ZOMBIE poster



If the Italians were this successful with invasions during WWII, we’d all be speaking Italian!  Mike Baronas brings the invasion to Chiller for a record 5th time, and with it, ZOMBIE’s Ian McCulloch.


My first experience with ZOMBIE was at X’s house.  Long before the living dead became my obsession, I came across the clamshell VHS there, among thousands of other tapes.  This was long before DVD and digital downloads, and the popularity of the word “SPOILERS.’  He popped the box off the shelf and suggested I read the back;  upon which I found the summary described the entire plot, detail for detail, right down to the end of the film.  We straightaway sat down to watch it, and my experience was absolutely surprise-free.  As for the movie itself, I found it corny at times, cheaply made, a poor man’s version of a Romero flick.  It took me a second viewing, years later on DVD, to see ZOMBIE for what it is, a decent zombie flick that suffers from radical over-praising, but delivers the goods.


As I hate to put the word “SPOILERS”  in reviews, I’ll give you just the bare minimum plot.  It starts with a close up of a revolver, as Dr. Menard shoots a rising thing wrapped tight in sheets and rope.  Transition to a boat that shows up in a New York harbor, seemingly abandoned.  When the police arrive to check it out, a fat, pasty zombie is onboard, and he’s hungry.  A newspaper mogul sends his best reporter Peter West to a Caribbean island where the mad scientist has been conducting some strange work.  The dead are coming back to life, and things are about to get ugly for Dr. Menard, West and his love interest Anne Bowles, and every living person on earth.




Staid McCulloch and always fun Cliver




There’s an important division I have to mention before I proceed.  Fans of the undead fall into two opposing categories: fans of the Italian zombie, and those of the American zombie.  The Italian lot are a lot more forgiving when it comes to poor acting, lousy special effects, plot holes.  In fact, they love the wilder, more fantastic flicks that are among the worst of the genre.  For them, the gorier the better.  Above all, they worship Lucio Fulci.  They prefer him to George Romero, an act of outright heresy to the American lot.  I fall squarely into the American camp, and my zombies are red, white and in DAWN OF THE DEAD blue.  So I’ve always considered Fulci overrated.  A genius with a camera, yes, who produced some beautiful looking horror films, but a director who  relishes in gaudy sadism and can’t tell a story worth spit.  But ZOMBIE is a little more linear than most of  his work (probably because Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti wrote the script, without any input from Fulci himself), and as a spaghetti take on Romero, it’s actually a lot of fun in spots.


A large part of that I credit to its more outrageous scenes.  Among them:  an underwater zombie attacks a shark, as a topless scuba diver watches;  a siege on a hut that involves insane gun play, and setting extras on fire;  and the legendary scene with actress Olga Karlatos and the splinter.  Fulci goes all out to deliver an action-packed experience, and these wildly over the top scenes make up for some of the slower parts, of which there are many.  They’re fun, and they dare to go where no one had ever taken a zombie flick before.  Fulci was pushing the envelope, especially with the aquatic scene;  that’s not a dummy or some fancy camera trick, but a real actor in zombie makeup against a real bull shark.  Even fans have never heard of Fulci before likely know these scenes.





Shark vs. Zombie




Though a little more subdued than usual for him, Fulci’s camerawork is beautiful as always.  He does a great shot of framing the oncoming zombies, and much of the tropical locality.  And there’s a sweet shot where he films characters far off in the distance, as a crab skitters sideways.  I’ve always said that Fulci was obsessed with long, narrow paths that represent the road to Hell (most prominent is the bridge in THE BEYOND), and her he captures many of them through his lens.


The film boasts an odd score, a somber piece that’s far removed from the Goblin/ library music of DAWN.  It’s synth driven, offbeat stuff that sells the downtrodden zombies long before they ever appear onscreen.


As for the zombies, most of them look pretty cool.  Ottaviano Dell’Acqua plays Worm Eye, the lead zombie with rotting teeth and flesh, worms dangling from his empty eye socket.  As for the rest, they’re a mixed bag.  Some are well done, somber, haunted versions of past lives, while others look as if they had an accident involving a fan and a bag of flour.  According to interviews, the special makeup effects team stayed far away from the blue Savini zombies of DAWN.  Some of those involved in the film state they’ve topped Savini in gore and realism, but that’s not an objective take at all.




