Thursday, October 9, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Zombie

Zombie (aka Zombi 2, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters)

It's not October if I don't watch a Lucio Fulci movie.

I love Italian zombie movies. They're almost all terrible, with incomprehensible plots, incredibly bad dubbing, over-the-top gore that is also really fake looking, and more casual rape/misogyny/nudity than you can shake a stick at. And yet, they tickle me. As I've said before, I can almost always find something to enjoy in them - even Burial Ground. (Though what it was I enjoyed in that movie escapes me at the moment...)

Zombie, or Zombi 2 as it was released in Italy (to take advantage of the popularity of Dawn of the Dead, which was released as Zombi in Italy), is the king of them all. It's the template on which they're all based and is - in energy, creativity, technical skill and complete over-the-top gonzo-ness - the best of them. Does that mean it's a good movie? Well, I guess it depends on what you're looking for. A plot that holds together, realistic characterizations, good acting? You're out of luck. Inventive makeup effects, shocking thrills, an atmospheric location? Now we're getting somewhere.

I came to Zombie pretty late in my horror viewing. I distinctly remember that I was browsing the horror stacks at a local music/video store and coming up empty. It was pretty late in the day and I was looking for something - anything - that would scratch that itch for a new horror movie. I think this was in the 90's, a decade that was a little rough on horror fans. Down in the corner of the last row I saw a black-case DVD with an awesome looking zombie on the cover. Dude - there are WORMS in the guys EYE! And the tagline - 'We are going to eat you' - that's pure gold. This was the Anchor Bay release, which I still have somewhere.

Worms! In his EYE!
I was hooked. There was the general low-budget feel (and look - that was a pretty muddy transfer) of 1970's Italian horror movies. There was the synthesizer music that might or might not fit the scene. There was the over-use of bright-red blood. There was a pretty excruciating eye-impalement (something of a signature for Fulci). There was a zombie fighting a shark. A real shark, mind you. How could I not love it?

The Medium
I've got the Blue Underground Blu-ray release. I almost didn't pick this up, as I wasn't sure Zombie was a movie that would benefit from high definition. The poor video quality was part of the charm for me. However there were a bunch of extras on two disks, so I bought it (used).

Man, am I glad I did. The picture quality is improved enough that it almost looks like it's been restored. Colors are bright and the image is sharp and clean (as much as it can be for a low-budget zombie flick, anyway). It was enough to make me revise my opinion of the cinematography, anyway - it's a pretty good looking film now.

The Movie
Zombie has two openings - in the first a shadowy figure points a gun at us (the screen) while drums pound out a tribal beat on the soundtrack. A figure tied into a sheet slowly rises. The gun fires. Blood and brains spurt out of the sheet. The shadowy figure the speaks, saying that "the boat can leave now." After the titles we get another opening, wherein an abandoned sailing vessel wanders into New York harbor.

At this point new viewers may be forgiven for thinking there's some depth to the film. We've got a dramatic opening shot - literally - that connects directly to the next sequence and raises all kinds of questions. Is this the same boat? Where did it come from? What happened to the crew? There's also the chance that maybe the director is deliberately echoing that scene in Dracula when the Demeter arrives in England with only the captain's corpse aboard.

But no, it's really just an excuse to tie the film to Romero's by shoehorning an opening and a closing sequence in the US. It's effective, though, and the corpulent zombie that attacks New York's Finest is memorable and lets us know we're in for some rough treatment.

A three hour tour, a three hour tour...

We're introduced to two main characters in short order - Peter West, a reporter, and Anne Bowles, the daughter of the owner of the abandoned boat. Ian McCulloch does okay as West - though he's an 70's Hero of the comb-over variety - but Tia Farrow is completely lost as Anne. She spends a good portion of the film staring into the middle distance with a slightly dazed expression. The two are quickly on their way to the Caribbean to try and find Anne's father and hopefully an explanation for what happened on the boat.

Once there they charter a boat - or hijack someone's vacation cruise, I'm not really sure. Anyway, they meet up with another couple and start looking for the island that Anne's father was supposed to be on. The other woman - Susan - goes scuba diving, which leads to that zombie-vs-shark extravaganza I mentioned earlier. Repeated viewing of that scene has dampened some of my amazement, but I remember clearly being bowled over by it the first time. I mean there's a real guy in that zombie makeup under water wrestling with a tiger shark!

A little to the left, little more... perfect!

Meanwhile, on the island, Dr. Menard is struggling with an outbreak of disease and his wife. She wants to leave, he doesn't - though he's awfully vague about why. He goes to the hospital (after slapping no sense at all into her) where he'll practice medicine via pistol shot (he's the figure in the very first scene). His wife, meanwhile, will take a shower and then get attacked by a zombie. This scene involves an incredibly graphic sequence in which the poor woman's eyeball is pierced by a splinter. It's pretty tough to watch even now.

Not as tough for us to watch is it is for her.

Our heroes have drive-shaft issues (with the boat, you sicko) and get marooned on the very same island. People run back and forth, there's talk of voodoo and people abandoning villages. Then there are some really gross zombies that may or may not be conquistadors, risen from their graves.

Any real plot has gone out the window long ago, but there's still some really effective shots to be found. A single figure shuffling down the abandoned streets of a village. The red, red blood contrasted with the white, white linens of the hospital. The zombies themselves, all rotting and mud-covered, some with worms dangling out of their eye sockets.

Eventually our heroes are cornered in the hospital and must do battle with ravening hordes of the undead. Things go badly, but not as bad as you might expect, as people actually survive (though not everyone, of course). The tacked on ending with a horde of zombies making their way across the Brooklyn bridge is surprisingly effective.

Just another Monday in the Big Apple.

The cinematography varies wildly in quality. Much of it is simply workmanlike, with the characters generally in frame and focus. Sometimes, however, Fulci surprises you with shots of almost poetic beauty - the abandoned ship against the old New York skyline (the Trade Center towers towering in the background), dust-blown streets with oddly still figures, zombies shuffling around with their eyes closed like sleepwalkers.

Richard Johnson lends things a bit of gravitas as Dr. Menard, but he's all gravelly voice and darting eyeballs, sweating his way through scenes of vague import. At least his voice fits, unlike some of the other characters, whose dubbing seems half-hearted at best - particularly the second male lead, Brian. Tisa Farrow is so vacant at times that you could almost see one of the characters shooting her as a zombie in the melee - it would be an easy mistake to make.

Brains... must have... brains...

The Bottom Line
Zombie is an experience. As a horror movie it provides the gore if not the scares - you cringe more than you jump. The barest thread of a plot satisfies only so much as it serves to get the characters to where they can be attacked. But as a Fulci film it satisfies by being a little stylish, a lot gory and a bit crazy.

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