount of boobage and gratuitous fanservice can camouflage writing this half-assed and bad.

And with a cast consisting of Filipino television staples Beauty Gonzalez, Isabelle Daza, Elisse Joson, Sunshine Garcia, and Analyn Barro there’s plenty to be had. These Pinay equivalents of Stephanie Herala or Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡夢媛), and Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春) might not be the next Cristine Reyes, Fernanda Urrejola, or Anne Curtis but they acquit themselves good enough. For a movie centered almost exclusively around their shapes and forms they take it all in stride. The emperor might have no clothes but these babes staunchly remain in theirs. For something that tries very hard to be a throwback to the Golden Age of Filipino exploitation there’s an interesting duality to the way director of photography A.B. Garcia films the women. Garcia takes a near-porn level of interest in their curves but with this being a broad comedy and general audience release it shies away from any and all female nudity. Well, there’s plenty of female nudity but most of it is either implied or obscured by strategic props and such. For all the bounce and jiggle there’s precious little bang.

iZla only gains a faint pulse when it towards the end suddenly starts talking body temperature, asymptomatic carriers (of the zombie virus) and 14-day quarantines. Up to that point iZla had concerned itself superficially with mad science worthy of Blood Island (1959-1970), ninjas, and zombies and it’s absolutely the last thing for it to suddenly turn current and political. Yeah, iZla not only steals the Nazi zombie subplot from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted (2007) (completely with celluloid footage in a derelict lab with blood-splattered walls) and the ending from Hell of the Living Dead (1980) it actually has the gall to present itself as a parable or allegory of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Il faut le faire. It’s handled with all the grace, finesse, and intelligence of someone who considers a bowel movement the apex of humour. Horror movies, especially the sillier ones, often carry big themes or important messages. If there’s anything to compliment iZla on it’s the special effects work. This one is full of old school prosthetics and practical effects with an absolute minimum of digital post-production. Faint praise though that might be, there’s at least something it gets right. It might not be much but you got to take what you can with these sort of things. Here’s hoping Barry Gonzalez makes a full-blown female-centric action movie (preferably with Beauty Gonzalez, Analyn Barro or Elisse Joson) in the old Filipino tradition next.

Plot: malfunctioning elevator kills people in luxury office tower block.

It’s interesting to note that Belgium and the Netherlands never developed regional (exploitation or otherwise) cinematic industries of their own whereas their surrounding countries in continental Europe did. Belgium and the Netherlands frequently could be found co-producing with fellow countries but seldom produced genre cinema of their own. Whereas France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain and Spain were veritable forces in genre cinema Belgium and the Netherlands lagged behind as what little of a cinema industry they had relied heavily on government funding. Of the two the Netherlands had a stronger standing and more pronounced presence on the European cinematic map. As filmmaking was seen more of a cultural venture horror (and its adjacent genres) is generally shunned for all the obvious reasons. This necessitated brave producers and maverick directors to make the genre movies they wanted to see on their own. One of these entrepreneurial visionaries was a man by the name of Dick Maas. This, of course, begs the question: who exactly is Dick Maas?

Like any young writer/director Maas produced about half a dozen or so shorts in between 1975 and 1980 before finally directing his comedy debut Rigor Mortis (1981). He landed his first big break when he was offered the chance to direct the music video for ‘Twilight Zone’ from Dutch rock band Golden Earring. In between this and the filming of the Golden Earring live television special ‘Live from The Twilight Zone’ Maas directed the Matthijs van Heijningen produced De Lift (The Lift internationally). Van Heijningen specialized in respectable adaptations of classic Dutch literature and prestigious socially aware dramas. Filmed in 32 days on an estimated budget of ƒ 750.000,00 (€359,534.58 or $416,666.66 in today’s currency) this was the only horror van Heijningen ever produced. Maas’ formula was always to aim at the international market and that’s exactly what happened at Cannes in 1984 where De Lift became the first Dutch production to be picked up by Warner Brothers for North American distribution. This gave Maas the impetus and clout to make the broad comedy Flodder (1986) and the horror Amsterdamned (1988). Without Flodder (1986) there would be no Honneponnetje (1988). Maas duly remade his breakthrough hit in Hollywood as the English-language Down (2001) to little fanfare. Around these parts Maas is forever etched in our black heart with the holiday horror Sint (2010).

