AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
Strikes Back /
The Reel World /
It's A Disaster! /
Etc., Etc., Etc.... /
Dialogue / Links
ZOMBI 2 (1979)
[aka Zombie aka Zombie Flesh Eaters]
|"What is all this about the dead coming back to life - and having to be killed a second time?"|
Director: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver (Pier Luigi Conti), Auretta Gay (Auretta Giannone), Stefania D’Amario, Olga Karlatos, Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti (uncredited)
A deserted sailing boat drifts into
Comments: Gather around, children: it’s time for a Shameful Confession.
Until today, I had never seen an Italian zombie movie.
As any regular visitor to this site would know – I’m anal. In fact (not to put too fine a point upon the matter), I’m so very anal, I could have auditioned for the lead role in Rectuma. In practical terms, this means that although I have long had a passionate interest in the Italian zombie movie – that although I own books on the subject – that although my dear friends Keith Allison, Will Laughlin and Scott Ashlin have long drawn me towards it with their sick siren song – I simply could not allow myself to satisfy my craving for this particular sub-genre without starting at the very beginning; that is, with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.
And what, you might be asking, is the problem with that? Just this----
I have a thing about eye violence.
And on top of that, I have a thing about throat violence. (Although decapitations don’t particularly bother me. Go figure.)
A little knowledge is, as they say, a dangerous thing. In this case, although I didn’t know everything about Zombie, I knew enough to chicken out. Repeatedly. The consequences of this cowardice were, to someone of my straitjacketed habits, pre-determined: no Bruno Mattei for you, young lady, until you finish your Lucio Fulci!
(And so it sat for many months
untouched upon my shelf, the
we B-Masters decided that we would once again join Nathan Shumate in
his annual “Month Of Living Dead”; and I, personally, decided that
it was high time I stopped being such a pathetic little panty-waist
and faced my demons. And so this morning, clutching a comforting
pillow to my chest and drawing a long, nervous breath, I prepared to
dip my toes into the murky waters of
At this date, I don’t really need to go into the history of Zombie and its title(s), do I? I do? Okay then. Although there still seems to be some dispute about whether or not this film was already in pre-production at the critical moment, it was undoubtedly the enormous success achieved by the re-cut version of Dawn Of The Dead – financed in part by the Argento brothers, Dario and Claudio, and marketed in Italy as Zombi – that paved the way for Lucio Fulci’s distinctive vision of the living dead. I use the term “distinctive” advisedly. Despite the film’s local release as Zombi 2, only someone who had seen neither film could dismiss Zombie as a rip-off of Dawn Of The Dead. Although certain zombie film ground-rules apply to both, the universes created by George Romero and Lucio Fulci are as disparate philosophically as they are visually – and, in a sense, represent the conceptual divide that lies between the American and the Italian genre film. (Although, I concede, given Romero’s gloomy world view, his films are not necessarily the best illustration of this gap.) While the former tends to favour an eruption of horror into a recognisable reality, and to end, if not with the re-establishment of normality, at least with its protagonists escaping to some version of normality, the latter prefers a progressive shedding of the familiar, the creation of a wholly nightmarish realm of the threatening and illogical, often with no sense of conclusion at all, still less any resumption of “normality”. Artistically, it is a dangerous predilection, with – as anyone conversant with Italian horror films generally could tell you – infinite scope for failure, but when it works, the results can be sublime. The horror career of Lucio Fulci is a perfect illustration of this. The man had his embarrassments, heaven knows; but his best films are powerful and affecting in a way that many more conventional film-makers can only dream about; a victory of the visceral and the emotional over the reasonable.
