Films can often be sold on a single moment alone.
For The Shawshank Redemption, it’s Tim Robbins making a daring prison escape by wading through the rancid shit of a few thousand prisoners. In Dr. Strangelove it’s Air Force Major T.J. “King” Kong riding atop a falling atom bomb, cowboy hat and all. And I like to believe that in some future multi-award winning film, the key selling moment is Anita Sarkeesian being stomped to death by a herd of male elephants, swinging about their phallic trunks.
The point being, movies are generally remembered for one particular stand out moment. Even if, as a whole, the movie is already pretty stellar.
Italian director Lucio Fulci‘s unauthorized sequel to Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead (entitled Zombi in Italy), is a damn fine zombie film that reconciles the then modern filming techniques with traditional voodoo lore. But what you really need to know about Zombi 2, is that a scene set underwater features a zombie fighting a shark.
For some reason forever lost to time, the Italian horror cinema of the Seventies and Eighties had an obsessive drive to produce as many zombie movies as possible. During those two decades, Italian directors created more shambling forms than a drunken flooring company. Maybe this obsession was informed by the Years of Lead, a socio-political turmoil that tore the country apart much like how Lisa tears apart Tommy Wiseau.
Regardless, the period produced a ton of influential zombie films, with those by Joe D’Amato (Anthropophagus, Absurd) and Lucio Fulci standing out among my favourite. Fulci, the House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead director was fondly known as the “Godfather of Gore,” and Zombi 2 (aka Zombie, or Zombie Flesh Eaters, or Nightmare Island, or Sanguella) certainly reflects this accolade. Any director who features graphic depictions of jagged wood impaling eyeballs certainly deserves such lofty praise. Perhaps even a “To the Grossest Godfather of Gore ever” card.
Zombi 2 begins with a seemingly abandoned boat drifting into New York harbour. When two police officers search the vessel, however, they are attacked by a stowaway zombie – an attack initially put down with only a single casualty but which later triggers an apocalyptic onslaught. Fulci added these opening and concluding sequences in order to slot the film into the same chronology as Dawn of the Dead, and sponge off Romero’s success. But it works, evoking the chapter in Bram Stoker‘s Dracula in which the Demeter runs aground on the shores of Whitby, bringing with it an invasive evil.
It doesn’t particularly follow a coherent trail of logic. How did the boat get to New York from the island? Who was the mysterious gunman who thinks aiming a gun like a Resident Evil character is a proper approach to zombie slaying? But as set-up and world-building it does the job.
Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) is the daughter of the boat’s owner, a medical doctor on a Caribbean island, and heads out in search of her absentee father. She is joined by reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch), and guides Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and his wife Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay). Together they head to Matul, an island worse than the one from Lost. Even Season Six Lost.
Perhaps where Zombi 2’s greatest strength lays is in its uncompromising gore. It was banned in the UK as part of the moral crusade against the supposed ‘video nasties’, a fact that the film wore as a badge of honour during future home releases. Giannetto De Rossi‘s revolutionary special effects help to elevate the zombies beyond Romero’s flat design.
In the …of the Dead films, the zombies are largely people with a funny gait and a complexion resembling regurgitated pea soup. Romero zombies are scary not because what they are, but because of what they represent: for example, victims of racism in Night of the Dead, or mindless sheep-like consumerists in Dawn of the Dead. Zombi 2’s zombies are crusty, necrotic, maggot-riddled, and shuffle along with a laboured and pained movement. They feel decomposed, with clumps of flesh falling from their bodies as their victims try to fight them off.
Most importantly though, Fulci wasn’t interested in politics and, resultantly, simply wanted to make a movie about zombies and tits. And that’s perfectly fine. Highly recommended even. But it’s also why we have dumb moments like Anne and Peter stopping and having a romantic tumble in a graveyard while zombies are taking over the island. These are the type of people who get it on at camp sites known to serve as stomping grounds for serial killers.
Fulci is effective at making the zombies frightening through some very deliberate camera work. Shots show these beasts rising from their muddy graves, or their decrepit hands carefully reaching up out from the earth. It’s a back to basics approach, focusing on the reanimated dead solely as a horror concept. Zombies can still instil fear once you strip away all the dramatic orchestral screeches, flashy lighting, and overblown lingering camera angles.
With Zombi 2 being an Italian horror movie, there are inherent cultural peculiarities that distract the viewer from the experience. The dubbed voices are, for the most part, terrible. One character especially, Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), looks and dresses as though he’s from a porn film about a doctor who cures tonsillitis with his dick – but his dub-over sounds like he has chomped down a load of gravel and is then delivering a speech on quantitative easing.
Where Zombi 2’s Italian origins serves entirely as a boon, is in its complete lack of disregard for the audience’s sensitivities as it lays out its violence. The film literally opens with a bang, as the mysterious figure (later suggested to be Menard) fires hot lead into a figure flimsily covered by a sheet. It’s a moody, short scene that makes excellent use of Chiaroscuro – Menard is an imposing shadowy figure set against a hazily lit backdrop. From there, Zombi 2 never really stops. The grisly discovery of Paola’s (Olga Karlatos) corpse serving as an all you can eat buffet is disgustingly awesome and stacks up to even the best that The Walking Dead can offer.
As a final comment, I’d like to commend Fabio Frizzi’s memorable soundtrack. It really informs the film’s unique tone, and I suppose to appreciate it fully you’d have to imagine yourself having sex along with it. It begins all bouncy and joyful until someone farts, and then devolves into a lethargic slog – save for the odd pity thrust.