Tuesday, March 20, 2012

review: Zombie

*the reader should be forewarned that the following article had originated as only one chapter in a capsule reviews article, only to develop into a monstrosity of a review for a single film, hence the atypical, first person writing style which characterizes the first few lines, something usually reserved for said capsule reviews. Because we were lazy, no alterations were made. Thank you

Zombie aka Zombie 2 (1979, Lucio Fulci)

Reviews for really 'out there' horror movies is, as many of you know, not exactly a Between the Seats staple, but as was when last time around in a capsule reviews article, I have been receiving a steady line of 70s and 80s gory horror flicks from a colleague at work. Consider it an education in a genre I have overlooked for far too long. Some cursory research indicates that the reason Fulci' 1979 film is recognized as Zombie 2 is because upon its release, the studio's mouth watered over the opportunity to cash in on the fact that in Italy, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was titled Zombie. In truth, other than featuring legions of walking dead, Fulci's film bears no connection to Romero's.

Anyhow, the story opens on a beautiful day with a mysterious sail boat floats aimlessly in the waters between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The coast guard embark the vessel, only to discover that a flesh eating zombie is aboard! Zoink! Further investigation reveals that the ship belonged to a dedicated scientist who operated somewhere in the Antilles. His daughter Anne, played by Tisa Farrow, is terribly worried about her father fate and together with a newspaper journalist, Peter (Ian McCulloch), they head to the mysterious island with the help of two American vacationers who themselves own a sailboat. It comes as no surprise that their voyage to the ill fated island is not as smooth as they had foreseen, which just enough damage done to their vessel for them to make a quick getaway if need be. Once there however, they make the acquaintance of a colleague of Anne's father, a certain Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), who is struggling with an epidemic afflicting far more islanders than originally imagined. The the nature of the virus is unknown as of yet, but those who easily swayed by voodoo tradition believe there is evil spreading about in the roots of the earth, causing the dead to rise up...and attack the living.

Zombie is...this movie has...the thing about Fulci's film is that...See, this where Between the Seats' lack of experience in horror comes into play. Putting into words one's thoughts about a movie the likes of Zombie is not as simple as one might believe. There are several grades of horror films. Some will aim for unsettling the audience via carefully constructed, dreadful and slow hints at evil lurking in the shadows or in the minds of antagonists. Other enjoy spooking the viewer with surprise moments. Then come the films which do not seem entirely interesting in actually frightening the audience, unless it means giving them some absolutely horrific visuals, and perhaps dabbing a little bit in creating a sense of dread for good measure. That is, in essence, what Italian legend Lucio Fulci constructs in Zombie, a movie so blatantly joyful about its gore and ridiculously over the top moments that it becomes difficult not to have fun with it. Truth be told, the film is not remotely 'scary' per say. There are a few moments when Fulci and company make attempts at surprising the viewer with the violent appearance of a monster, but those instances fall so terribly flat on their faces that the film smartly abandons them about halfway through. What sort of surprise could there be with zombie anyhow, even back in the late 1970s? By then these hellish undead creatures had already become staples of horror cinema, not to mention that they cannot manoeuvre with great skill or speed. Surprising? Not in the slightest. 


Where the dread factor comes into play is in the knowledge that the protagonists are temporarily stranded on a remote island with an increasing number of zombie raising from their graves. Somewhere on this forsaken island, someone is rhythmically beating a drum, incessantly producing a sound which causes these foul monstrosities to abandon their solemn graves and take over the inhabitants of the island. That in of itself is scary. When will the zombies get there? How many of them are there exactly? Who exactly is playing that obnoxious drum beat? These questions are pleasantly never answered, thus forcing the film to focus solely on two things: the possible survival of the heroes and the disgusting zombies once they make their presence known in full force.

In the tradition of films of this ilk, Zombie is, by most standards, cheaply made. The acting is, even in the better moments, borderline adequate, with only Richard Johnson bringing any sort of heft to his role as the doctor scientist obsessed with treating his terribly ill patients all the while in his mind he is arriving increasingly close to the conclusion that, first, medicine cannot explain what is transpiring and, second, he and his visitors are most likely doomed to die. The rest of the cast puts on performance on par with what one can expect from a film simply titled Zombie (read: average-to-really-bad). Whatever focus is lacking on the human actors is invested in the zombie makeup and camera work, both of which are terrific. Praising monster makeup in a Fulci film is nothing unexpected, but when zombies look as barf-inducing as they do in many scenes here, credit is clearly due. Some of the early scenes feature some rather simple looking creature, but those which rise out of the soil prior to the amazing climax are absolutely revolting, complete with worms coming out of their mouths and empty eye sockets. What some might not anticipate is how solid the cinematography is as well. Lucio Fulci flexes his muscles in Zombie, providing some really interesting swoop and pan shots of zombies walking down dirt roads, some zombie POV shots either as they leave their graves or just before having their heads blown off. Another brilliant occurs when both Peter and Anne are resting on the ground. With the camera set barely above ground level, we see Peter close in to kiss Anne. The frame then crawls a few inches away to a reveal a hand emerge out of the ground only a foot or two away from Anne's hair. Why on earth would the two protagonists choose such a terrible moment and terrible place to embrace is besides the point. This is the sort of film where the shots matter, not the logic in the sequence of events.

There are plenty of fun moments to had as well, with Fulci taking some fun liberties with what sort of misadventures both the human and zombie characters can get themselves in. When the Dr. Menard's wife is is trying to push her bathroom door shut to prevent a zombie from entering, she inadvertently chops off its fingers which gripped through the doorway. An even more incredible sequence transpires just prior to the arrival on the island, when the female American vacationer decides to go scuba diving (topless, naturally). She is attacked by both a shark and an underwater zombie. The best part is that she manages to flee leaving, and this is not a joke, the shark and the underwater zombie to duke it out.

Zombie is far from a great cinematic achievement. Other directors came before and would come after that produced superior zombie movies. Nevertheless, there is a boat load of fun to be had with Lucio Fulci's 1979 gore fest. It is funny, wild, features some inventive, clever cinematography and, of course, appropriately horrid zombie makeup.


3guys1movie said...

Nice post.

I recently did a top ten zombie films list and several people mentioned this as something I needed to check out. Your review makes it sound like a pretty solid film for the genre.

edgarchaput said...

@3guys1movie: Well, I would still proceed with a level of caution. The acting really isn't all that good and there are some pretty weird things about (like how the score sounds like something out of an original Nintendo video game). Still, there's plenty to enjoy.