Zombie, however, we have a Lucio Fulci who was just beginning to
find his horror voice. This is an uneven work, shot through with all
of the flaws that would dog Fulci’s films to a greater or lesser
degree for the rest of his career. Its pacing is problematic,
although I think at least some of that is intentional; its script is
perfunctory at best; and most of its characters might as well be
department store dummies. (That said, they’re a step up from many of
their cinematic brethren, inasmuch as no-one is poisonously hateful
in personality, nor, upon the whole, suicidally illogical in
behaviour.) But outweighing all of these shortcomings is the sheer
impact of the film’s imagery, the combination of Fulci’s direction
with the cinematography of Sergio Salvati and the production design
of Walter Patriarca – and, of course, the make-up effects of
Giannetto De Rossi. This film’s great triumph is the atmosphere it
creates once the action shifts to the
(Of course, if you wanted to get profound about it, you could say that slow zombies act as a perfect metaphor for Death itself: it doesn't matter how much you try to outrun them - it doesn't matter how much you think you ought to be able to outrun them - sooner or later - they're gonna get you....)
In his later and most
accomplished works, a confident Fulci dared to have his characters
slipping through the cracks in their reality into a terrifying
parallel universe that, it seems, always existed just out of their
normal range of vision. Here,
at the outset of his horror career, his characters voluntarily leave
their secure lives and go actively looking for disaster in an
obscure corner of the world – and find it. After an inscrutable
opening scene in which a bound and shrouded figure is shot through
the head, we cut to
The doings on the boat attract the attention not just of the police, but the press. British ex-pat reporter Peter West is dispatched by his editor (an uncredited Lucio Fulci) to “poke around”, while at the now-docked boat, the cops are questioning Anne Bowles, whose father owns the boat, but who she hasn’t heard from in over a month, and hasn’t seen in over three, since he set out to join friends in the Antilles. Meanwhile, at the morgue, an M.E. is establishing to his satisfaction that the dead patrolman suffered massive haemorrhage following a bite. Unfortunately, he then becomes distracted by the poor condition of the instruments he is offered to perform the autopsy, and consequently fails to notice that beneath its sheet, the corpse is starting to move....
After this brisk and bloody
opening, we hit the stretch of the film that really tests the
viewer’s patience, particularly the unnecessarily protracted
cute-meet between Anne and Peter. I do think that this tempered
pacing was a deliberate choice on Fulci’s part, but it’s hard going,
just the same. Anyway, long story short, Peter finds a letter from
Anne’s father dated the Caribbean
We then cut to Matoul itself, where the sweaty and unshaven Dr David Menard is trying and failing to make radio contact with someone – anyone. A scene follows between Menard and his booze-chugging, pill-popping, perpetually hysterical wife, Paola – whose behaviour is perhaps the most rational to be found in the film. One of Zombie’s unsolved mysteries is the exact role played by Menard in the events on Matoul. There is a tendency among reviewers to conclude that he is somehow responsible for the raising of the local dead, partly on the basis of Paola’s frenzied accusations, but mostly, I think, because, well, he’s a doctor, he’s scientist, he’s there. On the whole, however, I’m prepared to exonerate Menard of first-cause blame, at least. He strikes me, not so much as someone Meddling In Things That Man Must Leave Alone, but rather as someone who simply cannot accept that there is no scientific basis for what is going on around him; as the kind of arch-rationalist who will continue to scream, “THERE IS A LOGICAL EXPLANATION FOR THIS!!” even as he is having his face eaten off by zombies. It is his inability to accept his own powerlessness that keeps Menard on the island – and hence everyone else along with him; so even if he didn’t cause the crisis, he is responsible for most of what happens.
There is another tendency among reviewers, too, and that is to complain that scuba-diving scenes slow a film down unbearably. Oddly, however, hardly anyone complains about Susan’s scuba-diving scene in Zombie. Possibly, just possibly, her habit of stripping down to a G-string before donning her air-tank and mask has something to do with it. Me, I can live without the gratuitous nudity, but I admit, I love the direction of this scene: Susan strips off without warning; Peter stares disbelievingly; Anne looks at Susan, then looks at Peter looking at Susan; Peter sees her looking at him looking at Susan and gives her a cheesy grin, but doesn’t stop looking; and Brian, obviously used to Susan’s habits, pays no attention whatsoever. (The moment that stays with me here is when Susan roughly hikes a tank-strap right up into her barely covered crotch. Male viewers might find it a titillating gesture, but I couldn’t suppress a yelp of sympathetic anguish.) Susan lets herself down into the water and we share a few lovely scenes of coral and tropical fish before her dive is interrupted by the arrival of....a rather large tiger shark.
