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Blue Underground // Unrated // October 24, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 23, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"We are going to eat you!"

A sailboat bobs around aimlessly in New York Harbor, stumbling in the path of seemingly every ship and ferry that tries to cut its way across. Attempts to raise the crew fail. A helicopter circling overhead
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can't spot any signs of life. A couple of schlubs from Harbor Patrol are sent out to take a look, not expecting to find much more than the skipper passed out with a bottle of hooch still clenched in his hand. As one of the cops skulks around the cabin, a bloated corpse -- swollen like a tick from having devoured every last member of the ship's crew -- shatters his way through a door to feast again. A couple shots from a pistol later, the zombie tumbles off the sailboat and sinks into the bay. The immediate threat's over, sure, but...what the hell was that? That's the question, and newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and the daughter of the ship's missing owner (Tisa Farrow) are hellbent on finding out. Their search for an answer takes them to the Caribbean island of Matul. If it's some sort of previously unknown disease or a voodoo curse, no one knows for sure, but something is making the dead on Matul rise from their graves to feed on the living. The infection has consumed nearly everyone on this remote speck of an island. Only a few straggling survivors are left, but...well, that's still plenty of food to go around...

The producers behind Zombie may have just been aiming to cash in on the colossal success of Dawn of the Dead, but Lucio Fulci elevated it into something far beyond some kind of cheap knockoff. Romero's original trilogy aside, it's the most iconic and influential zombie flick the world over. No one's ever walked through the horror aisle of a video store without the sight of its most memorable ghoul -- a battered corpse caked in dirt, its teeth rotten to a jagged edge, and worms spewing out of one of its eyesockets -- inexorably seared into their minds. The undead in the movie live up to that unforgettable poster art too. The zombies in Dawn of
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the Dead
were more or less ordinary looking people with a coat of blue paint splashed across 'em; here, the faces of the undead are covered with grave dirt and tattered, decaying flesh...their eyes are hollow and dead. Zombie is unflinchingly brutal, even by the grisly standards of modern horror: the dead slowly feast on the living, tearing into their bodies to find just the right parts to gnaw on...geysers of blood spray out as the zombies go for the one point, a corpse gouges out a poor girl's eye, and Fulci's camera is closed in tightly to capture every last nightmarish, oozing detail.

There's not a scene with the undead in Zombie that isn't iconic, really. The opening attack in New York Harbor ought to silence anyone who'd criticize Lucio Fulci's work as splatter-over-substance. It's a sequence that's atmospheric, unnerving, and masterfully's perfect. As brilliant as Dawn of the Dead is, Fulci does a hell of a lot more effective job introducing his zombies than Romero, and I think I'd even argue that the harbor sequence makes more of an impact than any single scene that Dawn... has to offer. An underwater sequence which pits a zombie against a tiger shark has devolved into an Internet meme, but it's still an inspired and wildly effective scene, and the leadup to that assault ranks among the movie's best as well. The entire third act of Zombie is unrelenting, apocalyptic dread.

The problem I've always had with Zombie is...well, everything else. Every last scene with the ravenous undead is spectacular, but the movie never comes up with much of anything compelling to bridge them. The skeleton of a story is threadbare, and Fulci doesn't infuse those moments in between the feasts with the same strange, surreal edge as The Beyond or City of the Living Dead. The characters are
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thinly sketched and mostly uninvolving, able to coast somewhat on the charms of actors like Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, though that only goes so far. Unless a zombie is shambling across the frame or devouring some poor bastard's innards, I really couldn't care less about anything that's happening or who it's happening to. It doesn't help that after the spectacular sequence in the harbor, there's right at a half hour straight of non-stop setup and filler, and the middle stretch of the film sags poorly.

