{Blu-ray Review} Fulci’s Zombie Lives On.

“We are going to eat you!”

 Like a lot of horror nerds, I went through a period of time in high school when I was pretty into zombie movies.

Of course, this was a few years before the zombie movie really skyrocketed to mainstream popularity, so the only ones I had available to me were things like George Romero’s original Dead trilogy, Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, Re-Animator, that sort of thing. One time, I was watching a movie called The Dead Hate the Living and I saw that one of the characters had a bumper sticker that read “FULCI LIVES.”

Even then, I knew that Lucio Fulci was an Italian splatter director, but I hadn’t seen any of his films. In fact, until the 40th anniversary Blu-ray of Zombie landed in my mailbox, I had still only seen two Fulci films: The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. So I was excited to check out one of his most famous flicks, especially in a package as attractive and feature-packed as this one looked to be.

Among the features on this new disc is a (very brief) introduction by Guillermo del Toro, in which he promises “visceral satisfaction,” which is perhaps unsurprising, given the film’s pedigree and subject matter, as well as “some of the most graceful, poetic images” in genre filmmaking, which might be a bit harder to swallow. Somewhat to my surprise, however, Zombie delivers nicely on both promises.

The opening and closing sequences, filmed in New York, help to give the movie an apocalyptic tenor that goes well beyond its budget, even if the famous bridge scene is undercut a bit by traffic flowing along normally below.

While most of the actual action involves just a handful of actors in an isolated locale, this bookend, Fulci’s handsome direction, and, of course, the score by frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi help to make even otherwise mundane scenes feel iconic.

A friend once described Fulci’s particularly gross brand of gore effects as, and I am paraphrasing a bit here, “like someone took a mannequin and stapled a rancid piece of mutton to its face.”

While this isn’t factual, it is true, and it gives a good idea of what you can expect from at least my experience of a Fulci movie, which is, of course, part of the draw. After all, how many directors have a gore style that is so unmistakably identifiable?

There is certainly no shortage of rancid mutton-style gore in Zombie, even if it takes a little while to really get underway.

While I hadn’t seen a lot of other Fulci films prior to this, I also hadn’t been living under a rock for the past few decades, so I knew at least a little about Zombie going in. Mostly, I was familiar with the cover image of a rotted skull with worms pouring out of one eye—which is immortalized on a lenticular slipcase in the version of the Blu-ray that I got—and I knew that the film featured an underwater zombie fighting a shark. Because everyone knows about that, right?

(What I did not know was that the underwater zombie vs. shark fight interrupts a bit of topless scuba diving which, I don’t know a lot about scuba diving, but that seems like an uncomfortable proposition, at best.)

Strangely enough, not more than a month or two before I sat down with Zombie, I had actually watched the 1957 flick Zombies of Mora Tau, which may be the earliest example of the “underwater zombie” subgenre.

To say that Fulci (and/or screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) must have at least been aware of Mora Tau when making Zombie is the understatement of the century, even if the underwater zombie of the latter is relegated to that one scene in which a surprisingly limber zombie wrestles an actual, live shark.

The Evolution From Fulci to Romero

In fact, as someone who watches a whole lot of old horror movies from the ‘50s and before, I have long been fascinated by the way in which the zombie film experienced a sea change (no pun intended) following the release of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

In spite of never actually using the z-word, Night changed the face of the zombie movie forever. Prior to that, zombies in cinema were not the undead flesh-eaters of Romero’s version, but somnolent products of voodoo.

There are several films that serve as bridges between these two styles. Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies from 1966 is a good example, keeping intact the voodoo zombie proceedings while prefiguring the look of Romero’s shambling zombie hordes. Add to that list Fulci’s Zombie.

 Released in Italy under the title Zombi 2 in order to position it as a sort of “unofficial sequel” to Dawn of the Dead—which was just called Zombi over there—Fulci’s Zombie is also surprisingly aware of the genre’s pre-Romero roots.

While its aesthetics and story notes may be purely in the Romero camp, its island setting, voodoo drumbeats, and graveyard full of decayed conquistadors all hearken back to an earlier age of zombie films—and many of them could have been ripped straight out of a movie like Zombies of Mora Tau.

Like Romero’s films, while it attributes the spate of reanimated corpses to a local voodoo curse, Zombie is wise enough to leave the actual cause ambiguous. Ultimately, its best explanation of what’s going on is an echo of Dawn of the Dead’s famous “no more room in hell” line, “When the earth spits out the dead, they will rise to suck the blood of the living.”

Though this is mostly Fulci’s show—him and his gross zombies—he needs a living human cast, too, made up of a handful of familiar faces from Italian horror (and Mia Farrow’s sister) alongside The Haunting’s Richard Johnson, who adds a dash of respectability to the proceedings that the chewy gore might not otherwise allow.

For the 40th anniversary disc, Blue Underground has done a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, and the end product looks pretty great, giving plenty of nice, clear views of all that outlandishly fetid gore.

How much better it might be than previous editions I will have to leave to those more familiar with the film in its other incarnations, but I can say that the Blu-ray comes loaded with special features, including a couple of commentary tracks and interviews with just about anyone and everyone even tangentially related to the making of the film.

The slightly-oversized case also comes with a booklet by author Stephen Thrower talking about the film’s critical reception and a third disc—a soundtrack CD of Fabio Frizzi’s score, including that delightfully jaunty island theme, which I spent most of the movie hoping I would find on the soundtrack.