All movies are art. Whether they are Rembrandt level masterpieces or pre-school macaroni pictures is up to the viewer. Like all art, movies sometimes affect you in ways you cannot explain. There may not be a rational reason why you are drawn to a particular movie. It might not be a genre you’re usually interested in, or it doesn’t have the most compelling story or performances. Maybe it’s kind of dumb. It doesn’t have to be your favorite, but you keep coming back to it year after year. It’s your siren movie.
It seems fitting to start the New Year with my number one siren movie, Bette Midler’s 1988 drama, BEACHES.
Nah, I’m just fucking with you. It’s Lucio Fulci’s 1979 gorefest, ZOMBIE.
Investigative reporter Peter Wells (Ian McCulloch) and Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) head to the tiny Caribbean island of Matul in search of Anne’s father, whose boat drifted into New York harbor with only a very well fed zombie inside. They charter a boat with Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay) a vacationing couple who enjoy fishing and topless scuba diving. When they reach Matul, they find the island decimated by a mysterious disease that is killing the inhabitants and causing their corpses to rise and eat the flesh of the living. Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) is trying to hold things together, but he can’t even keep his wife safe from zombie related eye trauma. What little stability is left quickly unravels and Peter & Company find themselves running from the extremely slow, extremely disgusting hoards of the dead. They make a final stand at Menard’s hospital, which could become a fiery grave for them all.
Alright, it's not such a stretch that my siren movie is ZOMBIE (aka ZOMBI 2, aka ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS). Everything adds up. I’m into Fulci, Italian zombie flicks, and gory movies. The film is filled with incredible and well executed scenes, some decent performances, and is consistently fun. There are just other zombie movies I love more. I’m a bigger fan of the original DAWN OF THE DEAD (the king of all zombie movies, in my opinion). I have more fun with the ridiculously schlocky ones like BURIAL GROUND or HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD. I even think there are better Fulci films. But I go back to ZOMBIE more than any of them. I own a double DVD of ZOMBI 2, a Blu Ray of ZOMBIE, and a region B Blu of ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS. They are all the same cut. I can’t explain it. I just re-watched it for this piece, and I kind of want to start it up again. The heart wants what it wants.
Granted, there is A LOT to love about this movie. The opening scene of the derelict sailboat is legitimately brilliant film making. It harkens back to the classic passage about the ship carrying Dracula’s body floating unmanned into the port of London. Fulci takes his time with it, slowly following the Harbor cops as they board the ghost ship. The sense of dread builds as they wade through the debris and rotten food left behind in the cabin. Just when the suspense becomes unbearable, the grotesque butterball zombie bursts through the door and takes a chunk out of the cop’s neck before he can even pull his gun. It’s probably the most nightmarish sequence in the film because it nails that feeling of lingering in a place you know you shouldn’t be. The rest of the movie can’t maintain the exquisite tension of that opening, though it often comes close.
ZOMBIE is probably most famous for being the movie where a zombie fights a shark. The fame is well deserved, as this is not a camera or editing trick, but a real live shark wrestling with a real live zombie. Alright, he’s just a stuntman in zombie make up, but he is underwater with no breathing apparatus, and it is a real shark. The best thing about the scene is that it is a full sequence. Modern movies, like say, your SHARKNADOs, tend to just throw out batshit crazy ideas like this with no set up, focus on if for thirty seconds, and then move on. It would only amount to one badly done computer effect, a virtual elbow in the ribs to tell the audience how wacky and irreverent the movie is. Shark vs. Zombie, can you believe that shit?
Fulci plays the scene absolutely straight. He also lets it build. Exhibitionist diver Susan is first menaced by a tiger shark. She eludes that danger, but then comes face to saggy face with a zombie. It’s only after she fights her way out of the zombie’s grasp that the two hunters square off against each other. The zombie draws first blood, tearing off a chunk of fin. The shark bites off his arm and slowly swims away. The zombie might claim that swimming away was a forfeit, but I would say the match clearly goes to the shark.
