October 23, 2015 Zombie Still Devouring 35 Years Later
In July of 1980, American audiences were fed a giant helping of hot spaghetti splatter in the form of Lucio Fulci’s film Zombie, AKA Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, and Island of the Living Dead. Starring Ian McCulloch (Zombie Holocaust 1980, Contamination 1980), Tisa Farrow (Some Call it Loving 1973, Anthropophagus 1980), Richard Johnson (The Haunting 1963, Julius Caesar 1970), Al Cliver (The Black Cat 1981, The Beyond 1981), Auretta Gay (Brillantina Rock 1979, Ombre 1980), and Olga Karlatos (Cyclone 1978, Purple Rain 1984), Special FX were handled by Gianetto De Rossi (Cannibal Apocalypse 1980, The House By the Cemetery 1981). Written by Elisa Briganti (Writer: House By the Cemetery 1981, Manhattan Baby 1982) and an uncredited Dardano Sacchetti (Writer: The Beyond 1981, The New York Ripper 1982), Zombie was directed by Lucio Fulci.
Zombie opens, not with a whimper, but a bang, as a body wrapped in a sheet and bound in rope slowly rises and is shot in the head by Dr. Menard (Johnson), who says matter-of-factly, “The boat can leave now. Tell the crew.” The credits roll. Then a boat is haphazardly careening into New York Harbor, narrowly missing the Staten Island Ferry. The Harbor Patrol gets control of the boat and climbs aboard. One Patrolman goes into the lower part of the ship and discovers it in complete disarray. Upon further inspection, a severed and partially devoured hand falls to the ground. Suddenly, a large Zombie (Captain Haggerty: The Last Dragon 1985, Honeymoon in Vegas 1992) bursts through the door and tears the throat out of the Patrolman. The Zombie makes his way up on deck where he is shot a few times by the other Patrolman and falls into the water.
In a newspaper office, Peter West (McCulloch) is summoned by his Editor in Chief (Fulci in his standard Hitchcockian film appearance) to follow up on a story about the boat in the harbor. Meanwhile, on the boat, the police are questioning Anne Bowles (Farrow), where it is discovered that the boat belonged to her father, whom she has not spoken to in months. Then, in the Coroner’s office, the two Doctors are doing an autopsy on the dead Patrolman from the boat, when under the sheet, the Patrolman starts to move slightly.
That night, Anne sneaks onto the boat, which is guarded by a Policeman who is listening to some hot disco rather than his radio. While snooping, she runs into Peter, who keeps her from screaming. He shows her a letter that he found, and as she is reaching, she knocks down a lantern, alerting the Policeman up above. Peter quickly comes up with a plan, and when the Policeman comes down, he catches Peter and Anne making out. They tell him they were looking for a romantic setting and get into an argument. The Policeman, not wanting to hear any of it, tells them to go. The next day, Peter is at a phone booth reading the letter to his Editor with Anne listening, and his Editor authorizes Peter to travel to the island of Matul and investigate further. When they arrive to their destination before Matul, they meet Brian (Cliver) and the beautiful Susan (Gay), who are loading up their boat for a long trip around the islands. Peter convinces them to take he and Anne with them.
On their way to Matul, Peter, Anne, Brian, and Susan stop the boat so Susan can take some underwater photos. She dives in and is soon stalked by a shark. She hides behind some rocks and the shark swims into the boat causing some damage. Suddenly, a Zombie (Ramon Bravo) reaches out towards her. She scratches his face with some coral and swims away. The shark comes back and faces off with the Zombie, who hitches a ride and takes a bite, but the shark soon takes the Zombie’s arm off and swims away.On Matul, Dr. Menard is trying to reach someone on the radio, but no one is replying. His wife (Karlatos) is very scared of what is going on around the island with the dead coming back to life and getting closer to their side of the island. She hates her husband for dragging her to Matul. Dr. Menard still fancies himself as a scientist trying to find a logical reason for what is going on, even though logic is no longer in play. He leaves for the hospital, which is nothing more than a ramshackle church full of sick people.
In the hospital, Dr. Menard and his Nurse (Stefania D’Amario: The Sister of Ursula 1978, Nightmare City 1980) when Lucas (Dakar: Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals 1978, Zombie Holocaust 1980) rushes in and informs them that all the natives are leaving that part of the island. They go outside and Lucas explains it is because of the Juju Man making voodoo. That night, Mrs. Menard is attacked by a Zombie who punches through her door, grabs her hair, and slowly impales her eye in a large, splintered piece of the door, then pulls her through to her demise. The next day, Peter, Anne, Brian, and Susan arrive at the island and are picked up by Dr. Menard, who explains what happened to Anne’s father and the macabre events that are plaguing the island.
George Romero’s (Director: Night of the Living Dead 1968, The Crazies 1973) Dawn of the Dead was released in Europe with a slight re-edit by Dario Argento (Director: Suspiria 1977, Inferno 1980) under the title Zombi. It just so happens that under Italian copyright law, ANY film can be marketed as a sequel to another film; for example, a film about witches could be called Suspira 2 and no one could say a thing about it, so Zombie was quickly greenlit by Fabrizio De Angelis (Producer: Zombie Holocaust 1980, The Beyond 1981). He optioned the screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti entitled Nightmare Island, which was to be a return to Zombie film roots a la I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Voodoo Island (1957). The screenplay was retooled and entitled, Zombie. Oddly enough, Lucio Fulci was not the first choice to sit in the director’s chair. Fabrizio De Angelis initially went to Enzo Castellari (Director: The Inglorious Bastards 1978, The Last Shark- AKA Great White- 1981), who turned down the film due to his inexperience with the genre. Castellari then referred De Angelis to Fulci, who was at a low point in his already long career; Zombie served as the shot in the arm Fulci’s career so desperately needed.
