After years of sneering contempt, Lucio Fulci’s zombie flicks are just now gaining some traction among the mass critical community. Nostalgia goggles allow everyone to view things like Zombi 2 or The Gates of Hell as artifacts of a bygone age now that we’re slumming among remakes and sequels. Not so with Fulci’s contemporaries in the Italian movie business, many of whom enjoyed long and critically acclaimed careers. Careers Western critics have studiously ignored, because the only people watching Italian movies that don’t feature zombies are art snobs who sneer at the zombie films.
Not that there isn’t good reason to sneer at Zombi Holocaust; it’s nobody’s prize pony, despite being arguably the most famous thing in director Marino Girolami’s oeuvre. Girolami’s one of those guys you’ve never heard of with a filmography stretching all the way back to the 40s. By the time Zombi 2 debuted, Girolami enjoyed the kind of reputation you need to have if you’re going to direct films without Hollywood’s Power Elite. He was quick, but not sloppy-quick in the Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ed Wood style. More a professional, practiced quickness, recalling Roger Corman’s directorial heyday in the 50s.
Like Corman, Girolami found himself directing/writing/producing/whatevering a wider variety of genre pictures as the 70s slowly died around him. Spaghetti westerns, cheap action romps, what we now call “softcore erotic thrillers”; legend has it he was so prolific, distributors asked him to credit some films to pseudonyms, lest the market grow over saturated.
So our “Frank Martin” film for this evening opens in an unnamed New York hospital, where men in hats and suits sneak about stealing body parts from corpses after the lights are turned off and everyone goes home for the evening (two things that happen all the time at New York hospitals). We follow one such as he saws off some poor dead bastard’s hand, wraps it up like it’s some bribe he’s about to offer to the Penguin, and skedaddles. Incidentally, who knew New York hospitals were so chronically uninhabited? Does Halloween II take place in this universe? If so, I think I owe it an apology for all the shit I gave it over the deserted halls of Haddonfield Memorial.
The morning shift, consisting of Drs. Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli, voiced by Susan Spafford in the English dub) and Drydock (Walter Patriarca), find our Body Part Snatcher’s handiwork. Drydock then throws us for our first loop by insisting “Police investigation would give us a bad name.” Because covering up organ theft’s sure to endear you to the five-oh. Good thing Lori has a fall-back career as an anthropologist.
She even tells her designated driver, Professor Stafford (screenwriter/assistant director Romano Scandariato), “You know anthropology is still my secret passion.” I can understand that. Who doesn’t get a little hot and bothered reading Margaret Mead? But if he knows all this, why in God’s name do you need to say it? Refusing to answer, the movie follows Lori into her apartment, where it makes sure to kill some time watching her shuck her work clothes, stripping down to her undies and a robe so sheer you’d need an electron microscope to measure its width. Did I mention Romano Scandariato’s filmography includes Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (reviewed in these pages under its US video title, Trap Them and Kill Them)? And what asshole’s knocking on Lori’s door, forcing her close and belt her robe? Whoever they are, I already hate them.
Why, another woman, of course. Because what’s an Emanuelle movie without lesbians? Unfortunately, our hopes are dashed once the woman ruins the mood by introducing herself as Susan Kelly of the New York Express (Sherry Buchanan voiced by Pat Starke). While she’ll be Our Reporter for the remainder of the film and, apart from asking one obvious question
Susan: Why all the ancient artifacts?
Lori: Aside from holding a degree in medicine, I also have a degree in anthropology.
she’ll contribute absolutely nothing to the picture. After that mind-numbingly ADRed “Ahhhh!” Susan inquires about the organ thefts apparently plaguing Lori’s hospital. (So much for keeping that under wraps, Dr. Drydock.) Lori attempts to kick Susan out but we can’t have that yet. Not before Susan points out an ebony-handled knife on the wall, forcing Lori to exposit its origins as a tool for human sacrifice. Could that possibly become important in the third act…? Nah. Too obvious, right?
Rather like the Mystery of the Body Part Snatcher, solved with a minimum of fuss fifteen minutes in, before any tension can accrue. A hospital orderly named Toran (Turam Quibo), who looks a bit like Vadinho from Pumaman, lingers too long over a recently-removed heart, allowing someone to finally turn the lights on. Faced with the authorities…erm… I mean, “Faced with Lori, Dr. Drydock and a staggering force of two other orderlies,” Toran chooses to dive out the nearest window, turn himself into a dummy, and change back into an actor with stage blood his face once he hits the ground.
