Zombie (1979) – A Descent into Italian Horror

4.5 out of 5 stars

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.

Zombie (1974) - Attack on New YorkBack in the Day

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 - Zombie Versus Shark
Zombie Versus Shark

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.

Zombie - Lucio Fulci Hates Eyes
Please Don’t!

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.

Familiar Characters

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.

Special Effects

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Zombie Holocaust (1980) – A Memorable and Gory Forgery

1.5 out of 5 stars

Zombie Holocaust, not to be confused with…

Anyone that has succumbed to the curse of loving horror movies quickly learns that getting a fix is a problem. In the United States, there are only so many movies to choose from. Of those, many bow to a prescribed box-office formula. Eventually hardcore horror fans must look for international dealers. Italy produces some the best. The truth is, Italy makes very good zombie movies. Arguably, Italian director Lucio Fulci created one of the greatest zombie movies NOT directed by George Romero, Zombie. Zombie Holocaust is another movie and another matter entirely.

This article reviews 1981’s Zombie Holocaust. Incidentally, this film stars Ian McCulloch, who also starred in Zombie. Marino Girolami directs Zombie Holocaust. The producers released this film in the United States as Dr. Butcher MD. Dr. Butcher MD contains edits not in the Italian version. This review specifically covers the original Zombie Holocaust in its unedited form. Marino Girolami steals from way better Italian zombie movies. But, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to enjoy in this film.

Template for Italian Horror

For those not initiated in Italian horror, there are several attributes that one must understand. First, Italian horror films often feature gratuitous nudity. Second, these films supply plenty of gore. Occasionally, Italian horror films offer a vibrant art-house aesthetic. Other times, they appear as if they were created on $500 dollar budget. Periodically, these movies accompany a wonderful soundtrack. Zombie Holocaust has nudity and gore in spades. No one confuses this film with art and the soundtrack is inconsequential at best.

Zombie Holocaust - Cannibal Chop
Cannibal Chop

A Familiar Plot

To begin, a mysterious man sneaks into a morgue to steal the hand off of a corpse. Subsequently, the staff determines that the mysterious man works as an orderly. To their horror, they learn that he consumes the bodies of the dead. Upon being caught, the orderly throws himself from the hospital window, committing suicide. Disturbed, Dr. Lori Ridgeway reports the events to expert Dr. Peter Chandler, played by Ian McCulloch. Accordingly, Peter explains to her that these events have been occurring in other city hospitals.

Lori Ridgeway continues to see a specific tribal marking associated with cannibal tribes from the Asian Pacific. The preponderance of evidence points to a tribal cult on a remote island. As a result, Lori, Dr. Peter Chandler and others travel to the island to unravel the mystery. Upon arrival, the team meets the mysterious Dr. Obrero. Obrero offers the team support, but likewise hides a sinister secret.

It’s a common occurrence in Italian zombie cinema to recycle zombie tropes. Not surprising, the setup Marino Girolami constructs very much resembles the setup of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. Certainly, there are nuances that make this film unique. Marino Girolami adds and element of cannibalism. That being said, the movie still largely involves a group of unlikely Americans treading on tribal lands that they do not belong.

Zombie Holocaust - Lame Special Effects
Pure Garbage

Zombie Holocaust – Special Effects

The special effects for eviscerated dead bodies looks believable. For this reason, I suspect the use of real animal entrails for these shots. The makeup for the walking dead disappoints at every opportunity. In fact, a 9 year old could make better zombies with a $20 makeup kit. However, Every once in a while Zombie Holocaust stumbles on bright spot. For example, Peter uses an Evinrude at one point motor to defend himself against zombie. That scene plays as cool as it sounds. Moreover, Dr. Obrero’s brain surgery scenes make the viewer cringe as he peels back the scalp.

Zombie Holocaust – A Thinly Veiled Forgery

Zombie Holocaust steals from way better Italian zombie movies. But, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to like. For example, the film unintentionally produces some laughs. Additionally,  some scenes offer stomach turning special effects. As a result, I happen to enjoy this film. But, I have a sickness for Italian zombie movies. Overall, the performances are weak, the script is dull, the cinematography is flat. The gore has its up and downs. If the goal is to seek the pinnacle of Italian zombie cinema, skip this one and go straight to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. For fans that just ran out of content and need a fix, this may do.