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.
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?