“It never pays to ignore native superstitions”
While Zombie may be known as a horror classic, its origins are almost farcical. Helmed by “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci, the Italian-produced project was already in development (from a script by Dardano Sacchetti before wife Elisa Briganti took over) when the European release for George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead began its repackaging as Zombi. The latter was a re-edited cut by Dario Argento complete with new Goblin score, so its success screamed for a quick Italian follow-up. Suddenly Fulci’s film became Zombi 2 (despite containing its own undead origin story), a non-sequel sequel connected thematically rather than contextually. After changing its name a few more times (it’s Zombie Flesh Eaters in Britain), the film ultimately secured a spot within multiple unrelated series cobbled together over time.
Removed from all that nonsense, however, Zombie does still exist as a standalone entity of note. It seeks to posit that its monsters are the product of an unexplained phenomenon occurring on an unmapped Caribbean island known as Matul. Natives call it a cursed land where the dead rise—wives’ tales spun from voodoo legend that westerners have quickly dismissed. But while most simply ignore the island completely, Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) sees it as a chance to reclaim past notoriety after falling from grace in scientific circles (a fact alluded to by Olga Karlatos as his wife, but never elaborated on). If he could see the reality of the legend and study it, perhaps he could find a cure and/or discover its scientific basis outside of witchcraft.
Or maybe Menard is a crazy Dr. Moreau-like character creating them. If only allusions to this possibility bore fruit. Fulci is instead merely interested in the carnage of zombified conquistadors killing a bunch of white people for once in history. That’s about as deep as he goes (unlike Romero’s Night of the Living Dead‘s social commentary), his plot taking Anne Bowles’ (Tisa Farrow) mission to rescue her father at face value. His yacht came home without him, drifting aimlessly into New York City’s harbor with a surprise embodiment of evil. So, with the help of a British reporter (Ian McCulloch‘s Peter West), Anne travels south to learn the truth of Dad’s whereabouts. Enlisting vacationers Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay) as impromptu guides, they sail for Matul.
It’s not that hard to figure out what’s next. Everyone eventually gets to Matul, the zombies move from one side of the island to the other, and the living must commence fighting for their lives. We don’t necessarily care about any of the characters beyond them all being potential fodder for gruesome deaths, so the journey can seem laborious at times. Some of the exposition concerning Menard and his “patients” intrigue, but I’m not sure there’s much payoff to warrant it. Luckily time jumps from Anne leaving shore to reaching the island’s vicinity so the action can get going. It manifesting in the form of a topless scuba adventure escalating towards a zombie versus shark (it’s real) battle is icing on the cake. The sequence is simultaneously hilarious and riveting.
In all honesty, that perfectly describes the entire film. You can laugh at the poor acting and insane scenarios, but you must also respect Fulci’s handle on the gore effects and ever-rising tension. There’s definitely a desire to push the envelope, yet nothing seems out-of-place narratively to assume any set piece was shoehorned in “just because.” Escaping the shark and zombie helps us get our bearings as far as proximity to Matul and supplies reason for everyone onboard to disembark despite earlier conversations saying they wouldn’t. We meet Mrs. Menard to introduce her husband’s role in everything and to provide an “alarm system” wherein her living between the area the zombies are and the area they’re going isn’t a mistake. Each death entertains while also propelling us forward.
As a result we never find ourselves out-of-sorts or losing focus because of some unearned left turn into blood and guts devoid of relevancy. This is a credit to Briganti’s (and perhaps Sacchetti depending on what actually transpired with the writing credit) ability to build her excessive genre kills into the plot rather than despite it. From there Fulci provides each a patented visceral flourish whether the squishing of an eyeball, tearing of arteries beneath flesh, or worm-infested faces of undead walkers lumbering around on foot or slowly rising from their graves below the dirt. And while three quarters of the film go by without ever seeing more than one zombie at a time, the final quarter is utter chaos without enough fire or bullets to go around.
It’s these creatures that have stood out as iconic examples of decomposing humanity throughout cinematic history—the eye worm zombie from the climax serving as the film’s title’s visual stand-in despite not having very much screen time itself. None are fleet of feet being that Resident Evil and 28 Days Later are still decades away, but they possess the capacity to sneak up on victims regardless due to any relationships formed. Just because we don’t care about anyone doesn’t mean they don’t care about each other. Menard has befriended so many that shooting them in the head upon their deaths remains difficult. Others can’t quite comprehend a lover’s demise without holding hope a cure may exist. Unfortunately for all, it only takes a second’s pause to lose everything.
Watched in conjunction with Season Three of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.