I wouldn't rank Zombie among my favorite films about the walking undead, no, and I'd also say it's far from Fulci's best. Still, it's impossible to deny how important and influential Zombie has been over the past three decades, not just to the zombie subgenre but to international horror as a whole. No matter how wildly uneven the pacing throughout Zombie may be, its most iconic sequences are so bloody and brilliant that I'm still thrilled to be able to soak in all that splatter in high definition. Blue Underground has assembled a spectacularly loaded special edition release for Zombie as well, featuring right at four hours' worth of extras, every last second of which is well-worth setting aside the time to devour. This two-disc set is not exactly perfect, and I'll start griping about the reasons why in a moment, but its flaws really don't drag down my overall recommendation at all. Highly Recommended.

Though this newly-minted remaster of Zombie does suffer from its own set of problems, there's no question that it's an enormous improvement over Blue Underground's 2004 DVD release. Definition and detail are in another league altogether, and the thin, overly bright, and artificially sharpened appearance of the DVD now makes way for something far more cinematic. The flipside of the case notes that cinematographer Sergio Salvati supervised this transfer, so the dramatic shift in color timing should better represent the way Zombie was originally intended to look.

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As far as the usual complaints and concerns about presentations on Blu-ray go, Zombie fares very well. Its colors are nicely saturated when appropriate, particularly the geysers of crimson as the dead gnaw apart the living. Contrast is robust, bolstered by deep, inky blacks. There isn't anything at all in the way of wear, speckling, or damage. A few eccentricities like thin vertical lines that have been in every release of Zombie I've ever come across are still intact, but that's all to be expected. I can't say that the photography is startlingly sharp and detailed, but it comes through well enough, certainly trumping what Blue Underground's last DVD could deliver.

However, Zombie suffers from the same issue that, at least to some extent, has plagued all of the Italian films that Blue Underground has brought to Blu-ray. There's a thin veil of video noise that floats over the image. Because that sheen of noise is so crisply defined, it gives the impression that the image overall is sharp and detailed, but looking past the noise often reveals that it's anything but. I'll confess that I've given nearly perfect ratings to some of the films afflicted by this, such as Django, because I misinterpreted that noise as film grain. It's just that grain is a fundamental part of the image, but this noise instead seems to hover above the rest of what I'm seeing. Starting with the recent release of The Cat o' Nine Tails and continuing with the likes of The 10th Victim and Torso, my eyes finally started to adjust, and now I can see that the image behind the noise is softer and not nearly as well-defined as it ought to be. On the upside, the issue is less glaring with Zombie than it has been for some of Blue Underground's other Italian releases. Though the problem is unmistakeable in screenshots and when I inch closer to my television, I found it to be largely unintrusive from a normal viewing distance. I could readily tell that something wasn't quite right with the texture, but it didn't bother me, unlike The 10th Victim and The Cat o' Nine Tails where it was a constant distraction. Those of you with extremely large displays or projection rigs may find it harder to deal with.

If you'd like to see what I mean rather than suffer through me droning on about it, expand the screenshots below to fullsize. In no way does the noise in these two grabs resemble film grain, and try to look past the noise to see how soft and lacking in detail the bulk of the image really is:

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This final screenshot looks unnaturally waxy and smooth even with the sheen of noise on top:

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Again, though some titles have it worse than others, this has been an issue throughout Blue Underground's extensive slate of Italian releases. If this sort of video noise didn't bother you when watching those earlier releases, chances are you won't find it much of a distraction with Zombie either. Again, I found the noise here to be far less intrusive than some of the past few Blu-ray discs that Blue Underground has put out, and to my eyes, at least, it's by no means a dealbreaker. Still, I really wish Blue Underground's Italian partners who are fielding these transfers would either upgrade or better maintain their equipment to stave off these sorts of issues going forward.

Despite Zombie's flawed presentation on Blu-ray, this remaster still manages to eclipse any previous home video release of the film. This is easily the best Zombie has looked since it was making the rounds in theaters thirty years ago, and even with my misgivings about the video noise, I'd recommend this Blu-ray disc as a worthy upgrade without hesitation.

