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"...but my father's father said that when the dead rise from the grave, the living will give them their blood."
- Lucas, Zombi 2
"The father – my father always say 'when the earth spit out the dead, they will come back to suck the blood from the living.'"
- Lucas, Zombie
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, and 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 obviously 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 rapidly 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 through 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. Atmospheric, unnerving, and masterfully crafted, the opening attack in New York Harbor ought to silence those who'd criticize Lucio Fulci's work as splatter-over-substance. 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, and 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'd long had with Zombie is...well, everything else. Every last scene with the ravenous undead is spectacular, yes, but the moments in between the feasts aren't nearly as compelling. The plotting is fairly threadbare, and it's not infused with the entrancingly unique, surreal edge that better held my interest throughout The Beyond or City of the Living Dead. I've complained in the past about characters that are thinly sketched and largely uninvolving, even if the film can still coast somewhat on the charms of actors like Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson. Unless a zombie is shambling across the frame or devouring some poor bastard's innards, I once found little reason to feel invested in anything that was happening or who it was happening to. This was especially true following the tremendous sequence in the harbor, after which point Zombie settles into nearly half an hour of setup, leaving the middle stretch of the film sagging somewhat.
As time has gone on, though, my appreciation for the film has only grown. Two decades back, I tolerated Zombie. Even as recently as a few years ago, I found it to be a movie of moments. Many of the film's 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 endure. But now – somewhere around my tenth time through – I no longer find that any of that troublesome. And when Zombie is at its bloodiest, most brutal, wildly imaginative, visually dazzling, and unnervingly suspenseful, its standout moments eclipse virtually everything else out there. This is why the film continues to endure these many decades later, with a ravenously loyal fanbase champing at the bit whenever this longtime favorite is reissued. And it's little wonder why Blue Underground would again revive Zombie for the label's first Ultra HD Blu-ray release. Even compared to the already exceptional three-disc special edition on Blu-ray from back in 2018, high dynamic range and a quadrupling of the resolution have breathed new life into this seminal zombie classic. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Along with marking Blue Underground's first outing on Ultra HD Blu-ray, Zombie bears another noteworthy distinction: the first Techniscope production to be released on the format, at least on these shores. Given that its 2-perf photography has literally half the resolution of anamorphic scope, I was curious how much of an upgrade Zombie stood to offer over the 2018 Blu-ray set that had earned a perfect five star rating here. And, as it turns out, the answer is "a hell of a lot".
Blue Underground didn't hedge their bets in the slightest here. Not only does Zombie boast a Dolby Vision grade, but it has a full enhancement layer. The HEVC encode spans all three layers of this BD-100 disc. To put it in perspective, the highest grossing movie in history runs twice as long, is limited to HDR10, was dumped on a significantly lower capacity disc, and wasn't afforded a bitrate anything approximating Zombie's. And Blue Underground's white glove treatment pays off. As awestruck as I was by their three-disc Blu-ray release based on this same restoration, this Ultra HD release is in an entirely different league altogether.
Immediately noticeable is how finely-grained the image is; the texture that struck me as so beautifully fine on Blu-ray back in 2018 now looks thick and coarse by comparison. Crispness and fine detail are further refined, whether it's the text on a magazine page before being flipped over or the fronds of a distant palm tree. There are a fair number of shots – especially many of the close-ups of Richard Johnson's Dr. Menard – that look as if they could've been filmed last Thursday. The restoration is as expertly executed as I could ever have hoped to see. 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. No shortcuts appear to have been taken during the remastering process or the authoring of this disc, ensuring that Zombie is free of any distracting artifacts. And if you never got around to picking up the 2018 limited edition and are upgrading from Blue Underground's nearly decade-old Blu-ray release...? To say that there's a world of difference doesn't begin to describe it.
