Zombie LE Blu-ray Review/Comparison (originally published 2018)
A derelict boat floats into New York Harbor. When the harbor patrol boards the ship, they are attacked by a blood-soaked madman who chews a hole in one officer’s neck before the other is able to shoot and seemingly kill him. The next day, a New York periodical sends their resident British reporter, Peter West (Ian McCulloch), to cover the story. Circumstances lead Peter to Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the man who owns the boat, and the duo embark on a trip to the Caribbean Islands. They charter a boat belonging to Brian ('Al Cliver' aka Pier Luigi Conti) and Susan (Auretta Gay), and search for an elusive island named Matool, where Anne’s father was practicing experimental medicine. There, they meet Anne’s father’s partner, Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), and discover that the island’s dead are coming back to life as flesh-eating zombies. With their boat broken in the harbor, the new friends are forced to fight their way off the cursed island.
Zombie (aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979) represents Lucio Fulci in flux between different points in his career. Following a decade of work-for-hire comedies, he had brief period of relative creative freedom while making trippy, dramatic, and creatively violent gialli – including Perversion Story (Italian: Una Sull'altra; aka: One on Top of the Other, 1969), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la pelle di donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971), Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non si Sevizia un Paperino; aka: The Long Night of Exorcism, 1972), and The Psychic (Italian: Sette Note in Nero; aka: Seven Notes in Black, 1977) – but was still generally a working director who continued churning out popular genre entries, like westerns and even more comedies. Zombie – entitled Zombi 2 in Italy – was another for-hire gig, specifically made to cash-in on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), which had been co-financed/produced by Dario Argento, whose recut version, entitled Zombi, had made loads of cash in Italy and throughout Europe. As a result, the film was made with the largest possible audience in mind and Fulci’s most flamboyant artistic impulses weren’t fully unleashed. This is both a curse, making it harder to overlook the inherent filmmaking deficiencies, as well as a blessing, because Zombie is unencumbered by the nihilistic esoteria of Fulci’s other gore epics. Generally speaking, it is his most entertaining and audience friendly movie – assuming that an audience has the stomach to handle it.
Like the greatest midnight movies, the value of Zombie isn’t found in its atmospheric and technical achievements, but its unique mix of immaculate and sloppy execution. Lesser filmmaker easily matched Fulci in terms of the parts Zombie shared by other Italian exploitation productions from the period, namely action, travelogue photography of exotic locations, and nudity – all elements left over from the peplum, spaghetti western, and Mondo/shockumentary subgenres of the 1960s. In fact, few, if any of Fulci’s horror films are so patronizing in this regard. The closest attempt would probably be The New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982), but, even in that case, the postcard NYC settings, sex scenes, and strip shows are presented in a purposefully unappealing and lurid fashion. Zombie condescends to its grindhouse audience most clearly during a celebrated sequence, when the film pauses its loosely-knit plot so that actress Auretta Gay can take a scuba dive wearing nothing but a thong. For several minutes, this sequence combines gratuitous nudity and gratuitous nature photography, before a shark appears, allowing the Fulci to capitalize on latent Jaws-mania. This moment of goofball calm is quickly shattered when an underwater zombie grabs Gay from behind, before doing battle with the shark. It’s certainly the last thing anyone expected.
The other celebrated sequence cuts more to the core of what makes the film special and uniquely Fulci-esque. In this second scene, actress Olga Karlatos (who reteamed with Fulci for 1984’s Murder Rock [Italian: Murderock - Uccide a passo di danza; aka: Dancing Death] and appeared as Prince’s mother in Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain ) is swarmed by the living dead after a shower. She attempts to barricade herself in her bedroom, but the moment she thinks she’s safe, a rotting hand bursts through her wooden door, grabs her by the hair, and slowly pulls her eye-first into a ragged splinter. Audiences who had grown accustomed to filmmakers discreetly cutting away from such effects-heavy violence were shocked as Fulci lingered on every agonizing detail. While there is plenty of violence earlier in the movie, the eye trauma is a pretty big turning point; one that tells us where we stand and what to expect. And, unlike so many of his contemporaries (not to mention himself in his later career), Fulci didn’t shirk on the promise of something more jaw-droppingly grotesque than the taboo-breaking Dawn of the Dead or the early Italian cannibal-themed thrillers, which tended to deliver only a couple of widely-spaced shocks between loads of filler. The gory highlights actually increase in frequency following the splinter scene and the dusty, dark production design takes a turn towards the bleak surrealism that came to define the director’s best work.
