So, how do you like your living dead? On the George Romero/American side - slow lumbering agents of death that remind us of ourselves as they slowly lunch on our innards. Or perhaps, you prefer your cannibal corpses leaning toward a more Mediterranean meatball variety, making up in gore for what they lack in social consciousness. Ever since the reanimated remains of human beings decided to rise up from the grave and turn the rest of the population into a raw red variety meat buffet, fans have argued over which marrow munchers truly make the grade. For many, unless Pittsburgh's favorite fright fiend fires up the flesh feasting, few are taking a terror trek (the "Dead" inspired sprinters of 28 Days Later excluded). But for others, the buckets of bloodletting championed by those redolent Romans with names like Bava and Fulci fill the barf bag very well. Lucio in particular has made an entire career out of showing the gooey results of somnambulant maggot sacks with an arterial score to settle. In such famously fabulous geek shows as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond and The City of the Living Dead (which obviously didn't get its name from the local Rotary Club) Fulci found a sure-fire way to mix the grotesque with the gratuitous to create uneasy splatter films of confident shock value.
Perhaps his most notorious nod to the sinister suet snackers is Zombie, about an island overrun with voodoo-vexed vivisectionists with a taste for community tang. Under either that Western moniker, or the also acceptable Zombi 2 (Romero's Dawn of the Dead carrying the 'e'-less title when it was released in Italy) this waterfall of weeping wounds and putrefying pedestrians ranks highly in the pantheon of puke pictures. And now thanks to Blue Underground, a sparkling anamorphic version of this depraved little exercise in excess can be re-experienced in all its brand new and glorious digital nastiness.
When her father's boat shows up in New York harbor sans pappy (and plus one overweight member of the walking dead) Anne Bowles tries to figure out what...or maybe who...happened to her dad. The fiend filled flotilla peaks reporter Peter West's editorial interest and it's not long before Annie and Pete team up and head for the sultry island of Matool, noted scientific research lab and reanimated corpse hangout. But first, they must find an available boat to locomote them and - wouldn't you know it - sassy sexed up couple Brian and Susan have a topless trawler just waiting to make Caribbean waves. But once they land on the mysterious atoll, they learn all is not paradise and pineapple chicken. Seems Anne's father's friend Dr. Manard has created a zombie plague, or at least the local witch doctors have accused him of creating a deadly disease and he is being punished by an outbreak of organ eaters. Either way, the natives are restless and hungry as Hell and it's not long before necks are gnawed on, entrails enjoyed and bullets are blasting brains out from flesh eater skulls with great goopy abandon. As the body count rises, we realize it's just another sunny day in the wet and wild waters of that Tropic of Terror known as Zombie.
Zombie is really not much of a horror film. Oh sure, it has hideous scenes that will churn your chum and a delightfully bleak outlook that curses the future of its put-upon heroes, but when you boil it down to its broad, bleached bones, it's really just a sideshow carnival cavalcade of freaks. The Fulci formula, infamous the world over, is in full effect here. For Lucio, the components are simple: Create a supernatural setting, add in some unaware outsiders, toss in a series of more and more spectacular scenes filled with garroting and grue (one of which almost always includes the eyes) and you've got a rather disconcertingly good time. Fans of good old fashion splatter (yours truly included) look to Fulci to forget about narrative logic, character traits and straightforward storytelling, as long as we get a drill bit through the head (in a continuous shot), a girl hurling up her entire internal workings and a few dozen maggot covered rotting rejects to amble about with little or no purpose. Unlike Dario Argento, who implies a kind of dream reasoning to his horrific visions or Mario Bava who kept his creations linked to the more artistic side of scary, Fulci went for flat-out filth and foulness and usually succeeded in blood-sprayed spades. Though many consider his bilious bayou barnburner The Beyond his best cinematic effort, there is no denying that Zombie holds a special place in the hierarchy of hardcore horror.
Every once in a while, a gore film comes along to challenge the corporeal constitution of true blue lovers of the disgusting. From Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast to George Romero's Dawn, from John Carpenter's The Thing to Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, it seems like every few years, a new pretender to the throne of the repulsive tries to alter the threshold of extremism. Years later, when the newness has worn off and the double daring has ended, we truly see the simple, sensational elements that now no longer seem so intense. Strange then that, even though they are somewhat dated by their fashions and locales, Fulci's splatter-fests are timeless in their acute tastelessness. Zombie today still has scenes that overwork the seen-it-all seriousness of most well honed death diggers. Similarly to the dour Day of the Dead (with its cornucopia of clots and sadistic living dead experiments) Zombie looks directly into the heart of darkness and takes out a nice big juicy chunk out of it. Though not as expertly dressed in the doom he floats over many of his other films (especially The Beyond), Fulci's tropical terror trip still finds ways to subvert expectations as it plays directly into those the gorehound expects. There is no attempted reinvention here, no desire on Lucio's part to placate the pussies by turning down the dreck. Fulci feels that the only good horror film is one that is absolutely soaked in the sanguine shivers. And Zombie gives us plenty of reasons to be repulsed.
