Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Scooby Doo on Zombie Island
Today is one of the first Friday the 13ths to land during Halloween season in several years, and I'm sure some of you were expecting an exceptionally special, maybe even exceptionally scary article. However, this is possibly the busiest fall period I've probably ever had in my entire life that wasn't related to doing these articles, so you're getting a Scoobus Doobus thing instead. SPOOKY!!!!!!
It's not entirely inappropriate; this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Scooby Doo as a franchise, and I actually had it in mind to do a "cartoons" theme for this year's Halloween. We kind of kicked that off with the two anime reviews I've done, but nothing REALLY says "cartoons" quite like this damn dog. Has he been in enough shit yet? Have there been enough reboots? Have there been enough movies? Enough continuities? Does anyone remember when Cartoon Network played so many reruns of Scoobo that people joked it had become the Scooby Network? SHEESH.
ZOMBIE ISLAND though. I was fourteen when this movie came out in September of 1998, admittedly with tastes and passions closer to someone around six. That's so long ago that I don't think I even owned my first-ever computer at the time. Nobody I'd ever met had ever had a cellular phone. Pokemon wouldn't come to America until the very following week.
I had also never, ever sincerely liked anything about Scooby Doo. It was on enough that I'd seen it, sure; without the internet, we had absolutely nothing to do those days but watch whatever the hell the television decided we were stuck with at a given moment, but I can't say I ever actually enjoyed the Scooby Doo experience at the time. I didn't even have a concept of "kitsch" or "ironic" appeal back then - everything was either good or it was bad, and Scooble belonged squarely in the latter category.
A big part if this was perhaps the fact that I was so, so monster-obsessed from the very beginning, and of course virtually every Scooby series revealed time and time again that the ghost or demon or space invader was just a greedy real estate agent. The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby Doo and a few movies like Ghoul School were exceptions, but unfortunately, their corny jokes and saccharinity still landed them in my judgmental "bad" column.
So color me intrigued when, seven years after the last Scooby Doo TV series (at the time, half my lifespan!) we started seeing this surprisingly dramatic trailer practically thirty times a day. Cartoon Network was making an EVENT out of this, and "THIS TIME...THE MONSTERS ARE REAL!" was the hook they were banking on the hardest, just in time for that year's coming Halloween season.
I'm not going to say that this movie would change my life, exactly. I still don't think I can count myself a Scooby Doo fan. It was, however, the first Scooby Doo thing my discriminating tastes had ever checked off as "good," and the more time that's gone by, the more nostalgic I feel about it...so just how well does it hold up now? We're going to go through it piece by piece here, a real old-fashioned nostalgic internet movie review that isn't even a youtube video!
The movie begins with a flashback to a typical Scooby Doo adventure and the unmasking of another fake monster, which turns out to be a story recounted years later by Daphne Blake for a daytime TV interview. We're informed at this point that she's now a successful journalist with her very own show produced and directed by good old Fred, that the rest of the gang split up some time ago to pursue their own careers, and that even Daphne had grown sick and tired back in the day of never finding a single real instance of the paranormal.
Daphne mentions on live television how much she misses her old friends, and that's when we get to see what Scooby and Shaggy have been up to in however many years it's been...as a couple of damn NARCS for the ESTABLISHMENT.
This movie was pre-9/11, so it wasn't as grim and politically troubling of a subject at the time, but Shaggy apparently went on to work for airport security with Scooby as his food-sniffing dog. I'm pretty sure a dog needs to be brought up especially to work this type of job and you don't just show up to the interview with your own, but whatever. It's a cartoon and Scooby Doo is just sapient enough that they treat him here as an actual hired employee.
It's also apparently not really a job they could have had for very long, since they ruin it almost immediately. Somehow, they got it in their fool heads that it would be perfectly okay to eat their fill of contraband food, and they eat almost all of it. In reality, all confiscated food gets put through a grinding mechanism and eventually incinerated before it can potentially introduce any agricultural pests or diseases from overseas, so it technically shouldn't even matter that they ate it all, but it's still kind of infuriating to imagine. They're fired almost immediately, but they barely seem to care, and I'm left wondering how they're even still alive at all.
