Zombie was producer Fabrizio De Angelis and director Lucio Fulci’s unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, cranked out long before Romero’s film could obtain cult cachet, let alone financial wherewithal enough to warrant its own legit sequel, Day of the Dead. Because Dawn of the Dead had been distributed in Italy as Zombi, Fulci’s film was released there as Zombi 2. Internationally, it was known by a bewildering litany of alternative titles, including Zombie Flesh Eaters, Island of the Living Dead, L’enfer des Zombies, and Woodoo. Under any title, Zombie lacks Romero’s allegorical undercurrents and horror-comedy hybridization, substituting instead a streamlined narrative that owes a substantial debt to H. G. Well’s Island of Doctor Moreau and an all-encompassing mood of claustrophobic desolation. Taken on its own terms, it works quite agreeably as a visceral blow to the breadbasket, with one of the most outrageous and apocalyptic final scenes in the entirety of the subgenre.
Zombie‘s eerie opening gives the nod to Nosferatu with an unmanned yacht drifting into New York Harbor. A routine search of the abandoned craft turns up a beefy zombie that has apparently devoured the entire crew. Journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch) teams up with the daughter of the yacht’s owner, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, Mia’s younger sister), for an investigation into her father’s disappearance that leads them to the sundrenched Caribbean, where they enlist a nautically inclined couple, Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gray), in search of the uncharted island of Matool, but not before Susan takes time out to dabble in a little topless scuba diving. When she runs afoul of an overly inquisitive tiger shark, Zombie sinks to the level of a third-rate Jaws rip-off (by 1979, the Italian film industry was no stranger to these). That is, the shark goes tooth-to-tooth with one of the undead. The first of Zombie‘s jaw-dropping set pieces is a bathetic bit of Busby Berkeley-in-a-bathysphere.
The foursome arrives on Matool, only to discover a plague of zombies has overtaken the island. Resident medico Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson) works at finding a cure from an impromptu infirmary set up in the ramshackle mission church, but, since his failure rate approaches one hundred percent, he usually winds up swaddling and binding the recently deceased before putting a round into their enshrouded heads. Over at the Menard compound, Dr. Dave’s inebriated wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) decides to take a conveniently timed shower. Call it a shout-out to Psycho, if you will, or just another exploitative opportunity for gratuitous nudity. In true slasher fashion, and shot with what we’ll have to call a zombie-cam, one of the living dead spies on Paola through the bathroom window, before moving indoors to grab a little face time. In Zombie‘s most unforgettable scene, the creature smashes through a jalousie door and slowly (oh so slowly) draws Paola’s head toward a long, jagged splinter, eventually impaling her eyeball in gruesomely realistic fashion. Even worse, the splinter breaks off in her eye as Paola’s head is drawn through the opening.
As the wind howls and dust storms rage, a trademark Fulci ambiance, by the way, fresh (and not-so-fresh) cadavers rise up from their graves, laying siege to the ragtag bunch of survivors holed up in the infirmary. Some of the film’s most inventive shots are from zombie-cam POV, as the dead rise, shake off clods of dirt, and slouch toward the mission church. Attacks come fast and furious now, setting a frenzied pace that later zombie films like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive will utilize to infinitely more comic effect. By film’s end, only one couple remains, fighting their way back to Brian’s crippled ship. Adrift on the open sea, they catch a radio broadcast from New York. As it will in every mid-period Fulci film, hell has broken loose, and zombie hordes have overrun the outlying boroughs. In the fantastic final shots, as the panic-stricken newscaster narrates the zombie invasion of his radio station, a mass of zombies cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.
Although I’m usually loath to indulge in criticism as autobiography, I must admit to feeling a certain affinity for Zombie. Doubtless this has to do with the simple fact that I was taken to see the film as a terribly impressionable eight-year-old by my mother, who, to make matters that much weirder, was at the time a Catholic schoolteacher. Maybe it was meant as an object lesson in the mysteries of the Eucharist (“Take, eat. This is my body”), but somehow I rather doubt that. Whatever the intent, Fulci’s splatterific piece of sordid cinema sheared open my brainpan and rewired my wetworks, inculcating in me a lifelong love of horror films, especially those of the extreme and/or gory sort.
Blue Underground's 1080p transfer is as clean and bright as the film has ever looked. Blacks can get crushed on occasion, and there are varying levels of grain, but the colors and fine detail are rendered with remarkable fidelity and intensity, especially the deep reds. The audio component is presented in a diverse assortment of options: English and Italian 7.1, 5.1 and mono tracks, as well as an audio commentary track. For the purposes of review, I stuck with the 7.1 Master Audio lossless track. It may be frontloaded, meaning the surround channels don't get much of a workout, but sound effects (mainly the many gunshots) and Fabio Frizzi's score (combining synthesizer and native drumbeat) are presented with a full and robust centrality.
A boatload. In fact, enough for an entire second Blu-ray disc: On disc one, there's a commentary track with star Ian McCulloch and zombie film expert Jay Slater, as well as trailers, TV and radio spots, and a poster and still gallery. Disc two contains almost two hours' worth of on-camera interviews, new to the Blu-ray edition and presented in HD, reflecting on the making and legacy of Zombie. "Zombie Wasteland" offers reminiscences from stars Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, and Al Cliver recorded for the occasion of Zombie's 30th anniversary reunion at the Cinema Wasteland expo. Best bit: McCulloch describes Fulci as resembling an Italian Benny Hill. "Deadtime Stories" is a fascinating foray into the conception and writing of the script, from husband and wife team Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti, who also penned Fulci's The House by the Cemetery. "World of the Dead," "Zombi Italiano," and "Notes on a Headstone" delve into the cinematography, production design, makeup and special effects, and soundtrack, respectively—all in a good bit of detail, which is in keeping with such a makeup- and effects-heavy film.
Fulci fans and zombie film zealots alike will want to devour Blue Underground's Zombie 2-Disc Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray.