The year is 1998. I am six years old and I am obsessed with movies. My favourite thing is going to the “movie store” with my parents and renting a new movie as often as I can talk them into it.
I’m a frequent flyer, to the point that the employees at Hollywood Nites know me by name. I have a selection of choices I typically cycle through – The Swan Princess, The Land Before Time, The Little Rascals, amongst some Disney favourites. Today is different. Today I cross the black and white checkerboard floor to a new release I see on display. I pick it up and the title reads “Scooby-Doo! On Zombie Island.” I don’t know it, but tonight is going to be something of a formative experience for me.
At this point in my life, I’ve seen enough episodes of Scooby-Doo to know the formula:
- Something spooky happens in a ski lodge/castle/library.
- The gang investigates by splitting up and looking for clues.
- They run and hide from the vampire/mummy/ghost of Christmas past until someone, typically Fred or Velma, announces they know the culprit’s identity.
- They pull the mask off the villain, and surprise! It’s the butler/museum curator/tugboat captain!
I’m expecting a night of familiar comforts. What happens is this:
At the start of the film, our favourite group of meddling kids has split up out of boredom at the monotony of chasing fake monsters. Daphne is now a tele-journalist with Fred as her pseudo-assistant. Velma owns a bookstore specializing in mysteries. Shaggy and Scooby are working as customs agents for the sole purpose of rifling through people’s luggage to confiscate undeclared foodstuffs and claim them for themselves. Wheels of cheese seem to be a common choice.
The gang reunites for Daphne’s birthday to accompany her on her cross-country mystery-solving TV show. They eventually wind up in New Orleans where they meet Lena; a woman who works on the nearby Moonscar Island and claims it is haunted. They accompany Lena on the steamboat ferry where they meet Jacques, the jolly ferry captain who transports them across to the island.
They arrive on Moonscar Island and immediately make a bad first impression on Lena’s employer, Simone, the cat-loving ghost pepper plantation owner, as well as Beau, the gardener whose landscaping is immediately destroyed by Scooby chasing Simone’s cats.
The gang sets to work on their investigation and is met by some of their typical paranormal experiences: Velma levitates and the gang is warned by various ghosts to leave the island.
To soothe their burning mouths after eating ghost peppers, Scooby and Shaggy are gulping water from the swamp. This seems gross and ill advised but zombies begin to emerge from the water and we forget about the potential E. coli infection. They and the rest of the gang are chased through the swamp alongside a musical interlude in typical Scooby-Doo fashion. At this point in the movie, everything is happening predictably enough. They finally capture a zombie, who they assume is going to be our red herring, Snakebite, the one-eyed Crocodile Dundee-esque fisherman with a grudge against Scooby and Shaggy for scaring off his fish. They go to remove the mask, and this happens…
Let’s just stop here for a second. This has entirely changed the game for me. Not only is the monster real, but Freddie just cracked his head off like the cap of a beer bottle. They play a quick game of hot potato with the severed head until the zombie reclaims it and screws it back on. More zombies emerge from the swamp dressed as pirates, confederate soldiers, fishermen, and your stereotypically dressed tourists in Hawaiian shirts with cameras around their necks. Not only is all of this real and going to get worse, it’s about to go off the rails into totally bat-shit territory.
Fred, Velma, Daphne and Beau are captured by Lena and Simone who then reveal themselves to be cat-people.
Simone divulges their origin story – how she and Lena were among early settlers on the island who lived peacefully and worshipped their cat god. Morgan Moonscar, the island’s namesake, and his band of pirates descend upon the settlers, totally ruining their picnic and forcing them into alligator-infested waters. Lena and Simone survive, and in a rage call upon their cat god to aid them in seeking revenge against the pirates. They are turned into cat-people and then proceed to kill Morgan Moonscar and his crew. Their transformation, however, is a curse to them as well, and they need to continue sacrificing people in order to maintain their semi-feline immortality.
As it turns out, the zombies are victims of Lena and Simone and are trying to warn the gang of their evil intentions. It is also revealed that in a quid pro quo situation, Lena and Simone gave Jacques immortality to be their ferry-driver.
Scooby and Shaggy literally stumble upon Simone and Lena about to kill the four and foil their plans. Angry, the cat-ladies hulk out into full-fledged cat women, tearing off their clothes and becoming anthropomorphic upright-walking cats. Unfortunately for them, they have run out of time and they are too late to make their sacrifice to the harvest moon. Their flesh starts melting off like Jeff Goldblum at the end of The Fly.
Lena, Simone and Jacques all crumble into dust, as do all the zombies. Velma explains, “Their spirits are avenged. Now, they can rest in peace.” Here’s our happy ending, I guess?
Beau turns out to be an undercover cop investigating the disappearances on the island, but doubts his superiors will believe his story. Daphne invites him to be on TV. Roll credits.
Watching this movie at six years old, I am both terrified and enthralled. It’s the first time a truly dark story has fully unfurled before me. A whole village was eaten by alligators and slaughtered by pirates. Freddie beheads someone. The cat-people were something I was wholly unprepared for, but also intrigued by. How can I become one of the cat people? It sounds fun. Do I need a cat talisman necklace? For context, this was a phase of my life where I was obsessed with cats.
(For further context, that phase has lasted for 28 years. Phases can be an ongoing thing, right?)
Anyway, as an adult, I consider Scooby Doo! On Zombie Island to be the first real introduction I had to the horror genre. It eases into horror territory by removing the safety blanket of the Scooby Doo formula, but there’s no real gore to traumatize a kid. Even the zombie decapitation is pretty clean.
At six years old, I still have a ways to go before watching my first proper horror movie, (Jeepers Creepers anyone?) but the fascination is there. This is a fixation I’ll be chasing for a long time.