Written by Kris Tronerud
“(The Zombies) are alienated creatures who live on the fringes of societyâ€¦ the revenge of those defeated in life.â€
– Lucio Fulci
As the crunching sound of slow, shambling footsteps and ominous musical cues are heard, he (or she) lurches onto the screen, slow, rotting, dangerous and… dead. Itâ€™s that favourite cinematic baddie of eighties film, the only movie monster thatâ€™s easier to get away from than the Mummy: the Zombie! Briefly popular in the 30â€™s in such films as White Zombie and Val Lewtonâ€™s I Walked with a Zombie, the zombie has made a roaring (shuffling?) comeback in such recent hommages and remakes as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead and zombie pioneer George Romeroâ€™s long awaited sequel Land of the Dead; and while the general filmgoing public probably thinks of Romeroâ€™s Night of the Living Dead as the start of the World-wide Zombie film craze of the 80â€™s, that scurrilous honor actually belongs to another film, the still-notorious Zombie, directed by the late, lamented Lucio Fulci. Night was big success on the drive-in circuit, but it took Romero, who personally made no money from it, ten years to produce a sequel, the hugely popular Dawn of the Dead, and it was the smash success of that preposterously gory and irreverently satirical sequel (renamed Zombi by its euro â€˜producerâ€™ Horror auteur Dario Argento), that inspired Producer Fabrizio DeAngelis to rename his nearly completed film Zombi 2, to cash in. Zombie, in turn, inspired the flood of European gut-munchers that followed, and paved the way for a second wave of American zombie cinema, including Romeroâ€™s disappointing Day of the Dead and Dan Oâ€™Bannonâ€™s wickedly funny/scary Return of the Living Dead series.Throughout the 50s, through the end of the 80s, the Italian film Industry rode on a series of cresting and receding waves of imitation: a film (often American) of a particular genre would hit it big, and literally hundreds of similar films, a few great, many awful, would follow in its wake, until the public grew weary, and the industry would wait for the next big thing. Lucio Fulciâ€™s career followed a typical path in this herd-mentality industry. After being sponsored by Luchino Visconti at the prestigious Experimental Film Studio, Fulci made his directorial debut with I Ladri, a typical Commedia Allâ€™Italiana, starring legendary comedian Toto. For years, he bounced from genre to genre, directing musicals, crime dramas, westerns, spy and caper movies, even several childrenâ€™s films based on Jack Londonâ€™s White Fang. In 1969, Fulci directed what was arguably the first Giallo Film, One on Top of the Other, only to watch arch rival Argento blow the Giallo wide open with the international hit Bird with the Crystal Plumage two years later. Fulci then made two of his most personal films, Beatrice Cenci, based on the life of the 16th century feminist martyr, (which remained his personal favourite) and the gripping, socially critical Donâ€™t Torture a Duckling, both of which contained the first evidences of the unflinching violence which was to become his trademark, albeit in a very different context. Duckling, a prize-winning tale of child abuse and provincial savagery was a critical and popular success, but the official ire raised by its scathing portrait of murderous, hypocritical clerics and corrupt, decadent politicians, as well as the unexpected international failure of The Psychic, starring Jennifer Oâ€™Neill, conspired to bring his career to a dead halt. In 1979, Lucio Fulci, rendered penniless by a rancorous divorce, and idle for the first time in his professional life, desperately needed a job.
Enter Fabrizio DeAngelis, an ex-postal official who had saved up just enough money to call himself a movie producer, who, inspired by the stir caused by the original Night, and a popular Italian comic book about zombies in a western setting, commissioned the husband and wife writing team of Dardano Sachetti and Elisa Briganti to cook up a story about zombies and… cowboys? Happily Sachetti nixed that idea, and instead pitched an old fashioned pulp-style adventure story set on a tropical island, which would build to a horrific zombie climax. Armed with his treatment, and a little seed money, DeAngelis assembled a crew of dedicated, but underemployed Italian film craftspeople, and prepared to make his zombie epic. Journeyman Enzo Castellari wanted 40 million lire to direct, and when the desperate Fulci offered to work for a budget-preserving 9 million lire, the die was cast. Everyone from Fulci, to postman-turned-producer DeAngelis, to star Richard Johnson, whose career was drifting further and further from his triumphs at The Royal Shakespeare Company, needed a hit, and his tight little family of moviemakers (who, in recent interviews for Zombieâ€™s remastering uniformly remember the shoot, and the temperamental, but dedicated Fulci, in warm, glowing terms) set out to make the best zombie movie ever. And they did.
