Thursday, July 08, 2010

Zombies Muncing on My Brains

WARNING: Massive spoilers for Zombie, City of the Living Dead,The Beyond and House by the Cemetery follow. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU PLAN ON WATCHING THESE FILMS AND WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

So I've been on a zombie kick as of late. The never ending torrent of gruesome fun in LEFT 4 DEAD 2, Blue Underground releasing Fulci's massively under-appreciated CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD on Blu-ray, and me having picked up a copy of Jamie Russell's fine reference BOOK OF THE DEAD: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema will do that to me. And being a terminal geek with a few terminally geeky friends, the following question came up:

Indeed, Fulci's City of the Living Dead has rather few zombies because it's not actually a zombie movie; it's an apocalyptic supernatural horror. Now, that said, I wonder to myself if The Beyond is considered a zombie movie. What do you think, [Kentai]?  The Beyond includes a fair number of zombies, and in a certain sense it is a movie about the dead regaining animation. But it doesn't feel like a zombie movie.  Actually, I guess it's a case in which since the overwhelming majority of zombie movies are zombie apocalypse movies we don't immediately know how to categorize the rare exceptions like The Beyond, Les Revenants, I Zombie, and Shatter Dead.

This was a fascinating question, and one I'm not certain that I'd given nearly enough thought to. I'm quite sure that Jamie Russell will have worlds to say on the subject, but I'm still picking apart the early chapters where he talks about the pre-Romero era of mad scientists brainwashing Haitians - an era of zombie cinema I know next to nothing about - so I thought about spilling my convolutedly lengthy thoughts on what constitutes a "zombie movie" - and even a "zombie" - in the confines of the post-Romero landscape of horror film and pop-culture we find ourselves in today.

Lucio Fulci can be credit with a total of five supposedly zombie-centric films: Two "official" sequels to George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD - released as "Zombi" through most of Europe and Asia;


(Zombi 2, 1979)

 ZOMBI 3 (1988)

As well as within the so-called "Trilogy of Death":

(Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980)

(L'aldilà, 1981)

(Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981)

In practical terms, what - exactly - is a zombie? Taken from Haitian legends of voodoo which modern science has since attributed to brain damaged people thought to be already dead, Hollywood ran with the idea in the 1930s, and it became a pop-culture staple in the late 1960s when independent film maker Romero turned mindless zombies into flesh eating ghouls. Night of the Living Dead's vague notions toward the unexplained origins of the zombie have forever left them a screen writer's wild card, allowing them to explain them away via science, magic, or not at all. With that in mind zombies have become one of the single most versatile monsters of the modern age, and their appeal has run from mainstream big-budget Hollywood remakes to zero budget borefests that seem to have been shot in the backyards of an overenthusiastic young filmmakers' pals houses. Indeed, the zombie in these troubled 21st century times ranges from the rage-induced rabid in 28 Days Later to the rotting sources of pure cartoon physical comedy in Braindead, and everything in between.

Fulci's "Zombi" canon lies firmly in the trenches carved by Romero, with the 1979 entry, known as Zombie in these United States, was literally marketed as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead. Aside from its' exotic - and somewhat relevant - Caribbean setting, the film plays out much the way as its' inspiration, with a mysterious force reanimating the dead who become flesh craving automatons without reason... only hunger. Fulci pumped up the grue factor with his so-called "Walking Flower Pots", and the film will forever be remembered not only for its' gruesome eyeball destruction - the first of countless in Fulci's career - but perhaps even moreso for its' iconic scene of an aquatic zombie chomping on the belly of a great white. Oh sure, the scene doesn't make a lick of sense (nor does the eye-gouging, I guess...), but goddamn, it is so cool !

If Zombi 2 ushered in the Italian ripoffs with a bang, than Zombi 3 closed the chapter with an echoing wet fart, a ridicule-worthy film many genre aficionados consider the most shockingly awful Spaghetti Undead picture of the era. (I'd suggest that these people never saw Killing Birds... but that's another matter.) The film was indeed a product of Lucio Fulci, but his failing health got the better of him, and when he delivered producers a film that was barely 70 minutes and refused to shoot another frame. Producers simply hired the infamous schlockmeister Bruno Mattei to shoot another 40 minutes and cobbled the two together into a sort of Frankenzombie's Atrocity.

