From among the Video Nasties

In the fall of 1978, even before it opened in its native United States, George A. Romero's horror-satire masterpiece Dawn of the Dead was substantially re-edited by Dario Argento for the Italian market, and retitled Zombi; because hey, that's a good title for a zombie picture, and there hadn't been any film with that title yet.

Zombi/Dawn OTD turned out to be a smash hit in Italy, and Italian genre filmmakers being Italian genre filmmakers, it took no time at all for the knock-offs to appear. The first of these, despite having no real connection narratively or on the production end, staked its claim to a title that all but guaranteed its success: Zombi 2. When it came time to release it in the anglophone world, it was given the somewhat confusing title Zombie , because hey, that's a good title for a zombie picture, and there hadn't been any film with that title yet. So no, Zombi 2 isn't its own sequel, although American filmgoers in 1979 had good cause to wonder about that.

For the record, the Brits, being Brits, came up with a slightly more evocative title: Zombie Flesh Eaters. This title proved to be a double-edged sword when the film, at its time one of the goriest ever released, became one of the biggest celebrities of the '80s Video Nasties purge. But that is a conversation beside the point.

Now, whether we call it Zombi 2, Zombie or Zombie Flesh Eaters, the film was a watershed moment: though it was not the first Italian film about the cannibalistic undead, it was the most successful by a big margin, and in the decade to follow that country would see an explosion of zombie pictures whose numbers can scarcely be counted. Reasonable people might debate whether the existence of a robust subgenre of Italian zombie movies is something to be happy about, but for anyone even passingly interested in the culture of horror movies in the last thirty years, it's an inescapable force of nature that must be grappled with. Only the American slasher fad can compete with the scale of the Italian zombie cinema (I'd like to note that if Halloween and Friday the 13th were combined into one movie, it would be the analogue to Zombi 2 in its respective genre).

Before I go any further, I need to make an admission: in my 26 years of life, I have maintained an active interest in horror films for at least eight or nine years and I have been a student of gore and exploitation films for more than three, and in all that time I have seen not one film by one of the most important of all Italian horror directors, Lucio Fulci, until this one. Compared to someone like Argento, Fulci isn't terribly easy to get a solid bead on using the power of the internets, but here's what I've been able to figure out: Zombi 2 is considered by almost all English-language reviewers to be his best film; his films are typically considered to be dodgy in the areas of character development and story logic; though he is capable of the same surrealistic visual poetry of Argento or Mario Bava, he is not so likely as they are to justify an entire film through arresting imagery. And indeed, I found Zombi 2 to be less than the sum of its parts: there are individual shots and scenes that rank among the richest I've ever seen in a horror film, but the film as a whole feels like it's being held together with spit and chicken wire.

But that's part of the joy of Italian horror movies, because those individual scenes sometimes work so well that you want to stand up and cheer, or swoon, or both. The film opens on just such a moment: the first shot is a close-up of a gun barrel pointing at the camera, the second is of a body wrapped in a white shroud slowly rising from a bed, the third shot is a magnificent image of a man holding the gun, silhouetted against an open door with dusty light streaming around him like a halo, the fourth shot is a close-up of the explosion of viscera that erupts from the body as he shoots it. Four shots, hardly any time has elapsed, and already the movie has gotten down to the business of kicking the viewer's ass. That's one of the other joys of Italian horror: boring things like exposition are buried in favor of dreamlike visions of impressionistic violence.

One of the things that Zombi 2 is rarely given credit for is that it's an early example - I'm not prepared to call it the earliest, although if there's a precursor, I haven't been able to find it - of a film combining the two main types of zombie movies. Romero's Night of the Living Dead is routinely cited as a key film in the history of the depiction of graphic onscreen violence, but it boasts another point of interest, not so important but also worthy of comment. Prior to that 1968 film, the great bulk of all zombie movies were set on Caribbean islands, the zombies were brought alive through a voodoo curse, and the villain of the piece was the evil witch doctor trying to create a private army of the undead. The zombies themselves were threatening only because the walking dead are inherently scary, but other than walk and be dead, they didn't do much. This was the template for White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and many other films typically (and not without reason) dismissed these days as atmospheric without being scary and a bit too pokey for their own good. Post-Romero, zombie movies were almost exclusively about revived corpses in almost any locale whose origin could be just about anything - a curse, a disease, or something left unexplained - and whose modus operandi was to flip out and eat people. Zombi 2 meshes those two ideas: it is a "gut muncher" film set on an uncharted in the West Indies called Matool, where the living dead are presumed to exist because of an ancient voodoo curse, but rather than amble around operating machinery and freaking out the visiting Caucasians, they...y'know the rest. Braaainsssss, as they say.

Judging this film in terms of little things like plot and theme and character would be an exercise in missing the point. Basically, this is the story of Anne (Tisa Farrow) whose father has gone missing and the newspaper reporter, Peter (Ian McCulloch) who helps her trace the trail back to the Caribbean, where the two join up with American tourists Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay), the latter of whom has a disconcerting tendency to go scuba diving in nothing but a g-string - no doubt an appeal to the male audience's prurient tastes, but all I could think about was how much the nylon straps on the tank must chafe in places not designed for chafing. Eventually the four arrive at Matool where they find Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) investigating the possible causes of a recent spat of flesh-eating undead. In what I must regard as the single most unique element of the whole film, Menard is not trying to exploit the legions of zombies for his own power, but is actually trying to cure a serious health issue. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose and a lot of limbs get gnawed off before the survivors manage to escape to an ironic fate.

But that's not why we're here, y'know? This film isn't about an island of zombies and some girl's missing dad, it's about the scene where conquistadors climb out of their graves, or the scene where a woman's eye is slowly impaled on a wooden shard, or the scene where a zombie battles a motherfuckin' shark (an example of another hale tradition of the Italian horror film: scenes that make you fear for the safety of an animal). Moments that combine terror and blood and hypnotic, surreal imagery. That's what we look for in an Italian zombie movie, not the acting (which ranges from terrible to extremely servicable, from Farrow to Johnson), nor the often arbitrary and slow-moving plot (although, the film ends with a call-back to something that I was certain Fulci had forgotten about, and in fact its narrative is really more coherent than it needs to be, if such a thing is possible). Zombi 2 may not be the most surreal of the Italian gut munchers, but the by-turns violent and beautiful images are timeless, in their own way. Besides, the script housing those images was at the time somewhat unlike anything that had been seen before (calling Zombi 2 a Romero knockoff is a gross error) and far more intelligible than what would follow. It's the best of both worlds, really: striking images on an unusually strong frame for the genre and the country. It's not perfect or a work of art, but for the zombie connoisseur, especially the ones like me who got into it all backwards, it's a treasure of invention and all-around solid filmmaking.

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. Zombie movies are by their nature awfully violent, though this one no more so than most, and I'd almost give it a 3/5. But that eye-impalement scene leaves nothing to the imagination.

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)