Worm Eye





NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD opened up the door for gory effects that DAWN pushed even farther, and ZOMBIE takes the next logical step.  Zombies eat bodies both dead and alive, tear off limbs, and gouge out eyes;  humans do their fair share of damage too, blowing away and decapitating zombies with shotgun blasts.  Giannetto De Rossi, who did excellent work on LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, excels again here, creating sickening levels of bloodshed and attacks on the flesh.  It’s a little too close to real for my tastes, but gore hounds will certainly appreciate his masterful work.  Also too real for the British film board, who made the film an infamous video nasty.





Post-nasty re-release box art




The effects are a lot more realistic than the cardboard acting from much of the cast.  Tisa Farrow’s flat portrayal proves why she is the “other Farrow,” and Ian McCulloch looks weary at times, as if he knows this film is below him.  On the bright side, Richard Johnson is sinister as Dr. Menard, and Al Cliver is as enthusiastic as always, bringing a verve to his role.  And I have to make special mention of Olga Karlatos, one of my all-time faves from the Italian cycle.  She was born for one reason:  to dies in a Fulci films, which she does gloriously here.




Olga Karlatos born to die for Fulci




As with most Italian productions of the time, ZOMBIE suffers from a cast comprised of actors from different countries, speaking their native tongues to each other.  This can’t make acting easy for any actor.  It does the film no favors when the American dialogue is at times atrocious, and little effort goes into the dubbing.


One day I’ll upgrade to Blu-Ray, but for now I’m more than happy with my 2-disc DVD from Shriek Show.  It’s overstuffed with great extras, the first of which is McCulloch’s commentary on disc 1.  He’s informative, and gives plenty of anecdotes about working with the Italians.  Unfortunately, he really can’t offer much on scenes that don’t involve Peter West.  There’s also “Food for the Worms,” a 12 minute interview with Capt. Haggerty, a dog trainer who played the boat captain in the opening scenes.  This guy’s a gas, and shares some fun stories, including trying to pick up a stripper while wearing his zombie makeup.  A number of stills and the trailer round out the first disc.  Certainly fulfilling for fans of the film


Disc 2 sports a brief interview with the costume designer, and “An Evening with Dakar,” in which the actor sings and plays guitar (???).  There are also trailers for 9 other zombie flicks that Shriek Show distributes.  The meat of the disc is “Building a Better Zombie.”  At 1 hour 37 minutes, it covers all the behind the scenes stuff by way of interviews with much of the off-screen talent.  Most interesting is Sacchetti, who describes the two processes behind his script assignments, and how he came to write ZOMBIE.  He also explains how his father died at the time, and why his discomfort in writing about the rising dead led him to remove his name from the script.  The doc goes at Romero head on, as many discuss how DAWN had little effect on the script or the film itself.  But producer Fabrizi De Angelis basically says he wanted to emulate Romero, and went so far as to call it ZOMBI 2 when DAWN was released in Italy as ZOMBI;  so it’s a fair criticism.  (It’s also known as ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS in the UK, making it a two timer in the Horror Movie Relocation Program).




Delivering on the gore




A lot of people on this doc think they created a much better product than DAWN… well, whether you agree would depend on which category of zombie fan you fall under.  For me, both films have their merits and their downsides, but neither comes close to NIGHT.  Of course, these people paint a conflicting picture of Fulci, generous and kind in the view of some, a tortured sadist to others.  Dell’Acqua is the only actor who appears in the doc, but that’s okay, because we have Mike Baronas’ PAURA: LUCIO FULCI REMEMBERED, VOL. 1.  If this film is for you, “Building” and PAURA are necessary.



Mike Baronas is a lifelong Fulci fanatic, the mega-Italian spaghetti zombie fan.  He loves this film so much that he made  PAURA, an in-depth look at the maestro.  For Italian zombie fans, this film is the tops.  But even for disciples of Romero, ZOMBIE offers the goods.  It’s got great makeup effects, powerful gore, and Fulci’s lush camerawork.  And though the acting leaves something to be desired and the final shot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, it delivers for all zombie fans of all nationalities.


-Phil Fasso






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