As greatly as Zombie benefits from having four times the resolution, HDR is far and away the heaviest hitter here. Yes, there are the more overtly impressive moments – distant lights set against the night sky or an officer shining his flashlight directly at the camera – but the presence of HDR is felt in virtually every shot in the film. The early sequence in the harbor is transformed even though the sun is rarely in the frame. The light beaming through a newspaper office window leaves that sequence looking so much warmer and more alive. The island locales feel all the more tropical with the summer sun bearing down on me. As astounded as I was by the improved color timing in Blue Underground's previous release – viewed on the same home theater, even – the 2018 disc now looks drab to my eyes after experiencing Zombie in Dolby Vision. The difference is truly astonishing and well-worth the upgrade.
As sprawling as the audio options already were on their previous special edition of Zombie, Blue Underground has taken their first Ultra HD Blu-ray release to a whole other level. Based on the English language soundtrack, this new Dolby Atmos remix places particular emphasis on music and atmospherics. The early sequence with the drifting sailboat is far more powerful, brilliantly melding the lifelessness and isolation of the seemingly abandoned boat with the bustling harbor it's rapidly approaching. The unnerving sounds of the dead rising from their earthen graves, the whoop of birds and chitter of insects throughout this tropical island, a frenzy of activity in the newspaper office, the encircling pans as one of the undead stalks a showering Mrs. Menard (Olga Karlatos), howling wind that can't help but evoke dread: it all sounds so much more marvelous in Atmos. Whether it's whirring synthesizers or pounding tribal drums, Fabio Frizzi's score too is an aural assault from every conceivable direction.
And while Zombie's use of the heights is respectful – never sounding the least bit forced or gimmicky – there's still no shortage of standout moments. There's so much more immediacy to Peter and Anne on the verge of being discovered in the cabin of the sailboat when I too can literally hear a police officer's footsteps above me, for instance. The destruction of the hospital throughout the climax is also heightened – no pun intended – as debris scatters with an upward shotgun blast and the fiery building crumbles around me. Again sounding organic rather than overcooked, bass response impresses as it reinforces cracks of gunfire, tribal percussion, and the pulsing synths in the score. Though the dialogue stems show their age, there isn't a line in the film that sounds unduly harsh or is ever troublesome to discern. Were I forced to choose which of Blue Underground's opening salvo on Ultra HD Blu-ray sounds the most impressive, I'd give the nod to Maniac, but make no mistake: I couldn't be more thrilled with how the label has approached Atmos here, and I'm excited to see that immersive audio remains a fixture on their forthcoming UHD releases.
Zombie also includes four different DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. In addition to the Atmos remix, there are two other lossless English soundtracks: a 24-bit, 5.1 track alongside 16-bit mono. The 16-bit Italian language audio is offered in both 7.1 and mono. Commentaries aside, the only lossy soundtrack is a monaural French dub. While I personally opt the English dub – that's what many of the principal actors were speaking on-set, and a number of them dubbed their own voices – most everything you're hearing was recorded in post-production regardless, so it's more a matter of preference than anything. No matter what your tastes are, there's almost certainly something here to match, especially with such a colossal selection of subtitles: an English translation of the Italian dialogue, a second English (SDH) stream, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and multiple Chinese dialects.
Zombie's Ultra HD release carries over virtually everything from the sprawling 2018 special edition, though there are some key omissions. The half-hour CD of Fabio Frizzi's compositions didn't make it into this set, nor did the sizeable booklet showcasing Stephen Thrower's "We Are Going to Eat You: Zombie vs. the Critics". The inner sleeve is no longer reversible, perhaps reflecting that Zombie is packaged here in an opaque black case. The limited edition Blu-ray set arrived with a variety of lenticular slipcovers from which to choose, while the first UHD run arrives with a more static – though lightly embossed! – slip. And seeing as how that initial pressing has just about sold out as I write this, anyone desperate for a slipcover is running out of time. So, if you're upgrading from one of Blue Underground's previous Blu-ray releases, you can safely discard the 2011 set, but I'm still holding onto my 3-disc limited edition.
Disc One - Ultra HD Blu-ray
- Introduction (30 sec.; HD): Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro offers a brief, optional introduction to Zombie.
