Thursday, March 17, 2011

REVIEW: Zombie

Director: Lucio Fulci
Year 1979

Zombie, directed by the legendary italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci, is an absolutely perfect zombie film that has so much atmosphere and morbid overtones to it, that it constantly maintains a heavy sense of macabre like wonder that never seems to let up throughout its runtime. Lensed in 1979 and promoted as a sequel to George Romero's 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, which it never was intended to be according to the director, Zombie brings the decrepit genre back to its roots by bringing about a tale steeped in voodoo lore and exotic and beautiful caribbean locations. Fulci juxtaposes both the decaying masses of walking corpses against the idilic venues of shimmering crystal clear waters and sandy beaches to introduce the zombie genre back to its origins while at the same time reinventing the constructs of the reanimated mob and their inherent place in horror cinema.  

Ahoy there big fella!

The film follows a young women named Anne Bowles, played by the doe eyed Tisa Farrow, as she travels to the island of Matul in search of her missing father. After her fathers boat was found adrift off the coast of New York City, harboring a mysterious stowaway in the form of a bloated walking corpse, Anne decides to travel to the secluded island where her father was last reported working on his research.   Accompanying her on this journey is journalist Peter West, played by the legendary cult actor Ian McCulloch, whose been in many cult status horror films including another zombie opus, Zombie Holocaust. Rounding out the main players of this film is Dr. David Menard, a colleague of Anne's father
who is desperately trying to find a cure to the island of Matul's recent outbreak of walking corpses. Menard is played to perfection by character actor Richard Johnson, whose resume is immersed in genre classics and b-movie royalty such as Deadlier Than the Male, Some Girls Do, Beyond the Door, and The Island of the Fishmen, just to name a few.

Welcome aboard the zombie watching tour.

The ensemble cast does a great job of treating the material with respect and they never dumb it down because of its fantastical subject matter. Richard Johnson especially does a tremendous job in projecting the doom that has befallen the island. He is as serious as a heart attack in the majority of his scenes and he never plays down the seriousness of the situation. In fact the film opens up with a very dramatic scene where Johnson's character has to callously put down a reanimated corpse as it slowly tries to rise from its covers. This simple scene and its colossal impact in the opening moments of the film, carries on throughout the movie and is reenforced by Johnson's impeccable pull as an established actor.

Matul calling Gwadelupa one. Get me off this damn island!

Another scene that establishes the overall tone of the film and sets us off on the right note, occurs right after Richard Johnson's zombie style execution and presents us with the odd mystery of finding an abandoned boat with a grotesque zombie onboard. The pacing and framing of the introduction of what these undead creatures will look like in the film, is presented masterfully by Fulci. He leads us into the narrow and cramped cabin of the sailboat, focusing on the rotted meat and maggot infested leftovers of an unfinished feast, only to jolt us into the realization that we are indeed the main course when the lumbering zombie enters the frame and takes a chunk out of a New York City police officer. It's disgusting, grotesque, and absolutely perfect in its realization. When I first saw this film years ago, this scene completely sold me on whether Fulci had what it took to take on George Romero for the zombie crown. I still love watching that lumbering slab of rotting flesh as it emerges from the cabin doors and slowly begins to approach the remaining officer, with the idea of a second main course lambasted on its lifeless expression.

A perfect place for a zombie uprising.

The zombies really are just top notch in this film. Fulci really wanted to go for that decayed and diseased look, supporting that wholly sound idea that these were in fact dead hollowed out shells of human flesh bounded by their only desire to consume the living. The practical effects that they applied to the zombies is really sickening, yet simplistic. This combined with slow and lifeless movements of the actors resulted in some strikingly effective moments. The most memorable of these moments occurs when a single zombie is spotted walking down the middle of a deserted dirt road in between rows of abandoned huts that looked as war worn as the creature itself. It slowly walks towards the camera and Fulci just revels in the hideous glory of it all as we get an up close and personal look at this deformed being. Its face, a contrasting mirror of life and death, as portions of its left facade struggle to stay together while dangling flesh and melted features are exposed to the viewing world in all its repugnant glory. This scene is superbly demented and wholly entertaining, displaying one of the most convincing zombies that ever graced the silver screen in my opinion.

I think she gets the point.

Of course it wouldn't be a Lucio Fulci movie without a heavy dose of gore accompanied by the vivid executions of said gore. With Zombie, we are given one of his most memorable gore filled moments when Dr. Menard's wife is attacked by a zombie in her home. The creature slowly drives her face towards a shattered wooden splinter in uncompromising detail as we're granted a front row seat on what it looks like to have the worlds worst splinter in one of the most sensitive parts of the human body. Now I wouldn't say that the overall look of the effect is realistic, but damn is it close. It's excruciating to watch play out and even though the special effects don't sell the move to its fullest, you can't deny the overall disgust you feel after seeing an eyeball cave in under the pressure of such tense and expertly manipulated editing that Fulci proudly displays in the scene. He is definitely the master of gore and I love to see his maniacal creativity up on the screen in any way, shape, or form.

Your face looks like an old catcher's mitt. Look away, I'm hideous!

