Girl Meets Context: We’ve declared December Zombie Month in reaction to the Christmas season and its concomitant resurrecting god-figure. We continue with Lucio Fulci’s gutmunching classic. Released in Europe as the unofficial sequel to Romero’s highly successful Dawn of the Dead, Zombie is the first film in Fulci’s zombie quartet (this movie was followed by his unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy). The film is famous for many classic sequences, the zombie vs. shark confrontation and eye-gouging scene in particular. The movie follows a dour pill named Anne (Mia’s sister Tisa Farrow) as she teams up with a vaguely rapey chauvinist reporter named Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to get to the bottom of her father’s mysterious disappearance. They hire a couple of swingin’ hipsters who own a boat – the hirsute and muscular Brian (Al Cliver) and his Rita Moreno-esque girlfriend Susan (Auretta Gay) – to take them to a remote Caribbean island where Anne’s father was last seen. There they find Dr. Menard (The Haunting‘s Richard Johnson) and his staff fighting off an invasion of undead who are hungry for human flesh! Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film. If you haven’t seen Zombie, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: I want to remind you that this movie was called Zombi 2 in Europe in order to market it as the unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead (which was released as Zombi in Europe). So it does fit into the complicated chronology we went over last week as a weird offshoot from the release of Dawn.
Kristine: Right. I forgot that when I was watching, but I remembered when I was thinking about/processing the movie for our discussion.
Sean: What did you think of Zombie?
Kristine: I feel a little nervous about this discussion because I am pretty sure you and I are going to end up on different sides on this one. I feel pretty sure that most fans of the horror genre will be on your side…
Sean: What exactly are you trying to tell me, Kristine?
Kristine: That I didn’t like it that much. And I get the feeling that you j’adore it. Allow me a disclaimer before you tell me how mad you are!
Sean: Spoiler: I am not mad. But please continue.
Kristine: I did think there were a few very effective/affecting/cool scenes. But overall, it did not move me.
Sean: I was pretty sure you’d feel this way. Can I give a contextualizing preamble?
Kristine: Yes, but then I would like to tell you the stuff that impressed me, before we get into analysis/critique. Cool? And I want to know why you thought I would feel this way.
Sean: Yes. Ok, here is my preamble: I am basically of the opinion that Zombie, while certainly being a piece of Italo-sleaze, is also what I’d consider an “art film” (for whatever that designation is worth). I only invoke the term “art film” because I think it gets at a few key characteristics: somewhat experimental in form, unconventional and highly symbolic (i.e. non-narrative), trying/difficult for the viewer to grok on the first go-round, often requiring repeated viewings to really get. I think Zombie has most of those characteristics, which is of course weird and ironic because Fulci was very much a part of for-profit, bottom-line capitalist cinematic enterprise, and not someone making movies for a rarified or esoteric audience. He was all about cranking out the sleaze to make money. But regardless, I see Zombie as an art film. I have had time to watch several of Fulci’s movies and really digest his whole aesthetic and think about his movies. And having had time to do that, I really have come to appreciate and love them.
Kristine: Interrruption! The only other Fulci movie we’ve watched is Don’t Torture a Duckling, correct?
Sean: Yes, which is earlier in his filmography when he was doing gialli. His career was faltering by the end of the 1970s. Then he made Zombie and it was a massive success and revitalized him, turning him into a horror/gore maven. But the first time I saw one of Fulci’s zombie movies? I think I was just completely like, not sure what to think and also possibly bored. I’m concerned about sounding elitist or full-of-shit in talking about all this… But I do legitimately think Fulci’s zombie movies take repeated viewings and processing to really get into. Especially for the average American moviegoer, not that I’m calling you “average”…. I’m just trying to make a rhetorical point. That’s my preamble.
Sean: Thus, I was pretty sure you’d be like, “Um…” about the movie’ (because I definitely was the first time I saw it).
Kristine: Okay, I am trying to take you at your word that you are not trying to be elitist by calling me an “average American moviegoer,” but I feel a tiny bit offended. But I will get over it in 15 seconds.
