Zombie: Ultimate Edition (US - BD)
Gabe revisits Fucli's classic, complete with comparison caps from 4 versions...
A derelict boat floats into New York Harbor. When the harbour patrol boards the ship, they find no crew aboard, just a mess of half-eaten food, body parts, and piles of creepy looking bugs. As they start preparations to bring the ship into port, a mysterious, blood soaked fat man breaks out of a locked cabin door, and chews a gaping hole in one of the cop’s necks. The other officer has no choice but to shoot the advancing cannibal, who falls off the boat and into the water. These events draw questions, and one New York periodical sends out their resident British reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to cover the story. Circumstances lead Peter to Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the man who owns the derelict boat, and soon the two embark on a search in the Caribbean Islands. Once in the Caribbean they enlist the help of Brian ('Al Cliver' aka Pier Luigi Conti) and Susan (Auretta Gay), a vacationing couple with a boat, who agree to help them search for an elusive island named Matool, where Anne’s father was practicing experimental medicine. When they finally find Matool they meet Anne’s father’s partner Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), and discover that the island’s dead are coming back to life as flesh eating zombies. With their boat broken in the harbour, the new friends are forced to fight their way off the cursed island.
In a perfect world this review would be my 1000th for DVDActive.com. (Well, in a perfect world Lucio Fulci would still be alive and I’d be watching this movie with him in a private theater surrounded by beautiful women that love me for my mind, but I’m aiming low.) As it stands this will settle somewhere in the low 900s. But there’s still a large sense of coming full circle here. Just a little over seven years I applied for a job on a British owned website called DVDAnswers.com (I know, what a boring name) with a mock-up review for Media Blaster’s imprint Shriek Show’s special edition release of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (released under the Italian title Zombi 2 to avoid confusion with Blue Underground’s same day release). For some reason Chris, Tom and Mal liked what they saw, and I was brought on to the site. A few months later I cleaned up that review a little bit, and it was the second review of mine that ever went live on the site (read it here and marvel at how terrible the other applicants must have been). Normally I’m lazy enough that I just cut, paste, and slightly re-edit an older review when I’m presented with a new release, but this is a special occasion (and that old review is so old), so I’m going to try to re-work this a little more explicitly.
Lucio Fulci is one of three filmmakers, including Dario Argento and Mario Bava, which I’ve studied fervently in an effort to approach something of an expert on the subject. I am not an expert, but I’m definitely well versed on the subject of Fulci’s career, which, by the way, is much harder than becoming well versed in the careers of Argento and Bava based on the sheer quantity of the director’s output. Fulci is credited as first unit director on 56 titles, running from 1959 to 1991, and spanning just about every genre imaginable (at least half these titles are not available on any digital media, and about a dozen of them are not available even on VHS in the United States). But it was his horror output that Fucli will be forever remembered, and the man whose fans know him as ‘The Godfather of Gore’ broke through the international glass ceiling with Zombie, and enjoyed a brief period of creative freedom following the film’s surprise success. As a working director for hire, not an auteur with a history of any kind of power in Italy, Fulci aimed to please the masses with Zombie, which started life as a bogus sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Rather than compete with Romero’s complex themes and characterizations, Fulci aimed to one-up Dawn of the Dead’s taboo crushing gore. With a little help from make-up designer Giannetto De Rossi, Fulci obliterated audience expectations for the sheer quantity of graphic violence, and for the most part this is enough to secure the film’s place in horror movie history.
Even as a hardened (some might even say obsessive) fan, I have to be honest – Zombie isn’t an objectively good movie. It’s brimming with awkwardly overlong sequences, features an almost mind-numbingly dumb storyline, and the dialogue is brutally asinine. It isn’t even Fulci’s best. The director would achieve greater personal goals as a filmmaker with Zombie’s follow-ups City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, both of which were closer to his concept of ‘pure film’, and both of which are more genuinely nightmarish. Those looking for more conventionally successful films in the director’s oeuvre should focus his gialli thrillers (specifically Don’t Torture a Duckling, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The Psychic), his westerns (specifically Four of the Apocalypse, They Died with Their Boots On and Massacre Time), or his historical drama Beatrice Cenzi. These films all exhibit stronger narrative skills, better performances, and the director’s penchant for widescreen compositions. The value of Zombie isn’t in atmosphere or even overall achievement, it’s in the odd mix of immaculate genre execution and laughable sloppiness. For every sweeping, brilliant camera move, there is a cheap trick, like a single molotov cocktail explosion awkwardly recycled to appear as many. Zombie is both genuinely good, and so-bad-it’s-good, often within the exact same frame.
