Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Richard Johnson
George Romero's Dawn of the Dead(1979) was a massive success internationaly and spawned a vast number of imitators, perhaps more so than the previously heralded, Night of the Living Dead(1968). The addition of stomach churning gore and violence made the film very popular with the rising "splatterhound" groups and many rip-offs were made, notably in Italy. This was the most famous of the Romero imitations and light years away in it's execution. There's no subtlety, no political commentary, social or otherwise, just a focus on the red stuff and as many exploitation elements as possible. Director Lucio Fulci could be a good stylist, borrowing atmosphere and imagery that at times were comparable with Italy's leading horror-meisters, Mario Bava and Dario Argento. However, even in his best work, his scripts were often lacking and his handling of actors non-existant. Plus, while the gore in his films are what make them famous(he was dubbed the "Godfather of Gore") they often appear to take away from the atmosphere and feel too obvious and unneccesary. His best film, The Beyond(1981) was an otherwise creepy little movie that was hindered by the use of forced bloodshed, even though the film's justifiably famous shot of a magnum bullet piercing light through a zombie's head is really something else!
This is probably Fulci's most famous movie, for it contains several moments that have endeared themselves to gorehounds. It also is famous for being released as Zombi 2, in it's native Italy, in an attempt to make it seem like a sequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was called Zombi in Europe. The movie begins with the shot of a shrouded corpse and a revolver pointed right at the viewer that fires and blows a hole in the head of the corpse! An offscreen voice says, "the boat may leave now." Literally starting with a bang, the film opens with that bit of violence and continues, following a small boat that enters New York harbor and is investigated by the harbor patrol, who find it empty, with the exception of a rotting fat zombie who looks like Curly Joe Derita and promptly attacks the cops, killing one, before being riddled with bullets. Not much happens foe awhile, except a reporter named Peter West(Ian McCulloch) investigates the case and finds out that a young woman named Anne Bowles(Tisa Farrow) has connections to the derelict vessel,a s it was owned by her doctor father. They decide to go together to an island named Matul, where he was last known to be, and sail there with another couple, Brian Hull( Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett(Auretta Gay).
For no apparent reason, other than random titilation(the best kind!), Susan strips down to a white thong and decides to do some topless scuba-diving! In the film's most ridiculous scene, she is attacked underwater by a seaweed encrusted zombie, whom she fights off with some handy coral. She gets away, because, ta-da, a shark has come to her aid! He fights the zombie, even as the zombie bites him(zombie shark?) and takes a chunk out of him, but Jaws is too tough and manages to rip the zombie's arm off! I admit that it's pretty tough for any movie to top something like that, but the film does indeed try. Meanwhile, on the island we learn about the experiments of one Dr. David Menard(Richard Johnson) who is trying to figure out why the dead are returning from their graves, even if he knows that it is impossible. It was wise of the filmmakers to not involve much of an explanation, remaining like the Romero films, very vague in the origin of the walking dead. Voodoo is brought up, but only momentarily. Menard has a beautiful wife on the island, Paola(Olga Karlatos), who only exists to engage in some soap opera histrionics with Johnson, take a really long and wonderfully shot shower (kudos to the cinematographer here for the use of multiple mirrors in that scene!) and get involved in the most famous(and dumbest, and boy is that saying alot) scene in the entire picture, where her eye is dragged into a giant splinter by invading zombies! I've always hated this scene, I mean, where the hell are her hands?! It's gruesome alright, but also very stoopid.
