A shrouded body rises from the dead. A man, silhouetted against the sun, points a revolver and shoots. “The boat can leave now… tell the crew”. This classic scene opens one of the great Italian horror films, Zombie, directed by Italian horror master Lucio Fulci. I selected this review as a fast follow-up to the Zombie Holocaust (1981) review, as I felt compelled to constantly compare Holocaust against this gem. In 1979, not beholden to US copyright law, this movie was released as Zombi 2. Enjoying forgiving copy-write laws, Zombi 2 was intended to be an unofficial sequel to George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead.
When writing reviews, I often call back to the days of old independent video stores. No global network of existed that provided infinite information on demand. The only outlets for any horror movie buffs came in print, like Fangoria magazine. Subsequently, the only thing that determined whether or not a movie got selected was the box art on the VHS cover. The cover of Zombie jumped out immediately as one to behold. The cover said everything that I needed.
Unveiling a Legend – Lucio Fulci
Lucio Fulci has long been regarded as an Italian horror master. He is most famous for his ‘Gates of Hell’ series, but Zombie served as his announcement to the world. He manages to couple tired zombie movie cliches with an auteur directorial approach to create a fantastic little horror movie. Much like the opening scene, it emanates an abundance of memorable iconography such as the ‘Conquistador’ zombie that graces the VHS cover. In short, this film easily overcome its imperfections. Additionally, Fabrio Frizzi lends a soundtrack that rivals Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead in creating a universal sense of dread throughout the film.
A Zombie Story
To begin, a ghost ship sails into a New York harbor. Consequently, two police officers board the craft and find a walking corpse. Reporter Peter West, played by Ian Mculloch, jumps on the story. He tracks down Anne Bowles, played by Tisa Farrow, to get more information. Anne’s father owns the boat. She explains that she knows nothing, and that her father has not contacted her in some time. Together, Anne and Peter charter a boat to the remote island of Matul to investigate. Thereupon, they encounter Dr. David Menard, played by Richard Johnson. The doctor has been researching the phenomenon of zombie reanimation on the island.
Zombie Copycat Holocaust
With the exception of some minor details, the plot summary of Zombie and Holocaust are nearly identical. This difference is artful development of the plot. Fulci’s film takes more time to develop and support the plot with interesting scenes making it far more engaging. We are not talking Stanley Kubrick level here, but it is clear that Fulci has more to offer than Marino Giorlami on Holocaust.
Zombie Versus Shark
One would be hard-pressed to review without mentioning the iconic undead versus shark battle. On they way to Matul, First Mate Susan Kelly decides to stop for a quick scuba dive. In the water, she encounters an extremely large tiger shark. She hides against a reef when out of the blue depths a zombie attacks her. Quickly, the shark and ghoul engage allowing Susan to make her escape to the surface. Unsurprisingly, old production rumors suggest that the crew heavily drugged the shark during the scene.
Fulci, A Man with a Mark
A trademark stamp that Fulci puts on his horror movies is slow graphic kill scene. These scenes are designed so that the viewer can hardly look away from, but conversely, can hardly watch. A ghoul attacks Dr. Menard’s wife, Paola, while breaking through her bedroom door. Clutching her, the ghoul slowly pulls her toward to the broken door, lining her eye up with a large broken splint. The scene progresses at a torturing pace. Everyone knows the conclusion as it slowly inches closer. The result nauseates in full graphic galore. Fulci nails this scene, as hard as it is to watch.
Rise Zombies, Rise
As the movie progresses, illness ravages the island and more and more dead come to bear on the protagonists. The natives believe that voodoo magic brings the raises the dead. Dr. Menard believes that medicine explains this phenomenon. Eventually, the problem expands beyond the recent dead. An ancient conquistador cemetery comes to life. The pressure mounts and eventually culminates into a do-or-die stand-off, Dr. Menard and the Americans pinned in an old barn. The movie concludes on a somber tone as an army of undead descends on New York.
Both Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson have deep roots in Italian horror cinema. Johnson also appears in the 1974 Italian possession film, Beyond the Door and another favorite, The Island of the Fishmen (1979). Ian McCulloch would later appear in the inferior, but mostly entertaining Zombie Holocaust. The role of Dr. Menard reamins one of his most memorable horror performances.
For its apparent low-budget, the production crew manages to create effective ghouls. Conversely, the undead makeup is does not compete with the work of modern masters, but overall they present a disquieting and menacing villain. Some ghouls show better than other, but overall they feel convincing. These special effects trounce those in Holocaust, and likely didn’t cost any more to create. The rise of the ‘Conquistador’, see poster, sickens as a mass of earthworms tumble from his eye sockets. Effective use of cameras and lighting hide many of the imperfections.
Any serious horror fan eventually runs across Italian horror films. Lucio Fulci makes some of the best. Fulci provides a great example of his directorial talents, and this film makes for a great place to start on the journey into Italian horror cinema. In conclusion, Zombie not only exemplifies great foreign horror, but a great zombie movie in the ever increasing catalog of all zombie movies.