'Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island' & 'The Scooby-Doo Project': Halloween Theatrics Done Right
I remember it as if it were yesterday. Some friends had come over on Halloween, and whilst our parents were in the dining room gossiping and whatnot we had all sprawled out on the floor in front of the television watching hour after hour of Cartoon Network (why yes, we were a fancy household). The station had made the entire month of October advertising an oncoming project called 'The Scooby Doo Project' which was coming after the holiday itself. But this was Halloween night at 6pm, and it was what we had all been waiting for...
I had missed the premiere of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island the year before (I wasn't fully conscious at that point) but this time I had the video recorder primed and ready. The moment that anthropomorphic pumpkin's face popped up on screen I put the sucker in and hit record. Little did I know that the whole experience would embed itself in my memory up until now as an important part of my childhood.
For context, I was a scaredy cat throughout my childhood. To the point where if an episode of a show I was watching ended with a slightly sinister crescendo of music I would cower under the covers for minutes trying to wipe it from my memory. I covered my eyes through the opening of Goosebumps (those dog eyes man) and clung to the sofa at every single episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog just in case this was one that gave me nightmares. Still, like most children do I had a deep love of Scooby-Doo, and always secretly wanted the monsters in the episodes to be real like some of the previous specials I'd seen. Still, I was far from prepared for what Zombie Island had to offer.
There's not much to say for the direct-to-Video film that hasn't been said already. The animation is more fluid and darker, with a more realistic style to bring the franchise into the modern era. The screenplay by Glenn Leopold arguably works better than the actual live action movie a few years later, and even includes many of the same story beats. Mystery Inc. grow tired of the monsters in their cases always being fake and go off their separate ways. Daphne finds newfound fame as a television presenter with Fred as her producer/cameraman, and the group reforms to try and find some real monsters out there. It's interesting that Daphne is elevated to a calm and controlled individual from her role as the 'damsel in distress' within the series, whilst Fred takes on the simpleton archetype - not only does this work to get the plot moving by the 10-minute mark, but also helped the series feel more modern and inspired the series far into the future. That, and the fact it featured some pretty damn cool music too (Terror Time anyone?).
Not only that, but as advertised in the $50 million marketing campaign, the zombies featured in the film were real. And better yet, they're a macguffin, a red herring to the real threat of the film - indigenous Were-Cat People responsible for the deaths of the pirates that now haunt Moonscar Island as zombies. Not only is this great storytelling, but it's mature horror writing. This was a new and confident Scooby-Doo story, and was single-handedly responsible for the character's continued existence going forward. Both Scooby-Doo and the Witch's Ghost and Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders continued this quality of storytelling and animation too. Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase, whilst loved by most my age doesn't carry the same quality of script or animation - choosing to imitate a similar style to the then-running What's New, Scooby-Doo? television series.
But I skipped over something. Oh yes, the $50 million marketing campaign. Zombie Island was everywhere in the States around the time of release and received the biggest marketing push Warner Bros. had given at the time. Endorsements and commercials were everywhere and can still be found - including exclusive rights to Cartoon Network advertising and premiering the film. Whilst this campaign was successful over in America, international audiences didn't receive the film until the following year on television. By then it was 1999, and a new horror film had not only introduced a new subgenre but had captivated and terrified the entire social zeitgeist - The Blair Witch Project.
Yes at this point audiences around the world were left with the tantalisingly-real story of the college students who had disappeared whilst searching for the blair witch in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. This was incredibly new and the film itself had only been released less than two weeks prior. Yet of course, Cartoon Network decided to put a spin on the premise and advertised a special within their stings that told, in part, the story of the Mystery Inc. crew going into the woods to investigate a haunting and never coming back. Let's shout this out for the people at the back:
CARTOON NETWORK WAS SATIRISING A CURRENT HORROR FILM AND LAMPOONING IT FOR CHILDREN USING THE SCOOBY-DOO CHARACTERS.
The short was never repeated and never released on video or DVD, but someone did upload it onto Youtube here (I suggest it immensely, alongside the adverts for it here). Whilst it's mostly just crude handheld camera movements with enforced snippets of animation, it works alarmingly well. The whole original Mystery Inc. voice cast came back, and the script is littered with references and jibes, and is weirdly enough the most human the group has ever seemed. They comment and joke with each other, we even learn Shaggy is one of those psychopaths who loves pineapple on pizza. But they run through the beats of The Blair Witch Project, gathering interviews with locals before camping in the woods, hearing strange voices and investigating from their tent, before of course winding up exploring a creepy house where they meet their presumed doom.
Now, I was a dumb kid. I thought that because the characters were all acting against a live-action backdrop that they were real, and therefore the reveal that the gang were actually missing at the end (much like the teens in the film being parodied) terrified me. Looking back on it now of course it's an insanely clever and well-made little campaign that built up to the network's premiere of The Witch's Ghost, but I'm not surprised the piece was never repeated on television.
It harkens back to a time where networks and television campaigns took great pride in their work, as well as highlighting a period where child-friendly horror was something to be experimented with. It's difficult to think of Cartoon Network doing something like this today with a contemporary horror film. Whilst Nickelodeon's recent revival of Are you Afraid of the Dark? shows that family horror television can draw big audiences, it's no longer so commonplace as to be featured within the adverts of other programming.
The Scooby-Doo Project and its wrapped-around showing of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island are still pivotal Halloween memories for me. In the following years I rewatched my taped recording of the film before losing the memories briefly when my video collection was junked.
With the 50th anniversary of the character itself this year, it's easy to cast the mind back on how many of Mystery Inc's adventures captured my imagination. Without Zombie Island's willingness to push the envelope, we might never have got the serialised meta-narrative of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated or the darker-themed following films.
I hope one day the first three direct-to-video Scooby-Doo films get a home release jam packed with extras like The Scooby-Doo Project. They manage to capture the turn of the millenium for me in many ways, and maybe the release of next year's CGI Scoob! film will bolster re releases of past material.
If you haven't watched it in a while, I suggest revisiting Zombie Island for yourself. Maybe even with some family members by your side for a Halloween treat. 'Tis the season after all...
I also refuse to acknowledge this year's Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island as anything more as a cash grab. There's some neat jokes here and there, but it's nothing compared to the original.
What about you? What's your favourite Scooby-Doo story? I'm also quite partial to Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School and The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, the Mystery Incorporated series is also one of my favourite cartoons of recent times. Sometimes I wonder if soaking up so much Scooby-Doo meant I was destined to become Shaggy, but who knows? All I can say is it's the perfect time of year to go solving some mysteries.
The Scooby-Doo Project can be seen HERE
The Adverts (extras) have been compiled HERE
Ryan Hollinger did an analysis on the four original direct-to-video Scooby-Doo Movies HERE
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