Greetings fellow marvelers of the menacing and macabre, and welcome to another installment of what is indisputably at least the eighth best weekly recurring article on this site. For the next several weeks, we shall be exploring your humble wordslinger’s favorite single genre of horror, giallo.
I will preface the reviews with a brief history of the genre itself, the horror directors most well known within it, and its larger impact on American cinema.
First, lettuce define our terms. Giallo is greasy wop-talk for “yellow,” like the color of my wife’s skin, and refers to a particular style of Italian-produced murder mystery film which often includes elements of horror fiction (such as slasher violence and eroticism). The genre developed in the mid-to-late 1960s peaked in popularity during the 1970s, and subsequently declined over the next few decades. This description is copied entirely off of the beginning of the Wikipedia article, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, says I.
Without getting too into the weeds on the subject, the genre covers a fairly broad range of films, from pulp murder mysteries to straight supernatural horror. There are some common elements. First, there is almost always a psychological element to the films, some insanity provoked by trauma in one of the main characters. There is always killing, and it is always very violent and very much center screen – this is not a genre of happy fluffy bunnies. There is very (and I do mean very) little focus on the cohesiveness of plot or dialogue throughout the film. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t the purposeful insanity of, say, House, or the purely so-over-the-top-it’s-weird-ness of Zardoz. More of a…benign indifference to strict logical flow. There is, essentially, just enough of a storyline to ensure that one event leads to another, and that’s about it. There is a great focus on cinematography, on capturing interesting or provocative or just plain unusual shots. The soundtracks are usually awesome, as in, done as if the keyboardist from an early 80s synthpop or electro funk band was on some mellow acid and just decided to score some movies in his spare time. There’s even a band, called Goblin, most well known for their movie soundtracks. I could go on and on, but this gives you the gist of it. Seriously though, if any of you guys want to just meet somewhere and listen to me wax philosophic about this genre and all the movies that I love in it for six hours while drinking beer, I am always up for that.
Italian copyright law (pre-EU) was a funny thing. Any movie could be marketed as a sequel to any other movie, without having any direct relationship. We of the superior Anglo-Saxon lineage understand that George Romero’s masterwork Dawn of the Dead was a direct sequel to his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. As the science of phrenology teaches us, Italians aren’t nearly as intelligent as we are, and so were ignorant of this fact. Personally, I blame all the out-race breeding. Dawn of the Dead was released in most European markets titled Zombi, and the audiences thought it was simply a stand-alone. Ever one to try and turn a quick buck on the cheap, the Italian movie industry decided to cash in, and Zombi 2 was green-lit. The title Zombie is for the American release since over here, it is not a sequel.
As a brief aside, this started a bizarre and, for the collector, irritating trend of any movie involving supernatural cannibalism to be labeled as a Zombi sequel in Europe. So there are a shit-load of movies that all have multiple titles, but if you’re hunting them down, they might be known as one thing, or might be known as Zombi 3, 4, 5, etc., depending on which production company is doing the release at any given time, and varying according to release region. In two weeks I’ll review one such, chosen to show just how far afield this trend can go. Though not one of the chief offenders of appropriating the Zombi moniker, Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (I Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead) is one of the worst, having been released with over 15 different titles. My personal favorite of the titles for that film, and the title on my copy is Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.
Anyway, I won’t go into a great deal of background on director Fulci, because I’ll cover him some in next week’s installment of giallo background since he is an important figure in the genre. Suffice to say the man has some kind of obsession with eyes. I own six of his films, and I’m fairly certain I remember seeing eyeballs punctured or mutilated up close on camera in every one of them.
That started with Zombie. After a brief opening scene in a hospital where a doctor shoots somebody wrapped in a sheet in the head, we cut to an abandoned boat drifting into New York City. Officers variously described as either Harbor Patrol or the Coast Guard find somebody dead inside, and a zombie, which bites one of the cops in the throat (they look like harbor patrol to me, though one of them makes a crack about getting a big bonus for bringing this ship in, so maybe they’re some kind of salvage crew mercenary harbor patrol cops?), killing him. His partner blasts the zombie back into the sea, and his dead partner is taken to the city morgue.