Sean: Oh my god, no!
Kristine: I’m over it already.
Sean: All right, good.
Kristine: Should I tell you what I was impressed by?
Sean: Yes, please.
Kristine: Okay. Considering I was never really invested in the plot of the film, I was surprised and impressed by how dark and affecting some of the scenes were. I’m thinking specifically of every time Menard shoots a corpse in the head with his gun. We never get to know the recently deceased (except Fritz, I guess, briefly). The dead are anonymous, identically presented & dealt with in the same manner: wrapped in a white sheet, bound with rope, shot in the head. But every time it was so dark and soul-destroying, especially because of the pervasive feeling that there was no end to this, no solution. I feel the same way about the mass gave. To reiterate, I think it shows Fulci’s talent that I, a viewer who didn’t much care about the characters or the storyline, was made to feel very strong emotions during those scenes. So that is my number one thing.
Sean: I totally agree about how upsetting all the bodies wrapped in cloth were. The cloaked bodies of the dead and the mass graves in this movie recall, for me, political prisoners, victims of genocide, the civilian dead in warzones, victims of plague and epidemic, etc. I was wondering, during this rewatch, if it is even possible for a zombie movie to not have a political subtext? If it’s made in earnest? I realize how ironic it is to pose those two questions the week after we watched Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. Which, indeed, is a zombie movie that robs the genre of all political content. But the images in Zombie feel massively political to me, especially considering the weird and uncomfortable way the movie deals with (or more like, refuses to deal with) race. Like when Brian and Susan’s boat pulls out of the harbor, the movie cuts to some random black man making the sign of the cross?
Kristine: Yes, I want to address the weirdness of that. Like, I kept thinking something was going to be done with the Lucas character, or the voodoo stuff, or the conquistador stuff… But it never went anywhere, which frustrated me. I guess Lucas says a few pointed things, but still.
Sean: This movie is definitely colonialist. I mean, Peter West for godssakes? Remember Susan yelling, “Damn you, you bastards!” at the omnipresent drums and vocalizations coming from the jungle?
Kristine: Yes. And Menard’s insistence on using RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] tactics to try and find the cause and cure. Refusing to believe in what he called “stupid superstitions.”
Sean: I mean, the “cause” of the zombie outbreak is left purposefully ambiguous. But it’s often referred to in terms of contagion and not as something supernatural. Anne’s father writes in his letter: “Due to my morbid curiosity I’ve managed to contract a strange disease,” which again links scientific curiosity to the uncanny and to unleashing dark forces (á la The Fly and Re-Animator and countless other movies we’ve watched). The “cause” is never outright identified, however. It’s possible that Menard himself might be involved, but also there’s all these off-screen (for the most part) dark-skinned natives chanting in the jungle and like, being referred to by everyone. But never shown directly. Where are the natives? They’re off somewhere. They’re just diegetic soundtrack. They’re conceptual.
Kristine: You’re right that we never really see them, other than the dead/dying/zombified ones.
Sean: And Brian, who is granted the status of “hip white person who understands black people,” describes voodoo as “kids’ stuff… just plain superstitious horseshit… a mixture of two religions: 1) Catholicism brought here by the Spanish Conquistadores and 2) African tribal rites brought here by the slave trade.” On the one hand he’s got a colonialist, condescending take on native culture – he infantilizes it – but he also is one of the only characters to ever mention slavery and the history of Western colonization of the Caribbean, something which – at least for me – hangs over the whole movie, repressed but present and impossible to ignore.
Kristine: I agree with that. And I thought that the fact that Susan’s big death scene and the major scene of zombies pulling themselves out of the ground all took place in a cemetery for the Spanish Conquistadores definitely had political subtext. This zombie incursion is about that repressed history coming to life, literally, to tear people apart. And notice that, apart from Lucas (who, as the mad scientist’s native contact, could be considered a cultural traitor) is the only person of color we actually see devoured or bitten by the zombies. All the other major deaths – Paola, Menard, Susan, Brian, etc. – are white folks slumming it in the islands. They’re not of the place (even though Menard refers to Matool as “our” island and clearly feels a sense of ownership).
