Bodies are found partially devoured in the morgue of a New York City teaching hospital. The culprit, a staff assistant, leaps to his death when pursued. Flabbergasted, the hospital enlists the help of an anthropology expert, Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli), who, with the help of Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch), finds links to similar crimes and traces their origins back to Maluku Islands. Together, they journey to the isle, where they discover a lost tribe of cannibals and a zombie army under the sway of a psychopathic doctor (Donald O'Brien).
I don’t really subscribe to the idea of guilty pleasures. Assuming one’s taste in movies, music, books, and other artistic pleasures don’t include genuine revelry in images or themes that cause actual harm to people or groups of people, there aren’t a lot of good reasons to feel guilty about enjoying something that conventional thinking might consider objectively bad. The joy of ironic pleasure is admittedly diluted in this modern age of pop culture, which has grown fat on decades of Mystery Science Theater 3000, mock-nostalgia, reunion tours, and so-bad-it’s-good film festivals. So then, when I say that Marino Girolami’s Zombi Holocaust is my favorite bad movie, the designation carries little weight or meaning. Please trust me that I mean this as the absolute highest order of praise. My joy is not always in tune with the filmmaker’s intentions – there are plenty of laughs at the expense of stiff acting, cheap special effects, and nonsense plotting – but there is also a respectable purity to this particular exploitation film. Girolami and credited co-writers Fabrizio De Angelis & Romano Scandariato (there were probably lots of other uncredited writers, too) knew exactly what they were doing and made an admittedly sloppy, yet utterly efficient machine to deliver as much vulgar bliss as possible in less than 90 minutes.
The Italian film industry once ran almost exclusively on refurbishing fads and, in 1979/80, two particularly grimey fads were intersecting. Just as the mondo-inspired cannibal films began to turn away from the jungle adventure aspects of Umberto Lenzi & Ruggero Deodato’s earliest entries and towards increasingly graphic violence, George A. Romero’s flesh-eating living dead opus, Dawn of the Dead (1978) (released under the title Zombi and shorn of much of its black comedy by European producer Dario Argento), became a massive hit. This inspired producer Fabrizio de Angelis, whose softcore Black Emanuelle series had already dabbled in cannibal exploitation with Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (Italian: Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali, 1977), to rush a faux-sequel into production. Helmed by Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 (retitled Zombie in America, 1979) was a roaring success on both sides of the Atlantic and spawned its own series of faux-sequels (all of which had little-to-nothing in common with Fulci or Romero’s films). Not one to leave money on the table, Angelis decided to blend aspects of Fulci’s cake-faced island zombies with the flagging cannibal subgenre. This ensured that the film, entitled Zombi Holocaust to evoke similarities to both Fulci’s film and Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979), would play to the fans of either brand of gut-munching horror.
It can be difficult for casual viewers to parse the fine lines of quality between dozens of very similar movies where zombies, cannibals, and/or mad killers make mincemeat of screaming victims (often naked women) who are too scared or dumb to run away. In this case, the essential differences between Fulci’s Zombie and Zombi Holocaust are mostly technical. Both films are goofy, thrive on the lowest common denominator, and were produced on the cheap to make a quick buck, but Fulci brought a profusion of technical skills to the table. Girolami approaches his cannibal/zombie mishmash with far less enthusiasm. His compositions are passive, his editing is lax, and he isn’t concerned with shooting special effects from their best angle. It’s easy to claim that Fulci is simply the better filmmaker (because he is), but Girolami was no shlub – he had a long, 30-year career behind him before directing Zombi Holocaust. Most of these movies aren’t available in English (or on digital video at all), but they cover a broad range of genres and include decent westerns, like Between God, the Devil, and a Winchester (Italian: Anche nel west c'era una volta Dio, 1968), and poliziotteschi, like Violent City (Italian: Roma violenta, 1975). He was also the father of and occasional producer for Inglorious Bastards (Italian: Quel maledetto treno blindato, 1978) and Keoma (1976) director Enzo G. Castellari, so he can be forgiven for a lack of interest in this particular silly cannibal-zombie opus.*
What Zombi Holocaust lacks in elegance it makes up for in puerile fanservice. Its absolutely shameless thievery is delightful. Like Zombie, the story begins in the gritty Italian version of New York, this time at a state college where anthropology and medicine inexplicably overlap. Following a series of mysterious, post mortem mutilations in the school’s hospital morgue, anthropologist Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli), scientist Dr. Peter Chandler (Zombie’s own Ian McCulloch), newspaper reporter Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan, filling the role McCulloch played in Zombie), journey to tropical surroundings to investigate a forgotten tribe that may be connected to the crime. The next 2/3rds of the film are devoted to typical “beware the natives” cannibal movie malarky. The local guides wander into booby traps and the expendable cast members are torn asunder at the hands of bloodthirsty locals. Then, after implying that the surviving heroes are going to escape the ordeal unharmed, Girolami reveals that Dr. Obrero (Donald O'Brien), the film’s malevolent mad doctor version of Zombie’s benevolent Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), hasn’t only been encouraging the natives’ cannibalism – he has been performing surgical experiments on them and turning them into his living dead minions (not unlike Dr. Moreau). Menard’s zombies don’t seem to be flesh-eaters, but their mangled, muddy faces were clearly designed to reference the rotting visages make-up artist Maurizio Trani made while working with Giannetto De Rossi on Fulci’s film.
