Tisa Farrow - Anna Bowles
Ian McCulloch - Peter West
Richard Johnson - Dr. David Menard
Al Cliver (Pier Luigi Conti) - Bryan Curt
Auretta Gray - Susan Barrett
Olga Karlatos - Paola Menard
Genre - Horror/Voodoo/Zombies
Running Time - 91 Minutes
In 1978, George A. Romero had a huge hit on his hands with his sequel to 1968's zombie opus NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - DAWN OF THE DEAD. Not only did it do well in the United States, but it also had a massive following overseas. This was due to Romero forming a partnership with famed Italian filmmaker, Dario Argento, who had helped finance the film since he was a huge fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and wanted to see the story continue. After meeting Romero and Romero's producer, Richard P. Rubinstein, Argento agreed to finance the project in exchange for international distribution rights. Romero would control the editing of the film for English-language countries, while Argento could edit DAWN OF THE DEAD his own way to match the sensibilities for the foreign markets [which has now resulted in many versions of DAWN, depending on where you live]. Argento added the band Goblin to the film's soundtrack, while cutting many of the expository scenes that focused on character development - creating a quicker paced, action-oriented film. Now titled as ZOMBI, the film was a huge success overseas.
Because of the success of ZOMBI overseas, many foreign filmmakers wanted to jump on the bandwagon and capitalize on the film's success. One of these filmmakers was Italy's Lucio Fulci, who was better known as a western and giallo director. Fulci wanted to make a zombie film and felt the timing was perfect. Using ZOMBI and older zombie movies as an inspiration, Fulci made an unofficial sequel of sorts that he released as ZOMBI 2 in Italy in 1979. The film, being a success in Italy due to its many scenes of gore and awesome looking undead characters, was eventually released in 1980 in the United States as ZOMBIE. Other titles include ZOMBIE: FLESH EATERS, ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD, ZOMBIE 2: THE DEAD ARE AMONG US, and countless others depending on where you live.
ZOMBIE [which I'll call ZOMBI 2 for the rest of the review] is the film many consider to be Fulci's breakthrough, as it's probably his most seen work worldwide and considered a zombie classic in the horror genre. ZOMBI 2 is also claimed by some as Fulci's best film, although I would put 1981's THE BEYOND above it. And while it's not as intelligent as Romero's zombie films, you can't deny that ZOMBI 2 is an entertaining film with several highlights that keep it memorable.
An abandoned boat sails towards New York City, almost colliding with other ships in the harbor. The coast guard reports it, which two guards getting on the boat to investigate it. One guard goes into the cabin, finding nothing but a mess inside. Suddenly, a large zombie appears and attacks the guard. As he surfaces, the other guard shoots the zombie off the boat and into the harbor.
After some investigation, it's learned that the boat was owned by a Dr. Bowles, who was experimenting with some sort of voodoo practices on an island called Matool before disappearing. His daughter, Anne (Tisa Farrow), wants to know what really happened. She bumps into a nosey British reporter named Peter West (Ian McCulloch), who was ordered by his newspaper editor (cameo by Lucio Fulci) to write a story on what he finds. The two decide to work together to seek out answers, knowing they lie on Matool.
They meet up with a couple (Al Cliver and Auretta Gray) who are vacationing on a boat to help them get to the island. When they finally arrive, they meet up with Dr. David Mernard (Richard Johnson), who was a friend of Anne's father. Mernard reluctantly reveals that the reason Anne's father is missing is because of the dead suddenly rising from the graves due to some voodoo spell that's making them hunger human flesh. Knowing now that they're trapped on an island full of zombies, the survivors must group together to ward them off.
ZOMBI 2 is considered by some to be a rip off of DAWN OF THE DEAD, using it's Italian title to create an unofficial sequel of sorts in order to capitalize on that film's success. And while, yes, it does try to capitalize on DAWN OF THE DEAD and the influence it had on horror and zombie films at the time, I have never considered it to be a rip off like other European films would do later with blockbuster movies. Since it doesn't take anything from DAWN OF THE DEAD, instead doing its own thing and making a name for itself, I respect the hell out of this film even if it isn't perfect or as good as George A. Romero's original DEAD trilogy. And I'm sure many other horror fans feel the same way about ZOMBI 2.
To discuss the narrative of ZOMBI 2 would be like discussing Paris Hilton's idea of virginity - pointless. What's in the plot summary is pretty much what the story is about. There's no social commentary. There's no deep themes or meaning. This film is about people going to an island filled with zombies waiting to feast upon them. That's not necessarily a bad thing at all. Without any distractions, the story is easy to follow and takes its predictable path towards its violent and bleak conclusion. It's just that Romero proved that zombie films could be intelligent. Those looking for something with more substance will be disappointed.
