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Schlock & Awe: ZOMBIE Remains Lucio Fulci’s Masterwork

Schlock & Awe: ZOMBIE Remains Lucio Fulci’s Masterwork

The modern zombie movie was more or less born not with George A. Romero‘s 1968 groundbreaker Night of the Living Dead, but his 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead. It was the success of this second film that established the “rules.” Any zombie flicks made in that middle decade were still way open to interpretation (like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, for instance). So powerful was Dawn of the Dead’s influence that even a movie made as it was coming out couldn’t escape it. That movie is Lucio Fulci’s 1979 cult classic, Zombie.

Zombie is just one of this movie’s titles. In Italy, Dawn of the Dead–which had been produced, recut for Europe, and distributed by Dario Argento–was called Zombi, so Fulci’s film was therefore called Zombi 2, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the Romero movie. In the UK, it was given the much more exciting and lurid title of Zombie Flesh Eaters, but any way you slice it, Fulci, who’d made many movies in his career before this, was henceforth saddled with being a horror director, much to his chagrin. Still, while Zombie isn’t his most ambitious or boundary-pushing movie, it may well be his best.

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Even though branded a sequel of Dawn and coming out only a few months later, Zombie actually goes back to the roots of the genre, not calling out space dust or pesticides as the reason for the living dead outbreak, but alluding to a tropical island’s witch doctor as the culprit. It ultimately doesn’t matter who’s to blame, though. As with a lot of Italian horror movies–and a lot of Fulci’s specifically–Zombie is all about atmosphere and gory set pieces and not much about plot coherence.

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The movie opens with an abandoned sailboat floating into New York Harbor. The police go out to scope it out and are attacked by a zombie (naturally). One cop is killed and the other shoots the zombie into the sea. Later, the police question Anne (Tisa Farrow) the daughter of the boat’s captain about her father’s whereabouts and she says she hasn’t seen him in months. Also, the officer’s dead body stirs in the morgue. Anne meets journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch), and the pair follow her father’s trail to the Caribbean island Matul. They befriend Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay), who are sailing around the area and agree to take them.

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Now, the island of Matul (pronounce Ma-Tool, hilariously) is not the best place to be at the moment. Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) is studying voodoo rites while running a very underfunded hospital. His wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) wishes to leave, but Menard insists on staying to continue his work. But patients in his hospital are dying of a strange illness and people on the island are reporting the dead rising and eating the living. It’s a tale as old as time, and, as you might expect, our heroes have to burn, dismember, and head-shotgun all sorts of gnarly dead guys to try to get off of Matul alive.

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Zombie takes a while to get going–the opening creepy-ass boat scene notwithstanding–when the gore starts gorin’, the movie gets really awesome. Perhaps the most iconic scene in the movie comes about halfway through when Susan decides to go scuba diving–wearing nothing but a g-string, because Italian horror movies are pervy as hell–and she happens upon a shark…and also a zombie. Zombies under water had never really been seen up to this point, and what made this moment even more wild is that the zombie and the shark get into a fight. It’s a real shark and a real guy dressed and made up like a zombie. Perhaps this was a deliberate “F*** Jaws movie,” but it might just have been a “hey, I know a guy who can swim and feed sharks” kind of thing. Either way, there’s nothing quite like it.

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Fulci also has a fairly well documented hatred of eyeballs, and it all starts right here. If he doesn’t hate them, he definitely likes to see them get gouged out, stabbed, plucked, or otherwise destroyed. Olga is alone at home, showering of course, and a zombie comes to attack her. She puts a large bureau in front of the door, but the zombie breaks through the wood and grabs her by the back of the head. As slow as slow can be, the zombie pulls Olga toward a jagged piece of broken wood. She can’t break free, and we get to watch as her eye gets methodically skewered by the piece. It’s…real gross, and one of the main reasons the movie got labeled a Video Nasty in the UK in the ’80s.

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The final act of the movie is essentially a base-under-siege, with the remaining heroes holed up in the hospital as freshly risen zombies–with particularly cakey makeup–attack. Bullets and Molotov cocktails fly, which is quite impressive considering the movie’s very low budget. The moody score by Fabio Frizzi aids in the tension quite a bit, and even though we don’t really care too much about many of the characters–those scenes which would truly endear us to them don’t ever take place–it’s an exciting way to end the movie.

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Zombie is a strange movie, but it’s impossible not to enjoy it if you’re a horror fan. While I like a lot of Fulci’s films, and his weirder stuff like The Beyond engages me more, I think Zombie Flesh Eaters (or whatever you want to call it) is his most important and longest lasting masterwork. It led to him making films thereafter, and set the new standard for incredibly grotty gore. Not bad for a half-ripoff of a Romero movie, eh?

Images: Variety Films

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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