The sideshow sentiment stated before is an accurate one. Fulci uses a basic plot (a couple of scientists on a tropical island get in Dutch with the natives and voodoo fu ensues) to adorn and drape his classically offensive set pieces upon, and then pushes everything up a couple of corrupt notches further. Of course this means that, during the time between blood baths, the audience is simply sitting around, regaining its resolve before the next nauseating nibblet comes along. And during the horror hiatus, there's not much to engage us. We could care less if Tisa Farrow ever finds her father, if Ian McCulloch gets his story or if the island medico, Dr. Menard, discovers a cure for the "zombie" plague. These issues are just cinematic window dressing, place savers and snack bar pit stops along the withered way to future fetidness. Indeed, Zombie plays a lot like the classic exploitation films of the past, using its outrageous notoriety to ease an eager viewer over the obvious rough spots. Rumors that the film was made to capitalize on Dawn of the Dead's success (read – blatant rip-off) seem salient, especially when the producers attempted to call it an outright sequel (thus the whole Zombi/Zombi 2 mess). But aside from a spectacular ending which turns the small scale circumstances of Zombie absolutely epic, the rest of this film is just filler, never amounting to very much.
Of course, this doesn't mean that Zombie is without its crude, craven delights. In truth, there are several sensational scenes that will disturb your slumber for at least a few abnormal nightmare moments. No matter how senseless it seems, when our fearful foursome decides to rest in an old conquistador graveyard, the rising, rotting residents awakened and reclaiming their RIP are incredibly icky. And even though we've witnessed its wanton pleasures far too often in the Fulci canon, it's hard not to get wickedness wood when a solid splinter of lumber enters an unfortunate actress's eye socket in extremely graphic close-up. Certainly, barriers of believability are pushed to the plus size when Susan's naked underwater aquarium tour is interrupted by a sensationally silly sequence of man-eating shark vs. man-chewing corpse. Realizing that you're watching a zombie battle a fish to the death is enough to pull you out of Fulci's foul world almost completely. But somehow, he always manages to find a fusty flesh feast - like the one several skin samplers enjoy in Dr. Manard's home - to tense everything back up. Indeed, unlike most living dead cinema, Zombie does not play its plentiful decomposition for black comic laughs. There is nothing remotely rib-tickling about the events that transpire on the screen. Even though it exaggerates its reality to untold heights of hyper horror, Fulci still wants Zombie to be a pragmatic piece of performance art, where gore is the truth and death can come to anyone at anytime, even with occasional lapses in logic and corpse POV shots.
As a filmmaker, Fulci undeniably has chops. When he wants to, he can create archetypal moments in his movies that require a groaning, guttural response. If the height of the motion picture craft is to leave a lasting impression, his films are near the top of nauseating nirvana. He may have a ham actor's way with shot selection (never saying anything once when he can say it several times in numerous nonsensical angles) and a bad habit of holding on fright facets long after they've lost their effectiveness, but when it comes to no-holds barred graphic grue, nobody disembowels it like Lucio. Zombie is always in the zone when it comes to beating the audience over the head with its horrible body part picnic-ing. Fulci forces his fans to ogle the decaying craw of a drooling epidermis devourer and still make us want to witness his terrifying table manners. Relishing the repugnant and trading on the tasteless, the fright flicks of Lucio Fulci endure because no matter how irrational, incoherent or just plan insane they are, lovers of liquid lung loosening surely get their macabre money's worth. He's like the PT Barnum of secretions or the carnival barker of blood. Fulci realizes that people don't always come to the movies to be saddened or gladdened. Sometimes they need that instinctual release that can only come from a good vein venting. And Zombie surely delivers on delirious draining.
