As a Board certified expert on voodoo, I know exactly two things about our most popular horror movie religion. One is that voodoo dolls are a must for dealing with exes. And two, you never ignore stories from the superstitious natives about what the evil juju man is doing and how the dead are coming back to life!
Any four year old versed in West African religious traditions will tell you that juju and voodoo are two separate belief systems and that these two teaming up on one cursed island is the supernatural equivalent of the Tripartite Pact! But with zombies! And sharks! And topless scuba diving!
But a film doesn’t solely succeed because a liberated gal gets into a three way with Jaws and the living dead! Sure, it 95% succeeds because of that, but there’s still a little bit that the rest of movie has to do on its own.
And with an island of crabby corpses shuffling around ripping out throats, tearing out and eating guts, and impaling a woman’s head right through her eye on a jutting piece of wood, Zombie effortlessly and relentlessly unleashes the sleazy shocks that not only launched director Lucio Fulci‘s 1980s career as godfather of Italian gore movies, but likely inspired the whole blood-splattered Italian horror genre of the era.
Fulci makes good use of New York City location shooting at the beginning of the film to set up the story and to no doubt make the film more appealing to American audiences. After all, he surely didn’t cast decidedly unappealing Tisa Farrow for that reason. (Only two more movies would follow for Tisa – both Italian.)
A boat is discovered floating in the harbor with a zombie on board. The boat belonged to Tisa’s father who had gone to an island in the Antilles to help out his doctor friend with some project. Reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch of the classic British TV series Survivors and the not-so-classic Italian flicks Contamination and Zombie Holocaust) is snooping around and meets up with Tisa on the boat. They decide to work together to find out what happened to her father and head down to the island of Matul.
Teaming up with two people who have a boat, they locate Matul, but the island has definitely seen better days. The only going concern on the whole island is the hospital where Dr. Menard and his nurse are working nonstop trying to help the natives who are sick and dying. And then coming back to life and trying to eat everyone!
You don’t have to be Jack Kevorkian to understand that instead of brandishing a stethoscope in the ICU, Dr. Menard is exercising his right to bear arms all over these undead bastards! (It is perhaps the film’s only misstep that Dr. Menard never says “take one of these and DON’T call me in the morning!” as he puts a bullet into the head of each resurrected patient.)
Peter and his group don’t buy into all this zombie babble until they visit the doctor’s house to check on his wife and find that the zombies are already there checking out her lower intestine! Fulci stages a gloriously gross scene of this woman surrounded by zombies feasting on her disemboweled remains.
But amidst all that horror, there are still chuckles to be had as Peter takes in the scene as delivers one of the best bitter beer faces you’ll ever see. Watching the look of putrid disgust on his face, it was almost like Ian McCulloch just realized what his career was turning into and reacted as any professional who deserved better would.
Following a jeep wrecked in a collision with a zombie, an ill-advised stopover in a graveyard where Peter and his friend take a break to make out while the boat captain stupidly obsesses over an old conquistador helmet he found lying around (wasn’t there a zombie outbreak happening?), it’s back to the hospital despite it being ground zero for the undead epidemic.
Much shooting, Molotov cocktail throwing and secondary characters getting chewed on ensues. A final shoot of the Brooklyn Bridge serves to try and make us forget we really weren’t just tricked into watching an Italian zombie movie mostly shot in Italy and the Dominican Republic.
What Fulci does right in Zombie is that he completely ignores details and explanations. What exactly was the doctor doing on Matul? What kind of illness are these people dying of? Why are they coming back to life? Why are guys who have been dead for centuries also coming back to life? How did a boat with a zombie make it all the way to New York City? Why was that zombie fighting a shark? Why didn’t both women scuba dive topless? Other than vague statements about voodoo, the movie doesn’t make any pretense as to telling us why anything is happening. I nodded knowingly when Dr. Menard smartly observed that it all “defies logical explanation.”
But by not getting caught up in telling a story, Fulci is able to focus on important things such as making sure a lot stuntmen are set on fire and shot repeatedly. And would you rather have scenes of characters talking about why something is happening or scenes where icky dead people with worms on their skulls crawl out of graves? I’m married with kids – I get enough talking in real life. Bring on the guy with chunks of his face falling off stumbling around a island hut!
Zombie succeeds because it knows what it wants to be and single-mindedly sticks to it. There’s no subplots to pad the running time, no lengthy scenes of characters reflecting on the meaning of anything, not even any filler shots of a voodoo priest chanting and casting his evil spell. Zombie is too busy pumping up the spooky music, cranking up the wind machine to make the village extra hazy and nightmarish and doing what overrated movies like Dawn of the Dead should have been doing instead of hanging out at the mall – delivering nonstop dread, atmosphere and horror.
© 2014 MonsterHunter