Keeping her head, Susan evades the shark by sinking to the bottom and hiding beneath the overhang of a coral outcrop. Sensible girl! As the animal moves temporarily away, Susan heads for the surface to call for help, then sinks again to the bottom to keep out of the shark’s way until the boat draws near. Up above, Brian shoots at the animal but misses (yay!); the shark hits the boat, knocking the three on board to the deck. Susan returns to the safety of her outcrop and is watching the shark warily, when----
A hand closes about her shoulder. A rotten hand, belonging to tattered figure in equally tattered clothing....and with no air-tank.
Susan struggles desperately with her slow moving attacker and succeeds in fighting it off by – shoving a piece of seaweed in its face!? (I assume that was meant to be hard coral.) She swims away and hurries to the surface, and then----
The zombie grabs and fights with the shark. And bites chunks out of it, while itself losing an arm....
Oh. My. God.
It’s an incredible scene. I don’t dispute that. But----
There is no way that a real tiger shark could have been involved in the creation of such a scene without it having been drugged to the very limits of its endurance. This legendary “fight”, looked at with clear eyes, consists almost entirely of a distressed animal struggling to get away from its tormentor. And that means that while I can appreciate, even admire, the audacity of imagination that not merely conceived of such a scene, but actually went ahead and executed it....I cannot enjoy it. However – the paucity of footage captured (continuity errors abound here, as they make the most of very little) infers that the shark was still frisky enough for them not to mess with it more than absolutely necessary; and that, in turn, gives me hope that, unlike almost every other animal that ever appeared in an Italian horror film, the shark got out alive. (And if anyone out there knows differently, please, keep it to yourself. I don’t need to hear about it.)
Leaving this scene and its plethora of unanswered questions – how could a zombie bite through a shark’s skin? what does a zombie taste like? does a shark bitten by a zombie become a zombie shark? do zombie sharks eat other sharks? – we return briefly to Susan – remember Susan? – who tells her incredulous companions that, “There was a man down there!” Then we pay a visit to Menard and the world’s most unnerving hospital – which is a converted church, by the way, and where the “patients” are bound to their beds so tightly, the sheets are soaked with blood. Menard and his nurse are debating what to do about a patient who “won’t last the night”, when they are interrupted by an understandably panicky local, Lucas, who brings ominous news about the natives leaving their village, and what “the new juju man” has been up to. Even at this stage of the game – even doing what he has been doing to “cure” his patients, which we shall shortly witness in flashback – Menard can still spit, “Ridiculous!”
The zombie-shark fight is probably the second most famous scene in the history of the Italian horror film. The most famous one follows fairly hard upon its heels, as night falls, and we re-join Paola Menard, alone at her villa – and in the shower. (Not content with Auretta Gay’s scuba-diving scene, Fulci here has Olga Karlatos stand in front of one of those triple-angle mirrors, thus giving the viewer front, back and side views simultaneously. Covering all the bases, you might say.) As Paola lingers in the rushing water, a rotting hand presses itself against the glass of the bathroom window.... Contrary to popular rumour, Paola does get dressed after getting out of the shower. She also pops a pill. And then she hears a noise....
Trying to lock herself into an inner room, Paola finds herself unable to shut the door – which is being pushed open from the other side. After a struggle, and some tearing of rotten flesh, Paola manages to get the door closed and locked. But then the zombies start breaking through the flimsy, tropical-climate windows and shutters. Paola tries to build a barricade, but in doing so ventures a little too close to one of the shattered windows. An arm shoots through a jagged opening and grabs Paola by the hair, dragging her slowly, inexorably, towards a jutting shard of wood....face-first....
I can only say again---- Oh. My. God.