We should acknowledge here that while Scooby Doo is the title character, nobody in Scooby Doo is actually as entertaining as Shaggy. He's the real glue that holds everything together, the most human of the bunch, motivated as he is by primarily food and terror. Food, terror, and the fact that he doesn't love anyone or anything else as much as his talking dog. It's really always been his show, hasn't it?
Next, we finally catch up with the only thing ever resembling a detective in a whole team of vigilante crimebusters, the only reason they actually ever solved a mystery in their damn lives. Velma, since moving on, is now the owner and seemingly only employee of her very own hole-in-the-wall mystery and horror book store, something my fourteen year old self considered an ideal. I was totally, totally one of those stuck-up dweebs who wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by dusty books in a dingy wooden cave all day, and I was just awakening to the fact that I was much more a fan of horror in particular than just general Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Also, it was exactly this moment of this movie that I developed a weird crush on just this version of Velma, and I say "weird" not because it's a cartoon character, but because I also, kinda...wanted to be her? I don't know what that says about me. I guess Zombie Island Velma was the adult my early-teen self wanted to grow up into, but over twenty years later I've got nothing to show for that but the glasses. I guess I also have had the know-it-all attitude, but I can't say I've ever had the eloquence to argue my points face to face with anybody, so once again a cartoon character has something more together than I do.
Everyone gets a phone call from Fred about Daphne's new "Haunted America" special and we get a quick reunion scene, during which we're reminded of how much Orville "Shaggy" Rogers loves to eat dog food. They also act as if these are the first Scooby Snacks they've seen in years, and Velma says she's been sentimentally holding on to that specific box. Did they get discontinued? Do they just not have them on that coast? I don't know. I'm actually still kind of hung up on a human man begging for dog treats. I don't like that.
The gang drive off in the good old Mystery Machine, and we get the first of two now-classic musical montages by the band Skycycle, but as fun as this song is, you may notice that the film's TV commercial used a lot of scenes from this sequence even as the narrator bragged about those "real" monsters, and that's kind of a tease, guys. That humanoid bat looked pretty awesome, but you're telling me it's still one of the fake ones?! And how about that lobster guy!? Don't put a lobster guy in your "MONSTERS ARE REAL!" movie if you can't ACTUALLY deliver the goods!!!
Just when Daphne is loudly complaining about that very bullshit, a mysterious woman named Lena approaches them with the story of Moonscar Island in the Louisiana bayou, a place she assures them is haunted for REALLY for real this time, which they have no reason at all to take seriously but take seriously anyway.
It possibly seems like this review is jumping around really fast, but so does this movie. It really rushes from one scenario to the next, but somehow still feels pretty well-paced. It's less than a minute between us first hearing about the island to meeting Jaques, whose stereotypical Old White Louisiana Bayou Man accent is the single funniest thing in the movie. Guess this is our next "mystery suspect" after Lena.
Shaggy and Scooby end up falling from Jaques' boat and nearly eaten by alligators, only to be rescued by Stereotype and Suspect #3, Snakebite Scruggs, who is even funnier. Scruggs and his "hunting pig," Mojo, are apparently obsessed with catching a catfish named Big Mona, AKA suspect #4 and the most guilty looking of them all.
They make a pretty big deal over how huge Mona is supposed to be, but...that's it? Really? If that's the biggest catfish in this bayou, it's been overfished into an aquatic wasteland. Catfish can get big enough to swallow a human corpse! That's a thing that has happened!
