Monday, October 24, 2011

I Am Going To Eat You! (Part 1)

A Mondo Tees Limited Edition One Sheet,
already selling for inflated prices on eBay...

(Before The Beyond And Back Again)

I feel that Zombi 2 is an authentic zombie film. I wanted to send them back to their origins. That is why we shot the film in Santa Domingo. My inspiration came from Jacques Tourneur, not George Romero. - Lucio Fulci

Lucio Fulci's eye-popping, shark-fighting, New York invading epic ZOMBI 2 was originally conceived by producers as the semi-official sequel to Georgeo A. Romero's watermark horror film Dawn of the Dead, a film released as "ZOMBIE: Dawn of the Dead" through most of the non-English speaking world. Having already earned some level of infamy for the grotesque dream sequences in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin - special effects so convincing for the time he had to reproduce them in court to prove they weren't really torturing dogs! - Fulci tackled the inevitable Spaghetti knockoff, but violently rejected the slightly preposterous musings of contemporary Dario Argento in how Romero, his partner in cinematic crime, "created the zombie" by dragging it kicking and screaming back to its Haitian roots, fusing the contemporary Italian love affairs with electronic scores, gratuitous nudity, and gross-out violence all amidst the uniquely Gothic Paradise upon which the horror unfolds. As the film unspools to solve the mystery of why the dead won't stay that way, reality slowly grinds to a halt until only inconceivable horror shambles forth. Gripping in the final reel like the inevitable embrace of the Grim Reaper himself, Zombi 2 closes around the viewer until all hope is lost, shattered, and eaten fresh from the crushed bones of the ungreatful living.

The plot is simple, as far as these things go; a seemingly abandoned boat washes up into New York Harbor which, investigators quickly find, actually contains the ravenous and seemingly rotten corpse. The boat belongs to a man who's gone missing on the tropical island of Matool, and after being questioned by the police, his New Yorker daughter (Tisa Farrow) and a no-bullshit investigative reporter (Ian McCulloch) decide to find the old man and find out what the hell just happened. They head off to the mysterious island with a Al Cliver and Auretta Gay, but meet a frustrated scientist (Richard Johnson) and his equally frustrated wife (Olga Karlatos) who knows that the shit is edging ever closer to the fan...

Easily one of his most accessible features today, and perhaps the perennial fan favorite next to The Beyond - another film in which the vengeful dead exact bloody vengeance upon the living - Lucio Fulci's Dawn of the Dead psueso-sequel was released in the United States through the Jerry Gross Organization in 1980, without an MPAA rating, under the title that's now embedded into my subconscious: ZOMBIE, and was sold with the bold tagline "we are going to eat you!", and even gave patrons free barf-bags so they could blow chunks without leaving their seat. Now, isn't that thoughtful? In the UK the film was known as "Zombie Flesh Eaters", and was actually banned nearly thirty years ago as part of that whole Video Nasties... thing. That's all a fascinating subject unto itself, but perhaps we'll cover that another day.

Lucio Fulci had a long career as a director stretching back to the late 1950s, though his earliest films are all but forgotten outside the realms of academia. Certainly his grim Spaghetti Westerns have earned their fans, but Fulci - for better or worse - just wasn't someone who could stay out of trouble. Controversy aside, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin was followed by the first Fulci picture to get a lot of attention back in Italy, in Don't Torture a Duckling - a thriller who's demented killer's identity was, for reasons that should be obvious to this day, deeply troubling to an Italian audience at the time. For the next few years he tried a little bit of everything - more westerns, a pair of White Fang adaptations(!), and even a Dracula movie nobody seems to give a damn about... weird. After the risky financial dud that was Duckling, Fulci would tread familiar territory up until 1979, when he broke new ground with international audiences everywhere via that grand universal language of "watching zombies seriously fuck some shit up".

Zombie represents an almost distinct cutoff in Lucio Fulci's career as a director of horror films, in which the need to embrace the increasingly abstract overtook his work. There were inklings of this change in the director's philosophy towards narrative in the breakdown of the altogether familiar giallo modus-operandi in The Psychic, released a year or two before this film, but while a change from Fulci's earlier films, this fusion of the blatantly supernatural with the mundanely mysterious wasn't entirely new ground. Even if we ignore Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy beginning with Suspiria in 1977, there was still Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black in 1974, a film that combined the tortured past of Mimsy Farmer's icy heroine with a less than subtle flavor of Romsemary's Baby... but I'm getting off track now, clearly.

Japanese program book, under the title "Sanguelia" (Bloody).
Perhaps it was used to make the film's title sound more like "Suspiria"?

While it's doubtful that anyone who's seen the masterful suspense of features like The New York Ripper or Don't Torture A Duckling would ever argue that Fulci was a talentless hack, most of the films that followed Zombie - among them City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Conquest, and The Manhattan Baby - became more nonsensical and free form, narratively speaking, oft bordering on the surreal but never going so far out of the realms of basic narrative that it was totally clear wither Fulci is deliberately breaking down the walls of conventional cinema, or if he simply no longer gave a shit and realized audiences would flock to see City of the Living Dead to see Giovanni Lamberto Radice get a drill-press through his skull regardless of how little sense his story arc made. Fulci himself was later quoted saying "[T]hey used to call my art shit. Now, they call my shit art!", suggesting at least some level of self-awareness that his later films were a bit less high-brow than the westerns and thrillers that gained him more commercial than critical acclaim. Fulci left this mortal coil in March of 1996, literally just a scant year or two before many of his most legendary films would be revived for the world to see on DVD, and as such never had a proper chance to set the record straight via newly produced interviews, as so many of his cinematic contemporaries were.

Whatever the case may be - art, shit, it's all commercial entertainment in the end, isn't it? - Zombie represents a middle ground between Fulci's hyper-realistic gialli pictures and his surrealistic zombie films, with one of my favorite moments showing the clear divine between the two; the film's cryptic, violent opening scene is presented much in the style of his earlier films, a cold, scientific sequence of deep shadows and grizzled, raw humanity. When the scene is replayed in the films second act via flashback, it's presented as a romanticized and even dreamlike scene of heroic sacrifice and profound loss - something the film's pre-credit sequence eschewed entirely! How could Fulci possibly present the scene in two such dramatically different styles? I know the man can no longer tell us himself, but it certainly tells me two things: One, that Dr. Mernard is a liar, and that the REAL truth is something he'll take with him to his shallow grave. Two, that the universe Zombie inhabits will no longer be bound by triviality of "realism".

Perhaps a less forgiving critic can certainly argue that this level of horror fantasy vs grim reality was breached violently when we watched a zombie duel with a shark, a sequence so glorious that Windows used it as a piece of slightly tactless, but perhaps not undeserved marketing for their operating system:

C'mon, Apple! Strike back with some Demons 2 footage!
But the film's idiosyncrasies with reality go so much further than that. Time literally stops when the "Walking Flower Pot" of the film's almost legendary poster, and the hapless victim can only stare in horror as the ancient corpse of a centuries-buried Conquistador slowly sits up, worms dangling from its empty eye socket, and then lunges for her beating throat. Certainly that old chestnut "people acting goddamn stupid" is a common crutch in horror films, since if people acted smart in the face of danger they'd cease to die in splattery ways and the audience would never feel especially worried about the cast (and thus, if only vicariously, about themselves), but she literally stares, unable to move, as this now iconic visage of Italian horror slowly forms out of the ground to drag her back down with him. She doesn't scream, she doesn't run... all she can do is watch as her life unwravels between the teeth of a black magic fueled monster, a mystified spectator to her own demise. Is this merely weak direction? Or is Fulci tapping into that deep rotted horror of our nightmares, being presented with abject terror and being totally devoid of a way to stop it? Particularly when factoring in how gradually unhinged the presented hyper-reality of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin becomes, in which increasingly sexual and bloody dreams become an integral part of the story itself, I tend to side with the theory that it's more of the latter.

Now that's not to say that Fulci wasn't just capable of producing unmitigated shit with "dream logic" being a weak defense. I realize, despite all of the love I may have for it, that Fulci's inevitable retread in Zombi 3 has absolutely nothing positive to recommend aside from its never ending string of shocking absurdity, starting with a kid's head exploding for no specified reason in a failed pseudo-scientific experiment and ending in a zombified DJ holding down his day job - but Zombie was Fulci firing on all cylinders, and while I can appreciate that some people will never cotton to its over the top charms, the film has so much more lurking under the rotting hood than so many similarly themed Romero knock-offs that it's a shame people will mostly remember it as "that movie where a zombie and a shark fight for some reason".

Every word is absolutely true.

