[25 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Poor Lucio Fulci. While filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Sergio Leone, and Dario Argento get all the Italian genre accolades, this lover of all things gruesome and gory (and a few other cinematic styles better left for another overview) can’t get a lick of lasting respect. Oh sure, the geeks go insane whenever a selection from his massive oeuvre makes it onto one of many home video formats, but for someone as gifted and multi-faceted as he, it seems a shame he’s relegated to a pre-sold sideshow oddity. Indeed, among his many known quantities, Zombie seems to be the example carted out whenever anyone wants to pigeonhole this prolific writer/director. Sure, it celebrates the blood and guts he’s come to be associated with, but as an overall experience, it’s undeniably unnerving.
Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) is concerned. Her father’s boat has shown up in New York Harbor, empty (well, it did contain some manner of hulking human ‘monster’) and she wants to know what exactly happened to him. The sudden arrival of the clipper also peaks the interest of struggling journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch). He decides to head down to the Caribbean and investigate the island of Matool, the last known whereabouts of Anne’s dad. She agrees to come along. When they arrive, they find few who will actually take them to the legendary locale. Seems a mysterious disease has everyone spooked. Anne and Peter eventually hook up with American tourists Brian (Pier Luigi Conti) and his girlfriend Susan (Auretta Gay) and together they discover the reason for all the apprehension. Matool is overrun by zombies, and Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson) is trying to figure out why…before it’s too late.
Prior to Zombie (or Zombi, or Zombi 2, however you prefer to tag it), Fulci’s fortunes were fading…and fading fast. He was seen as a has-been, a former great who had made his name in one of Italy’s most famous motion picture categories - the giallo. After the decidedly anti-Catholic screed Don’t Torture a Duckling, however, he seemed to fall out of favor with the moviegoing public. Zombie put him back on the map, remaking him into a master of horror and a wizard of excessive grue. Audiences had never seen the kind of casual, autopsy level of violence that perpetrated this otherwise standard island fever fright film. From necks being torn open to eyes being gouged out by large shards of wood, Fulci found a new lease on creative life by opening up as many veins - and torsos - as he could.
Zombie is indeed a spectacle of splatter. The story is painfully simple - girl goes looking for her lost father and finds a paradise overrun by the living dead - but the delivery of same is shocking. This is a brutal, uncompromising film, a statement by someone who is going ‘all-in.’ Fulci clearly felt he needed to compete with the Americans and their growing expertise in special effects. In fact, what he was really doing was re-competing within his own artistic region. Italian horror maestros had been pushing the envelope when it came to carnage ever since Suzy Bannion arrived at a mysterious European dance academy in the middle of a thunderstorm. The Yanks were just following suit. Fulci himself had experimented with such extremities, especially during the face destroying finale of Duckling. Zombie therefore became a riff on what his country’s horror icons were doing right.
Fans of unfettered terror had never seen anything quite like Zombie. That is why it is still considered a classic of its type today. The movie is uncompromising, never once letting up or eager to give the viewer a break. Instead, there is an aura of darkness and bleak sense of survival that runs all throughout the narrative, a sense that everyone we see and everything we witness is a portent of impending doom. Even the opening, which sees a fat zombie threatening a pair of New York’s Finest finds a way to signal the seeming end of mankind. All throughout the movie, Fulci is promising something big - and he constantly delivers. The shock set pieces - including a memorable underwater moment between a shark and a hungry member of the living dead - is almost definitive in its fright flick sentiment. Even the ending chills the very marrow in one’s bones.
Fulci also finds a nice level of dread here, something the otherwise lack of suspense would supposedly countermand. We know something is going to happen to the individual members of the victim pool during the story, and these zombies are so slow and uncoordinated that we aren’t overly concerned most of the time. But once we see the damage that can be done, once we recognize that corpse physicality has nothing to do with the potential harm to be inflicted, we lose our courage. Indeed, the greatest aspect of Fulci’s filmmaking is how he can find a way to make anticipation and payoff seem like parts of the same uneasy premise. Put another way, he can get us interested and then keep us engaged even as the most awful atrocities play out in front of us.
This is what keeps Zombie from being a full blown filmic freakshow only. Yes, we still get the horrific figure in the tent biting the heads off things, but here it’s done in a decidedly more disturbing manner. By crafting his kills the way a silent comedy stages his stunts, Fulci found the perfect post post-modern mannerism. It would be copied and mimicked for the last three decades. Indeed, many horror films today rely on gore to get by, believing that you really need little else to capture the viewer’s imagination. Fulci may have suggested such a style, but he accented the cruelty with real talent. He could take a bunch of middling actors and turn them into a terror treasure trove that we root and care for - and when you consider that Tisa Farrow (Mia’s sister) only has one performance move - the dainty deer in the headlights look - that’s saying a lot.
Over the years, companies have campaigned to get Zombie and its maker the recognition they do rightly deserve. Even this new two disc release from Blue Underground (all the more impressive in its high definition remaster) argues added content as a reason for said respect. The truth is, the movie and the man who made it can stand rightly on their own fear factor feet. Argento may be called an artist and the Bavas may bookend the entire Italian horror hierarchy, but there’s no reason to write off Fulci. He’s not a hack or a genre also-ran. His films are definitely not for everyone, but at the same time, they’re not disposable. Without Fulci, the gore epic would never have its necessary extremes. With him, splatter becomes sensational, just like Zombie.