The success or failure of any work of art is a result of many factors all interconnecting with each other: luck, talent, money, personality, timing. Which is to say, it's not very often that you can point to one factor as the reason that e.g. a film was e.g. extraordinarily bad.

I bring this up only because I think in the case of Zombi 3, it's pretty easy to point to a small nest of factors that might not be the only reason that it's extraordinarily bad - and make no mistake, if the phrase "extraordinarily bad" was ever fated to be applied to a movie, that movie is Zombi 3 - but is without a doubt the primary reason.

See, here's what happened: after Lucio Fulci directed Zombi 2 in 1979, and that film managed to outperform the already spectacular box office of Zombi AKA Dawn of the Dead, the zombie subgenre simply exploded in Italy. Anyone with even the smallest desire to make money with horror films found themselves roped to at least one and probably several gut-muncher flicks in the first half of the '80s; Fulci himself directed a couple that have nothing like the same reputation as Zombi 2. Life was good for the exporters of violent Euro-trash.

Except that there were a few clouds on the horizon. First was the famous Video Nasties scare in the United Kingdom, the witch-hunt to find and banish every film thought to contain violence that might do harm to public notions of decency; Zombi 2 was one of the primary targets of the British censors. Then, a few years later, the United States had their own much smaller wave of anti-gore crusades, brought on by the seemingly endless popularity of the slasher film and the totally imagined concurrent rise of teenage Satanism. With both of these trends making it suddenly very hard for an honest Italian exploitation producer to sell his work, the great machine of Italian horror that had been whirring along since the mid-'60s found itself in dire straits.

In this environment, the execs Flora Film, the studio responsible for Zombi 2, decided that if they wanted to keep alive, it was time to revisit the franchise that made them, briefly, the toast of the Italian film industry. Time for another "official" Zombi film (Zombi # had been the title or subtitle of a truly shocking number of movies in that decade), even if it had been nine years since the first, or second, or however the hell we want to call it. And it made perfect sense to everybody that none other than Fulci, still one of the most famous men in the industry, should be brought back to continue the series he helped birth.

Here's where that nest of flaws starts to creep in that I mentioned. In 1988, Fulci was a sick man, and shooting a film in the Philippines served only to make his condition worse. Ingredient 1: a sick director. To make matters worse, the story treatment and the script were by Claudio Fragasso, a man that Fulci disliked personally and thought to be a professional hack. Ingredient 2: a sick, cranky director who hates his script. It didn't take long before Fulci packed his bags and headed back to Europe.

Nobody is really certain how much of what became Zombi 3 was shot by Fulci before he left; estimates range from about 15 minutes to about 45 minutes. What we know is that with the director gone, Flora Film called in a pinch-hitter, a man who'd worked with Fragasso a few times before: Bruno Mattei.

Now there's something interesting about Bruno Mattei: almost everyone who has enough experience to form an opinion on the matter regards him as the single worst filmmaker in the history of the Italian film industry. By the same token, Fragasso is regarded as the single worst screenwriter (he is doubtlessly best known to the average American moviegoer as the auteur behind the cancerously terrible Troll 2). What frightens me to no end is that there's no real consensus that Zombi 3 is the worst film they ever made together. If something out there is actually worse than this train wreck, I can't wait to see it.

So, Zombi 3: a film that takes the rather delightful amount of goodwill I had saved up after Zombi 2 and proceeds to fuck it in the eye. Deciding where to start listing this film's flaws is like trying to drink the Mississippi River. But you're not here to wade through my excuses. In the absence of a better idea, then, I guess I'll just start with the plot.

On an island that may be in the Philippines but may not, in a military base that is probably run by the US, unless it isn't, a scientist (Luciano Pigozzi) turns a dead body into a living body with exploding pustules of blood. He takes this to the base's incredibly ill-tempered general (Mike Monty), who announces the success of the experimental "Death One" program. Yessir, what we have here is a film in which the US (probably) military has created a biological weapon with a cartoon name whose purpose is to turn large populations into zombies. The strategic value of such a substance is, I think, completely obvious.