After their brush with death, they're all taken by Lena to Moonscar Manor, but a point is made about how much her mother happens to like cats, and while Shaggy insists Scooby is "great" with cats, the dog flips his shit chasing them regardless. This is a thing every single cartoon thinks is really funny, but what happens when a dog catches a cat is not remotely funny. I relate completely to Simone Lenoir's disgust for the beast's primal, murderous rage. Scooby's sapience is all the more reason to hold him accountable for his actions and I would kick his ass if he hurt a single hair on a single feline head, cultural icon or not. The dog would answer for his crimes as would a man.
That rampage also pissed off another "mystery suspect," Bo the groundskeeper, who seems pretty bitter that the dog ruined his plants, and again, I would be too. In fact I would kick his ass if he hurt a single hair on a single botanical head. The dog would answer for his crimes as would a man.
Socially awkward introductions lead to some time inside the manor, when we get our first instance of real ghostly activity. It starts with ominous writing on the wall, then a scene of Velma levitating that the animators seemed to have fun with, and finally a look at Fred's camera footage to reveal the spirit of Baron Moonscar sneaking around the floor like a rodent.
Some miscellaneous investigations ensue while Scooby and Shaggy engage in some slapstick antics, but eventually disturb the very grave of the Baron by accident, and his decrepit old bones grow their flesh back in what was, at the time, the most gruesome sight ever under the Scooby Doo banner. They get away from him pretty quickly though, only to piss off Bo again. Not even their friends really believe they saw a walking corpse, and Velma's pretty sure Bo is just up to something suspicious.
We get another brief ghost encounter that night, and Velma, Daphne and Fred argue over whether this one is just some oil tycoon or the genuine article, with Daphne on the "can't ghosts be real?" side of things. Shaggy and Scooby are meanwhile thrown back out into the dirt for another attempt cat slaughter, and continue to get into tired, irresponsible shenanigans that once again disturbs the dead...
...And we FINALLY see more zombies! It's funny to think how passe this is now, with our whole culture positively up to its ears in zombie media for every possible age group, but in 1998? It had been over a decade since the last time a zombie movie was given major theatrical release, and Resident Evil, two years prior, was the first successful time they'd been presented in a completely serious horror context since before I was ever born. They weren't a common sight in our media at all, and their appearance in anything Scooby was, at least by Scooby standards, downright edgy at the time.
As the others go looking for their friends in the swamp, we get some moments of tension between Bo and Velma, the latter of which is convinced that he's quite possibly up to something. I remember the first time I watched this movie, everybody present busted up laughing at the sheer intensity of Velma telling Bo he was a suspect. Calm the heck down, Dinkley. Your working theory at this point is that he's an illegal smuggler with a stash of Halloween costumes. It's not like you know you're cracking any ritualistic occult murders or anything.
And if the mere presence of actual walking corpses was darker than Scooby had ever gotten, nobody could ever forget the subsequent scene in which the gang tries their damnedest to pull the "mask" off the first zombie they get their hands on, and we get to watch these classic characters juggle the head they just ripped off of a dead man's body.
It's an excellent lead-in to the second musical sequence, and as corny as the lyrics get, we all thought it was awesome back in the day, which it is. By the time I discovered the internet only maybe a year later, people were already making their own music videos mashing up this song with Resident Evil footage, or at least, I took people's word for it because it would have taken me four hours for my dialup service to download one.
It still feels as if the entire long history of Scooby Doo was building up to this moment all along, to their first epic rock-driven encounter with the bona-fide living dead.
The zombie chase leads Shaggy and Scooby into a cave where they find strange, wax dolls of their friends, which of course turn out to be enchanted with sympathetic magic; a definitely odd story element to drop on us just when we thought ghosts and zombies were the only threat.
No, as it turns out, the true villains here are Lena, Lenoir, and even Jaques, who are soon revealed to be...
I actually thought this was an underwhelming reveal when the movie first debuted, but looking back, I like the presence of such an unconventional monster. This is the second time in this year's Halloween reviews that I've had the opportunity to say these are much scarier than what the phrase "cat women" usually brings to mind, and they really have a classic horror movie feel to them. It turns out that these creatures ritualistically drain the souls from human captives to extend their own lives, and the zombies aren't even their minions or allies at all, but their past victims out for revenge! The zombies are the good guys!