Zombie just barely creeps over onto the second layer of this BD-50 disc. The image is letterboxed -- slightly windowboxed, actually -- to an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been encoded with AVC.

Zombie features a sprawling selection of audio options -- perhaps the most extensive ever for a cult cinema release. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, and there's a separate English stream for those giving any of the Italian tracks a spin. As far as soundtracks go, Blue Underground has provided the original monaural audio (Dolby Digital 256kbps), 5.1 EX remixes (Dolby Digital 640kbps), and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 remixes, each in Italian and English. Add in the disc's audio commentary, and that's a grand total of seven soundtracks and ten subtitle streams. No matter what your tastes are, there's almost certainly something here to match.

Despite only having a 5.1 rig, I stuck with the lossless eight-channel English track for the duration, and it's a respectful remix that shies away from any gimmicky split-surround effects or awkward pans. The subwoofer isn't relentlessly rattling but certainly makes its presence known when reinforcing cracks of gunfire, tribal drums, and the pulsing synth bass in the score. The dialogue stems sound somewhat flat and dated, though there isn't a line in the film that sounds excessively harsh or is ever difficult to discern. The elements just show their age, and though it's all rendered as well as can be expected, the fidelity offered here isn't going to curl anyone's toes. There are times when I wish the remix were more aggressive, though. The first attack on the sailboat sounds as if it's trying to snarl with ferocity but instead feels thin and uninvolving. Even in the finalé when the undead are swarming the hospital, the sound design of this remix doesn't reinforce that sense of inescapable dread...that the zombies have surrounded the building and are clawing their way through the decaying wood to get inside. The surround channels and subwoofer do roar to life in the final moments of the climax, but otherwise, it's surprisingly meek. The rears are generally reserved for atmosphere -- flames, lapping water, and tribal chants -- and seem largely disinterested with the undead. Sometimes I'd notice effects in the surround channels that really didn't seem to belong there, such as the zombies taking a bite out of someone, and I'd hear that chomp both in front of and behind me. I may be in the minority here, but I don't think the remix adds much to the experience.

Zombie's extras are spread across both of the discs in this set.
Disc One
  • Introduction (30 sec.; HD): When playing Zombie, you have the option to watch it with a very short introduction by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro.

  • Audio Commentary: Perhaps the
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    single greatest extra in this two-disc set is the commentary with star Ian McCulloch. He's joined here by Diabolik editor Jason J. Slater, and having someone to help moderate the discussion does come in handy later in the film when the conversation slows down somewhat. McCulloch is a wonderfully engaging speaker, and you would hardly know this is his first time ever seeing Zombie from start to finish (!) with the seemingly endless barrage of stories he has to tell. There are far too many highlights to possibly rattle off here, but among them are an Italian crew invading a newspaper office and being told to fuck off by someone who may or may not have been Rupert Murdoch, a relative in the House of Lords being crushed when learning just how many Video Nasties that McCulloch had starred in, and an amateur diver struggling to stay afloat when weighed down by misconfigured scuba gear. McCulloch does a terrific job painting a picture of what it was like to be a part of a film shoot where everyone was speaking so many different languages and no one could be bothered to get a permit. Easily one of the most infectiously fun commentaries I've listened to in a long, long time.

  • Promotional Material (7 min.): This disc also features international and domestic theatrical trailers, two TV ads, and four radio spots. The trailers are presented in high definition, and the TV spots are sourced from lower quality video.

  • Still Gallery (10 min.; HD): A high-res still gallery serves up an extensive selection of poster art, lobby cards, behind-the-scenes and promotional photos, pressbooks, soundtrack artwork, and video releases from all across the globe.
Disc Two
  • Zombie Wasteland (22 min.; HD): Actors Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, and Ottaviano Dell'acqua rang in Zombie's thirtieth anniversary with an appearance at the Cinema Wasteland con in Ohio. The first of the disc's featurettes splices together appearances from their booth at the show, a Q&A panel, and individual interviews. Among the topics of discussion are what it was like to work with someone as
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    passionate and notoriously difficult as Lucio Fulci, the outrageous atmosphere on the set, how grueling the worm-eyed zombie makeup was, and what it means to them to have a fanbase this rabid.

