31 Screams in October, Vol. 2, #9: Zombie (1979)

Posted: October 9, 2015 in Movie Review
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Zombie (1979)

Director: Lucio Fulci

Starring: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay

Out of what I’ve sampled from the films in the career of director Lucio Fulci (which were not limited to horror), few have ever really grabbed my attention in a positive way. Whether because I couldn’t point to any memorable moments, or the buckets of gore overrode the story, or because the subject matter in general did not interest me, I just can’t count myself among the legion of Fulci’s fans. However, one of the exceptions is 1979’s “Zombie.” This movie triumphs over all of my usual hangups, and even offers a few surprises, adding up to one of the more entertaining zombie pictures that there is.

A seemingly abandoned boat turns up in a New York harbur, with two unfortunate patrolmen assigned to investigate. After one of them is sent to the morgue by a stowaway zombie, the police call in Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, Mia’s youngest sibling) to answer some questions. Seems it was Anne’s father’s boat, and she’s as curious as the cops are to learn what it’s doing here without him on it. The last known location of Dr. Bowles was the Caribbean island of Matul, where he’d been conducting research. Anne soon discovers that her father has contracted a previously undocumented virus and, together with news reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch), hires a boat manned by Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay).

After encountering some trouble along the way, the group docks and fires off a couple of flares. The noise startles Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who has been researching the reanimation of the dead and has had to put down a few of his colleagues, Anne’s father among them. Meeting up with the group, Dr. Menard agrees to give them a place to stay, but insists that they go up to check on his wife, whom he has grown concerned about after reports of zombie sightings in the village. Sure enough, Mrs Menard has become dinner for about five or six zombies, Anne, Peter, Brian and Susan barely escape with their lives. During the escape, their vehicle runs off the road after impacting with a zombie. Peter injures his ankle, and the four stop to rest. Slowly, it begins to dawn on them that they’re sitting in the middle of an ancient Spanish Conquistador graveyard, whose occupants promptly rise up and attack. Anne, Peter and Brian get away, but Susan is not so lucky.

Back at the hospital, Dr. Menard doesn’t want to believe in the natives’ explanation of voodoo being the cause of the zombie outbreak, but he can find no other scientific alternative. Soon, the island is overrun with zombies. The surviving humans try their best to barricade the hospital, but there’s just too many of them. Dr. Menard and the rest of the hospital staff are lost, and so the survivors burn down the hospital to distract the zombies long enough for them to escape. Before they can, Brian is met face-to-face with Susan, now a zombie. Brian lets his guard down just long enough for Susan to bite him before she is destroyed by Peter. The trio make it back to the boat, where Brian later dies. Anne and Peter then lock his corpse down below, despite Anne’s objections. Instead of destroying his brain, Peter says that they should save him as proof to the authorities of what’s been going on. However, it won’t be necessary, as a radio news bulletin informs them that New York has already been taken by the zombie outbreak.

“Zombie” delivers more than one might typically expect from a low-budget, Italian-produced horror film. For one thing, the superb makeup effects are an improvement over George Romero’s bluish grey-skinned zombies from the previous year. The soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi, which sets the tone early, is near perfection. Lucio Fulci also smartly sought to bring zombies back to their origins, where mad science/voodoo reanimates the dead, and the plots often took place on remote islands. This helps separate “Zombie” from other modern zombie tales, which tend to follow the formula founded by the films of George Romero. It is a shame, then, that the film was marketed in Italy as an unofficial sequel to “Dawn of the Dead.” Why would you do that? It invites needless comparisons between films which share almost nothing in common besides zombies. To compare any other zombie film to “Dawn of the Dead” would be as defeatist as comparing other crime films to “The Godfather.”

When I think of “Zombie,” three moments immediately emerge. One is the scene where Dr. Menard’s wife is killed trying to evade the zombie attack in her home, eventually impaled through the eye in typically gruesome fashion. This scene, because of the way the camera agonizingly lingers on it, was shamelessly ripped off by several other Italian zombie productions (including Umberto Lenzi’s “Nightmare City,” another of my favorite zombie gorefests). The absolute best scene in this movie (and perhaps any of its kind) is the underwater confrontation between a zombie and a shark. We’re first teased with the prospect of a shark making a snack out of Susan, who has gone for a deep sea dive. When it looks like she’s given the shark the slip, out of nowhere a zombie appears. Upon seeing this, Susan hightails it out of there! Frustrated from losing out on succulent, living human flesh, the zombie attacks the shark, which then gets in one or two good licks of its own. The movie’s final image, that of a zombie horde making its way across the Brooklyn Bridge, is also quite striking. I think it would have been amazing for a sequel to have picked up immediately where “Zombie” leaves us. Alas, the in-name only sequels that do exist have nothing at all to do with the events depicted here. Whether your country knows it as “Zombie,” “Zombi 2,”  “Zombie Flesh Eaters,” or “Nightmare Island,” it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Sounds like this movie has a decent plot. I’d love to see the shark scene!!

  2. Haha I love, love, love the shark scene! Great review. The Blu ray of Zombie is absolutely incredible, the nasty bits are so much nastier in such incredible quality. All around a big fan of this movie.

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