Active Essentials: Zombie Flesheaters Part 1
Brains... Brains... moan.... Part 1 of Gabe Powers' list of walking dead essentials
The modern zombie is usually characterized by three key elements:
1.A zombie is a dead person who has been reanimated. Though he or she may appear alive, they are, in fact, dead.
2.A zombie cannot be killed again except by a severe head trauma, like a gunshot.
3.A zombie craves living human flesh, or at the very least, wants to murder living humans, and they relentlessly exist for this reason alone.
These rules were, of course, made to be broken, though for the most part they are the key components to the genre. Another basic rule of some of the best zombie films is that the zombies themselves remain somewhat incidental to the plot. Quite often a bite from a zombie will cause the recipient to become "infected" with the zombie's essence, in effect causing them to become a zombie too. This, along with the thought of grievous bodily harm at the hands of loved ones, is what supplies the modern zombie film with its fear quotient. Zombies are giant, relentless germs that could destroy humanity if left to their own devices.
Because there are different kinds of zombie movies, I've divided my choices into categories, based mostly on sub-genre. I tried to stick to the rule of including films that depict flesheaters only, but have allowed my self some leeway in a few cases. You will notice I've not included Voodoo classics like Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie or Victor Halperin's White Zombie, nor have I included modern takes on the non-horror living dead like Robin Campillo's They Came Back. I apologize to all fans of subtlety.
The Dead Rise: The Romero Films
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
We start at the beginning with the films of the genre's originator, George A. Romero, who came up with the concept of cannibalistic, dead humans with co-writer John Russo in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. The film was made mostly as an experiment in feature length filmmaking, and was not expected to gain any popularity or to make any money (which, because of fumbled rights issues, it basically didn't). Night's eerie mix of documentary style filmmaking, unprofessional actors, shocking (for the time) violence, and scathing political context made it an instant classic. Though nearly forty years old the film is only slightly dated, and still surprisingly potent.
The life of Night of the Living Dead on DVD has been a tough one. Due to a lapse in rights, the film is technically classified as public domain, which means any company who gets their hands on a print can legally release a DVD. This, unfortunately, means that there are a lot of awful, bargain bin copies floating around. Elite Entertainment released the best version, which was more or less a straight dupe of their original Special Edition laser disc release. This version has a sharp transfer, clean audio, and an insightful commentary from Romero and some of the film's actors/producers. This disc was suped up later, with unnecessary 5.1 surround and a few more extras under the Millennium Edition title. Either version is a must own. The Anchor Bay 30th Anniversary Edition incorporated new footage shot by co-creator Russo, and is generally regarded as one of the biggest travesties in DVD history. It is best avoided at all costs.
An honorable mention goes out to make-up maestro Tom Savini's 1990 remake, which cannot be confused for a classic, but is still a nice Bush Senior era take on the story. Scripted by Romero, Night of the Living Dead '90 was made in the hopes of recuperating some of the money lost due to the original film's copyright issues. This adaptation is of personal interest as it was one of my first steps into the horror genre. I have fond memories of watching it on Joe Bob Briggs' Monster Vision when I was about 10 years old. It was one of the first horror movies I didn't simply switch off because my intrigue outweighed my discomfort. Watching it as a jaded adult, the film loses much of its impact but still manages to stick with me mostly for the great performances and well executed (if not somewhat stilted) gore effects.
Dawn of the Dead (aka: Zombi, 1978)
Dawn of the Dead may be my favourite film of all time. The first review I ever wrote for the site was of Anchor Bay's truly essential Ultimate Edition release. It still stands to this day as one of my longest reviews. What follows is a drastically edited version of that review.
The horrible events of Night of the Living Dead continue. Every dead body that is not properly disposed of gets up and kills. The people they kill get up and kill. The zombie plague has pushed the public into a state of Marshal Law, and it doesn’t look like things are getting better any time soon. The dead will walk the earth, and the living can do nothing but run and hide. Four survivors — Steven (a helicopter pilot/traffic reporter), Fran (a local news producer), Peter, and Roger (newly acquainted SWAT members) — commandeer a helicopter and escape the big city where the living dead congregate in the thousands. They search in vain for someplace safe; someplace the epidemic hasn’t yet spread. They end up in an abandoned shopping mall. At first it’s just a stop for supplies, but soon the travellers find themselves seduced by a consumer paradise where all they could ever need is theirs for the taking.