And, well, I have to be honest: I didn’t quite make it all the way through here. I did try. I looked, and looked away, and looked again; squinted; covered my face; peeked out from behind my pillow, and through my fingers; even resorted to my favourite evasive trick of peering over the top of my glasses, so that everything I did see was blurry. And in the end I saw – well, not all of it, but most of it – and that’s something, right? I mean, I’m not claiming this was an act of moral courage on par with, say, Will Laughlin forcing himself to watch the uncut print of Cannibal Holocaust; but I got further than I ever thought I’d get with it. All in all, I’m not too dissatisfied with myself.
If nothing else, the number of opportunities I had to change my mind about looking or not looking should tell you one salient fact about this notorious scene: it takes for-frickin’-ever. Some people have laughed at the care and deliberation that this supposedly mindless zombie displays in lining his unfortunate victim up with that shard of wood, but I think this was an entirely intentional act on Fulci’s part. Although from Zombie onwards, the eye-gouge would become de rigueur for any self-respecting Italian gut-muncher (and for quite a few with no self-respect whatsoever), when this film was released it had never really been done before, not like this. I think Fulci wanted his audience to sit there and sweat; to mutter, “Oh, they’re not really going to do this. Nah. They’re not. Are they? Surely not. Oh, no. They’re not – are they? Oh, my God! They are! They ARE!! THEY AAAAHHHHHH!!!!”
The eye scene in Zombie would also go on to become one of the jewels in the crown of the whole Video Nasty hysteria, and it isn’t hard to appreciate why. After all, I came to that scene fully prepared, knowing in detail what was to happen, and exactly how the effect was achieved – and I still couldn’t deal with it. Now, imagine coming to that scene unprepared. Imagine being unsympathetic to horror films, and being forced to watch it. Imagine watching it from a jury-box in an English courtroom at ten o’clock in the morning. It doesn’t excuse what they did....but you do understand the impulse.
The next morning we find Menard displaying his first and only act of sensible behaviour, namely, lying on the beach and getting soused to the gills. He is interrupted in this pursuit by his nurse, who comes to tell him that someone called Matthias is now “one of them” – and to reveal herself as the same kind of pig-headed rationalist as Menard. Menard announces that they have to “help” Matthias. We shall soon see what this “help” entails.
Meanwhile, the party on the boat have made it to Matoul more or less by accident. With the drive-shaft cracked – a legacy of the collision with the shark – their only choices are to go ashore, or to fire off some flares and hope that someone who can help them responds. The local legends in mind, Brian opts for the latter.
Menard, however, doesn’t notice. He’s busy. Shooting Matthias in the head. Menard and his nurse, those arch-rationalists, then carry the body out for burial. Lucas has observed the flares from the water, and Menard goes to investigate, leaving Lucas and the nurse to take care of business. We get one of my favourite shots in the entire film here, as the camera pulls back to reveal, not just one grave, but a pit full of bodies; all of them bound and shrouded, just like Matthias; all of them shot in the head, just like Matthias.... And there’s another pit nearby, already filled in.
