Monday, February 4, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Zombi 2" (1979)


In approaching modern horror films, the first question one has to ask yourself is, "Is this a put-on?"

By that I mean: Is this truly meant to scare me, or is it intended for laughs? American horror in particular has morphed into a reliable scary/funny hybrid, where even in the goriest fare we can expect a host of one-liners and visual jokes. The laughs balance out the screams, the thinking goes.

I believe part of the reason the "Hostel" movies and other examples of the fairly recent "torture porn" movement have gotten so much push back is that they were relentlessly, unironically horrifying. With nothing to break the mood, they were exercises in making the audience feel truly unnerved. (Often through shocking special effects rather than a pervasive feeling of dread ... but that's another column.)

After seeing "Zombi 2," I'm still not quite sure how to take it. There are portions of it that are so utterly absurd and silly, you're thinking to yourself this has got to be a joke. Yet the tone appears to be pretty straightforward, and certainly none of the cast seem to be smirking to themselves. Any laughs that occur would appear to be unintentional.

"Zombi 2" is a Spaghetti Horror, if there is such a thing -- shot mostly in Italy by an Italian crew, but with a largely American and British cast. It was more or less the high point of director Lucio Fulci's long and bloody career in exploitation films -- there's a reason he's known as the international "King of Gore."

In an interesting marketing quirk, it was released in the U.S. titled simply "Zombie," while in Italy it was called "Zombi 2" -- in order to dovetail on the success of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," which itself was released in Italy as "Zombi."

The two films actually had nothing to do with each other, so in some ways this same dynamic was repeated a few years later with the schlock film "Troll 2," whose lowly fate was chronicled in the excellent documentary "Best Worst Movie." That also featured a low-rent Italian director working with an American cast ... obviously a combination that doesn't blend very well.

Story-wise, "Zombi 2" is a pretty straightforward zombie plot, which means putting a small group of people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and seeing what happens. In this case, rich girl Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) seeks out the fate of her missing father, whose sailboat mysteriously ended up in New York harbor with a zombie on board.

Anne and intrepid reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) track the boat's journey back to the remote Caribbean island of Matool. There, British doctor David Menard (Richard Johnson) tries fruitlessly to stem the outbreak of zombies, methodically shooting his patients in the head when they succumb. Dr. Menard also has a wife (Olga Karlatos), whose sole purpose is to appear naked in a shower scene and then be messily eaten.

Tagging along are American couple Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay), who give Anne and Peter a boat ride to Matool and promptly become zombie fodder.

On the way to the island, Susan suddenly decides she needs to indulge in a mostly-nude scuba diving session, which brings us to perhaps the movie's most memorable scene: a fight to the death between an underwater zombie and a Great White shark. It's a totally laughable sequence, complete with a real but drugged up shark, wounds on both combatants that appear and disappear, and a topless girl swimming around to witness it.

This is the breaking point at which one decides whether to enjoy "Zombi 2" as a goofy caper or simply dismiss it as amateurish schlock. (I went the first route.)

The really good zombie sequences don't begin until more than an hour into the 91-minute ride, but they help get things back on track, as well as underlining why the film caused such an uproar -- including being briefly banned in the United Kingdom.

If Sergio Leone loved long, lingering close-ups of his characters' faces, then his countryman Fulci positively fetishized the decay and destruction of human flesh. The makeup effects are still impressive even today, and Fulci was notable for depicting zombies as they actually might look after decades buried in the earth -- rotted, putrid, their orifices crawling with worms. Oh, to be a member of the (largely uncredited) stunt team on this picture.

Fulci also enjoyed very detailed shots of zombies munching into live humans -- the skin, muscle and tendons sloughing away, followed by a geyser of blood voluminous enough to make Quentin Tarantino proud.

Since Fulci fell firmly into the "slow zombie" category of cinematic reanimation, it requires his characters to stand their frozen in horror while the creatures slowly shamble in close enough to bite off a hunk. This only adds to the silliness of the proceedings. Other elements further solidify the decent into accidental comedy, such as:
  1. The survivors throwing Molotov cocktails at the horde, which explode on impact but never seem to set any zombies on fire.
  2. The total disconnect between the non-English-speaking actors' mouth movements and the words coming out of them.
  3. McCulloch's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't bald spot, sporadically hidden by the most extravagant blond comb-over this side of Donald Trump, which is undermined by the tropical heat and zombie-fighting exertions.
So to answer my own question, is this movie really trying to scare me, or just make me laugh? I think the answer is both: striving and failing to be scary, but being uproariously funny while doing so.

If there's any doubt about where the film falls on the goofball/horrifying scale, just look to that zombie/shark fight scene. At one point, the zombie actor actually press his mouth to the shark's side and starts gumming him, like he's trying to see what really fresh sushi tastes like.

For "Zombi 2," it manages to jump the shark while still underwater.

2.5 stars out of four


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