The Mad Max films bore witness to dusty landscapes, where all traces of society had been blown to ruins and humanity had started over as a new, improved, more exiting breed of animal. There were no real laws, police, or governments, just rugged survival and a Darwinian battle for supremacy. This is a rather (admittedly skewed) romantic rendition of the apocalypse. Dawn of the Dead, in contrast, just rots. It shows us Judgement Day in flux, not the action packed after-effects. Before 1978, there hadn’t been many horror films (sci-fi perhaps) that presented such an epic scope of horror. Our four protagonists represent a very small portion of the goings on in this morbid universe, but we as an audience know that this kind of thing is happening everywhere. In every part of the world there are people struggling to survive this Judgement Day, slowly losing their humanity through escalating acts of violence against each other. Like many great horror stories, the line between humanity and monster perpetually blurs until nothing is left.
Then there’s the humour. Some of it is rather subtle, like when the cast exit JC Penny’s wearing fur coats out of sheer boredom. Some of it isn’t so subtle, like the zombie vs. biker pie fight that comes out of nowhere. A really jaded and/or morbid viewer could actually see the film as purely comedic, where even the graphic violence is so over the top that it has to be funny. ‘Look, that man just had his guts pulled out and eaten by a bunch of moaning, groping ghouls. Hilarious!’ The humour is there, no mater how ghoulish the viewer’s outlook. According to the DVD commentary, Romero really wanted to make a romp (he uses the word a lot), a more light-hearted answer to the utterly nihilistic Night of the Living Dead.
Personally, however, it’s the drama and the message that make Dawn of the Dead a classic for me. On the surface, there is the obvious metaphor of mass consumerism creating zombies of humanity. Under this there’s a metaphor carried over from Night of the third world and poor consuming the wealthy and the ignorant. This is abundantly clear in the opening sequences where the Marshal Law government enters a project-housing complex to exterminate their dead. They are over run, and suffer heavy casualties. The casualties get up and kill them, making more casualties, and so on. It’s fascinating that in the world of zombies, alliances can change with a single bite.
Way back in April of 2002 Anchor Bay Entertainment announced the release of an ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Dawn of the Dead. I was overjoyed. I marked the date on my calendar. I made my friends mark the date on their calendars, whether they wanted to or not. I was going to throw a party to celebrate a cleaner transfer, crisp sound, numerous documentaries, and commentaries. Most of all I was going to celebrate never having to flip the DVD halfway through the damn film ever again. Alas, the sands of time continued pouring through the hourglass, and no DVD appeared. After two long years of waiting I had all but given up hope for that Ultimate Dawn of the Dead DVD. I’d be stuck flipping that DVD for the rest of my life. Then, in September of 2004, Anchor Bay finally made good on their promise.
There are three versions of the film included in this four-disc set, and each one has been digitally re-mastered. The US Theatrical Cut (apparently Romero’s preferred version) is the best looking of the three, presented in its theatrical presentation ratio 1.85:1 in anamorphic widescreen, and is marked as part of Anchor Bay’s ‘Divamax’ series. The colours are rich and bold, much nicer than the older discs which were mostly washed out. It appears that some of the colours have even been altered, particularly the blood red, which is great because it always looked a bit off in previous releases (kind of Pepto-Bismol pink). This is the best Dawn of the Dead ever has, will, or should look.
Aside from the presence of two alternate versions of the film, Anchor Bay saw fit to supply loads of commentaries, advertising materials, and two solid documentaries, making this a truely indespensible DVD set, and one worthy of the title 'Ultimate Edition'.
Read my full review here.
