Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) is a take on the classic zombie narrative and is an important piece of cinema within Italy’s subgenre of horror known as Giallo (or, Gialli for plural). This genre has roots in cheap mystery and detective novels but adds some spice by utilizing intense gore and sexploitation. And in classic Italian filmmaking fashion Zombie was known by a large variety of names over the years, both in Italy and in other countries around the world. The film’s original title was Zombi 2, but the film has also been referred to as titles such as Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Island of the Living Dead. The story follows a woman named Anne Bowles (played by Tisa Farrow) in a search for her missing father. With the help of reporter Peter West (played by Ian McCulloch) and a vacationing couple with a boat Susan and Brian (played by Auretta Gay and Al Cliver), Anne travels to the infested island of Matul in hopes of rescuing her father. However, who she finds instead is Dr. Menard (played by Richard Johnson) as he desperately attempts to save the island natives from a zombie plague outbreak which natives believe is the work of voodoo magic.
As mentioned previously, Zombie went by several titles and this is something which may come up on the blog again as I continue to review Giallo pictures. The multi-title phenomenon in Italy, during this time period at least, is probably one of my favorite things to discuss because it’s very strange. More times than not the decision makes absolutely no sense and was solely done by production companies without the director’s permission or knowledge. For example, the title Zombie initially premiered under suggests that this film is a sequel to a first Zombi film, but this is not exactly the case. Or, in other words this is true and yet not true at the same time as Fulci had no intentions of Zombie being a sequel to anything. In Italy, the first Zombi film was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – it was just rebranded to Zombi and for whatever reason (I believe it might have been to imitate the horror franchise craze in America) Zombie was turned into Zombi 2. This is not a stand alone phenomenon either as the first two Evil Dead films were rebranded as La Casa 1 & 2 in Italy, with La Casa 3 & 4 being films by Italian directors…which like Zombie also both have their own titles away from the La Casa series. It gets very convoluted but I’m also obsessed with how weird this practice is or was.
With my little trivia lesson out of the way, it’s time to talk about the film itself and how Fulci’s name has become a staple within the Giallo genre. For starters, the narrative of Zombie is incredibly written with the detective and mystery inspirations coming forward strong. This is one of the odd instances where I’d really like to highlight the writers behind the film Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti because their writing and the narrative they have helped create is probably one of the best structured I’ve reviewed so far. The narrative of Zombie is not only consistent and clear, but it’s well paced, tackles two separate narratives taking place simultaneously, plants an event at the very beginning that doesn't hold significance until after the conclusion, and contains an unhappy ending (my favorite!). Perhaps this isn’t a very important point to make to some, but compared to a lot of the other films I’ve reviewed so far the writing in Zombie stands out to me. Despite being a basic zombie flick, the story makes it unique in its own way.
A short search on Zombie, its history, and other reviews on it will quickly reveal how important and prominent the special effects are in this film – this was the primary reason I wanted to watch and review it. I’m a big fan of special effects, primarily practical effects, and will always look for how special effects are being used within a horror movie. That’s why it’s to my dismay that I have to state that the special effects in Zombie are really nothing to write home about in the year 2023. Majority of the practical effects used are very basic by today’s standards with it mostly being open wounds gushing bright red blood. However, there is one practical effect that blew me away and yes, it is the real tiger shark fighting a zombie under water – how did you guess? These crazy Italians dressed a man up in a zombie costume and made him fight a real tiger shark in the ocean. I was in awe the entire time. Out of all the ridiculous, joke horror films like Sharknado, never have I heard of a film dedicating a scene to a zombie and a shark duking it out. And if any have, I doubt they were brave enough to use a real shark. I feel incredibly impressed by this scene.
The death sequences in a film are something I also take into account when rating a film, even if I don’t always mention it in the review. The kill/death of a character is the money shot of a horror movie, and Zombie only has one good money shot – the eyeball. In this scene, one of the minor characters Mrs. Menard (played by Olga Karlatos) slowly gets her face forced into a broken door and a splinter is lodged into her eyeball. This one moment is great because of how gross and detailed it is, and this is another moment where the practical effects do shine. However, the rest of the deaths within Zombie are very standard and tragically boring. They follow the motif of: I got bit on the arm or neck by a zombie and now I’m instantly dead. Mrs. Menard’s death is the only creative and unique fatality, and placing it alongside a slew of getting bitten and instantly dying only makes me more frustrated because it serves as evidence that Zombie could have been what I initially expected it to be.
To conclude, I do find it important to disclose that although there’s a lot that I respect with this film I have a bias because I’m not the biggest fan of zombie movies. In fact, zombies are probably my least favorite supernatural entity because there never seems to be a lot of wiggle room for creativity or newness. There were some reviews I read which led me to believe this film would be more than just a zombie movie – and this is an issue I find a lot when I’m trying to figure out if a film will be a good match for my blog or not. Otherwise, I might’ve chosen a different Fulci or Giallo picture to review this week rather than Zombie. To make my dislike of zombies worse, the zombies within Fulci’s film are very traditional, classic depictions where they’re sluggish, slow, and act as if they’re constantly about to fall over. Zombie encounters the problem where a character is standing in a single place screaming and waiting for the zombie to kill them rather than using the 20 seconds of screaming to run away instead.
Zombie (1979) – B Tier
This week’s film was another one where I felt it was fine – nothing remarkable but nothing terrible either. I have a lot of respect for this film and can see how Zombie has become a cult classic. After this, I am incredibly interested in Fulci’s other films such as The Beyond and The New York Ripper, especially because Briganti and Sacchetti return as writers. However, Zombie didn’t impress me in the ways that I had hoped. Perhaps it’s unfair for someone who isn’t terribly interested in the zombie genre to rate this film in the first place, but I was honestly expecting a lot more after reading the praise others have given it which is why I decided to give it a shot. However, if you are a fan of zombies I believe this film would be very enjoyable – the zombie makeup is good, I loved the incorporation of real worms and maggots with said makeup, and the plot is simple but well-written. I didn’t finish the film believing I had wasted my time with it, nor would I be opposed to watching it again.
Zombie is available for streaming through Shudder, Amazon Prime Video, and PlutoTV.