Zombie (1979)

In what surely drives continuity & canon-obsessed nerds mad, Italian copyright laws allow any feature film to be marketed as a direct sequel to a previous work, regardless of intellectual property licensing. This is how Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 came to be marketed as a direct sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (or, more accurately, the Italian edit of Dawn overseen by Dario Argento & scored by Goblin, retitled Zombi), despite having nothing to do with that cult classic outside their shared depiction of the undead. That positioning of Zombi 2 as a direct sequel to the Romero classic is notably more of a marketing decision than a creative one, as the shopping mall modernity of Dawn of the Dead is the exact opposite approach to zombie lore than the one Fulci takes in his own work. If anything, Zombie (as it was more accurately billed in the US.), is more of a return-to-basics, traditionalist throwback to the origins of zombie cinema – most notably the 1932 Bela Lugosi relic White Zombie. On the surface, the film appears to be Lucio Fulci’s transition into making colonialist, Cannibal Holocaust-type “video nasties” after his previous run of psychedelic gialli like The Psychic & A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin. In practice, it’s more of a return to early, Voodoo-themed zombie cinema updated with more state of the art, grotesque gore effects we’re not used to seeing in that context. If Zombie has any relationship with George Romero’s work, it’s in amplifying his fixation on practical effects gore, while rolling back his influence on the zombie genre to the era that came before. Zombie isn’t a sequel to Dawn of the Dead so much as a traditionalist renunciation of that text, coated in an excess of sleaze.

The brilliance of this return-to-basics zombie filmmaking is that its dialing-back from urban modernity to the old-ways’ culture gazing at Voodoo rituals is signified in its basic plot. A disheveled boat arrives in the NYC harbor with most of its crew missing – and the remaining members turned into flesh-eating zombies. The daughter of the boat’s owner and an investigative reporter track its course back to the (fictional) Caribbean Island of Matul, which superstitious natives believe to be cursed. There, they discover an age-old plot so cliché it belongs on the lower wrung of a 1950s double bill: a white-man researcher strives to scientifically rationalize the local phenomenon of a Voodoo curse that can bring the dead “back to life” (as mindless flesh-eating copses, at least). His research is going nowhere, of course, and only invites violence as the zombie hoards surround his lab and attempt to eradicate the intruders on their island by eating them alive. It’s in this last-act zombie invasion that Zombie most resembles a George Romero picture, with a small group of cornered city-folk firing guns at a mindless hoard that surrounds & eventually engulfs them. Most of that Romero aesthetic is left behind in NYC, however, where an off-screen modernist zombie crisis Fulci doesn’t have the budget to properly stage unfolds. On Matul, the movie mostly bridges the gap between the latent racism of the Civilized Man Vs. Savages narratives of zombie cinema past and the more active racism of then-current Italian cannibal nasties like Cannibal Holocaust and Slave of the Cannibal God. Outside some questionable vocal dubbing & characterization among the (infrequently shown) native locals, however, Zombie mostly avoids the worst trappings of the colonialist cannibal genre of its grindhouse heyday: sexual assault exploitation, cultural Othering, documentation of real-life animal abuse, etc. Its likeness to that despicable subgenre is mostly in its grimy visual aesthetic; it most often plays like pastiche nostalgia for the more quietly problematic Voodoo pictures of the White Zombie tradition.

The closest Zombie comes to indulging in the typical animal abuses of the Italo-cannibal pics it superficially resembles is in its breathtaking underwater stunt in which a zombie fights a real-life shark. It’s a scene so infamous the film might as well have included The One Where the Zombie Fights a Shark among its various “official” titles. Whether the local “shark trainer” who costumed as a zombie to stage that stunt is abusing the animal is a much murkier issue than the straight-up animal slaughter included in Cannibal Holocaust-type pictures, but what’s made clear in that sequence is that Zombie’s strengths lie entirely in the grotesque beauty & unflinching audacity of its individual gags, their importance to the plot be damned. As the characters are first making their way to Matul, the boat stops dead, along with the plot, so that a free-spirit passenger can strip nude to take underwater photographs of marine life, stumbling directly into a zombie-shark fight. It’s a sleazy stunt on so many levels it’s hard to keep count (the camera’s lingering on the photographer’s oxygen tank strap across her crotch is especially slimy) and it serves little-to-no thematic purpose for the task at hand. Still, it’s so elaborately staged that you can’t deny its appeal. While Zombie’s overall narrative is a barebones, back-to-basics zombie genre throwback, its individual stunts & images are complexly crafted, grotesque wonders: an eyeball impaled on a splintered door, tendrils ripped from a victim’s neck, a zombie’s POV approximated in first-person camera work as it rises from the grave, etc. The perfect symbiosis of this thoughtfully complex imagery & traditionalist genre throwback energy is best represented in a scene set in a Spanish Conquistadors’ graveyard; muddy hands reach from beneath the ground as the dead rise, hungry for flesh. The image of a lone hand reaching from beneath a gravesite is much more typical to the zombie genre than an underwater shark fight, but it’s rarely shot with as much giallo-level stylistic detail as what you’ll find here.

As questionable as I find the impulse of rolling back George Romero’s modernization of the zombie picture to its White Zombie roots and as much as I despise the Italo-cannibal pictures it occasionally resembles, I can’t help but appreciate Zombie for its grotesque visual majesty. Rewatching the film restored on its Blue Underground Blu-Ray release is especially illuminating, since I’m used to seeing it through the grainy haze of a VHS cassette. I don’t know that Fulci deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the film’s racial politics or possible animal rights violations, but his imagery certainly deserves to be seen in crisp, Blu-ray quality detail. Most people aren’t going to seek out Zombie for its advancement of the genre or its thematic complexity (despite that being exactly what’s promised as a supposed follow-up to Dawn of the Dead). This is a film best enjoyed for its awesome brutality & the detailed beauty of its practical effects gore, two things Fulci is a master at delivering.

-Brandon Ledet

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