Day of the Dead (1985)
In Day of the Dead humanity has all but lost its war against the ever-swelling masses of the living dead. Warm-blooded folks are forced into hiding by their zombie counterparts, who now outnumber them more than 400,000 to one. But like the previous films in the cycle it is not the zombies that offer up the real antagonism, but other living humans. When an Army protected, underground science lab dedicated to finding a "cure" for the menace is left without orders or contact for too long, there is dissent within the ranks. Darwin's law dictates that the fittest survive, and when left to their own devices the military bullies take advantage of their physical strength and numbers. There is no room for Science in a might-over-mind dictatorship, and the compound researchers are left fighting for their lives against an ever-angry military presence.
Romero offered up his socio-political views on the 1980s with the darkest and goriest of his initial trilogy of 'Dead' films. The film was released the same year as Dan O'Bannon's comedic and hip take on former Romero compadre John Russo's novel entitled Return of the Living Dead. O'Bannon's film was met with enthusiasm, and grossed a hefty sum, whereas Romero's film was dead in the water (pun is, of course, intended). Even fans of Night and Dawn weren't exactly ecstatic about the finished film. The irony is, of course, that the public treatment of these two films was very much in keeping with Romero's metaphor: Americans in the 1980s weren't big on being told what was wrong with them, they simply wanted to be entertained.
Day of the Dead was the result of a studio refusal to back an unrated production. Romero had written an epic script but was left to choose between toning down the production and toning down the gore. Most fans would agree that he made the right decision in going with a more modestly budgeted film that was true to the style of the previous two films. After the initial disappointment died away, not to mention the blind apathy of the '80s, Romero's third zombie opus was reevaluated positively by viewers and critics alike. Some fans even consider it their favourite of the series.
The professional double (and sometime sextuple) dippers at Anchor Bay studios re-released the Romero's third living dead film in 2003. The two-disc set wasn't exactly overflowing with features, but was and is effectively the best version on the market. The disc's remastered audio and video, along with an entertaining commentary from the ever warm hearted Romero. Purests have raised concern over unexplained dialogue changes, but to my mind these were very minor. Those who own older releases may want to hold onto them for these reasons.
See what Paul Greenwood had to say about the R2 Arrow Films release, and what Brian Kelley had to say about the R1 Anchor Bay SE.
Land of the Dead (2005)
Romero finally created his fourth installment in the series last year, and though met with plenty of resistance, I found it to be an excellent continuation of the series. Read my full Unrated Director's Cut review here, and if you really didn't like the film just pretend I didn't include it.
The Depressed Dead: Fulci's “Trilogy”
Zombie (aka: Zombi 2, Zombie Flesheaters 1979)
Lucio Fulci first foray into the lives of head-hunched and haunted dead people was just as much a watershed moment for the genre as Romero's films, but for different reasons. Though lacking in a credible story, the film is caked with atmosphere that no big budget blood-feast could ever buy. Zombie is another film I've already reviewed in depth for the site, and an edited version of that review follows.
A derelict boat enters New York Harbor. When the Coast Guard boards the ship, they find no crew aboard, just a mess of half-eaten food, body parts, and lots of creepy looking bugs. Just when they think they stand to make a big bonus for bringing the ship into port, a mysterious and blood soaked fat man breaks through a locked cabin door and kills one of the officers. The other officer has no choice but to shoot the man, who falls off the boat and into the harbour. A local periodical sends out their resident British reporter to cover the macabre story, and soon circumstances lead the him and the daughter of the boat's owner in search of an elusive Caribbean island. Upon reaching island, they discover that the dead are coming back to life as flesh eating zombies. Now they have to fight their way back to their boat, and off the cursed island.
Zombi 2 was originally produced in response to the European box office earnings of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was re-edited for the region by producer Dario Argento and released under the title of Zombi. The two movies ended up being entirely different, despite the implied sequel in the title of the latter, which was made within a year of the formers’ release. Known simply as Zombie in the US, Lucio Fulci’s film is a much moodier affair than Romero’s masterpiece, with less emphasis on social commentary and black humour, and more emphasis on classic zombie themes and straight out gore.