Following Zombie’s financial success (by some accounts, its international profits may have outweighed Romero’s film’s), Fulci enjoyed another brief period of creative freedom – the type usually only enjoyed by the region’s arthouse darlings (Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni) and international superstars (Sergio Leone, Dario Argento). Italian financiers offered him the space to experiment with increasingly abstract successions of horrific images, assuming he stayed within the minimal budget and guaranteed the presence of more flesh-eating zombies. In this capacity, he made three other loosely zombie-themed movies: City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981). After his career, health, and the Italian film industry in general began to falter, Fulci returned to familiar territory to direct Zombi 3 in 1988. Unfortunately, due to a myriad of circumstances, he was unable to finish and the movie was completed by Bruno Mattei.
Most of the Italian zombie movies that followed were content to rip off Fulci and Romero’s input was practically forgotten, outside of Mattei’s own Hell of the Living Dead (Italian: Virus - l'inferno dei morti viventi; aka: Night of the Zombies and Zombie Creeping Flesh, 1980), which saw fit to recycle pieces of Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead soundtrack. Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (Italian: Le notti del terrore; aka: The Nights of Terror, 1981) is particularly shameless in its attempts to ape Fulci’s aesthetic and set-pieces, and Marino Girolami went as far as to hire Zombie make-up designer Giannetto De Rossi to recreate his “flower pot zombies” for Zombi Holocaust (aka: Dr. Butcher, M.D., 1980). There was also a small canon of movies that are generally considered to be Zombi 2 sequels, in part due to their shared production credits, but also due to the way they were shared and compiled on home video. These are the aforementioned Zombi 3; Claudio Fragasso’s After Death (Italian: Oltre la Morte, 1988), which was initially retitled Zombie 4 for Japanese home video; and Claudio Lattanzi’s zombie-free Killing Birds (Italian: Uccelli assassini, 1988), which was renamed Zombie 5: Killing Birds by DVD American distributor Shriek Show.
Zombie has a long and storied cult tradition on home video, from Wizard Video’s famous big box tape to the temporary banning of the Vipco tape during the UK’s Video Nasties scare. My first exposure was a possibly copyright-infringing VHS from T-Z Video/EDDE, under the title Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, but, no matter your source, all pre-DVD versions were problematic, because they were cropped from the original 2.35:1 to 1.33:1, rendering some sequences almost entirely indecipherable. The first North American DVD was a non-anamorphic rendition from Anchor Bay, who also released the first letterboxed VHS version. Years later, Shriek Show and Blue Underground released anamorphic versions of slightly varied quality on nearly simultaneous dates. Blue Underground then released a newly mastered Blu-ray around the same time that Arrow debuted the first UK Blu-ray. The Arrow disc came out ahead in a head-to-head comparison. Not deterred, Blue Underground has now taken a second turn at 1080p supremacy with a brand new, top-to-bottom 4K restoration of the original camera negative.
For this comparison, I have included caps from Blue Underground’s new remaster (top), the Arrow BD (second), and the original Blue Underground BD (third). While the Arrow disc still looks very good, the 4K scan makes marked improvements in fine detail, the clarity of soft gradations, and cleanliness of diffused lighting. Image separation and color blends are also slightly better and color-timing has been altered to better match what I assume Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati intended.
The first BU transfer’s most obvious issues pertain to its overall exposure levels. Some scenes benefit from richer blacks while others were way over-darkened, leading to a substantial loss of detail and color. The new restoration corrects much of this issue without swinging too far the opposite direction. Most digital releases of Zombie have actually been too bright – even the previously superior Arrow disc was very nearly guilty of this – and I think BU has come very close to perfectly splitting the difference between appearing too murky or too sunny. Only a handful of scenes still fall in the underexposed category, namely the underwater sequences (which really are a problem) and parts of the night-time climax. Grain levels appear normal for the most part, even when they’re made inconsistent by minor pulsing or snow. A handful of the sun-kissed exteriors have a slight machine-noise look, but this may just be the fact that some of the finer granules have a blueish quality. Print damage is minimal, consisting mostly of the aforementioned pulsing, small white flecks/tears, and some greenish shmutz in the center of the frame; again, during the underwater sequences.
