It was the eve of my 21st birthday, and I was caught in the whirlwind of party prep. The speaker was plugged in, the gummy worms and nachos were arranged on the refreshments table… but something was missing, a certain je ne sais quoi. I turned on the common room TV, revved up Netflix, and put on Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. Then I set the audio to mute and let the cartoon play as a mood-setting background visual. Throughout the evening, my friends and I danced in its sublime glow, occasionally stealing glances at the wailing skeletons and shimmying crocodiles on screen; by the end of the night, the stragglers and I were huddled together on a beanbag, rewatching the film’s best scenes and laughing in childlike bliss.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Scooby-Doo. Let’s just say that if a caricature artist were asked to sketch me, the portrait would probably depict me holding a box of Scooby Snax or leaning seductively against the Mystery Machine. When I shower the franchise with lavish praise, I’m not exaggerating or, heaven forbid, joking. The cartoon has served as a seminal introduction to the gothic for generations—and beyond that, with its wacky chase songs and running gags, it’s ideal feel-good fare. I constantly find myself coming back to the Scooby cinematic universe, especially during Halloween season—and when I do, Zombie Island is my go-to flick.
In all likelihood, Zombie Island is one of my top five most rewatched films due to my youthful propensity for please-be-kind-rewinding it again and again on my family’s VCR.* Given that I was an adventure-loving tot growing up during the Great Scooby Renaissance of the 2000s, it was only natural that I would gravitate towards the direct-to-video movie. What’s remarkable is that my perception of it has barely changed as I’ve aged. Sure, nostalgia is to be accounted for—but even the rosiest childhood memories can’t obscure the mistakes of a cinematic flop. Zombie Island deserves its time-sculpted trophy, even—no, especially—when viewed in the harsh light of adulthood.
This madcap masterpiece was no happy accident. It was a calculated effort to launch Scooby-Doo into a new generation of fans after reruns on Cartoon Network boosted its popularity in the ’90s—and boy, was it calculated well. The overlords at Hanna-Barbera could have simply continued the story of the previous Scooby shows and films without fanfare; they could have also attempted a prequel (in the fashion of ’80s cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo and recent disappointment Scoob!). Instead, they chose to acknowledge the passage of time by depicting the gang reuniting as young adults after a hiatus from cracking cases. For those familiar with the characters, the opening minutes of the film are an absolute joy. Daphne’s the star of her own TV news show, and Fred’s behind the camera. Of course Velma works at a bookstore, and of course Scooby and Shaggy are happy to chow down on the snacks in the breakroom at the airport where they work. The film’s ability to ground the characters in the personalities that fans adored without making them static is spot-on—so by the time “original scream team” hops in the Mystery Machine and drives to the Louisiana bayou, you’re every bit as along for the ride as they are. As they get to know friendly locals Lena and Simone, who warn them that the area is haunted by the ghost of pirate Captain Morgan Moonscar, the film hits all the classic beats—Scooby and Shaggy feast on gumbo, Daph and Freddie banter, and Velma berates her buddies for not paying enough attention to the clues. Some groovy new traditions are also established—for example, chase sequences set to high-energy rock anthems (do I have “Terror Time” downloaded to my iPhone? You bet I do).**
The big draw of Zombie Island was proclaimed in its tagline: “This time, the monsters are real.”
The franchise had played with this theme in previous releases such as Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School and Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf. However, these films focused on Scooby and Shaggy rather than the whole gang—and many of them boasted more comic tones akin to what one might see on the Saturday morning cartoons of the era (especially Ghoul School, whose “real monsters” were affable, adorable tween girls). Zombie Island played the “real monsters” card not for camp or kitsch, but for true horror. The scene where Fred apprehends one of the zombies and yanks on his head, attempting to “unmask” him but slowly realizing that he’s grabbing at actual decaying flesh, was always a heart-stopping moment for my young self—and yet I looked forward to the thrill. After all, it was way more exciting than Sheriff Jenkins swooping in a la Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and hauling the stock evildoers away in handcuffs.
