Montreal’s OG zombie walk (on film)

Our series exploring Montreal-shot films continues with horror flick Island of the Dead.

Island of the Dead


Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series profiling films from the vaults that were shot and sometimes set in Montreal.

The Film: Island of the Dead (2000)

Does Montreal play itself?: Nope. In fact, Montreal itself barely factors in the movie, which appears to have been shot somewhere island-adjacent.

Notable local talent: Apart from Talisa Soto, Malcolm McDowell, Mos Def and a random German actor who gets a single scene as a reporter, the entire cast is local. Even the music is homebrewed; a track from local ‘90s hip hop crew Shades of Culture features prominently (most hilariously in a silent, slow-motion meeting scene between two old white guys at a ferry dock, for no discernable reason).

Most egregious local landmark: The entire thing is set on an uninhabited island, so there’s not much to chew on. An early scene of Soto walking on the street was shot at René-Levesque and Stanley, but the reverse shot (in which she observes some kids playing double dutch for the purposes of an eerie flashback to pointlessly flash back to) wasn’t even shot in Montreal, as evidenced by the thank-you credit to the New York chapter of the National Double Dutch Association.

Made in MTL is not an exact science. Based on what little information I could find, Island of the Dead is a Montreal-shot horror movie about zombies on an island. Based on the actual movie that I sat down and watched, however, Island of the Dead is a South Shore-shot horror movie about anti-condo-developer zombie flies. (Of course, had I paid more attention to the IMDB listing, I would’ve known this immediately.) It’s an altogether slight difference and, although I’m not sure I was in the right to expect anything particularly great from the movie I assumed it was, it was still kind of disappointing.

Hart Island sits almost at the very top of New York City; while it’s technically part of the Bronx, it’s better known as the place where the city of New York has been burying unknown and unclaimed bodies for at least 100 years. Real estate developer Rupert King (McDowell) plans to use his considerable fortune to build a village of condos that will supposedly help clean up the streets of New York City (it’s unclear if this is pitched as employment for the homeless or a place for them to live, but since it sounds like a pretty evil idea, it soon turns out to be).

He takes the ferry over with a motley crew (as these things are wont to happen) that includes a cop on a missing persons case (Soto), three criminals (Bruce Ramsay, Kent McQuaid and a comically loose Mos Def) who are burying bodies as part of their community service sentence, their supervisor (Tyrone Benskin) and King’s brown-nosing assistant (Paul Hopkins). When this last guy goes missing, the crew discovers that the island is inhabited by voracious insects that cause rapid decomposition and seem to have taken umbrage (!) to King’s plans to build on this ancient burial ground.

The concept of the undead taking over Hart Island is so great that it feels like a missed opportunity to swap them for tiny dark bits of swarming CGI, but then again the budget of this movie doesn’t seem to cover much more than Malcolm McDowell pacing around in a field in Rigaud and characters screaming bloody murder while they swat at the air. It’s a profoundly silly concept (especially when characters are spared by the murderous insects because they’re not greedy condo developers) but, in director Tim Southam’s defence, it’s not exactly treated like high drama either. It’s a clumsy and not particularly effective way to skewer the idea of rampant real-estate development but at least the idea of Romero-like social commentary isn’t completely lost amidst the dimly-lit scenes of Mos Def tripping on gravestones.

The world of straight-to-cable horror movies is a particularly dire one, filled with tired, cheap product devised to keep a roof over actors’ heads (although who knows what the fuck Mos Def saw in this project) and 3 a.m. basic-cable timeslots filled. While there’s certainly an air of ‘’well, it’s work’’ to the proceedings, Island of the Dead nonetheless proves a little more entertaining than expected. The cast is generally more animated than usual with this type of material, and there are a couple of cornily effective sequences that manage to make the low-budget special effects work. It’s pretty obvious that Southam (a TV veteran who has a Gemini and a Gémeaux as well as several award-winning documentaries under his belt and pretty conspicuously does not mention Island of the Dead anywhere on his website) isn’t comfortable with the genre or the material, but at least he tried. ■

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does It Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter


Leave a Reply