Meanwhile, Menard has
collected the visitors from their boat (oh, Brian, Brian, you
fool!), and is telling Anne about her father. We note, by the way,
that Menard’s account, in which Dr Bowles insisted upon staying and
being used as a guinea-pig in spite of Menard’s pleas for him to
leave Matoul, hardly gels with Bowles’ own account in his letter to
Anne. Menard’s version has Bowles himself begging for post-death
“assistance”, and Menard struggling with himself, only able to shoot
when the corpse starts sitting up. And it is this killing, we
recognise, that comprises the film’s opening scene. Although the two
versions of this that we see are, suggestively, quite visually
distinct, they end in the same way: with Menard saying, “The boat
can leave now. Tell the crew.” Of course, the strange thing is,
no-one we know does leave by boat at this point; the only boat is Dr
Bowles’ own, which he certainly wasn’t on; yet someone must have
been on board – aside from the zombie, that is. I said I exonerated
Menard from creating the
zombies, and so I do, but it is pretty clear that there is more
going on here than meets the eye (if, under the circumstances, you
can excuse that choice of expression). Perhaps Menard, in seeking to
understand the local voodoo secrets, unwittingly unleashed this
particular plague of zombies. Perhaps he even sent them to
From hereon in, Zombie presses its foot hard upon the accelerator, discarding its previously measured pace and barely stopping for breath until its literally apocalyptic climax. (And for myself I can say: if I didn’t quite make it through the eye scene, I did manage to watch the rest of Zombie, throat-rippings and all, without once looking away.) Zombie signals its intentions with a justly famous shot: a desolate, wind-swept street; a crab scuttling in the foreground; and in the background, a zombie, large as, um, life; right out there in the open, and no longer politely confining itself to “the other side of the island”. Menard and the visitors arrive at the hospital to be greeted by a garbled message from Lucas about “Mr Fritz”. Menard gives an unconvincing smile and tells the others that his friend, Mr Fritz, has “had an accident”, then asks them to drive on down the road to check on his wife; a belated act of concern that will, of course, reap exactly the reward it deserves. The four arrive at the villa to find several zombies chowing down on what’s left of Mrs Menard; two more block their way when they bolt for the exit. Peter and Brian beat these two in the head – note that – and all four of them escape. They pile into Menard’s four-wheel drive – which, unexpectedly, starts the first time – and speed down the road towards the hospital, where Menard is “helping” Mr Fritz. They never get there, however: a zombie wanders into the road and they hit it at pace. Remarkably, the driver who panics and hits the accelerator instead of the brake is Brian; and, even more remarkably, the person who ends up with an injured ankle as a result of the ensuing crash is Peter. The four are then forced to walk, and limp, towards the hospital, as the natives’ drums grow ever louder.
(A word about this film’s score. There are indeed native drums a-plenty, and high-pitched electronic whines; but the main score is a piece by Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci that, perhaps inspired by John Carpenter’s work on Halloween the previous year, is both minimalist and amazingly effective. It does not change with the changing scene, but simply gets louder or softer as events demand.)
The four stagger on as far as Peter’s bloody ankle will let them, and then “take five”, with Susan and Brian spying out the land up ahead; a mission that leads to the wholly unwelcome discovery that the spot they have chosen for their rest is an ancient Spanish graveyard full of dead conquistadores.
And if we’ve already had the first and second most famous scenes in all Italian zombie movies, here we meet no-one less than the single most famous zombie who, right before Susan’s horrified and disbelieving gaze, proceeds to claw himself up out of the earth. This gentleman, usually referred to affectionately as Ol’ Worm-Eye, would go on to become the poster boy not just for Zombie, but for Italian horror cinema generally.
(And while I haven’t any particular desire to defend Menard, I do feel compelled to observe that if the soil of Matoul is capable of preserving four hundred year dead conquistadores in reasonable working order, well, there’s a lot more going on here than just a little traditional Tampering In God’s Domain.)
Fabulous as this sequence is, on one level it annoys the crap out of me; and since Ol’ Worm-Eye takes his own sweet time about resurrecting himself, I have more than enough time to explain why. There is a little thing, you see, called the “fight-or-flight response”, which is nothing less than a miracle of biological hard-wiring, a way of by-passing that pesky rational side of any human consciousness and insuring that in a crisis situation, we won’t stop to think about it. Horror films generally underestimate the power of this impulse. It can be overcome, sure, in the face of such things as danger to a loved one; but when it is simply a matter of stay-and-die or run-and-live, that impulse is there to make sure we make the right decision. Which means that, confronted by something that will, certainly, kill you, you don’t just stand there staring at it!! The problem I have here is the same one I have with Lambert’s death in Alien. Sure, I can accept that in the horror of discovering Mrs Menard’s gruesome fate, upon being confronted for the first time with the living dead, these people would just freeze and gawp. But not here, not now; not when they know exactly what the danger is. Basic biology forbids it.
Be that as it may, Susan does just stand there and stare as Ol’ Worm-Eye pulls himself up out of the earth. So it serves her right when, a moment later, he’s biting bloody strips out of her throat.