Maybe this is why Zombie satisfies. Italians have long preferred the documentary approach to death, choosing to capture it as it happens versus staging it with all manner of pallbearer pomp. Quite often in the Western take on terror, punches are pulled and MPAA mandates manipulate corpse grinding content to protect the wee ones from visions of slaughterhouse hysteria. But not our pasta-plating pals. Give the Italians a kilo of mortician's wax, a couple of liters of phony life essence and a superficial setup and watch the dripping decapitations and angry amputations fly! While it probably won't make many critics' ten best lists - it lacks the philosophical bent of such boogieman ballyhoo as Romero's dead reckoning - fans of all things freakin' foul will really lap this up. Sure, Fulci's flour paste faced fiends are even more lethargic than 'other' mindless mall walkers (and far less fashionable). They resemble underfed mental patients blindly looking for their daily dose of human Lithium as they take miniature baby steps towards all the potential bloodletting. By the end, when the standoff occurs between our survivors and the stumbling sinew savants, and the same Molotov cocktail is tossed over and over again, we realize that Zombie is just an amicable application of overkill. It may not represent Fulci's best effort, but it is his most focused and ferocious film. At it's tainted heart, it's all about the gore. How can any legitimate scary movie maniac not simply love that?
There are currently two competing releases of Zombie being offered up to the DVD market: a single disc version by Blue Underground and a 2 disc Special Edition created by Media Blasters. While this review is unable to point out the difference between the two, content-wise (see The Extras section), it is being reported that both versions had access to the original negative elements to craft their images. This is the Big Blue U's version of the film, and since company founder William Lustig LOVES Lucio in all his many forms, one can expect nothing but respect when it comes to the transfer of this title. And indeed, Zombie looks remarkable. The color correct, bright and crisp picture provides untold details and even more atmosphere than ever before. The tiny island village looks even more remote and the blood flows with radiant red intensity. During several sequences – the zombie feast, the final firefight – the amount of material that was indecipherable in other antiquated versions is astounding. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is pristine and near reference quality. If you love this film, the transfer will simply blow you away. If you've given Zombie a spin previously and found it lacking, at least give this new transfer a rent. You will actually be seeing Fulci's intended film for the first time.
Believe it or not, there are six different ways you can listen to Zombie, thanks to the multiple audio tracks provided on this DVD. In the English dubbed mode, we can hear the regular Mono track (good), the Dolby Digital Stereo (better) and the newly remastered 5.1 Surround mix (best). The Big Blue U really opens up the spatial relationships in this audible attraction. It allows the wonderfully evocative score room to breath and manages to increase the feeling of isolation the island setting infers. And if you've always regretted not being able to hear the film in its native tongue (with appropriate reverse voice-overs) then feast your ears on the three different Italian language soundtracks (again, in Mono, Stereo and 5.1 Surround). It's a kick hearing the mostly non-Western cast wax poetic in their own vocabulary (the subtitle translation is actually pretty good), but the replacement tones for Farrow and McCulloch are just as dopey as the standard Anglicized Neapolitans.
Here is where the distinction between the Blue Underground and the Media Blasters releases really becomes obvious. On the BU version, we are treated to a nice array of basic DVD bonus content. There are the International and US trailers, several television spots, radio ads, poster art and a stills gallery, featuring both behind the scene photos and publicity material. That's it. While reports are sketchy as to what exactly the Media Blasters title will include (descriptions list the extras as containing "over two hours" of interviews, commentaries and other added content), it is a safe bet that if you are looking for anything beyond an almost bare-bones offering of Zombie, then it's probably best to put off a purchase of this single disc package until the specifics (and a review of same) for the two-disc release make an appearance.
As more and more miscreant corpse carnivals with names like House of the Dead and Resident Evil make their appearance at box offices around the world, the once lackluster living dead head is rapidly being replaced by the visceral, violent spree skin eater. Funny thing though, no matter how fast or furious they make them, modern horror directors just can't get their organ grinding right. Who cares if a zombie can catch us...it's what that ambulatory pile of secretions can do once they grab us that's important. More times than not, they simply rip at our outsides and tear off hunks of human ham before disappearing off screen to finish their soylent snack. The blood and bile is minimized and the amount of hemorrhage-based eye candy is relegated to the cutting room floor. If anything, the new release of Lucio Fulci's Zombie should remind fans of fright just how effective and fun a traditional slice of splatter rampage cinema can be. This film, along with equally eviscerating works, is the reason behind the humungous size of the current cult of shock. Anyone with any horror film chutzpah has gathered around their friends and/or loved ones, grabbed a few brews, popped a few of Uncle Orville's microwave-able kernels and cuddled up with a classic work of claret-filled corruption. There is truly nothing like a tremendously over the top gore film. And while it is indeed nothing like a real movie, Zombie supplies the limb shredding sickness in brimming vats of vileness. Your reaction will be based solely on one principle: how do you like your hungry-hungry horrors – light or dark? Zombie is fiendish food for the unsalvageable soul. And us fans couldn't be happier.
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