"...but my father's father said that when the dead rise from the grave, the living will give them their blood."
- Lucas, Zombi 2
A sailboat bobs around aimlessly in New York Harbor, stumbling into the path of seemingly every ship and ferry that tries to make its way across. One attempt after another to raise the crew fails. A helicopter circling overhead is unable to spot any signs of life. Harbor Patrol is dispatched to take a look, not expecting to find much more than a drunken skipper passed out in the cabin. As one of the cops skulks around below, a bloated corpse – swollen like a tick from having devoured the ship's crew – breaks down a door to feast again. A couple shots from a pistol later, this...thing tumbles off the sailboat and sinks into the bay. The chaos unfolds too quickly for the surviving officer to make any sense of it. That he'd stared down a zombie never occurs to him. It's not immediately understood that the fallen officer met his end courtesy of a bite to the jugular. No one's sure what the hell has just happened.
Newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and the daughter of the sailboat's missing owner (Tisa Farrow) are hellbent on uncovering the truth. It's a search that takes them thousands of miles away to the Caribbean island of Matool. Whether it's some sort of previously unidentified disease or a voodoo curse, no one knows for certain, but something is making the dead on Matool rise from their graves to feed upon the living. The infection has consumed nearly everyone on this remote speck of an island. Only a few straggling survivors remain, and the ravenous legions of the undead are quickly closing in.
Zombie's producers may have merely been aiming to cash in on the colossal success of Dawn of the Dead, but Lucio Fulci – in the seasoned director's first outing helming this type of horror film – elevated it into something far beyond any sort of cheap knockoff. Romero's original trilogy aside, this is the most enduring and influential cinematic gutmuncher the world over. No one of the right age ever walked past the 'Horror' aisles of a video store without the sight of its most infamous ghoul – a ravaged corpse caked in dirt, its teeth rotten and jagged, and worms spewing from its right eyesocket – inexorably seared into their minds. The undead throughout the film consistently live up to that unforgettable image. Whereas Dawn of the Dead's zombies were more or less ordinary looking people splashed with a coat of blue paint, the faces of the undead here are covered with grave dirt...their flesh tattered and decaying...their eyes hollow and dead. Zombie is unflinchingly brutal, even by the grisly standards of modern horror. The dead feast slowly upon the living, tearing into their bodies to find just the right parts to gnaw on. Geysers of blood spurt out as a couple of these zombies go straight for the jugular. At one point, a corpse gouges out a young woman'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 those who'd criticize Lucio Fulci's work as splatter-over-substance. It's a sequence that's atmospheric, unnerving, and masterfully crafted. As brilliant as Dawn of the Dead is, Fulci's introduction of his zombies is far more impactful than Romero's the year prior. An underwater sequence which pits a zombie against a tiger shark long ago devolved into an Internet meme and then some, but it's still an inspired and wildly effective scene, and the leadup to that assault ranks among the movie's best as well. Fulci proves as adept at building suspense as he is at unleashing graphic gore. There's no shortage of sequences in which he delivers both, particularly throughout a third act that's wall-to-wall unrelenting, apocalyptic dread.
The problem I've long had with Zombie is...well, everything else. Every last scene with the ravenous undead is spectacular, yes, but the film can rarely be bothered to come up with much of anything compelling to bridge them. Its skeleton of a story is threadbare, and Fulci doesn't infuse those moments in between the feasts with the same entrancingly unique, surreal edge as The Beyond or City of the Living Dead. The characters are thinly sketched and largely uninvolving, able to coast somewhat on the charms of actors like Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, though that (and, sure, some gratuitous nudity) only goes so far. Unless a zombie is shambling across the frame or devouring some poor bastard's innards, there's little reason to feel invested in anything that's happening or who it's happening to. It doesn't help matters that after the tremendous sequence in the harbor, Zombie settles into nearly a half hour of setup and filler, and the middle stretch of the film sags poorly.
