Sunday, September 13, 2015

ZOMBIE (1979)

When a derelict sailboat drifts into New York harbor, two Harbor Patrol officers are sent to check it out. Getting no answer to their calls they board the vessel only to be attacked by a hulking, deformed zombie that kills Cop A while Cop B blows the critter overboard with a hail of bullets. Assigned by his Gotham newspaper boss to investigate, Brit reporter Peter West (Zombie Holocaust's Ian McCulloch) is intrigued by the strange homicide. He links up with the daughter of the abandoned boat's owner, Ann Bowles (Tisa Farrow, acting both concerned and dazed). She hasn't heard from daddy in months and his last letter was from an island in the Antilles named Matoul. Faster than you can say 'cheesy steel drum music' the two are on a plane, in the tropics and negotiating with Brian (Al Cliver) and his girlfriend Susan (Auretta Gay) for a ride on their boat. Terms are agreed upon and the foursome sets out to find the mysterious Matoul.

Meanwhile, on the island in question, we meet Dr. Menard (a slumming Richard Johnson), who's dealing with an epidemic of a hideous wasting disease that's wiping out Matoul's population. A sense of doom hangs over the place and the natives are convinced it's because of a voodoo curse laid on the island by an evil witch doctor. Dr. Menard scoffs at this superstitious idea but knows that something terrible is happening. He's seen the newly dead come back to life and attack the living with his own eyes, but he's baffled by this reanimation in which the dead kill and eat the living. While Menard tries to find a scientific explanation, his beautiful wife Paula (Olga Karlatos) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She wants to leave Matoul but the doctor refuses so she's turned to pills and booze to cope. With Menard watching over his patients in the hospital Paula is left alone at home and, in a gruesome and stunning sequence, zombies attack her. This is the famous moment during which the woman's eye is punctured by a shaft of wood in extreme close-up. This is a revolting, horrific gore moment that has lost little power over the years and still makes me cringe every time I see it.

Back on the boat our crew is having trouble finding Matoul. In my favorite sequence in the film they take a break so that the lovely Susan can do a little naked swimming and underwater photography. While scuba diving around in the sea Susan is first menaced by a shark and then attacked by a zombie who just seems to be out for a stroll on the ocean floor! She's able to fend off the zombie and is saved by the shark's natural hatred of the undead. Yes, these ancient enemies are known for their centuries-old battle for the title of Most Carnivorous Underwater Monster. We'll have to call this skirmish a tie since both beasties take a bite out of the other before the film cuts back to the boat, where we learn that the propeller has been damaged by the shark. (???) 

"Boy, I sure hope that nearby island has someone that can help us. And maybe it's Matoul!" Sure enough it is, so Dr. Menard and the shipwrecked foursome make contact at last. The doctor relates the tale of the island's zombie problem and tells Ann the details of her father's death by the same disease. The newcomers are skeptical at first, but after a visit to the doctor's house they accept reality pretty quickly — there they witness several zombies devouring Paula and are attacked themselves. This forces them to trek through the countryside on foot to reach the hospital. The survivors gather there for a Night of the Living Dead-style zombie siege with guns and Molotov cocktails being their only hope against a hoard of flesh eating monsters.

Among horror fans there seems to be two ways of thinking about Lucio Fulci's little gore classic. It's either looked down on or even hated as a rip-off of Romero's Dawn of the Dead, or it's worshipped as the first in a long line of bloody, intestine-draped shockers from Europe that revolutionized and reshaped the genre. Regardless, the film spawned a glut of Italian horror movies the like of which the world will never see again and for some folks that's reason enough to love it. Personally I've never seen the point of calling this film a rip-off of Romero's classic as they are different in so many ways. While it's true that only the huge European success of Dawn allowed Zombie to be made, it takes the reanimated-dead-hungry-for-human-flesh idea and shambles off in another direction completely.

Zombie is one of my favorite Italian horror movies and it's a effective template for the gore flicks that followed in its wake: short on logic, long on atmosphere and covered in blood 'n' guts. After this the European horror film would never be the same again. Of course this niche burned itself out in a few short years, but it's a joy to look back at these movies and revel in their madness. Also, at a time when any hit American film was slavishly copied in the hope of similar box-office returns it's nice to see the inventiveness on display here. The gore and violence of Zombie almost squirts off the screen at you as it did in Fulci's later gore films. These movies are grotesque and disgusting as they play out like nightmares that have their own twisted logic and rules. Fulci was a master at establishing an oppressive mood that seeps into every scene, and while The Beyond was better in this respect, the director's skills are on glorious display here as well. This is most certainly not a film for everyone, but for the those who love Zombie there's nothing better.

1 comment:

Nick Rentz said...

In my opinion, the worst eyeball violence Fulci filmed was in The New York Ripper.