It takes all of two minutes for Death One to be stolen by a terrorist in shades, who takes another 45 seconds to get himself infected, whereupon he hides out in the island's convenient nearby luxury hotel. It actually takes about five minutes before he infects the rest of the hotel, thanks to some incredibly terrible gore effects. The particular breed of zombies in Zombi 3 turn out to be the kind that have peely, blobby skin all over the faces and hands, but everything else is a shiny and rosy pink. I'm trying to think if there's any other kind of gore make-up in the entire film. Some squibs later on, I guess.

Anyway, the military guns down everyone in the hotel and cremates some bodies even though the scientist gets all whiny about how the ashes could infect people. Well, guess what scientist? The ashes infect birds! Not people! And then the birds attack people. Jeeze.

The specific people that the birds attack are a bunch of young people in an RV, who've just been flirting with some GIs. I cannot possibly be asked to care about their names. Let's just cut to the chase: the kids and GIs end up in the mysteriously empty hotel, meeting another pair of young people who had a run-in with the birds, and pretty soon everyone is running from the zombies and running from the military trying to kill everybody to contain the zombie virus, and it's all both intolerably dull and stupid.

Clichés are bad, but the particular genius of Zombi 3 lies in the particular details of jaw-dropping inanity. To start with, the dialogue. It's not usually fair to judge the dubbed dialogue in a foreign film, except that it turns out that Mattei prepared it himself. So it's fair game to tear into a film with such choice moments of weirdness as one girl jumping into a car which has never had any on-screen engine problems, in a moment where nothing immediately bad is happening, and says out loud, "Good, it started" as she turns on the ignition. A film in which on three separate occasions in less than eight minutes, a character fires a gun, the gun clicks emptily, and the character states for everyone who missed it that he's out of ammo.

Then there is the matter of the characters themselves. The classic "huh?" moment in the film comes when the survivors in the hotel find a giant cache of weapons. At this point they have no clue that anything is wrong in the world, but they still excitedly arm themselves. Apparently they know they're in a zombie movie. Or maybe they just like big guns. Anyway, it's one moment in a script riddled with strange character moments, and I'm not going to harp on these, because it's a horror film. This is what happens.

Besides, I need the space to talk about the zombies themselves. Beyond doubt, this movie has the most careless depiction of the living dead I've ever seen on film. Sometimes, they are very fast and fight using karate moves, but sometimes they are shambling and stiff. Sometimes they can talk and are clever, but sometimes they are like cattle. Sometimes they set-up traps, like the ones hiding in the brush directly beneath a helicopter, or the one hiding on top of a pole where there haven't been any living people for hours (patient zombies, these). The unquestioned pinnacle of the film is the zombie who removes his own head and sets it in a refrigerator, so that when a human opens the refrigerator, the head comes flying around the room chasing him (No, really), so that he's distracted enough that the beheaded body can attack and kill him (No. Really). Just so you know, this scene was conceived by Fulci, and he regarded it 'til his dying day as one of the highlights of his career. I love Italian filmmakers.

All of this is scored by the Worst Soundtrack In History, a action-packed synth number that plays over each and every zombie scene in the film, and sounds like an outtake from an early 8-bit Mega Man game. It does make something clear, though: this is not a zombie horror picture, it is a zombie kung-fu automatic rifle commando action picture.

My God, I don't have the words. This is without a doubt one of the shoddiest and most tossed-off films I've seen in my whole life (it looks like it was shot on VHS tape in some of the outdoor scenes). The plot hardly exists and yet it is virtually impossible to follow. Mattei and Fragasso clearly didn't give half a damn about making the movie, and yet it feels like the work of the most passionate, least talented filmmaker who ever touched a camera. It's almost impossible to imagine any kind of movie made with more craziness and less success than this, and for that reason I find myself falling desperately in love with it. Flying zombie head, boys and girls. You can't make that shit up.

Reviews in this series
Dawn of the Dead / Zombi (Romero, 1978)
Zombi 2 / Zombie / Zombie Flesh Eaters] (Fulci, 1979)
Zombi 3 (Fulci / Mattei, 1988)
Zombi 4: After Death (Fragasso, 1988)