Blue Underground has included five audio options – the Italian dub in its original mono or a 7.1 remix, the English dub in its original mono or a 7.1 remix, and a French mono dub for good measure. All Italian and English tracks are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. As per usual for films of its ilk, Zombie was shot without any synced on-set sound, so all language versions were dubbed. In this case, almost the entire cast was speaking English on set and the American & British cast members dubbed their own performances, so I think it’s safe to say that English is the preferred track. Also per usual, the original single channel mix is preferable to a modern remix. That’s particularly true in this case, because not only is this the best I’ve ever heard from the mono mix, but the 7.1 remix is pretty awkward in the way it tries to spread effects and adds unnecessary echo/reverb. The mono tracks feature plenty of depth all on their own, from the neatly-scrubbed dialogue and effects, to Fabio Frizzi’s evocative and deceptively simple musical score.
Commentary with Troy Howarth – The first new extra is a commentary with the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (2015, Midnight Marquee Press). Howarth is his typical friendly and informative self as he explores the behind-the-scenes story, the careers of the cast & crew, the context of the horror scene surrounding Zombie, and some technical aspects of filming. He also has an occasional habit of simply narrating on-screen action, but he speaks so quickly that none of this gets in the way of the more interesting content.
Commentary Actor Ian McCulloch – Diabolik Magazine editor Jason J. Slater moderates this archival track with the film’s co-star, which has also appeared on BU’s previous Blu-ray, the Anchor Bay DVD, and the Shriek Show DVD. It’s a slow and patchy discussion, but it’s still nice to have it archived here.
When The Earth Spits Out The Dead (33:05, HD) – The only new featurette is an interview with Stephen Thrower, the author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (1999, FAB Press). Thrower is a leading expert on all things Fulci and offers up plenty of behind-the-scenes factoids on the director’s career, Zombie in particular. Highlights include a short list of directors that were considered before Fulci, changes made to an earlier script after Dawn of the Dead was a hit, and an exploration of the physical/thematic differences between Fulci and Romero’s living dead creatures.
Trailers, TV spots, radio spots
Poster & still gallery
Guillermo del Toro intro (00:24, HD)
Zombie Wasteland (22:19, HD) – Interviews with actors Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver (aka Pier Luigi Conti), and Ottaviano Dell’Acqua. These were recorded during a Cinema Wasteland convention and include footage from the convention floor with promoters and con-goers. Johnson and McColloch recall Fulci’s bizarre, occasionally violent behavior, recount the fashion in which they were brought into the Italian horror fold, and offer some memories concerning the film’s banned status in the UK. Cliver is happy to feel good about his work after years of being shamed for appearing in B-movies. Dell’Acqua is has the most fun, as he talks about becoming the ‘worm-eyed zombie.’
Flesh Eaters on Film (9:38, HD) – Co-Producer Fabrizio De Angelis recalls technical challenges, hiring Fulci and the crew, shooting on location (which mostly involved stealing scenes), and Argento’s lawsuit against the film. His most interesting claim (which doesn’t line up with anything I’ve ever read from Fulci himself) is that they intended the film’s cornball tone.
Deadtime Stories (14:30, HD) – Co-Writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti (who was uncredited) reveal that the film started life as a western/zombie hybrid (!), before morphing into something resembling the final product, and recall the technical strengths of Fulci’s shooting style.
World of the Dead (16:29, HD) – Cinematographer Sergio Salvati proudly contextualizes Zombie as a stylistically Italian answer to Dawn of the Dead and production/costume designer Walter Patriarca focuses his attention mostly on the processes of dressing up the zombies, and the hospital and church sets (complete with his illustrations).
Zombi Italiano (16:34, HD) – Makeup effects artists Gianetto de Rossi & Maurizio Trani, and special effects artist Gino de Rossi discuss their unique zombie look, which was developed largely out of clay covered in latex, filming the shark vs. zombie scene, and creating the eye-piercing and gut-eating effects.
Notes on a Headstone (7:25, HD) – Composer Fabio Frizzi remembers Zombie as his first fantasy/horror score and the unique manner Fulci used his music to build atmosphere.
All in the Family (6:08, HD) – Fulci’s daughter Antonella talks briefly about her father’s passions and his films.
Zombie Lover (9:36, HD) – Guillermo del Toro brings the interviews to a close with a loving tribute to one of his favorite movies.
Disc 3 (CD)
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi
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.