The real appeal of Zombie Island, however, wasn’t the fact that the “monsters” were real, but that there were an absolute heck-ton of them. Not only is the bayou home to the ghost of Captain Morgan Moonscar—oh, and overrun by the titular horde of zombies, who range from lower-ranking pirates to deceased tourists with cameras around their necks. There’s also the lone spirit of a Confederate soldier, not to mention a bevy of non-supernatural “bad guys” like standoffish gardener Beau, gruff fisherman Snakebite Scruggs, and Scruggs’ fierce pet hog (introduced via the ever-haunting line “This here’s my huntin’ pig, MOJOOO,” which my cousin and I quote to this day). The stakes somehow get even higher with the big reveal in act three—while Beau is not a foe but an undercover detective, and Scruggs and Mojo are simply chaotic neutral, our new Southern belle BFFs Lena and Simone are actually undead werecats who colonized the island in the 1600s and now preserve their immortality by sacrificing human lives to their feline deity every harvest moon.
On one hand, this “monster menagerie” trope is delightful simply for its entertainment value. If you’re a fan of Scooby-Doo, chances are you’re at least partly watching for the chaos, the ooky spooky spectacle—so the more baddies, the better. On the other hand, the film’s complexity felt like a compliment to children’s intelligence. On paper, the plot of Zombie Island might seem overly twisty, but given that so much of children’s entertainment talks down to its audience, each of those twists was more than welcome. Later Scooby films like Cyberchase and Monsters Unleashed would deploy multiple monsters as well—but these would be more straightforward family-friendly slashers, with the foes portrayed mainly as dumb, hulking obstacles to be defeated by our heroes. Zombie Island hurled a tome of backstory and lore at our young minds and trusted that we would be able to follow along—and we stepped up to the plate.
The real secret of Zombie Island: underneath the layers of sensationalism is a sense of home. The film is at once a faithful tribute to older Scooby-Doo programming and a blueprint for the Zillennial darlings that would succeed it (such as Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost and Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders), featuring all the familiar jokes, catchphrases, and plot points that have allowed Scooby-Doo to remain culturally relevant for decades. Thus, to the grown-up viewer with a long-standing love of Mystery, Inc., rewatching it becomes a transcendent experience. Just as the gang steps away from their adult lives to return to the Mystery Machine, you return to an era when your biggest fear was whether or not the Ghost of Morgan Moonscar would materialize to jeer and wave his sword again. Baptized by the murky bayou waters, Shaggy, Daphne, and co. are once again “those meddling kids”—and you, resplendent in the blue light of your laptop as you watch the film on Netflix (in much higher definition), are once again the child sinking between the cushions of your living room sofa, eyes glued to the screen with rhapsodic glee.
*The other four: the live action Madeleine adaptation, Freaky Friday (2003), The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas, and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.
**It should be noted that Zombie Island marks the beginning of Scooby-Doo’s association with the notorious pop punk genre, which persisted throughout the 2000s. When Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! premiered in the ’60s, its chase scenes were accompanied by lighthearted pop songs in the style of The Monkees. These tunes were always catchy, but well aware of their own goofiness. The new iteration of Scooby swapped this staple for rock, typically pop punk—a subgenre that could add both silliness and suspense to the show’s most action-packed sequences. The songs featured on Zombie Island—“The Ghost is Here” and “Terror Time,” both by the elusive Skycycle—are every bit as entertaining as the original show’s soundtrack. With on-the-nose lyrics like “It doesn’t matter where we go, we know/A ghost is gonna show” and “Here comes the really scary part,” it serves both humor and terror in equal portions. This musical trend would continue with subsequent direct-to-video film Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost, which would introduce iconic fictional rockers The Hex Girls, and TV show What’s New Scooby-Doo?, which would feature cameos from real-life stars like Simple Plan and Relient K. Looking back at this history, it’s no wonder that many of today’s edgiest teens twenty-somethings went through high school “edgy” phases.