In the Kronenstede high-rise offices in Amstelveen four people die of suffocation in an elevator when the air condition malfunctions after a bolt of lightning hits the building. Technician Felix Adelaar (Huub Stapel) is dispatched to determine the exact cause and do the necessary repairs and maintenance where required. His superior Jongbloed (Luk van Mello) urges him to report with administrator Ravenstein (Piet Römer) and to exercise the utmost discretion as this is a most valued client. After the preliminary check-up Adelaar can find no immediate cause for the disturbance and briefs back to the company. When a blind man (Onno Molenkamp) falls to his death and a night porter (Jan Anne Drenth) ends up decapitated it attracts the attention of law enforcement. For the inspector (Siem Vroom) and detective Smit (Aat Ceelen) this is a pretty open-and-shut case as they write off both deaths as unfortunate accidents. The involvement of the police attracts the attention of Mieke de Beer (Willeke van Ammelrooy), a plucky reporter for the secular left-wing weekly Nieuwe Revu. She insinuates herself into Adelaar’s professional life and shares her findings. Before long Adelaar and de Beer are so absorbed by their investigation that Felix’ wife Saskia (Josine van Dalsum) and his in-laws (Guus Hoes and Arnica Elsendoorn) suspect he’s having an affair.

Quickly they discover that former technician Breuker (Ad Noyons) has been quietly locked away in a mental ward. According to his psychiatrist Kraayvanger (Serge-Henri Valcke) the husk of a man sank into catatonia after his accident and hasn’t uttered a word since. The two then contact a professor in computer sciences (Peer Mascini) to understand exactly what they’re dealing with. They uncover that multinational corporation Rising Sun handles the electronics and software and pay them an unscheduled visit in their nearest branch. There they are stoically rebuffed by the director of the national division Kroon (Hans Veerman). When Felix addresses his superior Jongbloed about his findings he’s reprimanded and placed on immediate leave for two weeks for conducting his own clandestine investigation. This convinces the duo that something is very wrong. Jongbloed secretly meets with Kroon to let him know someone is about to uncover their conspiracy and that he should cease his experiments immediately. Desperate for a solution Adelaar breaks into Kronenstede in hopes of finally putting an end to the elevator’s reign of terror.

For better or worse De Lift is quintessentially and uncomfortably 80s. The big hair, hideous fashion, the pink neon, and blaring synths – it’s all here. There are enough hues of red, green, and blue lighting to make you think Maas probably saw one or two Mario Bava movies in his day. The score during the restaurant scene does resemble the level music of an early Leisure Suit Larry videogame. That a silly horror movie like this tries to moonlight a cautionary tale about emergent technology is something else too. As such there’s an ungodly amount of important sounding technobabble. This is just about the last place you’d expect to hear a well-intended lecture about the inner workings of microprocessors, computer chips, A.I., and the then-latest advances in robotics, information technology and biomechatronics.

Not helping is that the entire thing is pervaded with the decade’s rampant technophobia (something which would extend into the early 90s virtual reality craze) and it attempts (however feebly) to make political commentary when it addresses corruption, the bribing of government officials, and the always fashionable corporate espionage. Huub Stapel was one of the popular leading men from around this time and Maas cast him frequently. The same goes for Willeke van Ammelrooy who, along with Monique van de Ven, Nora Tilley and Nelly Frijda, was much in-demand on both the big and the small screen. A decade before van Ammelrooy had starred in the French sex comedy Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack (1974). As near as we can tell this was the only Nederhorror feature that the late Piet Römer ever lend his considerable talent to. As the first real Maas feature there’s no Tatjana Šimić precursor and imported babes like Janet Ågren or Jillian Kessner were just too expensive. The simple (not to mention bloodless) practical effects by Leo Cahn and René and Robert Stouthamer evidenced that they were destined for international careers.

Huub Stapel, Hans Dagelet and Serge-Henri Valcke would all return for Amsterdamned (1988) five years later. In what retroactively could be called an ensemble cast there’s Monique van de Ven from De Johnsons (1992), Jules Croiset from Intensive Care (1991) and Bert Luppes who also would turn up in Sint (2010). Producer Matthijs van Heijningen had little faith in the project and as a cost-saving measure De Lift was filmed simultaneously with the drama Een zaak van leven of dood (1983). It also had a significant amount of product placement before that was a thing in Dutch cinema. Van Heijningen was convinced that his drama would do good business. As fate would have it De Lift became something of an overnight sensation and proved very lucrative at the box office in contrary to van Heijningen’s serious drama. Above and beyond anything else De Lift was the work of a visionary, a pioneer, an everyman who understood the whims of the common people better than anyone else. Perhaps it would be a bit much to call Dick Maas the Dutch Roger Corman or Jing Wong of the Lowlands. Far closer to the truth would be to call him the Netherlands’ own Pete Walker or Norman J. Warren. As horror was a genre not practiced in Belgium and the Netherlands very much or at all for the longest time De Lift was held up not only as the gold standard but as the very best Nederhorror had to offer. Not bad for an underestimated little fright flick….