What is it about zombie movies that always makes me hungry?
Once again I have tried. I swear to god, I really tired, but after over three decades the appeal of the Italian-made ZOMBIE continues to completely elude me.
When George A. Romero's epochal DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) made it over to Italian screens and blew audiences away with its unprecedented prefect fusion of intelligent script, completely believable acting, hardcore gut-munching explicit gore, and overall quality filmmaking, it was only a matter of time before the cinematic knockoff artists from the land of pasta and awe-inspiring tits began cranking out shameless cash-ins. To the best of my knowledge, director Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE was the first and probably most high-profile of the DAWN clones, and I distinctly remember being intrigued by ads for it on local TV when I was in junior high school. (The film was released in the States during the summer of 1980, a little over a month before I hit high school.) It was one of those flicks that made a big noise in its ad campaign about admission to those under the age of 18 being totally out of the question — in other words skirting the MPAA's regulations on gore and violence by essentially giving itself a self-imposed "X" — but I did not see ZOMBIE until it ran during one of the now-legendary (to us locals, anyway) "Scream All Night" festivals at Norwalk, CT's Sono Cinema, a beloved venue where I got my most concentrated doses of early education in projected cult movies. By that point I had seen and loved DAWN OF THE DEAD, so I was eager to see the film that in Italy was released as ZOMBI 2, cribbing DAWN OF THE DEAD'S Italian title, ZOMBI, and attempting to fool audiences into thinking it was a direct sequel to Romero's masterpiece. What I got when I finally saw Fulci's knockoff was a 91-minute endurance test that lacked everything that made the film it was attempting to cash in on excellent. It was boring, the plot was perfunctory at best, and the gore was merely present but not inspired in the least. To be fair, even the cheapjack and genuinely awful movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis packed more of a visceral wallop than ZOMBIE, and some of those films predated it by nearly two decades.
The non-scary, ultra-dull and un-interesting plot involves an investigation into the disappearance of a research scientist, an investigation that leads to a tropical island where the flesh-eating dead walk the land, blah blah blah... It's all just an excuse for its gore sequences, and the film lays there on the screen like week-old roadkill when gore, violence, or nudity is not taking place. Seriously, I was at a loss to explain the film's popularity just over three decades ago and I'm just as amazed by the movie's enduring popularity among horror and gore fans today. I know there's a certain undemanding element in horror fandom that will heap kudos onto just about any piece of shit as long as it features zombies or a modicum of blood, disembowelment, and cannibalism, but should those elements automatically grant a pass to a film so unrelentingly turgid?
So, having established that ZOMBIE basically sucks, please allow me to note the three factors that assured it would live forever in my memory and the memories of others who have sat through its onslaught of torpidity:
- Aside from one bargain basement zombie attack on a derelict yacht, nothing much happens during film's first half-hour, so Fulci kindly throws in a gratuitous topless scuba scene featuring actress Olga Karlatos. During her prep for the dive and while she's swimming beneath the waves, the camera lingers all over her toothsome flesh in a successful effort to awaken dozing male heterosexual audience members (and possibly attending lesbians). And considering that she clearly possesses a bikini bottom, what happened to the top in the first place? Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but still...
When your horror movie is tipping over the edge into torpor-inducing boredom, it's time for titties to the rescue!
- There are two other "money" sequence to be had in ZOMBIE, and to me the most memorable is the bit wherein a zombie gets into a fight with a tiger shark. While the topless scuba enthusiast makes her way along the sea bed, she encounters the aforementioned shark and hides from it behind a handy outcropping of coral. That's when a zombie happens to be shambling by underwater and makes a grab for her, which she eludes (accompanied with loving closeups of her bikini-clad crotch as she swims away). The zombie then sees the shark and decides it would make a suitable snack, so the two tussle for a bit while the zombie bites a chunk out of the shark's underside and the shark pays the walker back in kind by depriving it of its left arm. It's a ludicrous moment and extra-funny when coming just at the ass-end of when the JAWS craze was finally petering out, and its unexpected audacity only makes it that much better. Plus, one has to wonder just how they managed to pull of such a sequence with what's clearly a very real tiger shark. My money's on very strong tranquilizer darts.
- The other big money shot, and definitely the one that most fans of the movie cite as the reason for the film having a soft spot in their hearts, is the bit where a trapped woman is slowly dragged by a zombie toward a jagged piece of wood that's on an inescapable collision course with her unprotected eyeball. That sequence provides the film's one moment of genuine suspense, but it's undone when an unconvincing dummy head and eyeball are necessarily substituted for the actress at the moment of ocular penetration. The first time I saw it I thought it looked like someone stuffing a splinter into a marshmallow, and it still looks that way to me. I suppose the sequence's enduring power for most viewers has to do more with the idea of the old "injury to the eye motif" than the actual execution of the effect. Yeah, it's conceptually nasty but it's nothing I couldn't have handled when I was as young as nine years of age.
So, by now my disdain for ZOMBIE should be clear, and I'm glad to say that viewing it again for this year's 31 Days of Horror has cemented my opinion on it, thus allowing me to finally be done with it once and for all. That said, your mileage with it may vary. I'm over-saturated on zombies thanks to nearly two decades of them being perhaps the most ubiquitous horror presence in pop culture, but most folks I know just cannot get enough of the undead, no matter how sub-par the works featuring them may be. And for the record, I have seen several zombie movies that are far worse than ZOMBIE in every respect, but I nonetheless only recommend this film for undemanding zombie movie completists.
Poster from the original U.S. theatrical release.