The cast, human and Zombie alike, all played their parts very well; Ian McCulloch’s performance was flawless and full of charisma. The part of Peter West was initially written to be American, and after a lot of trying, McCulloch could not keep up the American accent, so Fulci let him be English, and threw in a line in his Editor scene about Peter’s Uncle buying the newspaper, to make the Englishman fit in organically. Tisa Farrow, sister of actress Mia, played it very straight, even if a little rigid, but that worked to her advantage, as throughout the film, she had a very glazed look that conveyed an underlying fear behind her eyes.Zombie was mainly shot on the exotic island of Santo Domingo, which is where the church was constructed. The same island and church structure were used for Zombie Holocaust. There was also plenty of the film shot around Rome. Even though Zombie had a budget of 410,000,000 Lira, it must not have counted towards permits to shoot in New York, as all the scenes were shot guerrilla style; the scene in the newspaper office was shot with only permission from the janitor, who was fired soon after the ordeal.
Al Cliver played the rugged, no-nonsense, Brian Hull perfectly. Auretta Gay’s Susan was sort of just a background sex-appeal character without an overabundance of lines. For the famous shark scene, she did not know how to swim, and had to learn in the hotel pool from a guy who only knew how to do a half-crawl. Out on the ocean, she was scared out of her mind and would not get into the water, so they threw her in and she panicked. Al Cliver dove in and grabbed her, but was hit on the head by the life preserver that the captain of the boat had thrown, causing him to let her go. Ian McCulloch shouted, “God save the queen,” and jumped in…only he landed head first on the oxygen tank and had to get fourteen stitches. Richard Johnson was magnificent as the borderline mad-scientist, Dr. Menard, who was obsessed with finding the reason for the Zombie phenomenon and hopefully a cure, even at the expense of his wife’s sanity and life. Olga Karlatos played the aforementioned Mrs. Menard, a disturbed wife struggling to keep her sanity and fear in check. The titular Zombie was played by Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, a stuntman. His brothers were also Zombies and stuntmen throughout the film, but it was Ottaviano’s landmark makeup that granted the use of his hideous visage on countless advertisements, posters, toys, and t-shirts that are still produced today.
Zombie marked the first time that Gianetto De Rossi worked with Fulci. After seeing Zombi aka Dawn of the Dead, he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about how the Zombies in Romero’s film had appeared blueish. If someone is tanned and you put some pale makeup on them, they appear blue, and De Rossi did not want blue Zombies, so he opted to go with a clay and mud mixture to give an old, decayed look. This simple effect also gave the FX team the ability to apply the makeup on the fly with a quick turn time, and they are also some of the best looking Zombies in the genre. All of the FX in Zombie are chunk-blowingly gruesome with the splinter-in-the-eye and gut buffet among the most disgusting; both just happen to include Olga Karlatos, who seemed to be a real trooper. The eye gouge shot came into being due to an unfinished Olga prop head and they were forced to shoot as tight as possible on the eye, which increased the gross-out factor ten-fold. The Mrs. Menard gut buffet is a particularly nauseating scene. The guts and organs were all real and cooked before hand, but the Zombies kept spitting them out, which caused Fulci to cut numerous times. Eventually, they swallowed the guts…then also regurgitated after the scene.
The wonderful score was composed by Fabio Frizzi, and it was the first time Frizzi collaborated with Fulci, but it would not be the last. Many would say Frizzi is to Fulci as Goblin is to Argento. His music provided rhythmic drums and sweeping, haunting synths which really added tension and atmosphere. This was especially felt on Matul, with its constant Voodoo drumming coming from the interior of the island.
Despite all the amazing FX, locations, and the acting, the big takeaway from Zombie is the “Zombie Vs. Shark” scene. The Underwater Zombie was played by Ramon Bravo, who was also the underwater photographer. The second unit spent three days baiting sharks, but none were biting until the third day when they were able to keep a tiger shark swimming around the boat for an extended period of time. When it was too tired to attack, Ramon jumped in the water and started riding and wrestling the shark. This scene is astounding and, quite possibly, the most unique scene in any horror film, past or present.
In 2000, a small independent publishing company, Blackest Heart Media, published a graphic novel adaptation of Zombie in a very limited run. Written by Stephen Romano (Writer: Phantasm: Overminds (Comic), Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road 2005), the book follows the film, but adds details about the start of the zombie plague brought on by a mysterious, evil, voodoo priest named Biacanda, who was summoned from the bowls of hell. The book also adds unique backstories for the characters, but the best part is that the zombie attack on New York is finally visualized. Even if only in drawings on a page, at least hardcore fans of the film can see what they’ve probably only imagined. The book is exceedingly rare and extremely hard to find.
Without Zombie, viewers would have been deprived of City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House by the Cemetery, and New york Ripper. With that said, Zombie remains one of Fulci’s most popular and endearing films, as it put him back on the horror map and laid the foundation of his legacy as one of the great Horror directors of all time.