Zombie (1979)


Lucio Fulci's horror films are a strange mix of cool scenes combined with thin characters and plots that rarely stay on track.  If watching one of those specials that counts down the scariest or goriest moments in horror history, chances are scenes from one or more of Fulci's movies will be included.  Even if not having seen Zombie in its entirety even passing horror fans will be familiar with the splinter-in-the-eye scene or the sequence where a zombie fights with a tiger shark. 

First it must be stated that, despite the Italian title, there is no Zombi, or it could be said more truthfully that this is actually Zombi.  That was the title given to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead when Dario Argento re-edited it and distributed it in his home country.  In typical Italian form the studio immediately wanted something linked to Romero's film, as it was successful, so they threw a "2" in the title for the domestic release.  In the U.S., however, there was no attempt link it with Dawn of the Dead, so it came out simply as Zombie, which made Fulci happy because that is what he intended.

When a seemingly abandoned boat drifts into the Hudson River, Harbor Patrol is sent out to investigate.  One of the officers is attacked and killed by what appears to be a crazed maniac.  The boat itself belongs a Dr. Bowles, and the police immediately question his daughter Anne (Tisa Farrow) to find out what she knows.  In the meantime a reporter named Peter West (Ian McCulloch) is dispatched to find out what is going on.  He and Anne arrive on the boat at the same time and discover a note from her father stating that he was helping a Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) on the Caribbean island of Matul with an infectious disease, one he believes he has caught.

West and Bowles travel to Saint Thomas where they find an American couple, Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay), who are departing on a vacation.  Booking passage, they head out for Matul.  Meanwhile, Dr. Menard becomes increasingly concerned as the disease - which leads to the dead coming back to life and feasting upon the living - begins to claim more people on the island, putting he and his wife (Olga Karlatos) in danger.  When the newcomers arrive they find that not only the recent dead, but anyone who has died on the island, is destined to rise once again. 

Both screenwriters Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, along with Fulci, had a goal of making Zombie more like classic 1930s and 1940s movies such as White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie.  While Fulci's creatures have similar dietary needs, spread their disease through bites and have to be dispatched by a bullet through the head, their appearance and movement is based on the more traditional "Voodoo" zombies of the past.  Thus, they are slow, show none of the residual memory of Romero's creatures and overtake their victims through sheer numbers or ambush.  There are a number of references to Voodoo throughout and it is never settled on if this is a manmade disease or an actual curse on the island.

While as usual some plot elements seem random this is one of the more straightforward horror films from Fulci,with actual logical plot threads from the beginning of the film leading to the final scenes.  The makeup is wonderful and, unlike a lot of movies of this type, the film delivers the zombie the poster promises, and even better when it shows up in a stunning scene of long-dead conquistadors rising from their graves.  The fight with the shark, though random, is well-done, and featured the shark's trainer in full zombie makeup pretending to battle the animal, which had been heavily sedated.  It is also nice to see an Italian horror film where the animal wasn't killed. 

The weakness, as usual, is the dubbing, which often hinders performances in Italian and other European films.  It is something that one gets used to, and Richard Johnson seems to have had no problem overcoming the chore of having to record his lines.  The problem is particularly apparent with Al Cliver, at least in the English dub, as he is hard to understand and sometimes sounds like he's had a stroke.  As usual, every Latin character sounds like Speedy Gonzalez. 

That doesn't detract from this being one of Fulci's best movies, both in story and effects but also in general quality.  The end scenes would have been more effective with a bigger budget, but getting to do location filming in New York was a big enough advantage for the movie even if certain things needed to be compromised.  Happily, it wasn't the makeup or the overall creepiness of the film, enhanced by the electronic soundtrack.

Zombie (1979)
Starring: Richard Johnson, Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Olga Karlatos
Director: Lucio Fulci

 

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