Zombie is not exactly what an average moviegoer would call a ‘good movie’. There are stark inaccuracies: reanimated corpses of Spanish Conquistadores still have lots of rotting flesh, despite being dead for hundreds of years. Silly situations are sold as exciting ones (a lethargic shark and zombie fight), and the dialog can be very bad (‘…The skipper of that ship must be a real turkey.’), but despite of all these inherit flaws it remains a loveable movie. Like most Lucio Fulci films, and in turn most Italian horror films, it has beautiful cinematography and craftsmanship. Every shot and camera move is lovingly composed, no matter how fantastic or ridiculous the events unfolding. Every moment is played dead serious, without the wink-wink sensibilities of most modern American horror films. There is a very distinct overall feel of dread in this world where even the zombies walk with their heads down, like depressed, dirt-caked mental patients.
The appeal (or lack of appeal) of Zombie can be best nut shelled by its most ‘celebrated’ sequence (spoiler warning). Zombies attack Olga Karlotos while home alone. She starts the scene showering (with a mirror behind her so both her nude front and back can appear simultaneously) while a dead, blue hand gropes the foreground window framed in front of her. Having not noticed the window groping, she dries off, gets dressed and takes a pill to calm her nerves. A sudden sound (like a snake's rattle) alerts her to the impending danger, and she quickly attempts to barricade her self within a nearby bedroom. Just when everything seems safe again, a rotting hand bursts through the door and grabs her by the hair. Olga is then slowly pulled into a large splinter of door, beautiful eyeball first. The effect is very convincing, especially considering the budget constraints of the picture.
While this is an exciting, even enticing sequence, one can’t help but admit that it’s more than just a little gratuitous. To move the plot along all the movie needed was for the zombies to kill and eat Olga. Killing and eating is a violent act, but it doesn’t usually need to involve an erotic bathing sequence or massive ocular damage. It could be argued that the showering could be perceived as a reflection of the actresses vulnerability, but the ocular attack (common in Fulci films) really doesn’t deem itself necessary. In spite of action that any first year screenwriting student would tell you were unnecessary, this is the most memorable sequence in the movie.
Zombie had already been released twice by Anchor Bay studios, both times with the same decent looking (but rather artefact-filled) non-anamorphic transfer and lack of meaty extras. Shriek Show and Blue Underground both cleaned the film to a point of impeccable clarity, and the film ended up looking too good. There were glimpse of dirt and grain here and there, but for the most part, Zombie looks like a new movie. The film had been cleaned to death. The fine detail and lightened images really show certain appliances (specifically the gushing neck wounds) for what they are, just special effects. Several gore effects lose their mystique, and that really works against the appeal of the movie. The greater crime though, is that Fulci’s trademark dusty, gloomy landscapes have become sort of unclean midday beachscapes. Several night scenes are so much lighter that they now appear as day scenes.
Shriek Show's disc was a special edition, whereas Blue Underground's simutaneous release was more bare-bones. The extras on Shreik Show's two disc set were worth the purchase, especially considering the fact that both releases can be found for essentually the same price, but there was nothing truely indespesible about either release. The best bit is the feature documentary entitled ‘Building A Better Zombie’, which runs longer than the film itself. Though perhaps not the 'definitive edition' some may've liked (due mostly to video problems), this release has twice the special features of any other.
Read my entire analysis of Shriek Show's 25th anniversary edition release (under the Italian title of Zombi 2) here.
City of the Living Dead (aka: Paura nella città dei morti viventi, Gates of Hell, 1980)
After the mega success of his Dawn of the Dead rip off (some even claim that Zombie out sold Romero's film), Lucio Fulci found the time to make three more zombie themed films. This time the director was able to experiment with the nearly plotless succession of horrific images he'd longed to attempt. 'Pure cinema' was what he called it. City of the Living Dead is the grossest of these films, and some might say the creepiest.
The story is psudo-Lovecraftian, involving a damned priest whose pre-credit suicide opens one of the seven Gates of Hell (the film's US release title) in the imaginary town of Dunwitch. When Mary Woodhouse (played by British actress Catriona MacColl, one of the constants in the loose trilogy) witnesses the suicide via psychic séance, she drops dead. Reporter Peter Bell (played by b-movie icon Christopher George) becomes interested in her death, and happens to be on hand when she comes back to life minutes before being buried alive. Our heroes journey to the town of Dunwitch to stop the evil undead priest, and save the world.