Lovely scene here, by the way, when the wax dolls fall too close to an open flame and everybody starts fucking MELTING.
Fortunately, everyone manages to get loose before they turn into blobfish, then Daphne and Velma hastily fashion two of the dolls into facsimiles of the lead "Cat Creatures." This entails removing their personal items (hair and clothing scraps) from the dolls before adding scraps of the cat's clothing instead, which is a nice touch, since the clothes were tattered during their transformation sequence earlier. Levitating and slamming the monsters around, the two girls successfully delay their dark ritual until it's too late for them to take any fresh souls, and remember we said that the zombies were the most grotesque thing we had ever seen on Scooby Doo?
With their curse broken, the werecats disintegrate alive and screaming, but not to be outdone, so do the zombies as their souls are put to rest. Unfortunately, these were the days before live digital streaming, wi-fi and The Cloud were even possibilities anyone imagined, so every scrap of evidence that any of this ever happened was on the same single camcorder Fred earlier lost in the swamp forever. He LITERALLY had only one job.
The morning after, everyone says their goodbyes to one another - and it turns out Bo was an undercover FBI detective all along. He has a moment with Velma that implies they might have the hots for each other but we all know she wouldn't be caught dead with no dirty government bootlicker, BO. If there's literally only one thing to take away from the entire lives of the entire Scooby gang it's that they could not have any less respect for authority. Look what happened the one time Shaggy and Scooby were supposed to be on the side of law in this very same film. These people and their dog are elemental forces of pure anarchy.
That said, an after-credits scene with no further explanation tacks on a quick view of Scooby being kind to a couple of cats, so, I guess they wanted to reassure us that a widely respected children's icon would not in fact rip the throat out of a fellow domestic mammal. I GUESS he's off the hook. I GUESS.
Though their vigilantism once again failed to expose the supernatural to the world, they now know that ghosts and monsters exist, and that felt like a pretty big deal to us cartoon-addled kids in 1998. Sure, there was the aforementioned Thirteen Ghosts series, but Fred and Velma weren't there and it was never really treated as a part of the core canon at the time. Cartoon Network really did make Zombie Island feel like the Cartoon Event of the Decade, and its massive success was followed up by a long line of movies in roughly the same continuity; the widely loved Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost in 1999, the less remembered but still pretty interesting Scooby Doo and the Alien Invaders in 2000, and finally Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase in 2001, every one of them pitting the heroes once more against real supernatural entities...until something terrible happened.
Due perhaps to its less compelling internet-themed monster, lack of that moodier horror streak or the simple fact that a new movie had come out every single year for four years in a row, Cyber Chase was met with a pretty lukewarm reception, and I guess somebody with too much authority must have pointed their finger at that darker new direction. After a year gap, the movies picked back up again without the real monster angle. It was all the same studio and seemingly the same timeline set years after the original series...but outside 2008's unexpected and unfortunately unsuccessful Goblin King movie, it was straight back to the landlords in clown suits with no mention ever again of zombies or ghosts or werecats or even Shaggy and Scooby's extraterrestrial reptile girlfriends which were a real thing that happened in Alien Invaders.
WHY!?! Why would you even take space lizard romance away from Orville and his dog, who FUCKING earned that through nearly three decades of living hell?! Who in the world looked at the fact that we already had thirty years of "Let's see who this monster really is!" and thought anybody, anywhere, was clamoring for more?
You can't have Scooby Goddamned Doo nearly pulled apart by dead people and then act like it just never happened. That's ridiculous. The only thing more ridiculous would be if they made an entire brand-new movie here in 2019 that went out of its way to retcon the events and even entire timeline of this one, which would of course make no sense and have no point and obviously didn't nor will ever-
GOD. DAMN IT.
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