And is that tattoo on Toran’s chest similar to the designs on the knife in Lori’s place? Is it [insert musical cord here] exactly the same…? Yep. So much for that tension. Time to meet the Token Anglo, Dr. Peter Chandler (Zombi 2‘s Ian McCulloch, playing yet another Peter in yet another zombie movie), the head of Lori’s hospital. Dr. Peter’s high position allows him to know that Toran is not an isolated crazy. Plenty of “East Asian” gentlemen (whom Lori identifies as residents of the Maluku Islands, where she grew up) have been stealing organs all over the city. This Peter even has a crime scene photo slide show all keyed up, should anyone ask about all this. Why are we not going to the police with this again? No one does. Instead, they ask
Some guy: Mrs. Ridgeway, do the natives practice cannibalism?
Lori: All primitive people’s practiced it, without exception.
Bullshit alert. Good thing someone’s broken into Lori’s apartment and stolen her ceremonial dagger. After scaring the shit out of Lori by conveniently showing up, Peter recommends an expedition to Maluku (or Molucca or the Spice Islands or whatever you want to call them). Lori, having presumably never seen Zombi 2 or Cannibal Holocaust, foolishly agrees, even though Peter’s assistant George (Peter O’Neal) insists on bringing along his girlfriend…Susan Kelly.
On Molucca, Our Meat Bags rendezvous with local sawbones Dr. Obrero (Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals vet Donald O’Brien) who feeds them some cover story about curing a plague that no one cares about because…honestly, the movie’s called Zombi Holocaust…unless you found this under its US video title, Dr. Butcher M.D., which is an even clearer telegraph of Things To Come.
So, fifteen minutes in, the Body Part Snatcher plot passes into the Gray Havens and the Cannibal Islander plot ascends to its throne. By this point, if you’re wondering something along the lines of, Where the fuck are the zombies? I forgive you and will proudly call you my sibling. Cannibal Islander plot, then: four idiots (and their native bearers…but everyone knows they don’t count) get lost in the woods, turned into tripe-stuffed dummies and ripped to bloody, Bubble Tape shreds by people in loincloth thongs. The women are, of course, carried off the cannibal village, where the movie throws its one and only real curve ball by not sacrificing them to their Great God.
Dr. Obrero’s right-hand man Molotto (former Peruvian wrestler and McCulloch’s fellow Zombi 2 alum Dakar) and two “native bearers” pad out the body count, though you’d need to’ve grown up in a vegetative state like some character in a Sandman comic to not know where all this is going from the twenty-five minute mark. So, yes: Dr. Butcher M.D. is experimenting on the native population, inspiring them to revert to their ancient cannibal rites because it gets him a steady supply of bodies. Too bad none of them speak his native language. Now, with four…well, okay, three (that’s the problem with using cannibals for henchmen) Anglos running around the island, Dr. Butcher’s set to learn the secrets of Life and Dead straight from the zombie’s mouth, once he catches and corals our heroes.
Would you put your brain into a zombie body? No, that would be stupid. I can see Dr. Obrero’s need to use other people’s brains, but I can’t see the need to send hench-cannibals all the way to New York. That kind of organ theft can only go on so long before it starts attracting outside attention. Was Dr. Obrero subconsciously wishing to get caught? Were his minion’s organ theft a trans-oceanic cry for help from a mad scientist still sane enough to know he’d gone off the deep end?
Either way, Our Villain sabotages whatever menace his actor might’ve once possessed, even before he comes out as a Universal Horror stock antagonist, because the movie he’s in is such a soulless cash-grab. If someone made this movie in the 1940s, Bella Lugosi could’ve landed the sometime-titular role with one twitch of his double-jointed, Hungarian finger and no one would remember it today (to say nothing of re-releasing it on every new format available). They really should’ve call this movie Frankenstein’s Holocaust and crept up within stabbing distance of accuracy. But no. Better to use a deceptive title and cash in on an actual zombie movie. The parallels to Zombi 2 could only be more obvious if you placed them in a bullet point list, which I will do so now. Both films feature
- A New York opening.
- An Ian McCulloch.
- A Blond with an Intimate Connection to the Mysterious Island that becomes Very Important Later On.
- A couple of clueless gits who join the party mid-film, only to die pointless deaths before the last act’s even kicked into High.
- A Mad Scientist who seeks the secrets of Life and Death in a converted mission that (spoiler alert) goes up in flames.
- The aforementioned Dakar, the only actor who seems to be having any fun. Then again, the Primary Henchman is usually much more interesting than the Main Villain. Just look at the James Bond series.