Likely out of respect for Fulci, who had in the last decade become known as a master of terror second only to "il maestro" Dario Argento, he decided to shoot an alternate storyline set in the same place as Fulci's film, but with a different cast of mostly faceless characters who never met the film's stars. The result is two wildly different, but equally awful styles clashing into a picture that's as nonsensical as it is pitiful. It's certainly grotesque, but the pierced throats and torn faces elicit only chuckles instead of squirms... the film's most iconic image is that of the physically impossible and even more illogical "Flying Zombie Head In A Freezer", which sums up both the charms and pratfalls of Zombi 3 perfectly.

Regardless of the relative quality, both Zombi 2 and Zombi 3 include reanimated corpses who crave human flesh, and their coming signifying the end of the world as we know it. While not a part of the Haitian legends which spawned them, the 21st century looks at zombies as a sign of the literal apocalypse, a terrifying visage that proves everything we know is completely wrong, and that the end is surely nigh... and this is exactly what throws the Trilogy of Death into question as being proper Zombie Movies.

For clarification, there are films in which a zombie apocalypse happens without the undead being typical reanimated 'zombies'. In 28 Days Later humanity is overrun by a virus that causes the human brain to degrade into a state of constant rage. They are not reanimated shuffling husks of the undead, but the film is in every other way based on the template of Romero's defining "...of the Dead" features. Dawn of the Mummy replaces the typical street-clothes flesh muncher with something a bit more gothic, but the behavior and structure of the mummies has much more to do with "...of the Dead" than it does anything that featured Boris Karloff, or even Brendon Fraiser. Even Demoni ends with the suggestion that the whole world is going to be eaten by drooling murderous crazy-creatures, which owe far more to Sam Raimi's no less fascinating - but here, much less relevant - Evil Dead trilogy...  it's just too bad Demoni 2 not only ignores the end of its' predecessor, but is a titanic pile of hilarious shite.

And Demoni 3 is actually just Soavi's La Chiesa... or is it Lenzi's Black Demons? Ah, fuck it all! Back to Fulci and his supposed "zombie films".

"The Gates of Hell" was actually the back-up title for Fulci's Paura Nella Città dei Morti Viventi - or 'Fear in the City of the Living Dead'. American distributors Motion Picture Marketing actually released posters calling the film Twilight of the Dead, which earned them a Cease And Desist order from Dawn of the Dead's distributor, United Film Distribution Company. The UK release was simply titled 'City of the Living Dead', and in Germany the film got three different titles all roughly translating out to "A Corpse Hung on a Church Bell Rope" - with each and every new title still getting the film banned.

The film is certainly not Fulci's zombie masterpiece, but it has a unique charm that makes it difficult to ignore. It contains two of his most memorable set pieces: A woman buried alive, which was remade almost shot for shot in Quentin Tarantino's ode to the grindhouse, Kill Bill; a young girl who's eyes cry tears of blood until she literally vomits out her own guts; and one of Giovani Lombardo Radice's many famous death scenes, this time at the mercy of a drill press to his temple. The understated ghoul at the head of this parade of death, the mute and ever blank Father Thomas, literally teleports in and out of the hero's field of vision, and upon locking eyes with them has the power to kill them instantly... but doesn't always seem to even want to. The film has a mixed message to tell, and that makes it all the more confounding and fascinating that the typical "zombies = bad" theory that goes on in virtually any other undead entry before Romero's Day of the Dead several years later.

Set in the fictional town of Dunwich (I see what he did there!), we're told it was built on the ruins of "the original Salem", a statement that doesn't make the slightest bit of sense if you've ever been to Massachusetts. This break with reality, right from the opening reel, only hints at the level of disorienting hyperbole to come.  Despite having seemingly been written in the middle of a fever dream while on plenty of LSD, it manages to channel that sense of displaced - yet clearly still lurking - terror found in the writings of  H.P. Lovecraft, and it does so pretty effectively. The decaying New England houses (actually filmed in New York and Georgia... go figure) and quaint villages centered around cemeteries give it a much more unsettling sensation than the exotic and sun-drenched locale of the Caribbean, and that atmosphere only gets stronger with the powerful score from regular Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi, and the stage-play inspired makeup effects provided by Franco Rufini - a man Fulci would only work with again on his campy adventure film Conquest - create a very stark and unusual vibe for a man to whom atmosphere was everything. Even the framing is the less sweeping ratio of 1.85:1, despite the film having been shot using the two-perf process intended specifically for 2.40:1, hence it's name: "Techniscope".