Sean: Right, and one way to read the zombies as political is to see them as representatives of the last wave of colonialists who tried to come in and claim ownership over the island – the conquistadores – rising up to take out the current wave. But the only vaguely subversive moment around race, for me, was when the camera moves through one of the sick rooms to zoom in on a sick native woman, bound into bed, weeping and praying. And I’m pretty sure she’s the corpse that later kills Lucas.
Kristine: Ah, I didn’t catch that. Hmmm, Lucas… Remember the nonsensical thing he says about the zombies? “The father of my father always say when the Earth spit out the dead they will come back to suck out the blood from the living.” It doesn’t make any sense.
Sean: Yes. And Fulci’s movies, and Italian horror in general, is not about “making sense” at all. I mean, that felt like Fulci was at least thinking about the power dynamic between white and non-white characters in this movie. Again, Brian and Susan are like, the white hipsters who are down with the jazzy “darky” lingo. Remember how Brian says, “The natives claim it’s cursed. They avoid it like the plague” and “Don’t expect us to come sightseeing once we get there. I’ve found it best not to ignore native superstitions.”
Sean: So weird. But when Anne’s father dies in flashback and Menard has to pull the shroud down over his face in order to shoot him… And that mass grave filled with all the bodies that have faceless, shrouded heads, the sheets stained with blood from where they’ve been shot in the head. It’s impossible for me not to think of military dictatorships, los desaparecidos, regimes in Africa and Asia and Latin America murdering their own citizens by the thousands, the genocide in Rwanda, or for that matter, in the Balkans, in Chechnya, etc.
Kristine: Agreed. The way the movie deals with Anne’s father is strange and confusing. On the one hand, Menard tells us, “He felt that he could in some way become a guinea pig, that he could help in discovering what was causing the horrors and destroying our island, transforming it into a wasteland of terror.” But the flashback itself seems like a lie, like Menard himself is an unreliable narrator.
Sean: Though major props to Menard for all the Gothic melodrama in his choice of words. “Wasteland of terror,” Kristine.
Kristine: Ha! The next thing I was impressed by was… The eyeball gouging-by-splinter scene. Holy shit. Incredibly stressful and icky, but also totally thrilling and awesome. I was tearing off my toes and throwing them at the screen but also loving it. I loved how long it took. It was excruciating. And I also thought it was genius how something innocuous (a splinter of wood) could become this thing of abject terror and an instrument of unimaginable pain. That was truly a great scene, and one of the best death scenes I have seen throughout all the movies we’ve watched for the blog.
Sean: Haha! I am literally delirious with joy right now.
Kristine: Does the fact that I loved that scene mean that I am a legit horror fan/gorehound now?
Sean: Yes. I am so proud.
Kristine: It was my favorite scene in the movie!
Sean: I am almost crying.
Kristine: Shut up.
Sean: For context, my boyfriend could not watch the scene. He was literally dying and covering his face with a blanket.
Kristine: It was the perfect blend of wonderful and horrible beyond belief.
Kristine: I have no toes left, but it was worth it.
Sean: This is probably the first sequence I would point to in order to make my argument that Zombie is an art film. I don’t know if you remember this, but there’s this long shot Fulci gives us during the scene where Paola is fighting to shut the door against the zombie hand. (Also, remember that the hand is all we ever see of that zombie). Fulci shoots a super-duper close up of the wall in Paola’s room, which is swathed in darkness, and he shoots the crack of light coming in from the door getting bigger and bigger, pushing the shadows out. It’s like, a conspicuously long take. And it’s just this wonderful moment where the “alien presence” of the zombie becomes this shaft of light that plays out on the wall, invading the room. Those kinds of artful little touches are what make the movie, for me.
Kristine: See, ugh, I feel dumb. But I must admit that I was a little frustrated and bored during that moment.
