It’s an old story but I’ll tell it again: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead premiered in April, 1978. By September, it reached Italy under the title Zombi, because alteration doesn’t translate well and, hey, at least the title’s illustrative. I might’ve gone with Zombis myself, but nobody asked. Instead, hoping to cash in on Dawn of the Dead/Zombi‘s international success, Italian action/Western/thriller/giallo director Lucio Fulci gave us Zombi 2 the very next year.
Released in America in the summer of 1980 under the title Zombie, Fulci’s film (which I’ll refer to as “Zombi 2” from now on just for the sake of clarity) became a matinee and drive-in sensation. It’s another case of the right film in the right place at the right time, finding its natural audience in the English-speaking world’s teenagers. Between Night and Dawn, Romero managed to raise a whole generation of horror fans who didn’t want to wait ten years for the next zombie movies, damnit. We wanted them now. So what if half the cast have their lines dubbed? Some of us put up with way worse just to get our giant monster movie fix.
So drive-in audiences of 1980 would’ve seen a brief, pre-credit prologue where a shadowy figure plugs a supposedly-dead person in the head and declares. “The boat can leave now.” It’s a 101 level class in How to Open a Horror Movie Well, which continues long after the credits.
We see a sailboat drift into New York Harbor, apparently abandoned. Two harbor patrol (or coast guard, if later dialogue’s to be believed…but whaddaya want from this movie? Consistency?) cops pull up alongside to investigate, finding the boat cabin trashed (centipedes crawl among the gas ranges) and the crew gone…save for that incredibly hirsute zombie (an uncredited Captain Haggerty) in the closet. Exit cop #1, via several bites to the neck. Cop #2 only saves himself by filling the zombie with enough lead to send it over the side.
Hate to be ad hominem (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) but right away I can’t fight the feeling that, even if I didn’t know jack shit about this movie, this sequence would have me nodding in recognition. “Yep. This is an Italian horror movie a’right.” What I mean is, all the mid-century, neo-realist tricks are present and accounted for. The score that cuts out as soon as the credits finish, leaving us adrift in a world of ambient harbor noise and poorly-synchronized dubbing. The long, lingering shots over not much at all – just the everyday detritus of an abandoned boat. The film draws you in early, or at least attempts to, by dropping as much artifice as it can and still be a film called Zombi 2. (Or Zombie. Or Zombie Island. Or Zombie Flesh Eaters. Or Island of the Living Dead...I can do this all day, folks.)
Then the score (credited to Giorgio Cascio and Fabio Frizzi with some uncredited help from Adriano Giordanella and Maurizio Guarini) ruins everything by filling itself up with discordant, screechy, synthesizer noises, meant to heighten the tension of zombie and pre-zombie scenes. As with all non-Jaws related horror themes, all this really does is ruin the upcoming surprise. Ladies, gentlemen and trannies, that is what you call “self-sabotage.” Thankfully, the score evens itself out later on, once the film stops being circumspect with its zombies
Before that, though, we cut to: a newspaper office. And someone who looks suspiciously like Gary Graham. Did I put in Alien Nation by mistake…? Oh. Wait. No. My old nemesis, poor lighting, foiled me once again. Not-Gary Graham walks across the news room to pull an actual character – Peter (the UK’s own Ian McCulloch, two years out from his starring role in the successful, mid-70s, post-apocalyptic TV series Survivors) – into the story. Peter will be Our Reporter for the remainder of the picture, and as such, he’s assigned to the Dead Cop on the Abandoned Boat story. His editor (played by Fulci) applies some shit icing to all this crap cake by admonishing Peter to
“keep the British outta yer prose, huh? Don’t take advantage of the fact your uncle bought the paper.”
Sheesh, chief. No need to be a bastard about it. What’ll this little bit of backstory have to do with the rest of the film? I put my money down on Absolutely Nothing and by George A. Romero, I was right.
Back on the boat, New York’s “finest” are interrogating Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), distraught daughter of the boat’s owner, whom she hasn’t heard from in months. Not since he set sail for the Antilles, she says. Since the investigation began a few hours earlier (assuming this all takes place in a day) the cops have nothing more for her than she has for them. Hell, the way this interrogation scene’s shot – lots of floating close ups of Serious Looking Professionals – the cops may even consider Anne a suspect.
