In 1968 George A Romero created a subgenre in horror that would continue to frighten audiences even forty years later. With Night Of The Living Dead a slew of followers came and each country throughout the world would copy this blueprint. Romero was especially influential to filmmakers in Italy, he lead them to a new genre – the spaghetti-zombie film. The leader of this new genre was Lucio Fulci, he was determined to out-gore Romero, which he did successfully in his film Zombie (1979). Released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, Zombie is an intense and beautiful film about the beginning of a zombie plague. When Dawn was released in Italy the title was changed to Zombi, so Fulci’s film was then titled as Zombie 2. This caused confusion and made Fulci’s film instantly linked to the Dead trilogy. Now you can find this film under the titles: Zombi, Zombie, Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, or Island of the Living Dead.
"When the earth spits out the dead they will devour the flesh of the living!" – Tagline for Zombie
Lucio Fulci began making films in the 1960’s starting off where Romero wanted to: with slapstick comedy. Fulci also directed a few Spaghetti Westerns like The Brute and the Beast (1966) and Four of the Apocalypse (1976). He also worked within the Giallo sub-genre with the brilliant Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and Perversion Story (1971). Fulci made any film that came his way but did not find success until Zombie.
In contrast to Romero’s dead films Fulci uses voodoo as his catalyst for the apocalypse. Fulci returned to the classic mythology of zombies but as with Romero’s undead he gave them freewill instead of servitude. Zombie focuses on gore and body horror more than the social commentary of the Dead films. Fulci tells his myth through gore and suspence. His film may have plot holes and horrendous acting, but intensity and intention make up for its lacking structure.
Zombie begins with a sailboat floating into one of New York’s harbors. The coast guard is called out to inspect the wandering vessel. Two policemen climb aboard to investigate the deserted ship. One of the cops searches the cabin of the boat and finds evidence of violence. An old decaying corpse quickly kills him and climbs out of the cabin, the other officer shoots and the zombie falls into the water. This is our first glimpse into Fulci’s deadly world. The coast guard cannot find any information about the sailboat except that it belonged to the father of Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), and he had often sailed around the Caribbean. Reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) isn’t satisfied with the information the police are offering him, so he decides to look further into the case. Peter and Anne team up to find out what happened to her father. This leads them on an adventure to Matul, an isolated island. They find a boat ran by Brian Peters (Al Cliver) and his wife Susan (Aretta Gay). All of them head out to find the said-to-be cursed island of Matul. On the island we find Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) struggling with a disease he cannot cure. The natives believe it's voodoo, but the man of science cannot accept that.
What follows is the most beautiful sequence that Fulci has ever shot. The underwater cinematography executed perfectly by Sergio Salvati, the direction, the special effects of Giannetto De Rossi, and haunting electronic score by Fabio Frizzi culminate in a five minute silent film about a woman, a shark, and a zombie.
As Susan takes pictures of the underwater wildlife she realizes a shark is quickly coming towards her. She is able to swim away from it toward the surface. She screams to everyone on the boat for some help. Brian grabs his gun and shoots at the shark. He misses and the shark bumps into the boat throwing them all off balance. Back in the depths of the ocean Susan safely averts the sharks attempts at catching her. She hides beside a rock formation and seems to loose the shark temporarily. As her predator swims away and the tension is relieved a decomposed hand grabs her. She looks to her left and the zombie lunges at her neck. She struggles to get away, but he has a firm grip on her. With her free hand she reaches for a handful of coral. She uses the coral to blind her attacker. He lets go and she swims back to the surface. The zombie then sees the shark and decides to attack it. He grabs on to the sharks fin and tries to rip some flesh off. The zombie manages to pierce the shark and tear its skin. As he eats, the shark swims around and comes back towards him. The zombie backs off then as the shark is about to eat his torso he climbs on the sharks back and is carried for a while. The corpse tries repeatedly to bite the shark but cannot penetrate its smooth skin. The shark finally manages to bite off his arm and he falls off the shark, the battle is considered a draw. We then cut back to the boat where Susan is telling the group that someone tried to attack her.
The idea of a shark vs. a zombie seems absurd but showcased by Fulci’s masterful talent it seams real. Fulci not only capitalized on Romero’s films, but as this scene shows he pays a little homage to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). This sequence stands alone within the film as visual poetry; its only relevance in the narrative is as a plot device to get the characters to the island. Soon after Susan comes up from the water they realize that when the shark hit the boat it damaged the drive shaft. Not knowing the nearest island is Matul they set off to find a repair shop.
