Movie of the Week: Zombie (1979)
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
At Panic Fest Saturday night, my podcasting partner (Richard Chamberlain) and I had the thrill of watching a brand new 4K restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979). While the print looked beautiful, I wonder if it serves the film better to view an older version that retains the original 70s grit and grime. I definitely appreciate how it shined, but I don’t think I enjoyed the overall experience as much as I have in the past.
Part of it has to do with the makeup and special effects. The point where zombie makeup ends and human skin begins is crystal clear, and blood-spurting wounds more obviously lie on top of various body parts. With modern CGI and movies resulting from the success of The Walking Dead, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to highlight that Zombie is so primitive. Instead of watching in awe what was accomplished with practical effects, the audience tended to respond with laughter.
Another way of expressing this thought would be to say that Zombie is such a relic of its time that it makes no sense to drag it into a future where it doesn’t belong. Those who attended midnight screenings in the late 70’s and early 80s never saw pristine prints. Scratches and jumps in the films made them seem more sinister and unique, almost like you weren’t supposed to be watching them. Part of the fun of a good grindhouse movie is leaving the theater feeling like you need to take a shower.
I don’t remember Zombie being as dull as I found it to be Saturday night. With a couple of exceptions, it didn’t feel as unusual as I’ve always believed it was. I don’t want to say that it doesn’t “hold up,” but unless a zombie was fighting a shark or an eye was being impaled, it seemed to have lost some of its charm. Those two scenes are so visually entertaining that they still look great in 4K. They are also so well crafted that you don’t notice any flaws.
On the other hand, I’ve never laughed as much as I did Saturday night when watching Zombie. When Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay) suits up to dive underwater to take some photos, I had forgotten her wardrobe was her birthday suit and that the camera lingers as she tightens a strap for her oxygen tanks between her legs. Some of the dubbing and background screaming also provided comic relief. It was during these unexpectedly funny moments that I enjoyed the movie the most.
The plot is simple. It opens with a man shooting in the head a body wrapped in cloth, then stating, “The boat can leave now.” We will later learn that a good third of the movie is a flashback leading to this point. After the credits, a seemingly empty boat sails into the waters outside New York City. The authorities discover a zombie; however, until the ending, this isn’t where the story takes place. The boat belonged to Anne Bowles’s (Tisa Farrow) father, who has gone missing.
Bowles and British reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) hire Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and the aforementioned birthday suit-adorned diver to take them to the mysterious island where her father was last seen. Meanwhile, Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) and Nurse Clara (Stefania D’Amario) are dealing with dying patients on the island and shooting them in the head when they resurrect as zombies. The characters eventually join forces to defeat a genuine zombie hoard and to escape the island.
I actually like the actors in Zombie. Even though this contradicts many of my earlier comments, it’s a shame their voices are dubbed. Tisa Farrow is a beautiful redhead, nearly a doppelganger of her sister, Mia. Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson and Al Cliver are all interesting as a trio of leading men. And Auretta Gay has a perfect body to dive underwater naked. The most annoying is Menard’s wife, played by Olga Karlatos, but she soon gets a stick in the eye and disappears from the movie.
Written by Elisa Briganti Directed by Lucio Fulci Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Stefania D’Amario Released August 25, 1979 (Italy) RT 91 min. Home Video Blue Underground (Blu-ray)
If skeptical of the 4K restoration of the film, let me suggest an alternative way to experience a modern retelling of Zombie. For a couple years now, Eibon Press has been publishing graphic adaptations of Fulci Films with their line of “Fulci Comics.” With over-the-top gore and nudity, the colorful images on the 28 pages of each of the four issues of "Zombie" give new meaning to the term “splash page,” providing the grindhouse quality that you don’t get with the shiny new version of the movie.
The “Gut-Churning First Ish” depicts the opening of the movie through the point Anne and Peter hop on Brian’s boat. The “Eye Gouging Second Ish” depicts my favorite scenes of the movie, sharks and eyeballs, and ends with the boat arriving at the island. The “Throat Ripping Third Ish” and “Gut-Ripping Apocalypse Ish” take the story to its conclusion. The screenplay is embellished throughout, mostly with a dreamlike historical thread woven by Dr. Menard.
The packaging for these chapters raises the bar for what you’d expect from a comic book. Each one comes inside the “exclusive Eibon sleeve,” a protective cover with different art than you find on the actual covers. Inside each sleeve you’ll find trading cards, bookmarks and other printed collectibles. Other Fulci Comics titles include a three-issue adaptation of Gates of Hell and, a three-issue original sequel to Zombie.
Eibon publishes a similar “VHS Comics” line with adaptations of Laserblast and Maniac. They also have an original title, "Bottomfeeder," written by Stephen Romano, drawn by Pat Carbajal, and colored by Javi Laparra. ("Zombie" is written by Romano, with pencils and covers by Michael Broom and inks and additional art by Derek Rook.)
All the Eibon Press comics I’ve purchased are well worth the price, usually around only $10.00. Visit their website to join their mailing list so you’re always notified of new issues and projects. It seems like they have an infrequent publishing schedule, but it’s well worth the wait between the time you pre-order and receive a package, which, by the way, is shipped in a sturdy cardboard box that’s probably an inch or so thick. The company description describes this all more succinctly than I do:
“Limited edition cult movie collector's comics with innovative packaging and insane extras.”