Sean: There’s another moment of almost painterly attention to light in the medical examiner’s office towards the beginning of the movie, when Fulci pans slowly down the death shroud covering the cop who is bitten by the obese zombie in the opening scene, and the whole frame becomes filled with the blank, blinding whiteness of the sheet and then we start to see movement under the sheet as the corpse stirs and reanimates. Rather than going for any visceral stock-and-trade “horror movie” image, Fulci stages this uncanny moment simply as an extreme close-up of the light glaring off the death shroud and wrinkling of the sheet as the body it covers starts to move.
Kristine: I get it.
Sean: But that whole zombie-stalks-and-kills-Paola sequence is really masterful, even down to the way his camera pans from Paola regarding herself in the mirror to the door where the hand appears. Well, what about that weirdly voyeuristic moment when the zombie is watching Paola shower? So weird! When the camera pushes in on Paola naked in the shower, it’s like, are we in the zombie’s head here? And we see that blue zombie hand grasping at the glass between them, signaling what? Desire? Is that our hand? Are we the zombie? I cannot think of another classic zombie movie that puts us in zombie POV in any significant way.
Kristine: Yeah, that was weird. I didn’t know what to make of that, if it was just Fulci wanting to show some titties or what, because the zombies seemed to be utterly unmotivated by human desires. Maybe it’s just supposed to be a moment of total invasion and violation. Just total violation, to the max. Zombies don’t usually have a point-of-view, right? Which is why zombie movies are about the humans in them and how they deal/interact with one another?
Sean: Right. But in Fulci’s sleazy hands, they do. Even if it’s only to justify a gratuitous boob shot.
Kristine: So, even though I thought I didn’t care about the movie, I felt sad and upset when the group discovers the zombies eating Paola’s mutilated body. It felt very… I don’t know. Almost gang-rapey and incredibly violent and just plain awful. So, that was another example of Fulci somehow using mood or staging or something to make an indelible scene happen.
Sean: Right. I realized, watching this, that Snyder’s Dawn remake had zero gutmunching. Like, almost no zombie mayhem at all, really, and no gore setpieces. If anything, Fulci manages to take Romero’s original points about consumerism and the body and like, underline them fifty times with indelible black magic marker.
Sean: Because that scene is all about how Paola’s body has now become a commodity – that’s the horror, at least for me. We see her face, frozen in terror, we see the zombies dispassionately consuming her body…. Whammo blammo, consumerism critiqued. Also, a good zombie-feeding scene has to have disgusting meat and gross organs all swimming around in blood, and this one really delivers. Snyder’s movie is actually quite sanitized. Not like Zombie, where theaters passed out barf bags to the audience as a publicity stunt.
Kristine: It is totally disgusting. Like, one of the grossest movies we have watched, in my opinion.
Kristine: Okay, moving on. So, the underwater fight between the shark and the zombie? Umm… Hahaha! I was dying and couldn’t believe it was really happening on the television screen. Add in Susan’s Italian titties and you have…Well, you have a situation. I’ve decided that, using horror movie algebra, shark/zombie/titties = gonzo realness.
Sean: That shark vs. zombie is obviously the infamous scene from Zombie, and the way that most people know about the movie. As “that movie where the shark fights the zombie.” I have met random people who are not even fans of horror movies, who have been like, “So there’s this movie where a shark and a zombie fight…” and it is crazy. That scene has somehow seeped out of the margins of Italian zombie fandom and into the mainstream culture.
Kristine: Shark v. zombie is more famous than the eyeball gouging?
Sean: My impression is that the eyeball-gouging scene is famous amongst those “in the know” (horror/genre fans and dabblers), but that shark vs. zombie is the thing that leaked out to the Normals.
Kristine: It seems crazy to say this, but as bananas as the shark vs. zombie fight was, the eyeball gouging is the stand-out scene in Zombie. According to me, at least.
Sean: I agree with you on that. But the zombie/shark fight is the pop moment of zombie cinema. Fulci, at that moment, reveals himself as someone who literally talks only in the language of pop and of cinema. (Another big pop moment in this movie, for me: Brian’s Daily Planet t-shirt).