After the foursome decides they have to get to the island, we cut to the doctor’s wife. In classic horror film tradition we watch Paola taking a shower. We are looking through the window at her as she begins to dry herself with a towel. A hand reaches up and strokes the glass; here it’s evident that we have been looking at her through the eyes of a zombie. Through a series of static medium close-ups and strange sounds from outside the house Paola grows more and more paranoid. She opens the front door and hears footsteps coming closer. As she closes the door a zombie’s hand gets stuck. She pushes with all her might until she gets the door closed. She locks it and grabs a nearby desk and pushes it against the doorway. When the entrance is secure she stands in front of the desk listening to fingernails scratching at the door. A hand punches through the wood and grabs Paola’s hair. She tries to use the desk for leverage as she uses all of her energy to pull her head away from the door. The zombie slowly moves Paola’s eye toward a ten-inch splinter the broken door has created. We cut from Paola’s head, to the splinter, to a close up of Paola’s eye, back to the splinter. With each cut her face slowly comes closer to contact. Finally Paola’s eye is right in front of the wood, there is a hesitation, then we see the splinter entering her pupil. The shot continues to show the piece of wood digging further into Paola’s head till finally it breaks off and she falls out of frame. This scene is by far the most terrifying series of shots within the film. Fulci builds intensity with each cut and even after watching the film over and over again it still shocks when he shows us every gruesome moment.
Soon after Paola’s death our four characters meet up with Dr. Menard who tells them that the dead are not resting. The doctor tells Anne that her father got sick and turned into one of the creatures. The four take Menard’s jeep and drive toward the doctor’s house to stay for the night. When they arrive they find the doctor’s wife being eaten by four zombies, in their shock they begin to back out of the house but run into two more. Brian hits one in the head with a piece of wood and they make their escape. The rest of the film plays out as a series of special effects that eventually kill everyone but Anne and Peter. We see for the first time in zombie film a corpse rising from a grave, and considering the body has been dead for nearly four hundred years it still looks mostly intact. We watch zombie after zombie get their head blown off, each one splattering more than the last. We see the hospital explode and zombies walking around through the fire. Skin is grabbed and ripped off and eventually Anne and Peter drag the fatally wounded Brian on to the safety of a boat. Brian dies in the cabin of the boat. Peter and Anne try to decide what to do, they think no one will believe them if they go back to America without a specimen so they choose to lock Brian in the cabin. They turn on the radio and we hear a newscaster reporting that the dead have come back to life. Anne and Peter stare at each other and we hear Brian slamming against the door while the newscaster continues his report. We cut to a close up of a zombie as it limps off camera, then it cuts to a long shot of the Manhattan Bridge where hundreds of zombies are walking. The reporter says, ‘I have been informed that zombies have entered the building… they’re at the door… they’re coming in… aarrgh!” Finally, the reporter’s scream denotes the end of the film.
End of Spoiler
It is useless to discuss any underlining meaning within Fulci’s film. When Fulci was asked, ‘why zombie films?’ in an interview for Loris Curci’s book Shock Masters of the Cinema, Fulci replied: “It’s the most fascinating game: life, death. What is more intriguing than death defied? The dead stay dead in police films and TV shows, but the dead returning from their grave are a beautiful mystery all religions have somehow contemplated (68).” When referencing Romero’s zombies he said they, “are ideological, mine are fantastic.. They’re born of pure fantasy and horror traditions, zombies with no political inclination or social meaning (68-9).” Fulci doesn’t focus on social commentary or any commentary for that matter, his films are purely visceral. His films are atmospheric and textured; they inspire a feeling not thought. He focuses his horrors on single parts of the body being destroyed or transformed by violence. Death in Fulci’s films is not a destruction of the flesh as a whole, but the slow disintegration of a body. His violence isn’t quick and death is comparatively a release. With a film like Zombie, the audience isn’t in need of explanation or narrative. Most of Fulci’s films center on the sensation of the image itself, they offer a possibility of experiencing film in a different way. While watching, we wait for the shocking images and when the abject comes the paradox of desiring the grotesque confuses us. Fulci’s horror films symbolize the masochism of watching gore. Giannetto De Rossi’s effects are at times so realistic it is hard not to be disgusted. These effects match with Fulci’s flare for the violent affront to our senses. Romero’s films affect our intellect whereas Fulci’s Zombi evokes confusion, disgust, and a delight at the pangs of horror. Fulci’s films where designed for effect, not for analysis or interpretation. We cringe every time we watch the splintered door sequence, so that must mean Fulci accomplished his goal. We just wish we could go back to 1979 and see the film in the theater so we could receive a complementary ‘barf bag’ which were handed out to everyone that came due to the high amount of gore that hadn’t been seen before.
After Fulci’s Zombie there were a slew of Italian made zombie films such as Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust, Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh and Fulci again with Zombi 3. Each film tried to further the gore of Romero and Fulci’s original. They may have excelled in their special effects but lacked in plot, cinematography, acting, editing, and even scoring. Occasionally these films would steal from the Goblin’s score for Dawn, trying to recreate the pulse pounding resonance that infused perfectly with Romero’s images, but failed miserably.