Z: Zombie (1979)

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“When you do an A-Z horror movie challenge, you’re likely going to end up with zombies.”

– Tim Lehnerer, probably

zombie posterWell, this is about the most blatant personification of that statement, isn’t it? No second word, no number, no nothing. Just: ZOMBIE.

Yeah, I’ll stop you right there, because you’re about to inform poor ignorant me that this actually does have a number, it’s really called Zombie 2 because it was a sequel to Dawn of the Dead which was a big hit in Europe but it was called Zombie there and shouldn’t you know more about horror movies before you try writing about them?

Listen, troll (I would have to reply), if you were paying attention you would know that the movie is called Zombi 2 (no final e) and for some reason Zombies 2 in the international trailers and it was never a sequel to Dawn of the Dead and was, in fact, written several months before Dawn‘s European release but that was some nice low-hanging publicity fruit, wasn’t it, especially since this production company had a better lawyer than Dario Argento, and thus was paved the way for Zombie numbers 3-8 and every other crap Italian zombie film throughout eternity.

So there. Troll.

1279240863_Zombie_Flesh_Eaters_1979_1I saw Zombie in probably semi-ideal circumstances for me, which is to say I saw it on a double bill with Blood Beach at a drive-in on a warm Texas night (Zombie kept cropping up at drive-ins with different dance partners for several years). That was 35 years ago, and it was with some interest I put the Blue Underground blu-ray into the player for a return bout. (Movie Challenges like this are largely about making me watch movies I haven’t seen, but I do make an exception for anything I haven’t seen in 20 years, like The Quatermass XperimentZombie definitely qualified.)

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an apparently abandoned sailing ship drifts into New York Harbor, causing all sorts of traffic problems until the harbor patrol boards it and finds a) rotting food, b) a chewed-up hand, c) the fattest zombie you have ever seen. (Guillermo del Toro: “You just know he ate everybody else on the boat.”) After biting out one cop’s throat, Tubby is shot several times and falls into the bay.

zombie+flesh+eaters+ss+roomThese are the circumstances that bring together Anne (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the owner of that boat, and Peter (Ian McCulloch), a reporter. They have a meet cute while searching the boat under the nose of a police guard, during which Peter finds an undelivered letter from Anne’s father, who is dying of some terrible disease on a Caribbean island called Matool.

Flying to St. Thomas, the only boat they can find to take them to Matool – “a cursed island” – are working vacationers Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay) who are spending two months sailing the islands and doing underwater photography. This will become significant when Susan goes scuba diving to get the day’s pics within sight of Matool and runs into an underwater zombie, who, in one of the movie’s signature scenes, has a fistfight with a shark, and loses that fist.

shark-vs_zombie-1(One of the many interesting factoids on the disc’s extras is the Underwater Zombie and “Shark Trainer” is Ramón Bravo, an underwater photographer of no small repute, best known for Tinterero!)

So our four “Americans” make it to Matool but bend their propeller, meaning Brian and Susan can’t dump Anne and Peter there, as was their original intent. They meet up with the island’s physician, Doctor Menard (Richard Johnson) who is not only fighting some sort of plague, but is also trying to find a scientific explanation for the zombies that have been cropping up lately. One of the few island natives that has stayed faithful to the doctor (Dakar) fills us in that a new witch doctor has been getting everybody worked up, and they all gone to the island’s interior to bang on drums and wake the dead.

zombie3Which is all the explanation you’re going to get, so just ride with it. That’s okay, we came to see a movie whose poster was some rotten corpse with worms in its eyes and the slogan WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU, and it has to be admitted that the movie in its last half gets down to that business with gusto.

This is generally pointed to as director Lucio Fulci’s first horror movie (if you don’t count some highly-regarded gialli). His output to this point had been all over the genre map, but this one pretty much locked him into the creepshow stuff for the 80s and 90s. Now what surprised me in this re-visit so many years later is how well-made this movie is. That projector trying to cut through the humid Texas night air and subsequent VHS releases in pan-and-scan did Zombie absolutely no favors. Fulci knows where to put his camera and how to get bang for his comparatively few bucks on the screen, and the blu-ray is an absolute revelation in that regard.

The low budget also necessitates a different look to the zombies, which helps the movie achieve its own identity. A reliance on clay instead of latex actually helps these revenants look like they just clawed their way out of the ground.

zombi-2-04I bet you thought I was going to talk about the splinter-through-the-eyeball scene (damage to eyeballs seems a particular motif for Fulci). Everybody talks about the splinter-through-the-eyeball scene. It’s still grueling, even when you know it’s coming, but another factoid dropped was Zombie played in Italy with an intermission, as was the custom, and I had forgotten the splinter-through-the-eyeball happens at the halfway point. Think about that being what you took out into the lobby with you.

They probably didn’t sell much gelato during that intermission.

Another thing which helped immensely with this re-visit: being able to turn on the original Italian language track with English subtitles. Fulci’s movies have had some of the worst English dub tracks I have ever had to endure, and subconsciously that drags down the perceived quality of the movie.

zombi4When I logged my re-watch of Zombie on Letterboxd, I knew that I had entered it earlier in my relationship with the site, but it was amusing to see that when I did so, I had rated the movie four stars out of five; I stand by that rating, but I don’t remember holding it in such high regard (due to washed-out projection and VHS dubs). So it is satisfying in that way that you see an old friend for the first time in years, and you say, “You look great!” and mean it.

Buy ZOMBIE on Amazon