1979, Color, 91 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Auretta Gay, Olga Karlatos, Al Cliver
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL),, Media Blasters, Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Italian Shock (Holland R0 PAL), Dragon (Germany R0 PAL), Vipco (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
By far the most famous and internationally successful contribution to the horror genre from director Lucio Fulci, Zombie still ranks as one of the most outrageous gore features ever made. It also played a pivotal role in introducing Italian horror to the international masses, serving as a sort of cultural time bomb that triggered several generations' worth of growing affection for a genre once regarded as gutter material. Time has also been very kind to this film; its guttersnipe nastiness now seems almost endearing after subsequent decades of fast-running non-zombies and CGI blood, while its origins as Fulci's first plunge into the purely fantastic and irrational (excepting perhaps The Psychic) made it the cornerstone of his essential early '80s horror cycle.
The plot (what there is) follows Anne (Farrow, Mia's look-alike sister from The Grim Reaper and the excellent Fingers) as she travels with reporter Peter West (Zombie Holocaust's McCulloch) from New York City to look for her missing father on the cursed tropical island of Matoul, where the dead have been coming back to life and attacking the locals. An inbound ship with a macabre surprise or two including a flesh-tearing ghoul aboard provides a big clue, and so it's off for a tropical voyage to hell for our two heroes. The mayhem all stems from the reckless mad scientist, Dr. Meynard (The Haunting's Johnson), who has been combining science with ancient voodoo rituals. Pretty soon the entire cast (including Fulci regular Cliver and Gay) is fighting off hordes of the living dead, and the blood runs deep enough to require a raincoat.
Originally released under the title Zombi 2 in Italy, Fulci's epic was intended as a pseudo-sequel to George Romero's profitable living dead classic, Dawn of the Dead (released in Europe as Zombi). However, Fulci opted to drop Romero's satiric approach and goes straight for the jugular, offering no satirical commentary whatsoever and shifting its social message to the spooky past of the "old world" invading modern cities and the consequences of colonialism. Of course, it proved an easy film to deride at the time with its erratic dubbing and rough visual style compared to the more baroque The Beyond or House by the Cemetery. Farrow and McCulloch have little to do besides look neurotic, Cliver looks sleepy, and Johnson skulks about in a haggard fashion and grumbles about the dead disturbing his work; however, the uncanny atmosphere of the film turns these approaches into assets, creating a twilight world where everything's going to hell faster than anyone realizes. The best acting award easily goes to the beautiful Olga Karlatos, who also enlivened Fulci's Murderock and played Prince's mom in Purple Rain; she makes a very strong impression in the two scenes she has, including the iconic splinter scene that remains one of the most astounding moments in European horror.
The VHS editions from Wizard Video, Magnum Video (who also issued a long out-of-print pan and scan laserdisc), and a handful of public domain companies looked pretty wretched, suffering from greenish skin tones during the island scenes and muffled, scratchy audio. The Japanese laserdisc (under the Zombi 2 title) looked substantially better, though the print was somewhat worn, with hissy sound. The Roan and Anchor Bay versions on laserdisc and DVD respectively marked the film's widescreen US debut and feature a digitally remixed soundtrack in Dolby Digital, with some oddly recorded new sound effects. The colors were digitally enhanced and punched up a little too much for comfort on the laserdisc; for example, during a couple of faded scenes, the shadows glow an electric blue. On the other hand, the Anchor Bay DVD is too pale, washing out even the blues of the ocean scenes. The fun bonus material includes the US theatrical trailer, a couple of TV spots, and some hilarious radio promos. The commentary by McCulloch with Diabolik moderator Jason J .Slater provides quite a few chuckles, including an amazing comparison between Fulci and Preston Sturges! More often, though, the comments stray way off the subject and may not please Fulciphiles, but there are still some nice nuggets in here. In Britain the film fell afoul of the video nasty panic and was only available for years missing as much as four minutes, under the title Zombie Flesh-Eaters. The first DVD was still cut slightly and marketed as the “Extreme Version," with cuts eventually waived for later versions. The German disc from Dragon, under the title Woodoo, is uncut and also features an Antonella Fulci interview.