What’s that I hear you say? That stupid villains are common as weeds in the horror genre? Well, then it follows Our Heroes won’t be much better, doesn’t it? Serves you right for keeping that body part thievery a secret, Dr. Peter. Now you’re strapped to a table by a mad doctor, having stumbling right into a Mad Scientist’s trap with no backup and no one to blame but themselves. Don’t you look silly? At least Lori’s got a couple of native girls painting wildflowers all over her body. Sure, they mean to sacrifice her with the knife they stole off her wall, but it’s better than spending all night in the Science Mission with the dead bodies.
In the lexicon of gorehounds this movie’s known for two things: a lingering pan-up of Alexandra Delli Colli’s meticulously painted nudity and a scene where Ian McCulloch kills a zombie with a boat motor…ruining Our Meat Bag’s slim chances of escape in the process. Not so impressive in a sub-genre where people puke their own guts out and clouds of squeaking maggots prevent you making phone calls (and that was just last week’s movie). The fact that it’s called Zombi Holocaust winds up hurting the movie as much as it probably helped fill seats. No film could ever live up to such a title…with the possible exception of Zombi 2, which ironically enough contained both zombies and a holocaust.
This is to Fulci’s film what Alligator was to Jaws. Tenuous genre connections helped get it made, eager distributors lapped it up, and fools like me carted it home expecting some kind of gut-munching good time. Instead we got a throwback that (apart from some squirting throats and two scenes of actual gut munching) appears to have forgotten the 1960s and 70s even happened.
Then it ends in a complete non sequitur I’m not sure I can spoil, since it made no sense to me. Maybe things will work out better for you. Lori’s strapped to a sacrificial platform, naked save for her flower print. The local witch doctor looks poised to shuffle her off this mortal coil when…the platform tips backwards. This is apparently cause for celebration, so much so the natives get Lori a robe and immediately rescue her and Peter by destroying Dr. Obrero’s lab, killing his monsters, and setting the places alight. Cue credits.
No, really. After wasting an hour and twenty minutes on a Last Cannibal World rip-off with delusions that it’s some 50s jungle horror film shaded by Dr. Moreau, Zombi Holocaust just ends on the image of a burning church, with Paul and Lori watching from Minimum Safe Distance with all the placid, bovine grace of daikaiju protagonists from the mid-70s. Making this a rip-off in more ways than the blindingly obvious.
Because I found it so played out, and therefore predictable and boring, I kept myself awake enough through the process of writing this review by imagining the final fates of Our Survivors, Lori and Peter. I envision it as a post-credit summation in the style of the original Dragnet, so imagine some scowly-voiced, omniscient narrator reading what follows over an illustrative montage of sorts.
“Dr. Peter Chandler was declared legally insane after six months of refusing to shut up about zombies and mad doctors and stereotypical “native cannibals.” Unable to stand trial, the authorities remanded him to the secure treatment facilities at Arkham Asylum, where he remains to this day.
“Lori Ridgeway initially corroborated Dr. Chandler’s account of their time in the Moluccas. However, months of vigorous shock treatment, coupled with a special cocktail of psychoactive drugs, eventually allowed Lori to recover. She came to see that Dr. Chandler really had murdered the rest of their party as part of some mysterious ritual, the better to appease the natives and set himself up as their new cannibal god. That selfless humanitarian, Dr. Obrero, became the local focal point of Paul’s guilt displacement zombie fantasy, which he shared with Lori as a matter of course. Much easier to do horrible things when you believe someone else is doing them to you. Or, indeed, when you believe you’re doing them in the service of a greater cause.
“In 1988, ownership of Dr. Obrero’s mission reverted to the government of Indonesia. Six months later, then-President Suharto transferred all meaningful control of the island to the Umbrella Corporation, which was at that time already well on its way to becoming the largest commercial entity in the United States…”
It’s fun to dream. But we all have to come back to reality sometimes. If you want the kind of sleazy goodness this film’s trying to ape, you can find it done better in Last Cannibal World. If you want the same thing but insist it must come from 1980, Cannibal Holocaust is out there waiting to take you in and mount you on a pike, like Dracula used to back in his ol’ army days. While not technically awful, Zombi Holocaust manages to be dull, and no amount of fake limbs or naked Alexandra Delli Collis could possibly alleviate the “been-there-seen-that” feel of the entire show.
And what the fucking hell stopped Peter from calling the police again? Maybe this was all part of Dr. Drydock’s elaborate plot to steal Peter’s job by marooning him on a cannibal island….now there’s a movie we could all enjoy.