Instead of going home to deal with her grieving family or any of those boring things people do, Anne loiters around the dock until nightfall so she can do some of her own investigating, sneaking past the one cop left to guard this floating crime scene (Edward Mannix…who, among other things, would go on to voice Pag in Yor, the Hunter from the Future). Aboard, Anne finds Peter, and their meeting tips off that one cop. A moment of tension? Not really. The two escape by pretending to be lovers. Who just happened to sneak aboard this particular boat on a complete lark. Peter lays it on thick by telling the officer, “I’d’ve been happy with an empty box car.”
Amazingly enough, this plan works. Jesus, cops were gullible in the 80s. These days, any upstanding member of the NYPD knows to pepper spray first, ask question later. After assaulting your suspect with plunger handles, of course.
There’s something…odd about Tisa Farrow’s performance as Anne. Something about the vacant, war-refugee look in her eyes…You want to wave your hand in front of her face just to make sure she’d track the motion and no ambulances need be called. I mean, sure, her dad’s disappeared. And, sure, she and Peter discovered something of a last will and testament among the detritus on the boat. But it’s not like she knows he’s dead yet. And even if he were, that’s no excuse to go doe-eyed.
Anyway…Anne’s dad’s note places himself on the tiny (Caribbean? South seas?) island of Matool (actually one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. See, it’s not that we’re not an empire: it’s just our imperial holding aren’t all that impressive). Peter’s editor hooks both of them up with a plane ticket. From there, Peter and Anne secure a boat ride from two
bits of cannon fodder American vacationers, Brian Hull (Pier Luigi “Al Cliver” Conti, voiced by Zombi 2′s dubbing editor, Nick Alexander) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay, voiced by…her complete lack of a bra…and the sheerest shirt in all existence…I’m sorry, what was I saying?)
With dinner on the way, we finally cut to Matool, where Dr. David Menard, physician, scientist, (slumming English star of the 60s Richard Johnson) holds the inevitable debate with his abused wife, Paola (Olga Karlatos). Man, I tell ya’…women. Paola wants to beat feet just because Matool’s in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, which is exactly why Dr. Menard must remain and continue his research. For SCIENCE!
Paola: You see yourself as the Scientist you once were! Well you’re–you’re not! You’re no better than…than one of their witch doctors!
Dr. Mernard: Now stop it! My research–
Paola: Research!? You call fooling around with superstitious and voodoo rites ‘research’?
Dr. Mernard: You know perfectly well that the work I’m doing is very important–
Paola: I don’t give a damn! I don’t want to stay on this island one more hour! You wont be happy until I meet one of your zombies!
Zombi 2 is a snapshot of a sub-genre in transition. Freed from their jungle horror origins, the shambling undead still found themselves tied down by a previous generation’s expectations. People – especially in Europe – which, let’s never forget, was Zombi 2‘s primary international market – had a certain idea of what a zombie film was and/or could potentially be. They’d also been trained by the then-recent explosion in cannibal movies (which we’ll examine in their turn) to expect certain things from their Italian Horror. The first thirty-odd minutes of Zombi 2 go out of their way to hit all these marks, and the result is a weirdly comforting conglomeration of zombie tastes. Some parts feels like any given adventure with the living dead, but some parts of Zombi 2 are so unique and inventive they’ve given the whole film a reputation for being batshit crazy.
Back on the boat, Susan calls a halt so she can go diving and take some underwater photos. “It’s looks beautiful down there.” In those bikini bottoms (or those strips of fabric pretending to be bikini bottoms)? Yes, Susan. Yes, it certainly does. After giving us our Obligatory Tit Shot, Susan descends…and also stumbles right into a shark. Which attacks for no reason, save the fact Jaws came out four years earlier (and Jaws 2 hit US theaters a month before this picture). Besides, something‘s got to put the boat out of commission with a quick headbutt. Forget the fact most tiger sharks would have a hard time damaging rubber rafts. The damn thing’s really here to make this movie famous by setting up its one truly inspired sequence: the Zombie vs. Shark fight.
Not since Godzilla met King Kong have two cinematic titans squared off in such a roundabout fashion. The fight – short and to the point though it may be since…well you know: shark – has its own peculiar beauty. Thanks to the location, some wonderful editing, and what must’ve been the most surreal experience in professional shark trainer Ramón Bravo’s life, the fight’s everything you’ve heard it is and more: jaw-droppingly bizarre.