Zombie is a movie of moments. Even many of its most ardent admirers – including those contributing commentary and interviews for this lavish special edition – acknowledge the uneven pacing, anemic characterization, clumsy dialogue, and a story that the film grudgingly seems to tolerate. I don't consider it among Fulci's best work, and it's far from the first zombie movie I'd likely grab off my shelf to watch. Still, when Zombie is at its bloodiest, most brutal, wildly imaginative, visually dazzling, and unnervingly suspenseful, its standout moments eclipse virtually everything else out there. Every time I watch it, I find myself with a greater appreciation for the film. It's little wonder that Zombie continues to endure these many decades later, with a ravenously loyal fanbase champing at the bit whenever this longtime favorite is reissued. Leading into the film's fortieth anniversary, Blue Underground is reviving the seminal zombie classic with an achingly gorgeous 4K remaster, a series of lenticular slipcovers, and six hours of extras – every last second of which is well-worth setting aside the time to devour. The result easily ranks among the the year's most exceptional releases and is a compelling upgrade even for those who've already picked up Blue Underground's previous two-disc Blu-ray special edition. DVD Talk Collector Series.
In a word: revelatory.
Admittedly, I could've said much the same back in 2011 when Blue Underground first brought Zombie to Blu-ray. Even acknowledging the critical flaws of its presentation, that high definition release still stood worlds removed from the thin, overly bright, and artificially sharpened DVD release. This new 4K remaster – sourced from the original camera negative – is a more dramatic improvement still:
The result is one of the most phenomenal presentations I've ever witnessed – not just of Zombie specifically, and not just of Eurohorror in a wider sense. When the 'best of 2018' lists start flooding in over the next few weeks, expect to see Zombie rightly topping many of them. The image is dazzlingly crisp and detailed. Note in the third comparison above how the fronds of the palm trees are a soft, indistinct smear, whereas they can each be clearly be individually discerned in this new restoration. The ruinous video noise from the previous release is a distant memory, making way for a fine, filmic texture. More of the image is exposed on all four sides of the frame. Aside from the occasional hair in the gate and the yellow swirls that've been part and parcel of the underwater sequence for ages now – neither of which I consider to be flaws in need of removing – there aren't any abberations worth noting. Wear, damage, and speckling are so minimal as to be non-existent. Whatever digital scrubbing was utilized hasn't resulted in any noticeable artifacts. It's perfect.
Every release of Zombie seems to have significantly different color timing than the one before it, and it comes as little surprise that this remains true here as well. Despite cinematographer Sergio Salvati supervising Blue Underground's previous release, I vastly prefer the timing here. The colors in the 2011 edition seem overcooked and more video-like to my eyes now, such as Olga Karlatos' ruddier flesh tones above which now look so much more natural. No doubt you've also noticed in the comparisons above that the harbor sequence now takes place at an altogether different time of day. This revised palette can be remarkably vivid when Zombie calls for it, with those crimson reds unsurprisingly making the greatest impression.
Contrast is dead-on. The bitrate is significantly higher this time around, and I'm unable to spot any concerns with digital artifacting or the like on this BD-50 disc. Purists may grouse a bit that the titles have been digitally recreated rather than scanned, leaving Zombie's title card blander than the previous release. Picking that nit is the closest thing to a complaint I can muster. Having been floored by Blue Underground's previous 4K remasters, such as Fulci's Manhattan Baby, my expectations were dizzingly high for this release, and yet what they've delivered here eclipses anything I could ever have hoped to see.
Zombie showcases a sprawling selection of audio options – among the most extensive ever for a cult cinema release. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and multiple Chinese dialects. A separate English stream offers a proper translation of the original Italian dialogue for good measure. Blue Underground honors the film's Italian and English soundtracks equally, offering both languages in their original mono as well as in 7.1 remixes. These eight-channel remixes are again presented in 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio, but there appear to be slight updates; they're certainly not bit-for-bit identical to the 2011 disc, although my ears aren't quite golden enough to quickly discern the differences. The monaural audio is lossless here as well, improving upon Blue Underground's previous release in that respect. The only lossy dub is a monaural French track (224kbps). No matter what your tastes are, there's almost certainly something here to match.