City of the Living Dead makes zero sense and its dialogue is often wooden as Pinocchio, but Fulci's nightmare vision is undeniable. Though most famous for his filming of the impalement of Olga Karloto's eye in Zombie (arguably the most iconic image in Italian splatter history), Fulci really outdid himself in this later film's two most stomach churning sequences. In one instance, the demonic priest performs a bit of coitus interruptus on a pair of unsuspecting teenagers, played by Fulci fave Daniela Doria and soon to be classic Italian director Michele Soavi. He hypnotizes Doria (the meaning of this power is unimportant) causing her to enter a trance state where she cries bloody tears. While Soavi helplessly looks on, Doria manages to slowly regurgitate her entire intestinal track. Later, town miscreant and murder suspect Bob (played by favoured Italian whipping boy Giovanni Lombardo Radice, aka: John Morghen) is cornered by an angry father who slowly presses Bob's head into a power drill.
Between the maggot showers, earthquakes, and scenes of suffocation by worms, it's sometimes easy to forget that zombies play an important part in the film. Though possessing supernatural powers and only once seen eating human flesh (for the most part they seem to rip off the backs of victim's heads), the final half of the film sees Dunwitch overrun with the undead. Fulci, in his own special way, effectively creates a different kind of zombie, one that sticks somewhat to Romero's film ("When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth"), while emitting a definite Lovecraftian eeriness.
Anchor Bay's North American DVD release of City of the Living Dead is dry on special features, but gets the A/V right. The anamorphically enhanced image is clean, much cleaner than the dingy VHS versions circulating throughout the world, but doesn't over do it, maintaining just enough dirt, grain, and darkness to maintain the film's nightmarish tone. The 5.1 audio remix is one of the best of its kind, effectively enveloping the viewer without too much over the top addition.
The Beyond (aka: E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'aldilà, Seven Doors of Death, 1981)
Fulci's City of the Living Dead follow up is widely considered his best film by fans, including Quentin Tarentino who re-released the film under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late '90s. With the exception of one excruciating and overlong tarantula attack scene, I agree with the general consensus. The Beyond takes the plotless excesses of the director's previous film and cranks the hallucinations up to eleven. The film is so dreamy that trying to make sense out of it is absolutely maddening.
The, ahem, plot involves (to quote Roger Ebert, who hated the film on its re-release, "excuse me for a moment, while I laugh uncontrollably at having written the words 'the plot involves'...") another gateway to hell ready to open in the basement of a creepy New Orleans hotel, which Catriona MacColl has just inherited. When a contractor tries to fix the flooded basement the gate is opened, and strange things begin to happen all around the city. The Beyond is less H.P. Lovecraft, more Hieronymus Bosch, with a splash of The Sentinel for good measure.
Like City of the Living Dead, the zombies in The Beyond serve more as elements of the evil forces plaguing our heroes than characters, or even living dead flesheaters. Time and space seem to be torn asunder as these rotting beings warp throughout the city at will. They, and their living counterparts often appear back in various rooms of the cursed hotel after being removed. This unexplained phenomena goes hand in hand with the film's many "creative deaths", including the aforementioned death by tarantulas, a direct rip off of Suspiria's seeing eye dog secret attack, and an impromptu death by a precariously placed acid vat. Fulci seems to have taken the idea of evil incarnate killing through these "accidental" means from Donner's The Omen and made them absurdly graphic, slow, and unimaginable to the nth possible degree. A common criticism is that most of the characters in these films would make it out alive if they just removed themselves from harm's way.
Needless to say that The Beyond isn't a movie made for everyone, but it is an ample follow up to Zombie and City of the Living Dead, even if it's not pound for pound as gory. Fulci's command of gothic supernatural imagery is eerily beautiful, and from even a salivating fan's point of view it really was all down hill from here for the Godfather of Gore. I was personally shocked when in 2004 the US Bravo network included this obscure little title in their 100 most scary movie moments, and was even more shocked when they showed the exploding head of a preteen girl in all its visceral glory on a standard cable network broadcast.