Once it’s over and Susan’s back on the boat, you have to wonder How in God’s name will the film top that? It really won’t, except in terms of the ambient gore level, which quickly climbs into the stratosphere. Our Heroes make landfall and find a village abandoned by its native population (who are all off in the jungle, drumming, like we brown people are so want to do whenever things go to hell), beset by the same howling winds and floating clouds of dust that make Spaghetti Western towns so unlivable.
Meeting the good Dr. Menard does nothing to calm Our Heroes. Presiding over a hospital’s worth of the deathly-ill will eventually get to anyone, but Dr. Menard doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. He shares the story of Anne’s father (which we see in flashback), and caps it all off with far too much detail for the land-lubbers or the seafarers. Me, I’d have omitted the part where I put a bullet through Mr. Bowels’ head, lest he rise from his deathbed and start feasting on the living. At least if I were telling the story to his daughter.
Then again, I’m not a doctor (though I used to play one on the web). And Mernard’s confession has its intended effect: shunting our heroes off to the other side of the island. Better anywhere but in the good doctor’s creepy presence. Unfortunately, Mernard’s cabin (and his wife, whom he left within) is now a zombie buffet restaurant. Escaping, Our Heroes make plans to grab Mernard and sail away, broken driveshaft be damned. Unfortunately, Brian seems incapable of hitting the brake pedal. That’s what you get for using wind-powered transportation, asshole! Or maybe his foot just fell asleep.
In either case, swerving to avoid a zombie on Matool’s One and Only Road wraps Dr. Mernard’s Jeep (supposedly – the crash looks a bit low-speed for the amount of damage it causes) around a tree. With Peter’s ankle broken in the crash, Our Heroes have no choice but to hump it back across the zombie-infested jungles, to the illusionary safety of Mernard’s rickety wooden hospital, an ex-church. They might’ve made it, too, if not for Peter’s bum leg and the fact Brian called halt right in the middle of an old Conquistador cemetery…
At one point Dr. Mernard declares that, “Voodoo won’t solve anything!” Indeed. Yet Zombi 2 is litter with the debris of Zombie Films that Were: the detritus of a genre Night of the Living Dead eviscerated by being so much better than its voodoo-based, tropical island-set predecessors.
I mentioned the “ticking off boxes” feel to the first half. We’ve got our Intrepid Reporter and his barely-characterized Arm Candy journey to a Tropical Island and discover a Zombie Doctor. This could be any given zombie movie from the 30s to the 60s. But thanks to the growing worldwide popularity of gore, Fulci and his go-to special effects artists, Giovanni Corridori and Giannetto De Rossi, made a film designed to please every zombie fan under the sun. By marrying the tired plots of yesteryear with lingering shots of torn-out throats and seeping bullet wounds (don’t ask me how the dead can bleed so profusely – they just can in this film), Zombi 2 ensured its own cult legacy.
Apart from all this zombie nonsense (and Auretta Gay’s boobs…and Auretta Gay’s thong), the question becomes, “Does Zombi 2 have anything else going for it?” Honestly? No. Not really. The lack of subtext (or even subplots) should clue you in to the fact that, though these zombies follow Romero Rules, they aren’t deployed for the same reason. The main cast looks half-dead from the start, and things do not improve from there, making it even harder to tell the living characters from the dead ones. The movie “develops” its characters by psychologically or (more often) physically injuring them, which is nice for awhile (they’re all Useful Idiots, more than deserving of their fate)…until their inherent flatness pours the last dregs of tension out onto a dusty island road.
But if you’re the type of person who’d watch a movie called Zombi 2 (or Zombie Flesh Eaters…or Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us…or Island of the Flesh Eaters…or Woodoo…or Sangeria) then you probably won’t care about the zombified nature of its main cast. When the chips are down and the dead are shouldering their way through the barricades, the men become manly and the women becomes useless, allowing everyone to sit back and appreciate the fiery conflagration that is this film’s Climactic Battle. In fact, Zombi 2‘s quite nice ending was exactly what this film needed to wring a recommendation out of me. Its why I still recommend the film today.
At least the lack of characters allows for a brisk pace, even by modern standards (and especially by the standards of ’70s Italian Neo-realism). For better or worse, almost every aspect of this film (from its gore level to its minimalist synth-techno score) went on to become influential. That’s the power of shock value. At worst, it can get you free publicity. At best it can make your little zombie island film a landmark classic and prototypical example of its genre. Beneath all that, with its slow build to an apocalyptic conclusion, Zombi 2‘s a real meat-and-potatoes film. Comfort food for zombie fans of all ages, races and nationalities.