Well, the two couples arrive and Brian is smart enough to carry a rifle with him, which is probably the smartest thing this character(if I can call him that) does in the entire movie. They meet the "good" doctor and he explains what happened to Anne's father. He was taken by the disease that was ravaging the island and was shot by Menard, turning out to be the corpse we saw in the beginning. Menard cannot explain what's going on, but asks that they check up on his wife. The group does and discovers a truly disgusting scene of some very lethargic zombies munching on poor Olga. These zombies are so slow and tired they can barely raise the pieces of flesh towards their mouths. The group hightails it out of there and on the way back to the village, hit a zombie(man, that reads really funny on here) and Peter gets a broken ankle, and uh-oh, they have to go on foot! They run through the jungle(cue Credence Clearwater Revival) and Peter and Anne stop briefly for some hanky panky in, of all places, a graveyard, where predictably, the dead rise from their graves! Admittebly, this is a really well done scene and quite creepy, for these are no ordinary living dead, but dead conquistadores who look truly awesome. The zombie from the cover art, surely one of the most frightening and iconic in genre history, puts the bite on Susan in one disturbing neck biting sequence, lunging for the camera! This scene really scared me as a kid and it's still one that gives me the willies. Brian blasts a few holes into it's torso, before Peter smashes it's head apart with a tombstone! Another notable steal from the Romero series is that the dead must be killed by destroying the brain, though in most cases this involves exploding the head! Whoever said less was more?
The group arrive back at the village by nightfall and hold up in the old mission, where the doctor and his two assistants are. The zombies, who have slowly been moving towards the village and I mean, slowly, are descending upon the mission. The group barricade the place in typical zombie movie fashion and make molotov cocktails and arm themselves, though Menard gets bitten when he goes to his study for a shotgun, thus losing the film's best actor. What follows is a drawn out but fun sequence with the characters wasting hordes of zombies with mixed results. Some shots, like a zombie and trapdoor exploding by a shotgun blast are just really cool, but the edting here is often hilarious. The sole black dude, one of Menard's assistants, also provides the funniest face of any actor i've ever seen that got bitten by a zombie. Practically had me in stitches! Well, the three of the boat are the only ones that get out, as the mission burns down and just before they reach the boat, Susan returns as a zombie and bites Brian on the arm. Peter shoots her dead and they get to the boat, where Brain succumbs and is locked up, ready for zombiedom, as if his performance wasn't an indication already that he was a member of the living dead. Peter and Anne put on some tunes and instead get a radio bulletin that the dead have taken over New York City! It's very creepily done, though the "bazookas will be used if neccesary" line on the radio broadcast never fails to get a laugh out of me. The final shot is just great and truly eerie, though, as the dead stagger across the Manhattan bridge into New York. A truly awesome final shot to a truly ludicrous little movie.
Zombie is far from being a classic movie, as many modern film fans have made it out to be. It has a pretty shallow plot, though the island setting and the slight voodoo elements do recall earlier, superior efforts like the classics, White Zombie(1932) and I Walked with a Zombie(1943). The characterization is pretty weak, as the few actors that generate any real emotion are McCulloch and Johnson, who were veterans already before this film. Johnson, in particular, had been a very high profile performer, including the lead role as the paranormal researcher who investigates the supernatural goings-on in the brilliant, The Haunting(1963). He is professional and competant, but feels out of place. McCulloch would appear in several other Italian films such as Zombie Holocaust(1979) and Contamination(1980), bringing a healthy dose of seriousness to those pictures when most needed. The other actors are rather abysmal, however. Farrow proves she is nothing like her sister, Mia and seems to have the same vacant expression throughout(like a zombie?) and Cliver has no personality whatsoever, though he does handle a gun pretty well. Karlatos and Gay are just here merely as window dressing, and probably as part of that sad chain of gruesomely murdered women that would proliferate alot of Fulci films, which many consider to be a pretty heavy streak of mysoginist undertones. Still, they provide the requiste T&A required for such an exploitation picture and gratutious female nudity is like a man's best friend, dogs excluded.
It's easy to be tough on this movie for it's many shortcomings. Zombie just dosen't have the characters or realism that Romero brought to his movies and in many ways, films like this prove just how special those Living Dead films really were. However, this film has a certain kind of "fun" feeling to it for the gorehound and has been pushed to the realms of a classic in that crowd. It contains all the right elements for a "beer-night" extravaganza, that being boobs, blood and corny acting, couples with a few shocks and scares and a music score you will be humming for days. (Though i'm still trying to get The Creature From The Black Lagoon theme out of my head) For what it's worth, this is enjoyable nonsense, not to be taken too seriously and probably the best introduction to the wild and crazy world of Italian splatter films.