  • Flesh Eaters on Film (10 min.; HD): Fabrizio De Angelis approaches Zombie from a producer's perspective, chatting candidly about the lack of permits, the film's enormous financial success, selling the movie internationally, and struggling with a lawsuit by Dario Argento over the title. De Angelis also touches on bringing Fulci onboard this already-established project and the over-the-top and almost comic tone he sees in the film.

  • Deadtime Stories (14 min.; HD): Uncredited writer Dardano Sacchetti has a sharper memory about the genesis of Zombie than Fabrizio De Angelis, describing how the germ of an idea was spawned by a Tex Willer comic melding Westerns with the walking dead. "Deadtime Stories" also features co-writer Elisa Briganti, and she and Sacchetti speak about how problematic it was finding a director, how Zombie marked the first true horror film to be helmed by Fulci, and the role Zombie played in bringing Italian horror to the rest of the world.

  • World of the Dead (16 min.; HD): Cinematographer Sergio Salvati and costume/production designer Walter Patriarca discuss shaping the look of Zombie, including the use of lighting to exaggerate the horror of the zombies' makeup, deliberately keeping some elements of the frame out-of-focus, filming the eye-gouging sequence with three cameras, ramming a bulldozer into a lovingly crafted church set that looked a bit too beautiful, and spelling out just how many of the film's most memorable shots were stolen. Patriarca shows off some of his original conceptual artwork, and it's impressive to see how closely the hospital in the film mirrors his art.

  • Zombi Italiano (17 min.; HD): Makeup effects artists Giannetto de Rossi, Maurizio Trani, and Gino de Rossi delve into creating the look of Zombie's legions of the undead, making them look more like ancient, decaying corpses than the freshly-dead blue zombies in Dawn of the Dead. All of the most memorable
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    attacks in the film are discussed in detail, including the process of tracking down a live shark and gouging the eye of an incomplete head.

  • Notes on a Headstone (7 min.; HD): Composer Fabio Frizzi speaks briefly about his collaborations with Lucio Fulci. Frizzi tends to speak in somewhat general terms, but he does have a few intriguing comments about his music for Zombie, such as the restraint shown in the spectacular sequence in New York Harbor and the use of overlapping sounds throughout the eye-gouging assault sequence.

  • All in the Family (6 min.; HD): Antonella Fulci speaks about her late father, explaining why his movies are so violent and why she believes Zombie in particular continues to endure. Home movies and candid photographs are featured throughout as well.

  • Zombie Lover (10 min.; HD): Finally, Guillermo del Toro dissects Zombie and details why he feels it's such a brilliant film. This ten minute conversation approaches Zombie from both an intensely personal perspective and that of a director with an encyclopediac knowledge of the genre, and it's well-worth taking the time to watch.
Zombie also comes packaged in an embossed slipcover. I believe this is only the second title from Blue Underground to feature a slipcover, following the 2009 release of Fire and Ice. The cover seems just the slightest bit too snug, but it's obviously not that big a deal. It may also be worth noting that Zombie is not region-coded.

The Final Word
Even with as phenomenal as Blue Underground's release slate has been on Blu-ray to date, Zombie still stands strong as their highest profile release on the format yet and is by far their most lavish special edition. It's disappointing that the noise that's riddled all of their Italian productions is buzzing around here too, but at least it's not nearly as distracting as some of the label's other Blu-ray discs have been. Despite those flaws in the presentation, this high-definition release of Zombie easily eclipses all of the previous DVD editions, and the sheer volume of extras makes this two-set set that much more of an essential purchase. Highly Recommended.
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