Annabella Vandenberg (Julissa) has traveled to a small island to visit her uncle Carl van Molder (Boris Karloff). Van Molder owns a large plantation on the island. It is well known that the native inhabitants practice voodoo as part of their religious traditions. Van Molder has been researching these traditions hoping to gain some information that could be valuable in helping heal people. Annabella is a young woman who is a temperance crusader and who hopes to enlist her uncle in her cause.
Annabella is in the company of Captain Labighe (Rafael Bertrand). He is the new chief in charge of the local police department. Labighe is there to whip the force into shape and stamp out crime. His second in command is Lt. Andrew Wilhelm (Carlos East). Wilhelm has a fondness for alcoholic beverages. With the new Captain around Wilhelm’s days of idle drinking have been a little curtailed.
Van Molder warns the Captain that interfering with the local religion is not in his best interests. The Captain is a narrow minded and opinionated man. He believes the locals’ beliefs are mere superstition and intends on not only whipping the police force into shape but the locals as well.
Rumor has it that the local women are being changed into cannibalistic zombies. The front for the voodoo rituals is a snake charmer named Kalea (Tongolele). The real power behind the cult is a mysterious person called Damballah. The Captain vows to find out who Damballah is and bring charges against him thus crushing the local cult. When Annabella is kidnapped and named to be the human sacrifice for the cult’s next ritual, the Captain and Lt. Wilhelm realize there is more at stake than just some ragged native cult leader working up the natives.
“Isle of the Snake People” AKA “La Muerte Viviente” was released in 1971 and was directed by Juan Ibanez and Jack Hill. It is a Mexican horror film that was produced for Aztec Films and distributed in the United States by Columbia Pictures.
It was one of four films that Karloff agreed to do for Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara. The other three films Karloff signed on to do were “House of Evil” or “Dance of Death”, “The Incredible Invasion” or “Alien Terror”, and “Fear Chamber” or “Torture Zone”. Karloff initially rejected all four scripts. They were then all re-written by Jack Hill. All four films were done before Karloff’s death in 1969.
Karloff’s varied illnesses prevented him from filming in Mexico. The eighty year old Karloff had emphysema and only one lung so performing in Mexico’s higher altitude was impossible. His scenes were directed by Jack Hill at the Dored Studios in Los Angeles. All four films were done there in the spring of 1968. Karloff also had bad arthritis and was in constant pain so he rested in a wheelchair between scenes. The films were then completed in Mexico. Any additional scenes requiring Karloff were filmed using Jerry Petty as his stand-in.
The film’s producer was Luis Enrique Vergara. Due to his unexpected death the release of the film was held up until ownership rights of inheritance could be established under Mexican law. Karloff himself died in February 1969. All four films as well as “Cauldron of Blood”, which Karloff did for Spain, are credited as being released after Karloff’s death. Despite all of his illnesses Karloff was a consummate actor. In his later years he did many films where he is starred but only appeared in a handful of scenes. His name still had much recognition and his scores of fans elevated a film when he appeared in it, even if the film itself was crap. Karloffsploitation had been born.
As for “Isle of the Snake People” AKA “La Muerte Viviente” AKA “Snake People” AKA “Cult of the Dead”, it’s no worse than many of the other low budget films done at the time. It may be a little disjointed but it is full of dark voodoo atmosphere and erotic gyrating snake dancing. The main problem is that in 1968 George A. Romero blew the lid off of what the image of the ideal zombie would be with “Night of the Living Dead”. After that anything with a zombie had to fit into the new zombie mold or it was considered not up to standard. “Isle of the Snake People” came just a few years too late to cash in on the old style of zombie before zombie 2.0 came along.