The daughter (Tisa Farrow) of the man whose boat was found adrift teams up with a reporter (Ian McCulloch) investigating the ghost ship, and they trace its route back into the Caribbean. There’s a hilarious scene where the cab driver on the island they fly to tells them there aren’t many boats about to be hired, and then we see them walk along a dock which is literally cluttered with civilian boats. There they meet Al Cliver (who was born Pierluigi Conti – cultural appropriation!) and Auretta Gay, who are just about to set out on vacation on their yacht and agree to take our investigators with them to try and find a sinister island that the natives are rumored to avoid.
Here’s where this movie gets fucking awesome. Auretta strips down to just a thong bottom and goes scuba diving. She encounters a tiger shark, which is attacked by an underwater zombie that keeps trying to bite it. This scene is pure cinematic gold. There was a diver, done up in water-resistant zombie makeup, and he actually fights a tiger shark they doped up so that it wouldn’t be too aggressive. When you see the guy biting on the shark, he’s actually doing that. Man, they just don’t do movies like that anymore, and it’s a goddamn shame.
While fending off the shark before the zombie showed up, the boat was damaged, and so the protagonists fire off some flares. On the island, doctor’s assistant Lucas sees the flare and asks if it’s the Devil. Yes, Lucas, the fucking Devil is firing off bog-standard emergency flares from just off shore. This is why a white guy is in charge of your island.
The foursome are rescued by Doctor Richard Johnson, who was also in one of the great all-time classic horror films, The Haunting. I’ll review it someday – it’s really superlative. A complete sense of dread built up with almost no effects whatsoever. Also, it lent the opening sample to a great White Zombie song.
Once ashore, we learn that Richard Johnson was friends with Tisa’s old man, and they were researching why the dead are increasingly returning to life on the island. The film never makes a definitive statement, but voodoo is mentioned several times, so I guess we’re going with “magic” in this one. He agrees to help the stranded newcomers but first asks them to check on his wife up the road while he tends to more zombie research right quick.
Of course, the fucking gardener was left in charge of security at the house, and he blew it. You already know the wife’s dead, because of a fantastic scene earlier in the film where she’s showering (yay, more titties!) and a zombie breaks into the house and kills her. Here you have another one of the great moments in horror history: for the first time in a major release, you get an agonizingly slow, up close, center camera shot of a big splinter of wood jamming right into and bursting her eyeball, no cutaways or wide angles to lessen the impact. I remember seeing a brief interview with Tom Savini for Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments where he recalls watching that scene building, and wondering if Fulci had the guts to do what even he hadn’t dared in Dawn of the Dead (for the tragically ignorant amongst you, Savini did the effects for that film).
Fleeing in terror from the scene at the house, our protagonists are making their way back to the hospital when they stop to catch their breath. For some reason Tisa and Ian start making out when it turns out they’re in a Spanish conquistador cemetery, and the remarkably still meaty former Spaniards begin to reanimate.
Fight fight fight people die, eventually, we have a last stand at the hospital, and I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who decides to see it. But New York City at least gets overrun, so I’ll leave it at that. Serves all the progressives who live there right! If it wasn’t for major cities, there’d be no national democratic party! Down with urban dwellers! REEEEEGION WAAAAAR!!!
Look, everything I write about these movies is going to be biased because I love them all so very, very much. I could seriously sit down and watch this shit all day. The barely-there storylines, the garish, brutal on-screen killings with bright red pulsing blood, the horrifically rotting zombies dropping piles of worms out of their eyes, I even love how you can’t tell what language the fucking things are shot in (pro-tip: most of the time they’re shot without the dialogue being recorded at all, and dubs are put over it in post-production for each country that it’s going to be released in. Hell, in Zombie, half the cast were English speakers who had no Italian, and the other half were the reverse. This is because they were always filmed with an eye towards international release since none of the European nations were large enough to guarantee good gross receipts by only catering to their own native audiences). So don’t take my word for it, because I’m going to tell you to watch every one of these.
I picked this one first because I think it’s a good way for those of you unfamiliar with the glory of low-budget 1970s Italian splatter-horror to segue into the genre with a fairly familiar motif. Everybody knows zombie movies and has seen at least a few, so the transition from American “don’t show anything too graphic and try to make sense” movies won’t seem so jarring. The bottom line is, if you like horror, you will like this movie, I guarantee it. If you don’t like horror, then what the fuck are you doing reading this anyway? Fuck you too, buddy, and just get on with posting all your endless goddamn “hurr durr let’s all give HuffPo more advertising money by hate-sharing their posts” OT links in the comments below. Always remember how much Zardoz loves you all, my children.
I rate Zombi 2/Zombie six decayed heads out of seven.