Radice said of Fulci that he gave him virtually no direction... until he was a zombie. "To him, zombies were real. It was as if he had seen them before! (Laughs)" he says in the interview found on Blue Underground's recent Blu-ray of City of the Living Dead - henceforth, just COTLD. Here zombies are indeed reanimated and disfigured corpses, but they are most certainly not the mindless and flesh-hungry beasts found in Zombi 2. They teleport in and out with the fog or the blinking lights, and sit on the street corner starring vacantly back into the abode they shared with their family in life. When Radice bites a chunk of warm flesh he doesn't dig in like a starving animal... he glowers and pensively gnaws on his prize as if he were literally eating the bar patrons who spoke badly of him out of nothing more than petty spite. COTLD's zombies are an extension of Father Thomas' desire to open one of the seven Gates of Hell, ghouls that are more like vengeful and hate-fueled ghosts with rotting bodies of worm-covered flesh to aid them in their goals to destroy those who either wronged them in life, or threaten their existence as All Saints Day draws near.

The monsters of Dunwich are indeed zombies, and the films' cryptic ending - one not born of clever minimalism, but because the film editor spilled coffee on the negative and there was no time to reshoot - suggests that a "zombie apocalypse" is indeed at hand. The ends are that of a zombie apocalypse, but the means are very different and almost contradictory to the notion of the American zombie film, and all of its' European and Asian imitators of the perior. This isn't a film that throws armies of the undead into the towns of the living, it's a film in which familiar faces become dangerous and hurt those who love them the most. The "zombies" meet the technical definition, but their behavior is closer to that of a wandering spirit taking its' loved ones back to Hell with it. This film is, in my amateur estimation, still a "zombie movie"... but it's also a dry run for the most unusual film in Fulci's living dead cycle:

"The Beyond" was originally released in American theaters under the title 7 Doors of Death. It was shorn of a slightly ironic 7 minutes of graphic violence, the soundtrack was replaced, and the opening title sequence was re-made from scratch. The alternate cut of the film may as well be a different entity entirely, but as the only way to see it is on an ancient pan-scan VHS, it's probably not being watched too often these days...

In Germany, it was released as "The Ghost Town of Zombies". I swear, I don't make this shit up!

The Beyond is, if we focus on Fulci's supernatural period from 1979 onward, surely the pick of the sticky deformed litter. His giallo and western entries from the 1970s are certainly not without merit, but this is likely the film everyone will forever remember him for alongside Zombi 2... in no small part thanks, again, to Tarantino having found the negative and making an uncensored English language print to show at midnight screening through his own distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures. It's full of the same massive gaps in logic as the rest of his latter day catalog, but it does it on such a grand and nasty scale that it's easy to get lost in the imagery for what it is, rather than being upset at what it isn't. Supposedly the lack of coherent focus was an intentional choice on Fulci's part, a cinematic homage to the work of French playwright Antonin Artaud who felt that theater's true power lied in unrelated stand-alone sequences strung together only by the most basic narrative threads needed to support the work as a whole. Mind you, this could all be pretentious bullshit he decided later on to explain away why the film jumps around like a horror story as told by a jittery crackhead with amnesia - but with Fulci long dead and unable to expand on this, it hardly seems fair to psycho-analyze his words, only his work.

What we do know for certain is that Fulci didn't plan on The Beyond being a zombie film. His original concept was to play the film as a traditional haunted house story, but the German producers were interested in more zombies. Faced with the demands of the krauts holding the purse strings, Fulci's orginal script (co-written by COTLD scribe Dardano Sacchetti) was re-written to include a massive brawl with a seemingly never-ending torrent of zombies in an abandoned hospital, reminiscent of the finale in Jorge Grau's similarly moody 1974 Spanish/Italian zombie picture Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti, which is known under a multitude of various titles in English alone - my personal favorite being "Don't Open The Window!"

The Beyond may as well be a remake of COTLD - both pick a reputedly mystical American locale, both involve the forces of the living dead escaping through one of the Seven Gates of Hell, both were scored by Fabio Frizzi, and both star Catorina MacHall as a heroine tasked with closing the gate before it's too late. Certainly the aesthetic between a fictionalized New England and a more or less genuine New Orleans is somewhat different, but the focus on leering eyeball destruction and zombies who are closer to ghosts or phantoms remains consistent... in fact, the biggest difference between the films might be in the presentation of their mute villains. While Father Thomas was an enigmatic sinner who's desire to open the Old Salem gate goes unexplained, the black sorcerer Smythe in The Beyond actually sought to close the gate, only to be pinned to it by paranoid locals who didn't understand his mystical ways. Father Thomas was a spiteful monster who seemingly wanted to end the world... just because. Smythe was a good soul who was abused at the hands of the very human filth he was going out of his way to protect, and as such his hellish wrath makes much more sense. Also, Smythe is a rotting corpse instead of a bug-eyed creep, and he isn't destroyed by a damn cross to the nutsack, making him a bit of a bitch in the end. Father Thomas is a sinister presence that upsets the natural order of both life and death and good and evil, but Smythe is the culmination of this American Gothic period Fulci went through; gnarled and crusty, misunderstood and undervalued, Smythe and The Beyond itself both represent the point in which Fulci's career as a horror director were at its' most impressive.