Now things get really complicated. Due to a rights snafu, both Media Blasters and Blue Underground wound up with the American DVD rights for the film, which resulted in the latter company issuing its version first. Both versions are culled from the same master and contain the English and Italian audio tracks with optional English subtitles, in a more faithful 5.1 mix than the previous one or the original mono mix. The transfer is an improvement over its predecessors, and both look very similar except for the BU one featuring a slightly cooler color palette and the interlaced MB one looking slightly yellower. Both appear to be boosted in the brightness department, which isn't wholly satisfying during the night scenes. The BU DVD contains the same barrage of trailers and TV and radio spots, while the Media Blasters edition (confusingly branded under the title Zombi 2) includes "Food for the Worms" (12m27s), a fun bonus interview Captain Haggerty (the portly New York boat zombie) and a whole second disc packed with interviews with most of the participants, "Building a Better Zombie" (97m30s), including the FX artists and actors. However, it's cut into an incredibly long, rather shapeless documentary form and requires viewers to carve out a lot of time and patience to get to all the good stuff. Die hards will want it, but neophytes will probably give up about ten minutes in. For the record, participants include Dardano Sacchetti (an uncredited writing contributor), producer Fabrizio De Angelis, FX artist and gorehound favorite Gianetto de Rosi, director Enzo G. Castellari (who was approached for the film before Fulci), Cliver, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (the worm-faced zombie and one of the stunt men), composer Fabio Frizzi (making his first solo collaboration with Fulci on this film), and many additional production crew members. Also included are bonus interviews with costume designer Walter Patriarca (6m1s) and guitar-strumming zombie actor Dakar (3m34s), bonus zombie-themed trailers galore, and different still galleries.
Of course, that was hardly the end of the road for what has now become regarded as one of the most significant zombie films in history. (Incredibly, it even turned up famously in a Microsoft TV commercial for Windows 7 in 2010!) As should also be obvious by now, it's tough to pinpoint exactly how Zombie should look given the variety of color schemes found on various releases, and things took another turn with Blue Underground's HD, 2K-transferred "Ultimate Edition" in 2011, presented on two Blu-rays. The transfer supervised by cinematographer Sergio Salvati definitely looks more vibrant than others with strong colors and, for once, consistent skin tones. Interestingly, this is the first home video version where you can clearly see that a bright red light is being blasted onto Gay during that underwater scene, an expressionistic flourish completely lost before when it turned into a dull, dirty purple color. Overall it's a significant upgrade across the board over the DVD, but it's also noticeably soft and even mushy at times with no visible grain; the prelude to worm-eye's appearance with Farrow and McCulloch lying on the ground has a soft, waxy appearance that will have noise-reduction phobics raising some red flags. Audio is presented as usual in both English and Italian, with the former feeling more legitimate given the three leads' performances (though Fulci's brief appearance only syncs up in Italian). Both are in 7.1 DTS-HD, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX, and mono, with the former two options mostly adding some ambiance to the music in the front speakers with extremely minimal bleed over elsewhere. That's definitely preferable to the gimmicky fake mix of the first Anchor Bay disc, though the obvious presence of some augmented sound effects (especially gunshots) is jarring. English subtitles are offering as both SDH (transcribing the English track and sound effects) and a translation from the Italian track, which is very welcome; other subtitle options include Japanese, Chinese, Koren, Thai, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. (Whew!) The US and international trailers are included on the first disc in new HD transfers, plus a new hi-def poster and photo gallery, a brief new intro by director Guillermo Del Toro (24 seconds), and those TV and radio spots.
