Saturday, October 01, 2016

Food for Worms


I was in high school the last time I saw Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) in one sitting. I've seen bits of it in the years since. Its most outré sequences show up in the culture outside the context of the film. I mean, an ad for a satellite service borrowed the film's notorious "zombie vs. shark" sequence a few years back and nobody blinked. It's a sad comedown for one of the original video nasties.

In truth, I've never revisited it because back when I was a young whippersnapper, I didn't really like it even if it did tickle something in the gorehound I used to be. I admit that the version I watched with my friends all those years ago was less than ideal: it was a dub off of some fly by night TV channel. I don't remember its exact provenance. It wasn't a commercial dub because it was grainy and cropped and not even panned and scanned. It must have come off of cable because it had its nudity intact, to say nothing of its zombie cannibal feasts. It certainly delivered on the gore. THAT, at least, I remember with vivid clarity. The story? Well, that's another matter. Like many Italian horror films of similar vintage, I thought the stuff between the set pieces was boring.

The plot such as it is follows the travails of a woman who is looking for her father after her father's yacht sails into New York harbor seemingly without a crew. When the cops investigate, they discover a Marie Celeste-style mystery, until the zombie that's lurking on board chows down on one of the investigating cops. This incident draws the attention of a local newspaper, who send a reporter to poke into things. Soon, the reporter and the daughter are on a plane to the Antilles, where her father was last seen. Once there, they charter a boat to help them look for the father's island, and soon enough, they find it, only to find it overrun with the walking dead.

I'll stop right there. If you've seen a few Italian horror movies, you'll recognize this plot. Uncharted islands are never, never a good place to decamp when you find yourself in an Italian horror movie. More than that, the plot exists to carry the viewer from set-piece to set-piece. It's entirely disposable on its own.


I owe this movie an apology. I've been saying bad things about both this movie and its director for years, but Zombie is a perfectly competent film. Parts of it are even attractive--surely, the money spent on a location shoot in New York was well-spent. The version I watched on Amazon has a sharp widescreen picture, so the film's virtues are on full display. Among those virtues is a keen awareness of camera placement and a merciless extrapolation of how the living dead might actually appear. It starts in on the latter early as the cop grappling with the first zombie finds himself unable to grasp it because its rotting flesh is sloughing off its bones. This adds a level of revulsion to the zombie that isn't necessarily there in George Romero's iteration. It doubles down on this innovation with its famed "worm face" zombie, which has worms squirming in one of its eye sockets. The fragility and corruptibility of bodies was one of Fulci's central concerns. This is a visceral movie in more than one sense of the word. Its centerpiece is a zombie feast that sees its zombies eating internal organs and unraveling the intestines of their unfortunate victim filmed without concealing shadows. Its gore gags are the film's raison d'être, so Fulci dutifully shows them to full advantage.


Unlike Romero's zombies, Fulci's zombies don't have a concrete origin story. Where Romero makes a token nod toward a "scientific" explanation, Fulci makes vague gestures in the direction of voodoo--hence the film's setting in the Caribbean--without ever committing to it. Nor is there any real social satire. There is some subtext about the exploitation of the New World by the Conquistadors. The main scene in which the dead rise up from their graves takes place in a cemetery where the Spanish conquerors are buried, so you could make some arguments about how this film views colonialism. The film ignores chooses to ignore all of this, though. This is not an ideological film. The film seems indifferent to whether or not the world deserves its fate, even as it suggests that fate. It offers an apocalyptic ending with the hordes of the undead shuffling across the Brooklyn Bridge, and news reports suggesting the end of the world. For most of its running time, it doesn't have that kind of scale.

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