As is invariably the case with European cult cinema of this vintage, essentially everything you're hearing – be it in Italian or English – was recorded in post-production. Neither language is any more right than the other, so choose whatever sounds best to you. While I traditionally opt for Italian audio in instances like this, that so many of Zombie's leads speak English and largely dub their own voices nudged me in the other direction.
My 5.1.4 rig is a couple rear speakers shy of being able to take full advantage of the eight-channel audio, but from what I'm able to hear, this remains a respectful remix that shies away from any gimmicky split-surround effects or awkwardly forced pans. The subwoofer isn't relentlessly rattling but certainly makes its presence known when reinforcing cracks of gunfire, pounding tribal drums, and the pulsing synth bass in the score. Though the dialogue stems show their age, there isn't a line in the film that sounds excessively harsh or is ever troublesome to discern. The rears flesh out a strong sense of atmosphere, from howling wind to lapping water to roaring flames. I appreciate some of the subtle uses of the multichannel setup, such as the sailboat rigging wavering slightly to the right in the opening harbor sequence. I prefer for my mono-to-multichannel remixes to not be particularly aggressive, and that's thankfully the case here. The action still takes reasonable advantage of the full soundscape: say, the encircling pans as one of the undead stalks a showering Olga Karlatos, a small army of corpses rising from their earthen graves, and a great deal of directionality to the gunplay.
Though the English remix is the only one I listened to in its entirety, the other three English and Italian tracks leave little room for complaint. Purists will doubtless be thrilled by how marvelous and full-bodied the monaural English dub sounds, and I'm certain that'll be the track I opt for the next time I watch Zombie. The two Italian tracks are comparable in fidelity to their English counterparts, at least judging by the portions I sampled. I've recorded a quick comparison for anyone who's curious:
Blue Underground has lavished the newly-remastered Zombie with a three disc release on Blu-ray.
The same as Blue Underground's previous special edition, Zombie is an all-region release, so import away. This limited edition is being issued with three lenticular covers – one paying homage to the final shot of the film, another showcasing Zombie's infamous eye gouging, and a third featuring the rotten, worm-infested ghoul.
Zombie arrives in a wider than average, Criterion-style clear case with reversible cover art. Tucked inside are coupons for comic book adaptations of Zombie and Maniac, as well as an illustrated booklet. Along with chapter listings for the film and track listings for the audio CD, this booklet also features Stephen Thrower's "We Are Going to Eat You: Zombie vs. the Critics". True to its title, the essay demonstrates how film critics at the time had clearly decided upon their reviews before seeing so much as a single frame of Zombie – particularly in their zeal to dismiss it as a shameless rip-off of Dawn of the Dead, nevermind the fact that the two movies have next to nothing in common. "We Are Going to Eat You" draws from lengthy excerpts from reviews both American and Italian, including such notable names as Vincent Canby and Gene Siskel. Thrower highlights the differences in what American film critics were more likely to attack than their Italian counterparts, and he takes care to note that there were at least a handful of reviewers who did appreciate Fulci's vision. Also discussed here are the ballyhoo of smaller theaters, including the offer of a free funeral to anyone dying of fright, Zombie's colossal success at the box office, and the general reception to exploitation cinema back when independent theaters were still a thing on these shores.
The Final Word
Blue Underground has delivered the definitive home video release of Zombie – no small feat, given how many exceptional special edition releases it's enjoyed on Blu-ray the world over. Completists will still likely want to hold on to international releases with exclusive extras, but in every other respect, it's difficult to imagine this 4K remaster and three-disc limited edition ever being dethroned. I'll still keep my fingers crossed for an Ultra HD Blu-ray release sometime down the road, but even if that day never comes, I'll still point to this edition of Zombie as one of the most extraordinary cult cinema packages I've ever come across. I haven't awarded this site's highest rating to a title in more than two years, but Blue Underground's astonishing efforts here are richly deserving. DVD Talk Collector Series.