Disc two (which features an amusing maggot-themed menu) kicks off with "Zombie Wasteland" (22m19s) filmed at Cinema Wasteland's zombie-themed event in Cleveland. McCulloch ("There's an awful lot of metal sticking out of people's bodies"), Johnson, Cliver (who speaks in a whisper due to health issues), and Dell'Acqua are on hand to talk about their warm feelings for the film and its fans, their more ambivalent memories of Fulci, and of course, the perils of getting worms in your ears and mouth when shooting a zombie attack. Ken Kish and interviewer Art Ettinger are also on hand to talk about the film's appeal, and it all wraps up with an amusing homage to the original film's finale. "Deadtime Stories" (14m30s) features Sacchetti and co-writer Elisa Briganti talking about working on the scenario of the zombie film after the smash Romero hit (some similar material to the MB doc but much more compact here), while "Flesh Eaters on Film" (9m38s) spotlights De Angelis, "World of the Dead" (16m39s) with Salvati and Patriarca elaborates on the visual scheme of the film, and De Rossi and fellow make-up artists Maurizio Trani and Gino De Rossi discussing the creation of some of the best zombies in screen history in "Zombi Italiano" (16m34s). Frizzi spends a surprisingly small amount of time on his iconic score and its sparing placement in "Notes on a Headstone" (7m25s), a general remembrance of the director is presented from his dedicated daughter Antonella in "All in the Family" (6m8s), and Del Toro returns to talk a bit more about his admiration for Fulci and this enduring work of surreal terror in "Zombie Lover" (9m36s).
Released the following year in 2012, the UK Blu-ray edition from Arrow (as Zombie Flesh-Eaters, of course) caused a stir immediately by touting an exclusive new restored transfer from the original Italian negative, sourced for the first time. So, does it make a difference? You bet!(A DVD was also issued at the same time, but there's no rational reason to pass the opportunity to watch this film in the best presentation possible.) The Blu-ray only can be played with three options for opening credits (as Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh-Eaters, or good old Zombie), each preceded by an 89-second video intro by McCulloch in which he discusses his belated appreciation for Fulci's classic. The image quality is a pretty startling upgrade, with levels of detail never seen on video before (or in most prints for that matter); you can make out textures in the makeup and production design never visible before, including some wonderfully atmospheric mobile shots in the makeshift medical clinic on the island that simply looked drab and grungy before. There's also a significant amount of additional information visible, particularly on the right side; just compare this shot from the US Blu-ray with this one from the UK. (All other frame grabs seen in this review are from the Arrow.) It's easily the most impressive Italian horror release from Arrow, whose previous Argento and Fulci releases are an elaborate saga most videophiles probably know already. Audio is presented in LPCM mono in English and Italian with optional English subtitles for both language options (which is just as well), both sounding great, and you also get two new audio commentaries as well. First up is crackerjack discussion with writers Stephen Thrower (author of the excellent Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci) and Alan Jones, and as usual, both of them are extremely articulate, smart, and funny, rattling off keen observations and bits of history about the film and keeping up the standard of their essential past work. The second commentary features Arrow's Callum Waddell interviewing Elisa Briganti, the sole credited screenwriter on the film, who talks about working on it with husband Dardano Sacchetti, the tax-based reasons for the on-screen credit, working with Fulci, and thoughts on pretty much all of the crew members. It's obviously not as loaded as the first track, but it's fascinating to hear her take on the story and her anecdotes about subsequent films with the same team. Also on the first disc is "From Romero to Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Zombie Film," an hour-long look at how Fulci's film was inspired by George Romero's hits to kick off a wave of successful vehicles for the shambling dead. There's a pretty fair amount of background on the first two Romero zombie films courtesy of Russ Streiner, while other on-camera interviewees include Sacchetti, writer Antonion Tentori, writer Kim Newman, Twitch critic Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, and directors ranging from Luigi Cozzi and Ruggero Deodato to Darren Ward (A Day of Violence). The usual barrage of promotional material is also included like the US and Vipco trailers and TV and radio spots.