Zombi Holocaust checks all the marks on the exploitation laundry list in relatively inoffensive ways for an early ‘80s Italian production, assuming we have very low expectations for what might count as “progressive” from the region and era. The goriest scenes are cartoonishly executed and aren’t heavily clouded with blatant misogyny, save Susan’s prolonged death on Obrero’s surgery table, which is a reasonably distressing sequence and, at one point, the doctor is so disturbed by his patient’s screams that he severs her vocal cords with scissors (the effect is implied). The T&A is reserved exclusively for Neapolitan Ursula Andress lookalike, Alexandra Delli Colli. She spends almost half her screen time changing clothes for the camera or having her nude body painted by the natives, who kidnap her for use in their religious rites. This whole “indigenous people worshiping a blonde white woman” subplot is a direct rip-off of Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of Cannibal God (Italian: La montagna del dio cannibale; aka: Slave of the Cannibal God, 1978), in which the real Ursula Andress is kidnapped by man-eating natives, stripped, slathered in paint, and subjected to similar religious rites. Even allowing the fact that Zombi Holocaust’s island culture has been “tricked” into cannibalism by Obrero, the general conceit is still really, really racist. The only respite is that Girolami and company completely avoid the two most objectionable habits of Italian cannibal movies – ritual rape and real-life animal slaughter. This comparatively softer pill is much easier to swallow in mixed company than the typical genre entry. This, along with the Zombi Holocaust’s better than average pacing, make it a better party movie option than, say, Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1980).
* Fans of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds may recall that Brad Pitt’s character uses the pseudonym Girolami – not after Marino, but his son, whose given name is Enzo Girolami.
When Zombi Holocaust came to America, Terry Levene’s Aquarius Releasing Inc. acquired it and re-entitled it Doctor Butcher, M.D. with a subtitle explaining that the “M.D.” stood for “medical deviate.” Assuming that zombies were more appealing to grindhouse audiences than cannibals, Leven purchased footage of re-animated corpses rising from their grave from an unfinished horror anthology called Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out and attached it to the beginning of the movie. He also trimmed a little character development, sloppily changed the soundtrack (see the Audio section), and added a single deleted scene from the Italian cut. Doctor Butcher, M.D. was released on US VHS under the Thriller Video and Paragon Video Productions banners (both with bogus R-ratings attached). However, the Aquarius cut disappeared when the film finally hit DVD (and Laserdisc, apparently). All available versions – Dragon Films’ German DVD, Stonevision’s UK DVD, Umbrella Entertainment’s Aussie DVD, and Shriek Show/Media Blasters’ US DVD – featured the original Italian version (Dragon’s disc was cut by German censors). The Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out footage was delegated to special features. Zombi Holocaust first hit Blu-ray via Shriek Show and the results were...pretty horrible. The transfer appeared to be an upscaled version of their anamorphic DVD and was rife with DNR. The issue was recently rectified by UK distributor 88 Films, who issued a remastered version that was funded in part by an IndieGoGo campaign (as many of the company’s transfers have been). The 88 transfer is a vast improvement, but still suffers from a common Italian-made scan issue: CRT/telecine noise. Not too long after the 88 Films release, Severin announced their own US BD release (they appear to have the release rights to a number of Italian horror classics previously owned by Shriek Show, by the way, which is great news). The major difference is that this collection includes both the Italian cut and the Blu-ray debut of the Doctor Butcher, M.D. cut.
I’ll begin with the Italian cut, which has been sourced from the same scan as the 88 Films transfer, leading to similar noise issues. The issue is most notable in wide-angle shots, where it can overtake finer texture, and is heavier during the early scenes (the first hospital sequence in particular). The good news is that neither company tried to mitigate the issue with DNR, so details are still pretty sharp, compression issues are limited, and there’s little discoloration (besides, again, that first hospital sequence). Each studio did their own digital clean-up and Severin has the narrow advantage. The edges of the 88 Films transfer are rougher and Severin’s image has neater gradations. Severin’s color grading and gamma corrections are also modest improvements, softening skin tones and punching up cooler hues (their opening title card is also white, instead of red). Severin opted for a darker image that reveals less detail during low-light shots, but also boosts the strength of the black level. Readers will also notice that the 88 transfer is cropped to 1.85:1, while the Severin disc is opened up to 1.78:1.
