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Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island: Still The Best the Franchise Has To Offer

There’s always some risk involved when revisiting something you loved growing up. What once thrilled us as children often loses some of its appeal as we grow older—or worse, we realize that a childhood favorite is nowhere near as good as we remember it being. So it was with a little bit of apprehension that I approached the idea of rewatching Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island for its twenty-fifth anniversary, as the film was a personal favorite of mine growing up.

The Scooby-Doo franchise isn’t just one I love, it’s a foundational piece of both my love of horror and my love of animation alike (and thanks to Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost, likely to blame for my soft spot for goth women). Some of my best memories from growing up were the Saturday mornings spent at the edge of my parent’s bed, watching the reruns of classic Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. cartoons that Cartoon Network would air on the weekends. Those Cartoon Network reruns were in fact what led the franchise back to a late ’90s resurgence in popularity, after a number of follow-up iterations of the show that led to increasingly diminished returns and would eventually wind down in 1991 with A Pup Named Scooby-Doo.

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island actually started life as a direct-to-video movie, ordered by Time Warner to try and capitalize on this newfound popularity. The film would prove to be one that effectively brought the franchise roaring back to life: a new series would come four years later and Zombie Island would prove to be the first of over thirty direct-to-video films made for the franchise.

Velma holding a spatula, next to the words "Maelstrom" and "Beware"

From its very first moments, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island strikes a near-perfect balance between the classic feel of the original show while also pulling it in a darker, more compelling direction. The film opens on the all too familiar scene of the gang investigating a run-down gothic castle, only to reveal it as simply a story being retold by Daphne. She’s promoting her investigative journalism show, and the gang has since gone their separate ways.

Fortunately, it isn’t too long before they’re reunited as a birthday present for Daphne put together by Fred, then it’s off on a cross-country road trip to try and find footage of the real-life supernatural for her show. The group’s first few efforts wind up being a string of the usual wires and projectors and men in masks, but a seemingly chance encounter in New Orleans leads them to Moonscar Island, with the promise of honest-to-god ghosts. What follows is a slow-burning mystery, with one encounter after another evading any rational explanation, culminating in the reveal that the island is infested by real-life zombies—and something far worse.

First things first: the animation on Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is often breathtakingly gorgeous, with production being handled by Mook Animation—if the name isn’t familiar, just know t they are the studio behind the legendary Aeon Flux among other titles. The bayou of Moonscar Island feels both gorgeous and ominous in equal measure with a healthy flavoring of Southern Gothic, while the zombies and werecats are exquisitely grotesque.

A zombie wearing pirate looking clothes, holding its head

This animation is paired with one of the Scooby-Doo franchise’s best stories: a compelling, multilayered mystery that takes one unexpected turn after another. It’s not “Scooby-Doo for adults” in the sense that something like, say, Velma attempts to be, but it is a darker, scarier, more mature feeling tale than the relatively lighthearted romps of previous shows. Even the main cast gets slightly more weight to their characters, most notably Daphne’s natural feeling transition away from a relative ditz to a fairly accomplished career woman and journalist.

But what truly makes Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island stand out to this day is the genuine terror it invokes, especially for a younger audience. As the mystery of Moonscar Island unfolds, the usual mix of scares with gags gives way to a sense of actual danger. Daphne might have gone looking for real life ghosts, but when the gang actually finds them, they’re clearly in way over their heads—and it feels like they almost don’t make it out alive.

Something that should also be noted: the villains in question. From the original Scooby-Doo Where Are You? through most of the show’s following incarnations, the villains featured were overwhelmingly older men, usually motivated by trying to scare off locals while they looked for some hidden treasure or fortune. Even when Fred is trying to unmask one of the zombies, the three suspects he lists off are the other men they’ve encountered on Moonscar Island: the gardener, the fisherman, and the ferryman.

A close up of Simone's face in the middle of her transformation

Instead, we get a pair of very alluring and very deadly women in Lena and Simone, originally motivated to avenge their fellow settlers killed when Morgan Moonscar and his gang of pirates invaded the island. I don’t know whether or not the creative team was looking to make any sort of statement with their choice of villains, but it’s fascinating to note that the modern era of Scooby-Doo was kicked off by what was at the time the two most powerful villains the gang had faced that stood out against an overwhelmingly male cast of villains.

Does Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island still scare me the same way it did when I first saw it years ago in my childhood? I can’t say that it does, but it’s still a film I greatly enjoy to this day. Plus, watching it from a more experienced, more critical perspective has given me an even greater appreciation of the film’s strengths, things like the quality of animation and story that you don’t really think about too deeply when you’re younger—plus the film’s chase song remains one of the best that the series has to offer. The Scooby-Doo franchise is one that’s still going strong to this day, but Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island remains a high point for the franchise that to this date, no other entry has ever been able to best.

Written by Timothy Glaraton

Writer. Editor. U of M Graduate.

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