The music and soundscapes of Zombie also plays a big part in providing the overall atmosphere of the film. From the cheery Caribbean synthesized tunes playing in the beginning half of the main character's journey to Matul, to the use of tribal drums that frequent the later portions of the movie, the musical palate is rich with sounds that only serve to enhance the already abundant atmosphere that lingers in this film like the stench of a walking corpse. What is most commendable in the choice of its sound landscape is the decision to keep it simple and integrated within the story. You'd be hard pressed to recall a single specific ambient track during the second half of the film, because it is so embedded within what is being displayed on the screen. It often mimics the movements of its dilapidated and soulless creatures, cueing the moans and relying on a more obscure soundscape that emphasis the macabre aspects of dealing with death and the undying. It's almost naturalistic in its abstractness and pretty much lays out what would be the blueprints for any subsequent zombie film to come out in the next ten to twenty years.

The entire cast was disgusted over the working conditions.

Of course I can't forget the amazing contributions of italian composer Fabio Frizzi to the memorable soundtrack to Zombie. As far as I'm concerned, Frizzi is Zombie. He is that much needed ingredient that specifically lifts this film up into a whole other level. His work on Zombie is so effective that you can't even listen to the soundtrack without mentally picturing the film and all its disturbing imagery. Fabio Frizzi captures the raw nature of the entire film and manipulates it into a series of synth scores that bring the visual impact of the film to stark life. A regular collaborator of Fulci's, Frizzi has stacked up a rather impressive resume with such classic films as Four of the Apocalypse, The Psychic, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and Manhattan Baby. The distinct flavor that he brings to each production is unmatched and with Zombie, he really has constructed a masterpiece of dread and deathly infused thematic tones. I really can't say enough on how much his work has added to the feel of Fulci's movies and he deserves as much credit as the director in bringing these films to the cult statuses that they have inherited.

Just another one of those lazy sunday afternoons on Matul.

When it comes to the pivotal look of a zombie film, Zombie is at the top of the list. It has everything that I'd ever want in a zombie movie from its exotic Caribbean locations, run down primitive villages, and its overabundance of zombie mobs as they creep across the frame. The world feels lived in and at the same time void of life, which is a really hard thing to accomplish and balance out throughout an entire run time, but Fulci was able to make it look seamless. Every aspect of the film seems dingy and worn and the color palate relies heavily on a subdued brownish tone that ages the primary presence of this cinematic masterpiece. What this achieves in doing is it combines the idea of the decaying human body of the zombies and relates that to the cinematography of the film giving off a depressing and gloomy representation of the subject matter itself. The concept plays off well and integrates perfectly.

In your face zombie scum!

Out of all of Lucio Fulci's many accomplished horror films, I'd say that Zombie is one of my all time favorites tied only with The Beyond. He creates such a powerful atmosphere in his films that it really grabs a hold of you and sets you within these otherworldly realms of unbelievable nightmares. With tension as thick as a haze filled foggy landscape, Fulci unabashedly leans more towards his surreal and accomplished imagery then with his coherent storytelling, but that's what makes his films so original. There's nothing out there that even comes close to his own unique style of filmmaking. I would say that Zombie is one of his most competent accomplishments, narratively speaking, compared to his long list of films. It is a simple story, but ingrained with the bizarre thematic undertones that make his films so enjoyable to watch. He has an eye for detail in both the look and feel of the worlds he creates and Zombie is the cream of the crop when it comes to his uncompromising vision of a zombie apocalypse.

Oh Shit! There goes the neighborhood.

Zombie is a masterpiece of the zombie genre and one of Fulci's highest accomplishments in his diverse cannon of films. Hitting every essential note needed in a zombie film, the movie has a sense of dread that seeps into every flesh ripped wound that exposes itself unto the viewer. Its ghastly portrayal of the very idea of a walking corpse, is brought to the screen so vividly and believably that this surely must be the highest of standards that all zombie films must strive to reach for.

Given the seriousness of the overall production from the actors, composers, and all that were involved in the creation of this epic, you really have to hand it to them. They created a film that wholly embodies the spirit and animalistic nature of rotting corpses as they hunger for the warm flesh of the living. I highly recommend this film to any and all zombie movie lovers, be it newcomers or hardened veterans. This is a zombie film that stands high above the rest as a crowning example on how these gruesome tales should be told.

5 out of 5 stars      Lucio Fulci's Zombie Masterpiece!


  1. brilliantly-written review, although I don't agree on the masterpiece-thing (which is IMO 'Lizard In A Woman's Skin')

  2. That's true. Lizard In A Woman's Skin is one hell of a good Giallo. I'm always more partial to Fulci's atmospheric and surreal zombie hybrids like Zombie and The Beyond though. They always seem to hit the right note with me, but he has so many great flicks that it is hard to choose just one.

  3. Great write up, Jay. I absolutely love this movie. I saw it the first time in 1985. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had just hit video stores and my dad rented that and ZOMBIE. Needless to say, ZOMBIE scared the shit out of me and when I went to bed that night, I sat up in the middle of the bed and refused to lay down as I was afraid a zombie was gonna reach up and get me.

    There's so many great moments in this movie and my sentiments mirror your own here.

  4. Thanks Venoms, great minds think alike. I actually was a late bloomer with this film, because I first got a chance to see it in college in 2001, I think. Watched it in between class in the dorms at a friends place and sat back and enjoyed the hell out of this zombie classic. I could only imagine what it would have done to me at a younger age.. hahaha.

    I think I have Zombie to thank for sparking my interest in anything italian no matter what the genre, especially Fulci related. It really is a special film that hits all the right marks.