Kristine: I noticed the t-shirt, too! Such a good subtle character-enriching detail.
Sean: Oh, the pop brilliance. Invoking Clark Kent and the whole Superman mythos… The whole thing is too good.
Kristine: I mean, what do you think Fulci’s thought process was in creating/including the shark vs. zombie fight? It certainly is… audacious.
Sean: It is definitely about audacity. It’s also about creating the ultimate pop spectacle. It’s Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast in front of millions.
Kristine: It succeeds there, for sure, as pure entertainment. Like, Lady GaGa needs to take a seat and take notes.
Sean: For sure.
Kristine: Lastly, I liked how decayed and totally disgusting the zombies were and, on a larger scale, the movie was. Remember when the police are looking around the sailboat at the start and there’s maggots and rot and just rank nastiness everywhere? I think that was a really good establishing scene for the look and tone of the entire movie. Ruin. Rot. Disease. I thought that was well done.
Sean: Did you think these zombies had their own distinctive aesthetic and design apart from Romero’s zombies?
Kristine: Yes, I did. Much more decay, rot, disease….
Sean: Because I was thinking that these zombies are so much more Gothic than Romero’s zombies. And that opening on the boat is a great example of a Gothic moment, to me.
Kristine: Interesting. Please explain.
Sean: Well, it actually reinvents one of the classic Gothic openings ever, from Dracula, where a plague ship drifts into harbor, bringing the monster with it. To connect back to your observation about the movie’s pervasive rot and decay, that boat sequence gives us these incredible Gothic details like mud and worms smeared across the piano keys.
Kristine: I have a point about that.
Kristine: To me (sorry if this is obvious, I am just trying to clarify and make sure I understand your point) one of the fundamental elements of the Gothic is a sense of tragedy. That a Gothic place is a place where something happened. A Gothic character is a person that something happened to. If this is what you mean, I agree that the boat, the island and the zombies all evoke that feeling. Something happened here, something truly dreadful, something beyond human comprehension and control. And that is scary and tragic; that is high Gothicism. There is definitely a feeling of victimization on a large scale that I didn’t feel during any of the other zombie movies we’ve watched. Maybe that harkens back to this being a film that’s “about” colonialism? This evil force, this power came and overtook and destroyed an entire people? And the evil also contaminates those who evoke it? Something along those lines. Tell me if I am on the right track so far as your thinking goes.
Sean: Oh god, I totally agree. I mean, the real big twist that Fulci brings to the 1970s zombie movie is that he reincorporates and reintegrates the Caribbean/voodoo origins of the cinematic zombie (which was en vogue in the 1930s and 1940s, but went out of style after that). He takes all that island mythology and all that fraught cultural history and re-injects it back into the gutmuncher formula.
Kristine: But that is one of my main complaints about the film. I love all that, but I feel like Zombie promised a bunch of stuff that was never really delivered.
Sean: I think that it was “delivered,” if you will, in the palpable sense of Gothic dread permeating the movie, which you were just pointing to. That’s Fulci “delivering” on the promise of his own conceit.
Kristine: I agree that he delivers in that way.
Sean: What’s lacking from Zombie, for you?
Sean: Oh, right.
Kristine: As well as characters that I cared about, at all.
Sean: Well, this goes back to the movie’s weird way of talking around the Islanders and never really showing them. This goes back to Menard’s RIMA yawp into the void: “They say it’s something to do with voodoo, some regional witch doctor creates these zombies but I’m sure there’s a natural explanation and I’m determined to find it!” But we never see a witch doctor. He is the only “witch doctor” present, which I think might be the point.
Kristine: I agree with that. Good point. Menard’s insistence being his downfall is vaguely interesting, I suppose, though it’s frustrating that everyone goes along with him.
Sean: But Menard is a link again, back to the Gothic/Victorian tradition. He’s the classic mad scientist (a dark version of André from The Fly, another movie which had a Victorian interest in the uncanny side of scientific inquiry). But even that medical examiner (remember, the one who berates his African-American colleague for not having sharpened his scalpels sufficiently?) connects the movie to the Gothic, where the camera first explores the medical examiner’s office as a creepy laboratory filled with jars of strange foetal masses and weird organs.