It's not as profound as Dawn of the Dead, clearly, but it's perhaps just as entertaining, far more stylish, and drags the viewer headlong into territory Romero has mostly ignored for the modern, Western world: the notion that the viewer is a lone man in a wild, dark world that neither wants nor needs him, and will consume him if he doesn't get back to where he belongs. I'm not quite as convinced as Jamie Russell in his impressively researched Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema that Fulci's film is a somewhat symbolic study of White Guilt and the lingering resentment of Haiti's colonization, but will readily admit the arguments he makes for the film presenting a world in which the "heroic" white foreigner (ie: the European/American viewer) tread into territory stained with blood via the actions of white conquerors, only to get their comeuppance at the hands of the "Black Magic" raised living dead is much more profound than anything I could come up with. Again, I'm not certain that's what was on director Fulci's or screen writer Darando Sacchetti's mind at the time, but it's a damned fascinating way to read the film, and would recommend anyone who legitimately likes the film to give the chapter focusing on Fulci a read.

Released on VHS in the early 80s by Wizard Video, the format many current fans in North America first saw the film on, the unrated print was (essentially) uncut - but rendered nearly unwatchable by reframing the Techniscope 2.35:1 film into a "standard" 4:3 pan-scan version. Prior to the advent of DVD, your best bet for a high quality presentation was to get the Japanese laserdisc for the better part of a hundred dollars. Zombie first appeared on DVD in 1998, in a less than inspirational non-anamorphic port of the Roan Group's, for the time, respectable Laserdisc. As is so often the case, this disc has aged very poorly, and having owned it I can tell you it was a pile of mediocre ass. In 2003, Media Blasters (mostly) Italian horror label Shriek Show announced that they had picked up the rights to Zombie and were preparing an Anniversary Edition... which was pretty odd, since Blue Underground had re-released the Anchor Bay DVD verbatim the year before, and presumably still had the rights to the film!

Exactly how and why this happened remains anyone's guess outside of the companies themselves, but in the end Blue Underground released a single-disc edition in July of 2004, with Media Blasters releasing a two-disc edition a month later. BU's release was about ten bucks cheaper and had a superior progressive encode plus some great cheesy DVD menus, but Media Blasters struck back with deluxe packaging and a second disc containing a feature-length documentary called "Building a Better Zombie", focused on the making of the film in which virtually everyone involved in the creation of the film (barring those who had already passed on) was given a chance to say their piece on it. Valid complaints were leveled against Shriek Show's documentary being occasionally repetitive - not to mention a little amateur in execution, but there was no denying that - for the time, at least - it was the exhaustive Zombie companion piece.

Mmm, shiny cardboard...

In 2011, Blue Underground has perhaps the single largest catalog of High Definition Italian cult/horror films available, and the crowning jewel of their lineup for the year is unquestionably the one-two Fulci punch of Zombie and House by the Cemetery, both released on the 24th of October, and just in time for Halloween. Blue Underground was quite proud of the time and effort put into their restoration of what's easily Fulci's most accessible and popular feature, but I grew wary the moment I saw the sign for LVR Video and Post, the same film lab responsible for each and every one of their Italian features on Blu-ray, good and bad alike. This time the film has been restored at 2K resolution by a combination of LVR and Fotokem - clearly Blue Underground has spared no expense on this release, and while they continue to announce familiar titles for their High Definition review stretching into 2011, I still feel that I have every reason to call this their "Last Hoorah for Euro Horror". I mean, best of luck and all that, but I think we both know you'll move at least three times as many copies of Zombie as you will Night Train Murders.

So, how'd all that turn out...?

We'll talk about the Blu-ray itself!


Anthony1138 said...

Excellent post. I'm looking forward to the BD review, but really enjoyed the Zombie write up. I think I'll pull Book of the Dead off the shelf and reread the Zombie chapter before watching the BD on Halloween.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Glad you're enjoying it. I'll have a review of the actual BD as soon as Amazon sends me the damned thing!

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Fright Night (1985) Specs:

1080p High Definition / 2.35:1
Language: English
Subtitles: English SDH
Special Features:
Isolated Score Track / Original Theatrical Trailers
1985 / Color
106 Minutes
Limited Edition of 3,000 Units
Release Date: December 13th, 2011
Pre-Order Date: November 14th, 2011

Available only from

Whoot. (From Twilight Time's Facebook page.)