I’ve seen some online criticism that the shark is toothless. I definitely saw a few teeth in its mouth, though, and any amount of teeth in a shark is significant, in my opinion. Regardless, a dude in zombie makeup wrestled a real, physical, very large shark. It’s a cinematic accomplishment.
This is not to say ZOMBIE is a perfect film. The cast, for the most part is unexceptional. Tisa Farrow, Mia’s less famous, less talented sister, has two expressions for the entire movie: frightened and idle. Most of the time she looks like she is trying to remember her childhood phone number. Al Cliver is little better. He has the hunky action hero look down, but he is out acted by the zombies. Ian McCulloch is one of the bright spots. His quippy, self-deprecating Peter elevates the grim and serious tone in just the right moments.
Richard Johnson also gives a nice performance as Dr. Menard. Scruffy faced and perpetually dour (and drunk), he completely sells Menard as an exhausted scientist at the end of his rope. He is set up early in the movie as having nefarious motives. His ill-fated wife (Olga Karlatos) seems to think so, she threatens to tell everyone what he’s doing. The thing is, he doesn’t seem to be actually doing anything. There is no indication he is responsible for the outbreak, or that he is exploiting the victims, he is just treating them the best he can. The fact that he can’t do anything to stop the disease or ease anyone’s suffering is why he is in this pitiful state.
Much like Romero’s movies, the explanation of why the dead are returning is a mystery. There is a lot of talk about voodoo rituals being the cause, but we never see any of them in practice. Decades old corpses dig themselves out of their super shallow graves at one point, which seems to be supernatural, but the outbreak follows the pattern of a disease and zombies can be killed by destroying the brain (which the decades old corpses shouldn't have anymore, but do). Menard doesn’t have conclusive evidence either way. His superstitious lab assistant Lucas (Dakar, just Dakar) has the most plausible answer, “When the earth spits out the dead, they come back to suck the blood from the living.” It’s a less elegant way of saying, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
This being a Fulci film, the gore is lovingly gratuitous. It has a very well earned spot on the UK’s Video Nasty list. Aside from the juicy headshots and jugular spray, there is one stand out bit when Menard’s wife gets her eye impaled on a shard of wood. It’s not the penetration that is so disturbing, that bit is clearly fake (though effective). The true horror comes from the extended tension as she is pulled towards her fate. She sees exactly what is coming, but there is nothing she can do to stop it. Except maybe turn her head. She could have tried that. In any event, this movie cemented Fulci’s title as “The Man Who Hates Eyeballs.”
My favorite thing about the movie, hands down, is the ending. Peter and Anne have escaped the island on Brian’s boat, which could break down at any moment. To cheer themselves up, they turn on the radio, only to hear an emergency report about New York City being overwhelmed by hoards of the undead. Cut to a shot of dozens of zombies shuffling across the elevated walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a great shot for a few of reasons. One, zombies matched against the old NYC skyline is eerily beautiful. Two, it drives home that “oh shit” realization that the heroes haven’t really escaped anything. Three, it proves that zombie outbreaks are actually very good for traffic, because on the roads beneath the walkway, cars are moving along at a very steady, even leisurely, pace. Keep that in mind when planning your next vacation.
As great as that shot is, my favorite thing about the ending is the realization that an entirely different story was going on the entire time Peter and Anne were on the island. The zombie infection spread, either from the reanimated Harbor Patrol officer that we never saw rise, or the butterball zombie that fell off the boat but was not shot in the head, or both. As good as ZOMBIE was, I can only dream how good the ZOMBIE side story would be. This leads me to a theory.
ZOMBIE was marketed in Italy as a sequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD, which was released there as ZOMBI. Italy did this all the time, changing the title of a completely unrelated movie to cash in the success of a different movie. But what if they weren’t as unrelated as everyone thinks? What if the events leading to the beginning of DAWN OF THE DEAD (society crumbling under the weight of a growing zombie plague) were a result of what happened in New York during ZOMBIE? So instead of DAWN being a sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it is actually the sequel to the unseen side story in ZOMBIE (aka ZOMBI 2). How's that to twist your noodle?