The Doctor Butcher, M.D. transfer was created by combining shared elements from the Italian scan with newly transferred 2K scans from the Aquarius Releasing vaults. I believe that Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out was shot on 16mm or at least it looks that way, because the exclusive footage is quite grainy. There is also more print damage, but less digital fuzz. Also note that Severin’s version of Zombi Holocaust includes the brief “pit sequence” that was originally only available with the US cut or as a special feature. It is rougher than the rest of the Italian footage in terms of print damage artifacts and is slightly softer, but otherwise looks pretty good, which makes me wish that Severin had been able to scan the Italian negative themselves.
Zombi Holocaust was, like most Italian genre movies from the era, shot without sound and post-dubbed into various languages for release worldwide. All non-Italian home video releases I know of, including both the Italian cut and the [i]Doctor Butcher, M.D.[/i] cut, have featured only English tracks, in which Ian McCulloch dubs himself (spaghetti horror, western, and anime favorite Edward Mannix dubbed Donald O'Brien’s part). Like 88 Films, Severin has included both the original English and Italian dubs as part of the Zombi Holocaust cut. Both tracks are uncompressed, though, for whatever reason, the English dub is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono and the Italian dub is LPCM 2.0 mono. The Italian dub has a volume and bass advantage, as well as less hiss during dialogue, but features a low-end buzz and few warped bits/pops. Both of the Zombi Holocaust dubs sport the same Nico Fidenco score (it definitely sounds better on the Italian track), though it should be noted that most of this music has been recycled from the songwriter/composer’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals soundtrack.
The Doctor Butcher, M.D. soundtrack is only presented in English, of course, because Aquarius didn’t need the Italian tracks for their stateside roll-out. That track is presented in both DTS-HD MA and LPCM 2.0 mono (again, I’m not sure why there are two uncompressed choices) and more or less matches the decent clarity of the English Zombi Holocaust track, though it is a smidge muddier overall. The biggest change to the [i]Doctor Butcher, M.D.[/i] audio is the score. Fidenco’s music was thrown out and replaced by a new score by Aquarius’ Walter E. Sear (alongside some library music). The US music isn’t better by any means, but its bloopy and buzzy electronics are quite charming. There are some slight differences in the sound effects and performances as well, caused either by editing or by replacing the original sounds. Aquarius’ changes are pretty awkward at times, creating echo/doubling effects and, if you listen really carefully, you can sometimes even hear Fidenco’s original score beneath the new one.
Disc One (Doctor Butcher, M.D.):
Butchery & Ballyhoo (31:35, HD) – Aquarius Releasing's always entertaining Terry Levene discusses his career grinding out exploitation trash on New York City’s 42nd Street. It includes clips, posters, and other advertising for the movies he is discussing.
Down on the Deuce (21:55, HD) – A nostalgic Tour Of 42nd Street hosted by Temple Of Schlock's Chris Poggiali and Document of the Dead & Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out director Roy Frumkes. It is a more personal, man-on-the-street featurette than the feature-length 42nd Street Memories: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Notorious Street extra that appeared on Grindhouse’s Pieces BD. Frumkes also talks about his experiences with Levene.
Roy Frumkes' segment of the unfinished anthology film, Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out (8:07, SD, from Shriek Show’s original DVD) – Silent rough cut footage with Frumkes commentary.
The Butcher Mobile (12:33, HD) – New interview with original Gore Gazette editor Rick Sullivan, who was hired to be the official barker (carnival lingo for hype man) aboard Aquarius’ portable advertising gimmick, the ‘Butcher Mobile.’ It includes footage of Sullivan debating on the Phil Cutting Doctor Butcher (10:12, HD) – Doctor Butcher, M.D. editor Jim Markovic talks about tricking-out Italian movies and cutting trailers for Levene’s company.
Illustrated Essay: Experiments With A Male Caucasian Brain (...and other memories of 42nd Street) by Gary Hertz (stills)
One theatrical and two video release trailers.
Disc Two (Zombie Holocaust):
Voodoo Man (8:14, HD) – Star Ian McCulloch, who has got to be tired of talking about these trashy Italian movies by now, cordially and quickly recalls the majority of his film career and compares the productions of Zombie and Zombi Holocaust.
Blood of the Zombies (23:02, HD) – Make-up FX creator Rosario Prestopino speaks about his technical work on Zombi Holocaust, his experiences with the cast & crew, and even does a sort of scene-specific commentary for some of the gorier scenes.
Filmmaker Enzo G. Castellari remembers his father, director Marino Girolami (7:46, HD) – The director of Inglorious Bastards, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, and Keoma gives an oral history of his father’s career in boxing and film.
Sherry Holocaust (24:04, HD) – Actress Sherryl Buchanan, who was born and raised in America, yet conducts this entire interview in Italian, conveys a rather exhaustive life story here, from his childhood all the way through the end of her professional career.
Neurosurgery Italian Style (4:36, SD) – Make-up FX artist Maurizio Trani discusses the brain removal illusion, which happens to be the most convincing effect in the entire movie.
New York filming locations then vs. now (3:03, HD) – Video comparisons set to the film’s music.
Ian McCulloch Sings "Down By The River" (2:40, HD stills) – A 1964 recording of the actor.
International and German trailers
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.