Now on to disc two which starts off with "Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies" (45m52s) is a substantial interview with McCulloch, who spends most of the time talking about the making of Zombie (including thoughts on Fulci and his fellow actors) as well as his start in acting doing theater and his starring roles in two other Italian cult favorites, Contamination and Zombie Holocaust. He admits to never watching the latter film and speaks especially favorably of working for Luigi Cozzi, and his thoughts on working on multilingual Italian productions are always entertaining. The brief "Zombie Flesh Eaters from Script to Screen" (3m18s) shows off the original script (under the title Nightmare Island) with a discussion featuring Sacchetti, Callum Waddell, and Nick Frame, including a fascinating peek at the written shark attack scene (with a mention of a microscopic view of blood cells getting zombified) and the eyeball/splinter encounter. "Music for a Flesh-Feast" (29m25s) features Frizzi in 2012 at the Glasgow Film Theatre, again hosted by Waddell and Frame. (And watch your speakers -- the opening is really loud!) It's a much more thorough discussion than the prior Blu-ray, and though his accent's a bit thick of course, he tells some good stories about his tenure with Fulci and still seems like a very nice and enthusiastic guy. Finally, "The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi" (26m34s) kicks off with a montage of the FX maestro's greatest hits accompanied by Zombie's calypso music and time at his workshop where he shows off a particularly memorable bit of custom-designed machinery from City of the Living Dead and talks about performing the gory illusions for this film, House by the Cemetery, Piranha II: The Spawning, Burial Ground, Make Them Die Slowly, and others. ("In Colombia, with cannibals, Leticia remains in my heart.") The package comes with a liner notes booklet featuring a new Thrower essay, a text interview with Karlatos, an overview of the film's ongoing BBFC issues by Craig Lapper, relevant script excerpts showcasing some unfilmed effects scenes, and a Jay Slater Fulci filmography. The Blu-ray is available in a standard version as well as a limited steelbook edition with pretty nifty cover art; either way, it's quite a beauty.
Jump ahead now several years to 2018, and Blue Underground decided to ignore that whole "Ultimate Edition" business and give the film another release touted as being taken from a brand spanking new 4K restoration from the "original and uncensored camera negative." Since no two prior editions of this film have looked the same, that's also the case here -- and that's good news. Much more natural and bountiful with normal film grain than the earlier U.S. Blu-ray, it's quite impressive in motion and also looks darker and richer than any previous Blu-rays with richer colors in the process. Grain is more pronounced, and more horizontal image information is visible. It's interesting how this differs in mood from the brighter, hotter Arrow release, which still looks great as well but has quite a different mood of its own. This new transfer ups the creep factor for sure and should make Fulci fans very happy. The usual 7.1 mix with its tweaked gunshots and so on is included here along with the more natural mono track, plus Italian 7.1 and 1.0 mono options (all of these are DTS-HD) plus a Dolby Digital mono French track. The English subtitle options are SDH and properly translated from Italian once again, plus an even more expanded roster of additional subtitles (French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Thai, Swedish, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese... you name it). It's worth noting that only the standard Zombie title appears on the actual film here. The McCulloch commentary is carried over here, while a new one has also been added featuring Splintered Visions author Troy Howarth. It's a very cheerful and trivia-packed track including some of the more colorful anecdotes about Fulci's treatment of his actors (the ones about Gay and Cliver are keepers), the backgrounds of the many thespians and technicians involved, the film's audacious original Italian title that almost got it into legal trouble, the legendary U.S. ad campaign, and the pivotal role this played as Fucli's first 100% horror film with a number of key players who would prove to be invaluable. In addition to the U.S. and international trailers (both HD and in their scope iterations), two TV spots, four radio spots, and a poster and still gallery, you get a terrific new featurette with Thrower, "When the Earth Spits Out the Dead" (33m5s). Anyone who's seen his past Fulci pieces should know what's in store here as he eloquently paints a portrait of the progression of Fulci's career as a genre-hopping jack of all trades whose skill with gialli made him a rational choice for this film (after Castellari was approached), with much discussion how the scoring and opening of Romero's film impacted the Italian industry and laid the ground for Fulci's quickly mounted hit. The second Blu-ray features all of the preexisting featurettes: "Zombie Wasteland," "Flesh Eaters on Film," "Deadtime Stories, "World of the Dead," "Zombi Italiano," "Notes on a Headstone," "All in the Family," and "Zombie Lover." (Keep an eye out for Easter eggs, too.) A third disc is a CD of the film's soundtrack, featuring the usual eight Frizzi cues from past Beat Records releases plus, in a nice surprise, the Linda Lee song "There Is Not Matter," which plays in the background of the nocturnal scene with Farrow and McCulloch sneaking on the boat. Though the song has been available elsewhere on other Frizzi-connected releases, this marks its first presentation as part of the Zombie soundtrack. Chow down!
BLUE UNDERGROUND (2018 Blu-ray)
ARROW VIDEO (Blu-ray)
BLUE UNDERGROUND (2012 Blu-ray)
MEDIA BLASTERS (DVD)
Updated review on November 24, 2018.