I do feel the characters could be developed better than they are. If this was a non-stop zombie bloodfest, this wouldn't be an issue. But much of the film requires you to watch the journey of these characters as they seek out answers on Dr. Bowles' disappearance. And you probably don't know anything about these people other than their names, their occupations, and/or the stereotypes they're filling in. Anne is the daughter of Dr. Bowles, likes British reporters, and looks dead in the eyes anytime she's scared. Peter West is British, a journalist, and likes girls with daddy issues. Bryan has a cool beard and can shoot a mean gun. Susan likes scuba diving topless and letting zombies eat her. The only two characters that had any sort of "depth" were Dr. Menard and his wife, Paola. While we don't see the two interact much with each other, at least I can understand who these characters are somewhat. Menard stays on the island to figure out some cure or treatment for the rising of the dead, feeling more pessimistic each time he has to shoot a zombie [who used to be a colleague or a friend] in the head. His wife, Paola, wants off the island to escape, what she knows, will be a terrible fate at the hands of the undead [I'll get to her fate in a moment]. The two have a strained relationship because of this, although it may have started before this epidemic. Either way, these two may be the most developed characters and actually have a relationship that has some substance to it. I know some people don't care about substance in their horror, just wanting to see gore and nudity. But if I'm spending an hour with characters who are just discussing expository ideas, I want to care about them. Are they unlikeable? No. But I didn't feel anything when most of these characters bit the big one.
The strength in the narrative lies with three very memorable moments that are always brought up whenever ZOMBI 2 is discussed.
The first one, and I'll go in chronological order, is the surreal zombie vs. shark sequence. The set up for this is Susan, scuba diving topless, encounters a shark and hides from it. While hiding, she's attacked by a zombie living on the ocean floor. She escapes, which causes the zombie to encounter the shark to munch on him. They do a dance where they bite each other, but nothing is really resolved. It's a strange, yet memorable, scene that really doesn't add anything to the narrative whatsoever. Susan does make mention of it, but nothing is followed through with it. However, Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati film it so beautifully that you can't take your eyes off of it. Besides, it's a fuckin' shark against a zombie! It deserves your undivided attention! It's no accident that this scene is considered one of the best zombie moments in horror history. It doesn't do much for the story, but it's a definite visual highlight.
The second one is the infamous splinter to the eye scene. Just a moment of sheer terror and gore, it's no wonder it's the first thing that comes to mind when ZOMBI 2 is mentioned. It seems Fulci, Dario Argento, and other Italian directors had a thing for eyes and putting sharp objects into them to make the audience cringe. Sure, seeing a dummy take the sharp piece of wood into the eye is clearly evident and takes you out from the scene a bit. But just the thought of it happening to you is enough to make you feel horrified. Plus we see Olga Karlatos [as Paola] with the piece of wood still in her eye as she screams in terror. It's a classic moment in horror - so much so that Bravo listed it the number 98 Scariest Horror Movie Moment. It's also the scene that really begins the gorefest the film would become in the last half of ZOMBI 2.
The last moment is the first appearance of the Maggot-Eyed Zombie that has been the film's cover boy for many of the film's marketing promotions. The scene is probably not as mentioned as the previous two, but I just love this zombie and how he looks. This dude looks DEAD. Like really DEAD. I think there is where ZOMBI 2 has over DAWN OF THE DEAD - the zombie appearances. Anyway, Maggot-Eyed Zombie rises from his grave and chews the neck of one of the main characters like a boss. He's probably a third below Bub and Tar Man, but this guy is what I would picture a realistic zombie to look and act like. Just great make up effects by Gianetto de Rossi and Maurizio Trani.
Speaking of make up and special effects, the gore here is just beautiful. Good lord is the violence here bloody. We get a bunch of chewed throats. We get heads smashed and cut in two. We get bullets to bodies. We get a shark biting off a zombie arm. We get zombie fingers getting cut off. We get zombies burning. And of course, that damn piece of wood in Paola's eye before zombies decide to devour her corpse. De Rossi and Trani did a fantastic job making the gore look realistic for its time. I loved it.
Lucio Fulci's direction is very good. ZOMBI 2 feels bleak from beginning to end, thanks to its morbid mood and atmosphere. I thought the framing and shot compositions were strong. There was some really nice tension during the gorier scenes and the zombie sequences. The close ups were great too. I thought having the camera stay still on frightened characters who become too frozen to move away from danger was a bit repetitive, and also kind of funny. But Fulci really films a great zombie film here visually. I don't think this is Fulci's best film as a director, but probably his most mainstream and accessible work in his filmography.
I also liked the score by Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci. It has some cool synthesizer that adds to the film's atmosphere. I also liked the jungle theme as well, which pretty much told the audience that there was some voodoo stuff going on here. I thought it was effective.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE STANDING FROZEN IN FEAR SO A ZOMBIE CAN BITE MY DUMB ASS
- The first shot of the film is a gun pointing towards the screen. I wish this happened before every BOMB rated film I've seen so far. Would have saved me a lot of time, energy, and brain cells.
- A big zombie chewed off the neck of a New York Coast Guard. Not only does the undead like human flesh, but they also enjoy bacon!
- To cover up their reason for being on Dr. Bowles' stranded boat when they were caught by a police officer, Peter and Anne faked making out with Peter blaming Anne for being on the boat, wishing he was in a boxcar instead. But I thought the point of making out was eventually parking the "car" in her "box". I'm so lost.
- A zombie was excited to attack topless Susan while she scuba dived at the bottom of the ocean. His rigor mortis settled in one special area, it seems...
- Paola had her eye driven into a piece of sharp wood by a zombie. When it came to a splinter, the Ninja Turtles won the coin toss.
- A few zombies were eating Paola after the wood incident. By doing that simple act, they were better husbands then Dr. Menard ever was in the bedroom.
- While Peter and Anne were making out in a cemetery, a hand rose out of the ground to grab Anne. I had no idea Carrie White burns in Hell in Matool.
THE FINAL HOWL
3.5 Howls Outta 4