Most DVD releases of The Beyond are similar, but the best seems to be, again, Anchor Bay's R1 release, which they co-produced with Grindhouse releasing. Like Media Blasters' release of Zombi 2 Fulci vision is somewhat compromised, and some of the ace Giannetto De Rossi effects are overexposed due to digital cleansing. The 5.1 track is also a bit on the artificial side, but Fabio Frizzi's melancholy score (probably the composer's best work) sounds great, and there is a much needed bass boost on the low end. Special features are a bit on the amateur side, including an incredibly cheesy Necrophagia music video shot in what appears to be the band's basement. There are a couple of Easter egg trailers to be found throughout the sharp menus, however.
The House by the Cemetery (aka: Zombie Hell House, 1981)
Probably the biggest cheat on my whole list (had I officially included it), Fulci's final zombie epic is the tale of a self-made zombie who never once eats human flesh. Basically I've written a little something about it because Fulci's fan base insists on referring to it as the last part of a three film series. Personally I'd prefer to consider Zombie the first part and The Beyond the last part, but I digress. In a way The House by the Cemetery actually brings something new to the table in that the film's zombie isn't so much on of the living dead as an ancient man that refuses to die. Dr. Freudenstien (a not so clever name) lives secretly in the basement of his estate and survives by murdering visitors and harvesting their organs.
Of course that's not the whole story, which concerns Catriona MacColl moving into the titular house with her husband and son. Her husband is a professor trying to continue the work of the assumed dead Doctor, and he sees fit to drag his family to the house to do it, putting them in immediate mortal danger. In a direct rip off of The Shinning MacColl's son, Bob, is warned away from the house by a spooky little ghost girl, but his cries of protest go unnoted. How the family can possibly fail to notice a heavy breathing zombie-man in their cellar until the last act is immaterial, as is the bizarrely ambiguous finale.
Again, Anchor Bay seems to have us covered on the DVD front, with a clean (but not too clean) anamorphic transfer, and a more than serviceable Dolby Surround track. The only thing missing from the disc are extras, unless one is honestly excited by the prospect of a few trailers. There is a Dutch release from EC Entertainment that refers to its transfer as Ultrabit, but I've not seen it myself and cannot vouch for it's actual improvement over Anchor Bay's disc. The folks over at DVDcompare.com list an Italian release with a decent collection of extras, but these are not available with English subtitles. Readers should avoid 'budget' releases, if not for quality reasons alone, because they often contain the US video cut, which is missing footage and edits some scenes out of order (making the senseless picture even more senseless).
The Spaghetti Dead: The Best Euro Riffs
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (aka: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti, Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, Don't Open the Window, 1974)
This early Spanish/Italian co produced entree in the post-Romero Euro-zombie lottery might have gone entirely unnoticed had it not been for its banned status in the U.K. during the Video Nasties crisis. Unlike most films in the sub-genre, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was made in response to Night of the Living Dead rather than Dawn of the Dead. When its age is taken into account, its by-the-numbers Dawn-rip style is surprising. The film looks and acts as if it were made 5 or 6 years after it was initially released.
The story follows the adventures of two put-upon strangers exploring the English countryside who happen upon a few flesh-craving ghouls. It seems the dead are being brought back by a device meant to destroy crop-eating insects by attacking their tiny nervous systems. The insects are then expected to eat themselves into oblivion. The duo is trailed by a fascist cop who’s convinced of the "dirty hippies" direct involvement in the zombie related deaths. Though very run of the mill at its base, Let Seeping Corpses Lie puts itself ahead of the pack with gorgeous green photography and a unique use of Stereo sound, not to mention some juicy pre-Savani gore.
Anchor Bay's DVD release is pitch perfect, with only a lack of meaty (yes, again, pun intended) extras holding it back. The U.K. release is said to be the same, plus a few extras. The video presentation is wonderful, providing lush greens and sharp reds without losing any of the film's grimy essence. The already impressive Stereo soundtrack has been remixed into a surprisingly natural and effective 5.1 Dolby Digital track. This one can be hard to find these days, but is worth a look for every zombie coinsure.
