Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998) – The 1st Direct-to-Video Animated Scooby-Doo Movie – Directed by Jim Stenstrum – Starring Frank Welker, Billy West Scott Innes, Mary Kay Bergman, B.J. Ward, Adrienne Barbeau, Tara Charendoff, Cam Clarke, and Mark Hamill.
SCOOBY-DOO ON ZOMBIE ISLAND is the first direct-to-video movie produced by Warner Brothers, and the start of a series that is still going, fifteen years and 21 movies later.
It’s a fantastic movie.
For a franchise that’s been kicking around since 1969, what’s most impressive about ZOMBIE ISLAND is how fresh and energetic it feels. Nothing about ZOMBIE ISLAND feels tired and dated, and the stuff that’s included because you expect it to be included is there for a reason. ZOMBIE ISLAND was sold to the public by highlighting the fact that there are real monsters and ghosts this time around (it wasn’t the first Scooby project to do this, but it was clearly the selling point for this new era of Scooby-Doo) and the production folk make this the centerpiece of the episode.
As ZOMBIE opens, the Scooby gang have broken up. Daphne is now the host of a successful television program (with Fred tagging along as her producer) and she explains to a different talk show host that they disbanded because every mystery ended the same – with them pulling a rubber mask off of someone. For the second season of her show, she’s going to go out and find a real ghost. Unbeknownst to her, Fred decides to get the whole crew back together to go help her look for the supernatural.
Shaggy and Scooby are working as security agents in an airport, confiscating contraband food, which they subsequently get fired for eating. They indicate that getting fired is not remotely a new experience for them. Velma owns her own bookstore, focusing on mysteries, but seems flustered and miserable about the experience. When Fred calls, the three of them jump in so fast it plays a little sad because where Daphne has moved on to find success, they haven’t. (Sad as it might be, it’s good storytelling.) With the band back together, they head out and immediately have a set of adventures just like they’ve (almost) always had, which we see the highlights of beneath a pop-rock song, a very clever nod to the inclusion of musical numbers in the old shows.
Obviously, ZOMBIE ISLAND is a product financed by Warner Brothers to make some cash, but it feels like it was made by people who genuinely love the characters and the franchise, specifically for people who genuinely love the characters and the franchise. There’s a constant nodding back to the older shows, with Fred and Velma, in particular, openly suggesting anything supernatural they hear about or experience has a natural explanation, but there’s also plenty of energy pushing the story forward.
This technique means the swerve that there are actual zombies isn’t much of a swerve, because it’s been telegraphed from the start. It’s a smart move – few things drives me nuttier than when a movie acts like you don’t know what’s coming. If the marketing people have shown the monster, why do we have to wait 90 minutes to see it? I could have stayed home and seen it for free during the commercial break.
Mystery, Inc. makes its way down to New Orleans, where they catch the attention of Lena Dupree, who claims to work at a legitimately haunted house. They follow her through the swamps to an isolated island with a big old school plantation that, yup, turns out to be legit haunted. By zombies. And ghosts. And catwomen. But before we definitively get there, the investigation takes pains to slowly erode Velma and Fred’s confidence about who (or what) is actually responsible.
There’s a big emphasis on food, too, which is awesome, because food has long been a staple of the show. What’s interesting here is that it’s not just Shaggy and Scooby who over-indulge, but Fred, too, who stuffs his face with some New Orleans beignets. The plantation is the site of a big pepper farm. Owner Simone Lenoir promises them that they’re the hottest peppers in the south and Shaggy and Scooby can’t stop eating them and can’t stop their eyes from watering at the hotness.
Perhaps the best bit with food comes at the surprise reunion when Velma gives Scooby and Shaggy some Scooby Snacks she’s been saving. The resident foodies gleefully indulge, only to discover that they’re stale. It’s a nice, subtle but effective signal that ZOMBIE ISLAND will not simply be an exercise in happy nostalgia.
The best part of ZOMBIE ISLAND is watching the investigation play out at the plantation. With every appearance of the supernatural, the insistence that there will be a natural explanation fades a bit more, until everyone is forced to acknowledge there will be no unmasking this time around. There’s some nice swerves regarding just who is an ally and who is an enemy, and at a crisp 75 minutes, there’s no wasted space anywhere in the film. There’s also plenty of great character moments (Scooby and the cats, Fred and Daphne’s mutual attraction for one another, etc.) that work well to make the quieter moments more integral than just filling space.
I love ZOMBIE ISLAND. It’s got great writing and a dark tone that still manages to be fun when it needs to be. SCOOBY-DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? was originally created to combat the abundance of “violent” cartoons that groups like Action for Children’s Television disliked because children are precious flowers, but there was always an darkness to it that was muted by that rubber mask getting pulled off. The presence of the supernatural is no longer a no-no for kids’ shows, and what ZOMBIE ISLAND proves is that you can have ghosts without changing the fundamental appeal of the Scooby-Doo franchise.