Kristine: Agreed. The whole movie’s tone is of decayed Victorian weirdness, made even weirder that its filtered through this very dated 1970s Italian sleaze aesthetic.
Sean: I sort of feel like your instincts about what’s good in the movie are pretty spot-on for someone who claims not to have liked it very much.
Sean: I was wondering if you recognized Dr. Menard? He was the lead in one of our earlier movies…
Kristine: Uh-oh. No. Was he in Eyes without a Face?
Sean: Hint: Markway.
Kristine: I don’t know off the top of my head. : (
Sean: The Haunting! He was Dr. Markway, the object of Eleanor’s affections.
Kristine: No way! Huh. Fun.
Sean: So that’s a bit of trivia. Also – Mia Farrow’s sister? Ridiculously lousy actress. Anne is such a dud, even though she actually gets my favorite line in the movie, towards the end when she’s just like, “I don’t care, I already feel dead.” Like, the perfect utterance for Fulci’s brand of existential dread and apathy. But overall I hated Anne, and wrote the following in my notes: “Anne’s motto? “I don’t know, whatever you think.””
Kristine: I hated Anne. And I really hated Anne and Peter West’s stupid insta-relationship.
Sean: Oh, you mean the relationship that starts with Peter assaulting Anne on the boat after nightfall and he is like, “I’ve been following you” and basically forces her to pretend to have sex with him? “Never again – not another boxcar!” That relationship?
Kristine: When Anne goes “You’ve got a hell of a nerve, you know that?” and Peter’s response is “You’re not so bad yourself”? Hate crime!
Sean: The worst.
Kristine: The worst.
Sean: The ladies in this movie have two modes: bizarre passivity and hysteria.
Sean: What did you think of Susan’s death scene?
Kristine: It was gross how Brian had zero qualms about ordering Peter to put a bullet in her head, especially when he later begs for them to save his life after he is infected and dying. What a turd.
Sean: Hahaha! Our “Superman.”
Kristine: What did you think of Susan’s big scene – strapping scuba equipment around her pussy while Peter and Anne gawk?
Sean: I thought it was Euro-sleaze ridiculousness.
Kristine: It was, but it was pretty fun. Like, I giggled throughout the whole thing.
Sean: I love that Brian and Susan are just like, all about sun and fun. “Two months of fishing, bathing and sunshine.”
Kristine: Yeah, they are Lonely Planet, Tulum types. Lonely Planet/Daily Planet. Ha!
Sean: Also, probably swingers. Right?
Kristine: For sure. When Brian asks Peter and Anne, “How are you on a boat?” and Peter is like, “I can handle a boat” and Anne is like, “I was born on a boat” and then Brian turns to Susan and she gives him the nod of approval? I totally read that as code for swingin’.
Sean: I found Brian very hot in a sleazy ‘70s way and I hated myself for it. But I was like, soooo attracted to him.
Kristine: Yeah, Brian was attractive.
Sean: Peter was disgusting.
Kristine: Peter was not hot. Agreed.
Sean: His hair!? That combover?
Kristine: His everything. No.
Sean: His wan, dying head of hair contrasted against Brian’s virile, beautiful wavy locks was embarrassing to look at.
Kristine: Agreed. This movie positions Brits against Americans and says Americans are hot and Brits are not.
Sean: Completely. So, you’ve seen your first Italian zombie movie. Congrats! I’m glad you were able to appreciate/get into some of the insanity, even if overall it left you cold.
Kristine: One brief aside. The audio on both this and Cemetery Man was fucking dreadful. I was forced to turn on the subtitles for this one, but they were laughably inaccurate. Like, not even trying. So that was irritating.
Sean: Hahaha! Oh, the Italians. Sloppy but passionate.
The Girl’s Rating: Total trash! I’m not sure I loved it AND Totally disgusting
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Pop perfection AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative