They filmed a lot of Zombie on location—New York City, the Dominican Republic, the ocean floor. For over half the movie, the location filming is the most important thing—if we’re going by what director Fulci showcases the most. Not even the gore gets a bigger showcase until the third act, though there are some rather gruesome exceptions. But the static (or just panning) long shots of palm trees once the action gets to the Caribbean island where Richard Johnson is playing Dr. Moreau only with zombies are the rule. It’s very pretty, even if it’s desolate as something has happened—an unseen voodoo witch doctor has decided the dead must rise so everyone’s a flesh-eating zombie. The film can’t decide on what happened. Johnson says things went bad three months ago, non-acting action hero and world traveller Al Cliver says the island’s been cursed at least a year. It’s also unclear how long Johnson’s been on the island. And why. Despite the almost endless exposition in Zombie, usually from actors poorly delivering it, the exposition just doesn’t matter. Because Zombie is going to be all about the gross stuff Fulci and his crew get his fake shemps to endure.
For instance, I don’t think there are any shemps covered in maggots—their faces, the zombie makeup is entirely on their faces—but lots of them have live worms wriggling around the makeup. I think one zombie has a mouthful of live worms, no doubt worms not protected by the American Humane Association. The zombie makeup itself isn’t great. There are a lot of attempts at showing bone in the makeup, incorporating masks, which just makes the zombie look bulky like their skulls are retaining water or something. So the live worms and such do a good job distracting from such deficiencies. Zombie has a lot of gore in the second half, a little in the third, with Fulci saving the grossest zombies for the finale. They’re coming out of their graves too at one point, so he’s able to get a lot of mileage out of his long (timing wise) practical effects shots. Sergio Salvati’s photography and especially Giorgio Cascio and Fabio Frizzi’s music help for those shots too. They’re really good tests of one’s stomach; the last big gross-out scene the gore is so extreme it’s actually unbelievable at least one of the characters doesn’t puke. Though then we’d have to see one of the leads trying to essay puking, which they probably couldn’t do.
See, Zombie’s an Italian production shot without a synchronous audio track, which is called motor only sync (MOS). I didn’t know the jargon until today, even though pretty much every Italian production from the twentieth century seems to use this method. Thanks Wikipedia. But what the lack of synchronous sound means is the actors, who might be speaking different languages, never get any actual rapport. Fulci tries to compensate with reaction shots. It doesn’t work.
The worst case is when ostensible lead Ian McCulloch is watching Auretta Gay undress for scuba diving. She does it topless and in a string bikini bottom. McCulloch just stares, occasionally making sure top-billed Tisa Farrow’s still watching him watching. You’re worried the male gaze compounding on itself is going to cause a cosmic singularity before the sequence ends. Though McCulloch’s exceptionally unconvincing comb-over is enough to cause a singularity on its own. Farrow doesn’t mind the comb-over by the way, in fact she’s very hot to trot for McCulloch. At one point during the long opening of the third act, “escape the zombies on foot” sequence, Farrow even gives McCulloch the “I don’t want to die without sex” speech, so they get it on in a graveyard. Too bad the now zombified corpses are waking up below.
But not really because even though Farrow’s not good, she’s not a shit heel like McCulloch. It’s hard to be a such a big shit heel when you’re dubbed but McCulloch abides.
The best performances appear to be Johnson and his assistants—Stefania D'Amario and Dakar—worst are Johnson’s wife, Olga Karlatos, Gay, Cliver, McCulloch. Farrow gets a pass from that list because she’s so irrelevant once they get to the island. She mustn’t have been willing to take her clothes off. Karlatos, who the film manages to portray negatively for not wanting to be on the zombie island of undying death, also gets a gratuitous nude scene. Unlike Gay, however, it’s not prelude to something awesome. Gay’s scuba diving sequence leads into the zombie versus shark scene, Zombie’s claim to fame. It’s an impressive underwater stunt sequence. But much like the rest of the film’s impressive moments, it’s nowhere near enough to justify it. With a better budget, Fulci and his crew probably could’ve done something revolting and realistic, instead of revolting and effective. Zombie’s set pieces are gross instead of scary, but its default—with Fulci’s often good composition, Salvati’s photography, Vincenzo Tomassi’s editing, and that score from Cascio and Frizzi—is disquieting. Maybe it’d help if the third act of the script didn’t sink it.
It also doesn’t help the best sequence—an empty sailboat showing in New York Harbor, Dracula-style—is the first one in the picture.
Directed by Lucio Fulci; written by Elisa Briganti; director of photography, Sergio Salvati; edited by Vincenzo Tomassi; music by Giorgio Cascio and Fabio Frizzi; production and costume designer, Walter Patriarca; produced by Fabrizio De Angelis and Ugo Tucci; released by Variety Films.
Starring Tisa Farrow (Anne Bowles), Ian McCulloch (Peter West), Richard Johnson (Dr. Menard), Olga Karlatos (Mrs. Menard), Al Cliver (Brian Hull), Auretta Gay (Susan Barrett), Stefania D’Amario (Nurse Clara), Ugo Bologna (Dr. Bowles), and Dakar (Lucas).