Well titles can be deceiving and though you may not believe it, the Scooby-Doo franchise’s first movie is fantastic. No, not that terrible live-action crap that wasted a perfectly good Rowan Atkinson. I’m talking about Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island! Released in 1998, it was the first direct-to-video movie based on the series, and for a Scooby-Doo film it’s quite dark, dramatic, and genuinely scary, especially for kids. In all honesty, this should have been the theatrically released Scooby-Doo movie!
Set a number of years after the show, the movie depicts a now adult Mystery gang reuniting after going their separate ways. Daphne is host of a paranormal investigation show and Fred as her producer recruits Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby to help them search for cases of genuine hauntings or monsters. Eventually they make their way to New Orleans where they’re directed to an island in the bayous, a mostly isolated pepper plantation with a long history of hauntings and even disappearances. Once there they discover the frights of the mysterious island may have them in over their heads.
To anyone who’s seen the Scooby-Doo live-action movie, that premise might feel a little familiar. The idea of the gang getting back together after breaking up, going to a mysterious island to solve a mystery, even the opening sequence which plays out the typical end scene of an episode of the show, were all subsequently ripped off of this far superior film for that monstrosity.
This film was marketed on the novelty that the paranormal enemies the Mystery gang would be facing were assured this time to be real which I do think is both good and bad marketing. Good in that it catches people’s curiosity, but bad in that it somewhat spoils some of the films’ effect. However the movie itself builds up to it quite a lot with the belief in the reality of monsters being the driving force behind Daphne’s mission. But even with this element a part of the film, I’m surprised how much it’s able to maintain the series’ key mystery component. Rather than just be a Dawn of the Dead movie where the zombies exist purely to be obstacles for the protagonists, there actually is a culprit behind all this, as is customary for Scooby-Doo; and while avoiding the supernatural creatures, the gang is still solving a mystery with clues being dropped every so often like the series had. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island doesn’t abandon the tenets of the show, but applies them intelligently alongside this grittier context.
And yeah, this movie has a pretty dark tone. Even if it wasn’t a Scooby-Doo movie, it’s still got decent scares for kids and a sense of real peril. Not only is the plot really spooky, and we even come to realize there’s actually a body count, but the way the creatures are presented is graphic. There’s a scene where we see a skeleton rise from the ground and haggard loose flesh form around it as it pierces you with glowing but dead eyes. That scene in particular scared the hell out of me as a kid. The Lenoir Manor at which they’re staying is fascinating, as is all the history they uncover about Moonscar Island, named for a vicious pirate who buried treasure there centuries before. And this and the subsequent history of the island is astonishingly brutal for a movie based on a Hanna-Barbera kids’ show. At one point the plot goes in a Jurassic Park direction where everyone’s out in the wild while zombies are roaming, and it has quite an effect. There’s dark and shadowy imagery galore and because of the gripping stakes, you’re much more invested in the mystery. This isn’t the first time Scooby-Doo has dealt with real paranormal characters but unlike the specials Hanna Barbera was turning out in the 80’s like Ghoul School and Boo Brothers, Zombie Island takes its subject matter more seriously while still keeping the whimsical spirit of Scooby-Doo.