- When the Earth Spits Out the Dead (33 min.; HD): First introduced with Blue Underground's 2018 limited edition is this half hour interview with Stephen Thrower, the author of the recently reissued Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci. For someone like myself who primarily associates Fulci with horror and thrillers, it's fascinating to see excerpts of his early work spanning so many other genres: comedies, musicals, and, unavoidably for an Italian director of his era, westerns. Thrower charts Fulci's progression towards horror – to the point that it makes a great deal of sense why Zombie's producers would seek him out, even if Fulci was at best their third choice. The development of the film is also explored at length, and it's intriguing to hear how it transformed as awareness of Dawn of the Dead grew in Italy. Along with discussing Zombie's staggering success in theaters and that it spawned numerous imitators all its own, Thrower even delves into the cinematic history of underwater zombies. He is, as ever, an endlessly engaging speaker, offering insight and context that stand out even among the many hours of extras elsewhere in this collection. Essential viewing.
- Audio Commentaries: Listening to the first of Zombie's commentary tracks, there's little to suggest that star Ian McCulloch had never before gotten around to watching the film from start to finish. Accompanied by Diabolik editor Jason J. Slater – whose skilled moderation proves to be quite an asset late in the track when the conversation slows down somewhat – McCulloch unleashes a seemingly endless barrage of astonishing stories. Among the innumerable highlights are an Italian film 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 devastated upon learning just how many Video Nasties starred McCulloch, and an amateur diver struggling to stay afloat when weighed down by misconfigured scuba gear. McCulloch also does a marvelous job painting a picture of what it was like to be a part of a film shoot in which everyone was speaking so many different languages and no one could be bothered to file for a permit. This is an infectiously fun commentary and a longtime favorite.
Troy Howarth, the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films and a cult cinema commentary fixture, leads the second track. Howarth details the lives, filmographies, and, where applicable, voice stand-ins for essentially everyone on either side of the camera, though he is understandably stymied by a few of the uncredited actors. He also speaks to how the mystery and adventure elements to the storytelling helped ease Fulci's transition towards horror, Richard Johnson's insistence on adlibbing or rewriting much of his dialogue, the zombie-versus-toothless-doped-up-shark battle royale struggling with both Fulci's lack of interest in the sequence and a starlet's inability to swim, and the crew destroying a pier while shooting on location. Dawn of the Dead is, naturally, a favorite topic, and Howarth takes care to contrast Fulci and Romero's zombie masterworks, including their films' very different approaches to makeup. I always have a great time with Howarth's commentaries, and the story isn't the least bit different here. Very much worth a listen.
- Promotional Material (8 min.; partially HD): The same as the original Blu-ray release, Zombie features a pair of TV spots in standard definition, four radio promos, and two HD trailers – one international, the other domestic, and both in English.
- Still Gallery (10 min.; HD): An extensive image gallery cycles through one-sheets, promotional stills, lobby cards, pressbooks, behind-the-scenes photos, soundtracks, and international video art. The resolution varies throughout but generally looks terrific.
Disc Two - Extras
Zombie's dedicated disc of extras is the same one that's accompanied the past two special editions from Blue Underground.
- 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 convention 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 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 as well as 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 movie to be helmed by Fulci, and the role the film 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 crafting the look of Zombie, including the use of lighting to exaggerate the horror of the ghouls' 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 the creation of Zombie's legions of the undead, making them appear more like ancient, decaying corpses than Dawn of the Dead's freshly-dead blue zombies. All of the most memorable 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 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 encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, and it's well-worth taking the time to watch.
The Final Word
Less than two years ago, I was dead certain that Blue Underground had delivered the definitive release of Zombie – no small feat, given how many exceptional special editions it had enjoyed on Blu-ray the world over. And then I laid eyes on this, the label's first-ever title on Ultra HD Blu-ray. Massively improving upon a presentation I'd already considered perfect and carrying over some six hours of compelling extras, Zombie easily ranks among the most extraordinary cult cinema packages I've ever come across. DVD Talk Collector Series.