The reason that Susan is on her own, by the way, is that Peter and Anne, having chosen this of all moments to indulge in a little canoodling, are under attack by undead hands emerging from the ground. Anne’s screams send Brian bolting back down the path, leaving Susan to confront her fate alone. Her screams then bring Peter, Anne and Brian to the scene just a tad too late. Brian puts two ineffective bullets into Ol’ Worm-eye’s torso, and then Peter knocks him down with a handy unearthed cross, before using the same item to demolish his head. Brian gets no more than a moment’s mourning in before the other two haul him away in the direction of the hospital. Behind them, the soil of the cemetery continues to disgorge its dead....
Hampered by Brian’s injury, the three survivors make it to the hospital just ahead of the hordes of the living dead, which are now converging from all directions. Brian starts putting up barricades as Menard treats Peter’s ankle – which must be the first legitimate piece of doctoring he’s done in who knows how long – and Peter gets to break the news about Paola with a silent grimace. The zombies begin to press against the hospital – entirely unperturbed, we notice, by the large crosses on the doors – as inside, Menard gives a brief account of the last three months on the island, and the battery of medical tests he used to prove that there is no such thing as voodooism, dammit! Menard distributes firearms, and Brian, Lucas and the nurse construct Molotov cocktails using drums of kerosene, as the siege begins in earnest; a sequence made frustrating as hell by the inability of Brian in particular to put two and two together: i.e. head shot = dead zombie, torso shot = live zombie. (What’s worse, although the penny seems to have dropped for Peter, he never says anything.) The zombies prove, as usual, strangely flammable; and for a while the human beings seem to be getting the best of it....except that, busy fighting the zombies pouring in from the outside, they kind of forget about those shrouded figures who were already on the inside....
Finally, only Anne, Peter and Brian are still standing. Outnumbered and hard pressed, they fight their way out of the hospital – only to have Brian fall victim to the classic emotional trap, the loved-one-who-is-now-a-zombie. Proving how well matched a couple they were, he too just stands and stares as zombie Susan looms up before him – and as she bites a chunk out of his arm. Peter puts a bullet through her head, and he and Anne help Brian back to the docks as the hospital goes up in flames behind them....
Of course, Brian’s escape
isn’t that easy – and becomes even less so when, ignoring his dying
cries that he doesn’t want to become “one of them”, Peter and Anne
decide they need him to substantiate their story of what happened on
Matoul and instead of “helping him”, lock him in the bilge. Anne
takes the helm as Peter fiddles with the radio....and gets
Hey, remember those zombies from the beginning of the film? They’ve been....busy....
The ending of Zombie, although unforgettable, is more like the punchline to a shaggy dog story than one of the truly apocalyptic visions that would conclude Lucio Fulci’s later and more confident works. Fittingly, perhaps: Zombie isn’t by any measure a great film, but it is without question a brutally effective one, a film whose very simplicity gives it a strange power. Most of its achievement must certainly be laid at the feet of those behind the camera, rather than in front of it – although to be fair, the simple likeability of Ian McCulloch and the baggy-eyed desperation of Richard Johnson do help to carry the film through some of its shakier moments. The success of Zombie at the box-office ushered in not merely a new phase in the career of Lucio Fulci, but of the Italian horror film in general; a phase that over the next few years would unleash upon the world a cinematic tidal wave of the good, the bad, and the simply unspeakable.
And as for me, well, I’ve done it: I’ve crossed my Rubicon of the undead – near enough, anyway – and now, a whole new realm lies before me. It’s mine, all mine! The taut and brilliant direction of Bruno Mattei and Andrea Bianchi! The skilfully crafted screenplays of Piero Regnoli and Claudio Fragasso! The practical joking zombies! The Oedipal teenage zombies! The zombie animals! The tutu-wearing SWAT guys! The witty reflections on gender! The – the –
I must be out of my fricking mind....
Want a second opinion of Zombie? Well, there's no shortage of 'em around! I recommend a trip to the B-Masters' "Z Titles" page, where you'll find links to reviews from Teleport City, Stomp Tokyo, Cold Fusion Video Reviews, Braineater and 1000 Misspent Hours - And Counting. (Zombie Lake still holds the record, though....)