Whereas the zombies of the 30â€™s were haunting, walking metaphors for lost love, regret and sexual submission, and Romeroâ€™s zombies were a savage instrument of expressing the social and political upheaval of the 60â€™s, Fulci was the first to present the zombie in its purest form; an embodiment of pure evil and the loss of all humanity – mankind turned in on, and literally, devouring itself, and, for the first time, very convincingly, putrescently, dead. Much of the credit for this harrowing presentation has to go to effects and make-up maestro Gianetto DiRossi, who, presented with the challenge of cheaply and quickly making up a constantly rotating cast of zombie extras, without the luxury of individually molded appliances, came up with a solution that was as artistically effective as it was economically ingenious. Using a combination of latex, common potterâ€™s clay and the occasional live worm, DiRossi was able to, each morning, quickly create zombies who were palpably and graphically decomposing, and whose rotting stench seemed to spring from the screen as vividly as the spurting blood of Zombieâ€™s notorious â€˜gagsâ€™: the eye-piercing and ghastly cannibalism of Olga Karlatos, and the darkly funny shark-zombie battle which temporarily saves topless skin diver Auretta Gay from a fate worse than death.
As well remembered as those set-pieces are, the real power of Fulciâ€™s film is in its somber atmosphere of decay, relentless menace and suffocating, melancholy doom. From the first chilling scenes of a rudderless deserted sailboat quietly bringing its deadly cargo down the Harlem river, to the last, justifiably famous crane shot of a silent army of zombies crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, it is the quiet moments that linger from Zombie: the sudden underwater appearance of the zombieâ€™s hand on Gayâ€™s shoulder; a wide pan across a dust covered and deserted village street, its only inhabitants a huge skittering crab and a barely glimpsed zombie slowly advancing in the distance; the rows of anonymous corpses swaddled in bloodstained shrouds, awaiting burial; the soulless, uncaring march of the zombies as implacable engines of judgement.
At the heart of Fulciâ€™s relentless parable is the sorrowful, almost tragic performance of the great Richard Johnson as Dr. Menard, the idealistic doctor whose unspecified overreaching has somehow (it is never explained exactly how) precipitated this untoward resurrection of the dead. Johnson could well have regarded Zombie as a significant career letdown, yet, like Peter Cushing, he was incapable of giving a bad performance, and here he gives his all. Alternately pathetic, as he tries to drown his guilt in denial and booze, and tragic, as he is forced to execute, one after the other, his friends and neighbors, to prevent them from transforming into the living dead, his rich, Shakespearean voice and haunted eyes give a resonance to the proceedings not found in the dialogue, suggesting somehow that mankind is suffering a well deserved, and apparently final, reckoning. Propelled by composer Fabio Frizziâ€™s simple, mournful score, and enhanced by Sergio Salavtiâ€™s gorgeous, budget-belying photography, Zombie was the first full expression of the horror aesthetic for which Fulci is remembered by a legion of devoted fans, and the little zombie movie made by a tight-knit band of professionals with something to prove went on to be an international smash.
Fulci went on to make three more great, blood-soaked horror hits, the epic Lâ€™Aldila/The Beyond, generally considered to be his horror masterpiece, The Gates of Hell, and the mini-budgeted but highly atmospheric Lovecraftian tale House by the Cemetery. These three classics were followed by the film that essentially killed his career, The New York Ripper, wherein, in a sad reversal of Zombieâ€™s good fortune, Fulciâ€™s patented murder setpieces were so outrageous and brutal that they overwhelmed what was otherwise a controlled, well acted and strongly directed Hitchcockian murder thriller. The targeted mainstream audience was repelled, and the film was banned in so many markets that it turned into a financial disaster. After this, in failing health, embittered by painful personal relationships and feelings of underappreciation, and haunted by the unrealized potential first seen in Beatrice Cenci and Donâ€™t Torture a Duckling, Fulci produced a stream of for-hire hack jobs quickies and forgettable TV movies (broken only by The Devilâ€™s Honey, a gripping little melodrama of sexual possession starring American expatriate and ex-teen idol Brett Halsey) before stopping work altogether.
Fulci had acquired a reputation as a bitter, irascible misogynist, but this is contradicted by the feminism of Cenci, the fond remembrances of his colleagues of him as a dedicated, humor-filled and caring professional, and by the fact that, near the end of his life, long-time rival Dario Argento befriended the luckless Fulci and was prepared to give him the largest budget of his life, at the helm of a lush remake of House of Wax. One evening, during pre-production, lifelong diabetic Fulci forgot to (or decided not to) take his insulin, ate a large piece of cake, and died in his sleep. It was, sadly, not unexpected.
Italy, 1979. 91 min. Variety. Cast: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Olga Karlatos; Music: Fabio Frizzi; Cinematography: Sergio Salvatti; Produced by: Fabrizio De Angelis; Written by: Elisa Briganti & Dardano Sacchetti; Directed by: Lucio Fulci