Zombie Holocaust (aka: Dr. Butcher, M.D., 1979)
In some ways Zombie Holocaust is the ne plus ultra of schlocky Italian cinema. It is exploitative on every level, from graphic (yet unconvincing) violence, to gratuitous nudity and racist depictions of imaginary third world peoples. It also conspires to rip off dozens of previously successful, and ultimately better films. Not content to simply take advantage of the (at the time) newly developed Italian zombie craze, the film also features living human cannibals fresh from the Ruggero Deadato/Umberto Lenzi inspired craze that was slowly coming to an end. The film also features actors from previously popular exploitation flicks, including two from Fulci's money bagging Zombie.
Above all, Zombie Holocaust is cheap, cheap, cheap, yet somehow the film manages an uncanny charm, and is infinitely more watchable than the majority of the country's bottom-of-the-barrel output. Oh, and the dialogue is to die for, including a bit where scientist Alexandra Delli Colli, who looks about as scientifically adept as a drowned fish, insists that every primitive culture has engaged in cannibalism, without exception.
The film starts off as most Italian cannibal/zombie movies, with an impossibly daffy anthropologist, a cop, and of course, a news reporter, leaving the ever popular city of New York to pursue interesting cannibal occurrences on a forgotten island somewhere in the third world. The film's first half features surprisingly innocent native cannibal action (no real-life animal slaughter here), and in a way the appearance of zombies almost comes as a small surprise (had it not been for the spoiler laced title, of course). I'm sort of cheating here, as these zombies end up not eating flesh and are effectively the good Dr. Butcher's slaves (to use the false character name of the hilarious U.S. release's title, the M.D. stands for Medical Deviate), but I figure the undeniable Italian feel of the film affords me some wiggle room.
Shriek Show's DVD is a prime example of the polishing of the preverbal turd. The anamorphically enhanced video is a bit on the fuzzy side, but Zombie Holocaust has always been a video favourite, and to clean a transfer would ruin some of the fun. Included is the alternate U.S. video opening sequence featuring zombie footage from an American produced short entitled Tales to Tear Your Heart Out, and a brief discussion with the footage's director, including his thoughts on the finished film that utilized his footage. This disc also features the original score, rather than the revamped Dr. Butcher electronic garble.
Other classics in the classically awful Euro-zombie sub-genre include Hell of the Living Dead, Burial Ground, and City of the Walking Dead, all of which can be found on DVD in most regions.
Cemetery Man (aka: Dellamore Dellamorte, 1992)
Here's another film and DVD I've covered in great length during a standard review. As before, what follows is a truncated version of my original review.
Buffalora cemetery has a little problem. For some reason the dead have decided to rise from their graves 7 days after death. Ultra apathetic caretaker Francesco Dellamorte has taken it upon himself to simply shoot these flesh craving zombies in the head and rebury them, rather than fill out the correct forms. Besides, reporting the situation could lose Dellamorte his job.
Frustrated yet content in his lot, the caretaker continues his detached existence, with only a mentally retarded, mute assistant Gnaghi (pronounced Nah-Gee) to keep him company. But everything changes the day a beautiful and unnamed woman enters his cemetery after losing her elderly husband. Dellamorte is smitten, and an affair ensues.
Director Michele Soavi was called the savior of Italian fantasy cinema when he made his fourth film, Dellmore Dellamorte (Of Love, Of Death, also a play on the main character's full name), which was retitled for American distribution as Cemetery Man. Soavi had grown as a filmmaker under the wing of Italian genre greats Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Aristide Massaccessi (Joe D'Amato), and was a contemporary of Argento protégé Lamberto Bava (son of Argento mentor Mario Bava), and worked for these maestros in various capacities.
His first intention was to be an actor, and can be seen losing the back of his skull in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, killing girls while dressed in drag in the younger Bava's A Blade in the Dark (oops, spoiler), and getting a knife in the gut in Argento's Opera. Soavi worked as first and second assistant directors on several Italian fantasy/horror productions, and made his directorial début with Dario Argento's World of Horror, a documentary on his egomaniacal and eccentric mentor.
