Zombi 2 (1979)
Director: Lucio Fulci
RATING: 4.5 / 5 zedheads
If in Italy, here are a few basic phrases you’ll need to memorize to get along.
"Non parlo italiano"
But if you’re a North American zombie fan, you only need to know two words:
And that is because Lucio Fulci directed Zombi 2, one of the most influential post-Romero zombie films in film history. It survived being labeled a video nasty in the 1980s and continues to shock and amuse audiences today.
Zombi 2 literally opens with a bang. A mysterious figure holds a gun up to the camera and fires, blasting open the head of a body tied up in white sheets. In what is my favorite reoccurring image of the film, this brief introduction captures what is so fantastic about this movie. The violence is in your face and pulls no punches, but it is shot with a keen eye for beautiful cinematography, camera angles, mood, and atmosphere. The film then launches into a simple title sequence that presents the main theme by Fabio Frizzi. I asked Brother D of the Mail Order Zombie podcast to describe Frizzi's music since he's something of a film-score aficionado. Brother D notes that the "music does meander a bit and drifts into a bit of 70s cheese during the first part of the film," but overall "the music becomes a driving force, marching its way alongside the shambling undead, and marks Zombi 2 as a film whose thrills and scares owe at least part of its unnerving qualities to Fabio Frizzi." I agree. It's a creepy synthesized score that resonates with a lurching, mysterious gait. The music makes me feel like I can hear the grasping, plodding zombies closing in! Much of the film's effective atmosphere is created from Frizzi's score and the film's sound effects. The use of undulating synthesized music later in the film is the only music I've ever heard that sounds how squirming maggots under putrid skin must feel.
After the credits, the main thrust of the film begins with Peter (Ian McCulloch), a journalist investigating the death of a New York police offer who was killed on an abandoned boat that has drifted into the harbour. His investigation leads him to Anne (Tisa Farrow). It's her father's boat, but she hasn't heard from him in a while. They both learn he was last heard from on the island of Matool, so the two go looking for him by hitching a boat ride with two other Americans. Their trip to Matool, however, is a doomed one. Except for a obsessed medical researcher named Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), most on the island's residents are fleeing and afraid. There are rumors that the dead are returning to life. And they want to eat you!
Despite a varied cast, it is difficult to assess the quality of the acting in this picture. Zombi 2 was an Italian production using only a handful of English actors and extras. Although it was dubbed into English for the North American market, European filmmakers didn't use "sync sound" while filming. As Glenn Kay explains in Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, "they didn't record dialogue at the same time they shot the action on camera. Sync sound was difficult to record and slowed down production." As a result, the international cast and post-production dubbing creates a weird mixture of English actors speaking English with re-dubbed English voices, Italian-speaking actors speaking poor English that is re-dubbed with clearer English voices, Italian-speaking actors speaking purely Italian that is dubbed into English, and Italian-speaking actors dubbed with Spanish-accent English dialogue. Obviously, this creates a bit of a dog's breakfast. Thankfully, the actors don't do much more in this movie other than give brief exposition and look afraid. McCulloch does give the film some credibility that balances out Farrow's constantly ineffective doe-eyed stare and child-like delivery of lines, yet aside for a few stinkers ("The skipper of that craft must be a real turkey") the acting and dialogue in Zombi 2 is better than some big-budget modern day Hollywood productions.
Even if the acting is rough, it is the film's atmosphere and visual prowess that lifts it into classic status. Zombi 2 is so named in an attempt to cash in on the success of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was released in a recut form in Europe under the title Zombi. Although sources indicate that Zombi 2 was already in development before the release of Romero's Zombi, some have criticized Zombi 2 for being derivative of Romero's film.
Dawn of the Dead and Zombi 2 are two distinct animals. The former was more interested in characters and themes, the latter in taking special effects gore and zombie make-up to brand new heights. Compare Romero's blue-grey shamblers with Fulci's crusty, dusty, slimy, squirmy, and putridly pestilent undead. The special-effects team on Zombi 2 created such in-your-face and outrageously gory gags that the film was branded as one of the video nasties in the UK during the 1980s. I would wager the zombie on the "WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU" poster is more iconic among horror fans than any zombie from Dawn of the Dead.
In addition to the makeup effects, Zombi 2 is shot with an eye for beautiful cinematography. Many of the trashiest and cheapest Italian productions were improved by beautiful cinematography. Thankfully, to benefit from such cinematography, Zombi 2 didn't have to sacrifice its audaciously well-executed special effects, such as the infamous eye scene and the universally loved zombie vs. shark scene. Sure, the zombie vs. shark scene is kind of over-the-top, but when you consider what it took to film this scene – a naked female scuba diver, a trained shark, an authentic under-water location, great zombie makeup that wouldn't be destroyed by water, and the right angles and techniques so that the zombie actor never looks like he's using breathing gear – you realize how special this scene is. Nothing today even comes close to matching its audacity and iconic status. Most modern filmmakers would just go with CGI, but this is the real deal. If the scene is not immediately exciting (yes, the shark does move a little lackadaisically) just remember that is a real guy struggling with a real shark.
If we think of the modern zombie genre as a child, then Romero gets a lot of well-deserved credit for fathering it and providing it with an enduring foundation. However, Lucio Fulci is like the crazy foreign Uncle who took the zombie genre on a wildly seductive and grotesque tour of Italy's forbidden cities for it's 18th birthday. It came back forever changed.
Despite a few flaws, Zombi 2 is an enduring classic that every zombie fan deserves to see. Thankfully, it is available on DVD in several forms. I prefer the the 25th Anniversary Special Edition 2-Disc Set from Shriek Show for its numerous special features, interviews, and the beautiful restoration of the picture quality. There's been some argument that the picture is too clean, as Gabriel Powers suggests when he comments that "Fulci’s trademark dusty, gloomy landscapes have become sort of unclean midday beachscapes." I can't speak to that because I've never seen Zombi 2 on VHS. So take that as you will.
The only thing you can't argue is that Zombi 2 is one of the best zombie films ever made.
Tomorrow, we turn our attention to Zombi 3 (1988)