While serious adherents to the trappings of ‘70s and ‘80s Italian horror cinema can point variously to any number of films as crowning achievements, no one film better exemplifies the genre than Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, also known as Zombie Flesh Eaters, Woodoo, and Zombi II from when it was promoted in foreign markets as a curious sequel to Dawn of the Dead.
When an abandoned yacht floats into the harbors of New York and a crazed occupant attacks and kills a harbor patrol officer, an enterprising journalist and the daughter of the vessel’s missing captain embark on a voyage to Virgin Islands to find out what happened. Suffice it to say, the crazed occupant brought with him an affliction of unknown origin that turns corpses into marauding flesh-eaters, and the island of the ship’s last departure may hold the closest thing to an explanation as can be found.
What sets Zombie apart from other Italian horror films of the era is that it has a completely digestible plot while exemplifying the type of no-holes-barred violence and gore that makes the genre so alluring. Also, true to the draw of Joe Bob Briggs’ Three Bs, there are plenty of beasts, blood, and breasts to go around with the predictable gratuitous panache.
The goriest moments of Zombie stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the genre; those afflicted by ommetaphobia will be sent into a screaming panic as one character’s eye draws closer and closer to a splinter that must surely gouge it completely, while the all-around feasting of the undead equals the best moments of Night of the Living Dead and comes close to the most ghastly kills in Dawn of the Dead.
The best moment of all, however, deserves a novel of its own. As one scantily clad protagonist goes for an offshore dip to take pictures, she discovers that she is being pursued by a shark, only to discover moments later that the shark is the least of her worries; a zombie has descended to the floor of the ocean and refused to die. When the nubile young woman makes her escape, the zombie and the shark face off in one of the most truly astounding sequences in film history. It is literally impossible to comprehend and impossible to divorce from one’s memory.
If the viewer has seen their fair share of Italian zombie films, like Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, or Nightmare City, Zombie might be most startling for the straightforwardness of the approach; the plot proceeds in a linear fashion, and though the characters may lack apparent depth, it’s easy to remember who is who and follow their voyage through a sea of set-pieces and gross-out shocks.
In accordance with its brethren, however, there are still some moments of Zombie that call attention to the artifice of the exercise; one scene involved a half-dozen Molotov cocktails hurled in rapid succession yields corresponding shots where apparently each firebomb has extinguished before the next one is thrown. More egregiously, reaction shots to the undead are held to the point of insanity, where each character who is threatened by a bite will succumb with absolutely no fight or reaction until they are officially lined up to return from the grave in short order.
However, such complaints pale in comparison to Zombie’s ultimate effect; there can be no doubt that it inspired nearly every foreign zombie film to follow and many of the releases stateside as well. The cultural cache of Zombie is such that it has touched on many generations of filmmakers and still remains a rite of passage among true fans of zombie film. It would be logical to accept that most new fans these days get started with the remake of the Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, perhaps Return of the Living Dead or Dead Alive. Zombie impacted all of them, and after a trip into Romero’s heyday, it’s hard to imagine progressing any further into the past of undead filmmaking without first making Zombie a priority. Its place in history is well deserved.
Fortunately, after many years of DVD releases without any one true version emerging, the latest edition, released in both DVD and Blu-ray, offers attractive extras and a definitive transfer. Undead fanatics without it in their collection should be ashamed, as even a dross like Warm Bodies features this edition onscreen.