The weaknesses in the script of The Beyond become irrelevant in the grip of the haunting empty streets and quivering close-ups of eyes - both locked in terror and being torn from their sockets - bury it so deep in his personal fetishes that the film is, unlike any other work from the director I've yet had a chance to see, a work of pure horror cinema... we'll get back to this another day.
While the exciting shoot-out just before the end of The Beyond is every bit a traditional slice of zombie cinema, the film around it is decidedly anything but - if anything the presence of Smythe's disfigured ghouls are a totally separate entity from the shambling and rather generic looking nude zombies at the end of the film, all of whom aren't much different from the mindless dregs found in any other dime-store zombie picture.  In the context of The Beyond itself, the "zombies" are the corpses that flood the hospital... the vengeful corpse of Smythe and his personal minions are scarred and cheating death, but they are not mindless nor are they the biggest threat to the cast. With this in mind, it actually further complicates wither or not COTLD is a "zombie" film, since ALL of the zombies in that film are analogous to minions for Father Thomas, and thus would be similar to The Beyonds' "inner circle".

So has delving further into Fulci's work destroyed my theory that COTLD is a zombie film? I'm not totally convinced, since in COTLD, the presence of zombies seems to be the sole deadly factor; the undead and those possessed by the gaze of Father Thomas are the only deadly creatures lurking in Dunwich. In The Beyond, the zombie apocalypse only occurs in the confines of a single reel while the rest of the splatter is at the hands of crusty fresh minions... most importantly, the apocalypse shown in the film's final moments - perhaps in and of itself an odd choice for Fulci, being a confirmed atheist - are at odds with the idea of the zombie itself being the final nail in the world's coffin. The implication of the heroes exiting the hospital only to end up back at the hotel, and for the basement of that hotel to bottom out in... well, "The Beyond", is the ultimate suffering for them. The zombies can infect the living with the curse of the undead, but that curse is only to drag their souls into this alternate dimension from which life and death become meaningless. Neither zombification itself nor death is the ultimate horror lurking in The Beyond, and as such, the zombies are really just a foot note. Reel 5 in the film may be a piece of a larger zombie movie, but that one segment does not an entire zombie film make.

"House by the Cemetery" is an easy one to classify... or, at least, to deny classification for:

Dr. Freudstein doesn't infect others with the curse of the living dead. There is only one of him. He isn't a mindless automaton or even a cursed visage of flesh sent by a Hellish master. He's a failed human experiment, and is no more a 'zombie' than Frankenstein's Monster or, dare I say it, Brundlefly. Calling this film a zombie movie is roughly as grossly simplified as calling it a romantic comedy, and as it doesn't involve the Seven Gates of Hell, I'm not even sure why it's been retroactively assigned to be part of a trilogy with COTLD and The Beyond... I can only guess miss MacHall being in all three of them had something to do with it.

City of the Living Dead and The Beyond form a sort of kinship in that they represent the period when Fulci's work stopped taking their narrative so seriously and just did crazy shit because it looked and felt right on film. The consistently bizarre and uneasy atmosphere in Fulci's post-Zombi 2 output is only secondary to his rampant and shocking gore, even in films that didn't "need" it as a justification to string different set pieces together, in films like The New York Ripper and Conquest. With that in mind, is the unusual nature of the zombie in both of these films intentional? Was Fulci using the mask of the undead on his supernatural pictures as a way to secure financing to make films that were about something far more simple, more sacred, in the same way that Jean Rollin used the figure of the vampire - and the naked form - to make films about the strange images that haunted his subconscious? Perhaps.... but wither or not that's relevant in the classification and dissection of the ever-evolving horror monster is another matter.

City of the Living Dead uses zombies as a means to a pseudo-Lovecraftian end; the film is perhaps still a zombie apocalypse going by the most basic of checklists, but the film is really trying to channel something more traditional than the current modern concept of the living dead. The Beyond exploited zombies for their commercial potential, but was a separate sort of movie in the long run. Clearly both of these films are relevant to fans of zombies, and Fulci's living dead may even be closer to the Haitian voodoo legends of mindless slaves than some of the super powered undead flesh eaters we know today, but that alone means they - and the films they inhabit - are a slightly different breed than what most viewers would typically associate with the term "Zombie".

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