If you have ever wondered what an encounter between a shark and zombie would entail then look no further than Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, a film that not only gives us some of the most bizarre undead attacks to date it is also an entry in the zombie genre that will have even the most avid horror fan viewing these atrocities through squinted eyes.
“The boat can leave now, tell the crew,” and with that enigmatic line director Lucio Fulci launched one of the most disturbing and iconic horror films of the zombie genre. Fulci’s Zombie has a certain mystery quality to it that you tend to not find in your average zombie movie for as the story unfolds we are brought along not quite knowing what to expect, well, other than zombies of course. After that inexplicable opening of a shadowy man informing someone that the boat can leave the movie jumps to New York City harbour where a ghostly yacht approaches Manhattan Island and much as the Demeter brought Dracula to the shores of England this seemingly abandoned ship would bring a horror of a very different kind.
When a rather rotund zombie proceeds to eat one of the harbour patrol’s officers we the viewer may think we are ready for the terror that will unfold, gore and worm riddled corpses at every turn, but nothing can really prepare one for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie because the minute you settle in for the expected undead shenanigans to occur something more bizarre, horrific or completely inexplicable will happen. To help us along the movie gives us a couple of audience analogs that will aid us on our voyage, in the form of newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) the daughter of the owner of the mysteriously abandoned yacht, and we will journey with them down to the remote island of Matool in the hopes of finding out what happened to Anne’s father. This isn’t as easy as it looks and it requires them to hire a boat which then leads to the addition of two people more for the film’s body count, a vacationing couple consisting of a stalwart gent named Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and his very attractive paramour Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay), who don’t mind putting their plans on hold to help.
It’s at this point in the movie that I’d have said Fulci was trying to catch the audience off guard but after a little research, I learned that Susan going scuba diving topless was something the director was completely against, and not just because he hated the actress – who couldn’t swim or act – but because the script had her encounter not only a killer shark but a zombie as well. Fulci thought this moment was utterly ridiculous and thus it was shot by a second unit, but whether you agree with Fulci or not, one cannot deny the fact that it did provide the film with one of its more signature moments.
After surviving this aquatic horror our intrepid quartet finally reaches the mysterious island and it’s there they encounter the enigmatic Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), who has the bedside manner of Josef Mengele and a doctorate we must assume he earned while temping on The Island of Doctor Moreau. He warns our group to stay away from the nearby village because a strange disease has started bringing the dead back from the grave and up amongst the living. Rather nonplussed by that piece of information our heroes head across the island to check in on Menard’s wife (Olga Karlatos), unfortunately, they find her hosting a different kind of dinner party.
Lucio Fulci’s Zombie is a film that is all about repulsion and abject terror, with images that are right out of E.C. Comics Tales from the Crypt and is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere, one that should never be called a rip-off of Romero’s zombie flicks. Was Zombie cashing in on the popularity that Dawn of the Dead brought to the genre, absolutely, but Fulci’s film is a far cry from being a simply copycat of Romero’s entry as it wasn’t trying to be any kind of social allegory of man’s position in the world, Zombie is a straight-up balls-to-the-wall horror film that wears the trappings of the genre right on its sleeve. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead were these blue-skinned shambling undead, artfully made up by the great make-up effects man Tom Savini, and were clearly freshly risen corpses, while the zombies of Fulci’s film range from the newly risen to ones with greater degrees of decomposition, though it should be noted that the undead Spanish conquistadors have a surprising amount of flesh for being buried centuries ago, and when one sits down to watch a Fulci horror film it is absolute horror you will get.
As much as I love the Romero zombie films I have to hand it to Lucio Fulci and his team of artists, consisting of special make-up effects artists Gianetto de Rossi & Maurizio Trani and Artist Gino de Rossi, for creating some of the most memorable zombies ever brought to screen, and I particularly appreciated that we never get a true answer as to why the dead are rising. Romero also dances around the cause of his zombie apocalypse – was it from a crashed satellite, who knows – but Fulci’s film keeps us wondering if the cause is due to some mad science Menard is practicing or possibly because of voodoo practitioners on the island. We do hear chanting and voodoo drums in the background but what is the actual answer for this particular zombie apocalypse will forever remain a mystery.
How much enjoyment you will get out of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie will depend on how much you can handle extreme gore as well as some dodgy acting – Richard Johnson is the only cast member who even seems to be trying to sell a performance and he is truly magnificent and charismatic as the possible mad scientist – and though the film was marketed as a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, much to the chagrin of both Romero and Fulci, this entry truly stands on its own two feet, and not just as a great example of the zombie genre but also as one of the better horror films out there, period, and is certainly one of the best examples of Italian horror as a whole. So, whether you’re experiencing this film as Zombie 2 or Zombie Flesh Eaters the end result is still an entry that will most likely shake you to your very core.
Zombie (1979) – Review
Movie Rank - 7/10
The creepy atmosphere and sheer amount of dread that Lucio Fulci creates with his genre-busting zombie film cannot be understated but fans of the genre should be warned that this entry is not for the squeamish.