Another thing this movie does really right is its characters. Every member of the Mystery Gang has something to offer. In the original series it was often noted that Fred and Daphne never had much personality, to the point that many just kind of assumed that Daphne must have been the frequent damsel in distress. In Zombie Island, Fred is portrayed as having a sense of humour and a reliance on fact and logic much like Velma. He’s also maybe a little over-eager to jump to conclusions and is a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to the local Cajun food. He’s also portrayed as more susceptible to attractive women like Lena, the serving girl of the manor they’re staying at, and especially Daphne. As for Daphne she undergoes an almost complete character re-write. She’s the leader in this film, easily the most successful of the gang in the years after their mystery solving, and is more determined than anyone to find proof of supernatural powers; which kind of makes her the most fearless. She’s far more assertive, inquisitive, and an all round much stronger character than she’d ever been before. Velma now the proprietor of a mystery book store is still “the smart one”, but she’s also got more of a suspicious streak particularly directed at a brooding and mysterious gardener. We see that she both enjoys the fun of the mystery but also takes it seriously by her careful examination of clues and suspect situations. And of course Shaggy and Scooby are still as cowardly as ever, but you relate more with their fear in this film. It’s not just some false alarm that causes Scooby to jump into Shaggy’s arms, but legitimate terrors chasing them. They’re probably the most like their original counterparts (though maybe slightly smarter), because really those personalities have always worked: not all that bright, a little reckless, extremely fearful, but when the spooks aren’t after them, relaxed, goofy, and trapped in 60’s euphoria where everyone else has moved on. And their appetites haven’t changed in the slightest. Scooby in this film’s been given the added trait of a hatred for cats, Miss Lenoire the owner of the estate keeps many of them, and it provides for both a running joke and plot device.
The voice cast play these parts really well too. Scott Innes is the first actor to take up the mantle of Scooby after the passing of Don Messick and does a good job in the part. Casey Kasem had at the time given up the part of Shaggy due to his vegetarianism, and Billy West voices him here terrifically. The late Mary Kay Bergman who you may remember from South Park provides the voice of this very different Daphne, while B.J. Ward voices Velma with a conviction that makes hers one of my favourite interpretations of the character. The only original cast member to return is Frank Welker as Fred, who to this day is still Fred’s voice. They’re joined by a guest cast that includes Adrienne Barbeau -the voice of Catwoman, Tara Strong, Cam Clarke (Leonardo from Ninja Turtles), and Jim Cummings in one of his many Cajun character voices. Even Mark Hamill appears in this film as an angry red-neck fisherman.
The animation in this movie looks great! It’s style is quite similar to that of Warner Brothers animation on Batman: the Animated Series; or I guess since this is a feature film, Mask of the Phantasm. There’s plenty of shadowing, deep and rich colours, and a more potent sense of environment. It has enough of a serious look but is still able to suit the more comedic and goofy moments needed for anything having to do with Scooby-Doo. It should be kept in mind that though this movie is darker and more mature, it doesn’t forget its roots. There are a number of cartoon-y goofy moments: Scooby still morphs his face to get a point across, there are still exaggerated reactions, the Mystery Machine is still there, as are Scooby snacks and most of the other staples of the series. You’re still guaranteed to hear “Zoinks” from Shaggy and “Jinkies” from Velma. But all that stuff fits and really wouldn’t be Scooby-Doo otherwise. Even the climax which is as dark as this film gets, is still interrupted at a couple points by some comical line or action. The jokes of course don’t always work, and the writing can be corny (there’s one pretty awkward exposition dump early on). However you really get the feeling this film is a tribute to the original series while simultaneously moving it forward into new territory. Wherein there’s a whole lot to love regardless of whether you like Scooby-Doo or not. Like how though you may be able to see the villain coming, it pulls a really clever twist, how expectations of the creatures may not be what they seem, etc. Oh, and this movie has the most chilling response to the “you won’t get away with this” cliché I’ve ever seen.
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island does have its drawbacks. As I said, it can still be fairly campy, there are a couple minor plot holes for sure, and just a few things that bug me now that never did as a kid (like how a video Fred’s filming cuts to a close-up on its own). The soundtrack consists of a couple incredibly 90’s alternative rock songs which you’ll either love or hate. But I think everyone can agree there was no reason a Scooby-Doo movie needed to be this good. It was a show with a talking dog for god’s sake! But the people behind this film went above and beyond, put so much effort into it that it wound up being a really great animated movie. It’s actually credited with reviving the franchise for the 2000s. Zombie Island created a new standard; a standard that to a lesser degree would be upheld in the first three follow-up movies, before returning to a more basic Scooby-Doo (except for Mystery Inc which was awesome!) But that just makes this movie stand out all the more, a wonderfully under-appreciated gem that captures the spirit of the original series while pushing its limits in terms of story, characters, animation, and scares. A wonderfully frightful film for Halloween!