All but ignored by Argento, it was sleaze merchant Massaccessi that finally offered the fledgling director a chance to strut his stuff on the ace slasher flick, Stage fright (aka: Deliria, Bloody Bird). The film was a modest success and proved to the hesitant Argento that Soavi had what it took to make memorable feature films. Soavi's second break came when he was hired by American based enfant terrible Terry Gilliam to act as second unit director on his doomed production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (this collaboration was reinvigorated on Gilliam's equally doomed The Brothers Grimm 17 years later).
Soavi then made a pair of films working under producer/co-writer Argento, a man notorious for harping on his directors when acting in a production role. The Church, the pairs first collaboration, was originally intended to be a second sequel to Argento and Bava's successful Demons series, but due to varying factors (clashing egos, Argento's short attention span, etc), the project was morphed into a sort of Demons/ In the Name of the Rose/ Rosemary's Baby hybrid.
This was followed by another shaky collaboration on The Sect[i] ([i]La Setta, another visually appealing, but muddled production concerning the birth of the Anti-Christ (it seems Soavi and Argento are real fans of Polanski)). Soavi then proceeded to separate himself from Argento, his specific reasons are revealed during an interview for Alan Jones' Profondo Argento, the book that made me realize how much of a self-centered brat Dario Argento could be in his everyday life.
It was around this time that Soavi began to be praised by his peers as the savior of the dwindling Italian film industry, and he began production on a loose adaptation of Italy's number one comic book series, Dylan Dog. The character of Dellemorte is visually based on Dylan (ironically the comic character was actually based visually on actor Rupert Everett), the comic actually has more in common with Mike Mignola's Hellboy series (which was, of course adapted rather faithfully itself by Guillermo Del Toro in 2003). Cemetery Man (as I shall refer to it from here on out to avoid further confusion) is a much more layered and cerebral story than the plight of Dylan Dog. One might refer to it as a psychoanalytical zombie movie.
Around the second act Cemetery Man, in true Italian fashion, loses interest in telling a linear, plot driven story, and begins to pile on subtext and mystery by the gallon. Dellamorte's sanity comes into question, as does that of the audience. Are we experiencing the story through the eyes of a schizophrenic, or does the world actually revolve around our protagonist. Does the world even exist? Is this the afterlife? The film raises more questions than ten Agatha Christy novels, and refuses to answer any of them. Every time appears that Dellamorte's truth will be revealed, another question is raised in its stead, and yet somehow Soavi manages to make the film fascinating rather than the umitigatedly frustrating mess it should be.
Visually, the only thing that holds Cemetery Man back is its modest budget, but Soavi manages to make the best of it. Several key frames are obvious representations of works of fine art from various backgrounds, including paintings, comics, and other films. The scene where Dellamorte and "She" (the character is never named officially, but does carry names in various incarnations) first kiss through a red piece of silk fabric, while the camera longingly wraps around them, may very well be the most sensual shot I've ever seen committed to film (though there are quite a few Wan Kar Wai films I've still not seen). This baroque romance in the face of graphic violence, coupled with the dreamy, avant-garde quality and loose narrative make Cemetery Man a true classic and a truly original film. There is nothing quite like it in any genre or any country.
Anchor Bay's delayed R1 release is, from what I understand, the best looking version of this elusive film on DVD. Though the black levels are uneven, grain is prevalent through-out, most viewers should be more than satisfied. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is a bit thin, but dialogue is descenable, and Cemetery Man was never meant to be much of an audio assault. Unfortunately Anchor Bay didn't see fit to go all out with special features, but the disc's brief featurette is good enough for those new to the realms of Michele Soavi, though basically I just summed up it's statements in my review without even knowing it.
Read my entire review here.
Stay tuned for Part Two of Essential Zombie Flesheaters, which will cover zombie comedies, Asian zombies, and modern takes on the genre that belong in every Zombiephiles collection.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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