This unique quality is best embodied in the film’s two most celebrated sequences. In the first our heroes take a break from their hunt for the elusive island of Matool so that Susanne may go scuba diving. Topless. In a thong. Before we can get to the truly gorgeous underwater photography Fulci pauses to film every supple inch actress Auretta Gay as she somewhat competently preps for her dive. Topless. In a thong. Entirely aware that he’s placating the horny men in the audience Fulci occasionally cuts to Peter, who desperately ties to feign disinterest in the sight, while deflecting accusing glances from Anne. Meanwhile, Susanne’s husband Brian appears entirely unfazed by the event, and continues to shovel food into his bearded gob. Having checked gratuitous nudity off his list of requirements for the time being, the director is free to celebrate Auretta Gay’s figure in a more graceful light as she swims like a mermaid through colourful coral reefs. After a break for awe and wonder, danger is reintroduced to the narrative as Susanne runs afoul of a shark. While hiding from the beast (who looks pretty lethargic) she’s grabbed from behind by a zombie that happens to be hanging out along the reef. The zombie and the shark then engage in mortal combat. The actual scene is more amusing than exciting, but it’s an inspired moment of exploitation hucksterism that preys upon the audience’s need to see monsters fight. In a truly shocking twist, parts of this scene (a scene from a movie that was banned in several countries only three decades before) were used in a Microsoft television commercial that aired on major network television.
The second celebrated scene is more skillfully put together, and is the ideal example of Fulci’s better than expected approach to lowest common denominator filmmaking. The scene features actress Olga Karlatos, who plays Dr. Menard’s hysterical wife Paola, is left alone on the ‘safe’ side of the island. Since there hasn’t been a nude scene for several minutes, and won’t be another one for the rest of the film, Paola is reintroduced while taking a shower. Fulci cleverly sets a mirror behind the actress, making it possible to film her nude body from the front and back in the same frame, and also films through a window for full voyeuristic effect. But again the audience isn’t given too much time to ogle Karlatos’ assets, as a dead, blue hand raises into frame and gropes the window glass. Having not noticed the window grope, Paola gets dressed, and is taking a pill to calm her nerves when a loud noise alerts her to the impending danger. She runs to her room, where she’s forced to de-finger an attacking zombie with the door, which she then barricades with a large piece of furniture. The attack is suspenseful without showing too much of the monster, and the barricading of the door effectively relaxes and audience that has been conditioned to assume furniture offers at least temporary refuge from oncoming monsters. The real genius of the scene comes next, starting with a crackerjack scare cue as the attacking zombie’s hand breaks through the door and firmly grabs Paola by the hair. As she screams, the rotten hand slowly pulls her open eyeball into a long, ragged splinter on the edge of the break in the door. Fulci extends the scene just long enough to relish in the absurdity of the moment, and gives a virgin audience false hope that perhaps he’ll cut away before the ooey-gooey impact. There is no cut away. Every agonizing second is captured in loving, lurid detail.
The first time I saw Zombie it was in the form of T-Z Video/EDDE’s VHS release (under the non-title Zombie 2). The image was practically black, and the 1.33:1 framing cropped the hell out of Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s 2.35:1 compositions. I got the gist of the film’s look, but was mostly greeted with blobs of light and dark, and maddening close-ups of the bridges of actor’s noses. Soon after I watched the slightly better Wizard VHS release, but was still left mostly confused by grit and bad framing. Years later Anchor Bay released a widescreen VHS, and soon after a matching non-anamorphic DVD. These were improvements, largely thanks to the simple inclusion of the full scope aspect ratio. The overall image on both releases was still quite muddled, including bits of major print damage that actually led to minor cuts, and tinting issues. Then in 2004 both Blue Underground and Shriek Show released DVDs featuring new, anamorphic transfers. These were roughly the same, though the Shriek Show release was a little more vibrant, and the Blue Underground release was progressive scan. Zombie has been a hotly anticipated Blu-ray since Blue Underground started re-releasing their catalogue titles in HD in 2008. Clearly Blue Underground head Bill Lustig knew this, because he made it clear from the outset that extra money and effort was going to be put into this new transfer, which wouldn’t only be featured on the Blu-ray release, but be a part of a reasonably large scale (for a cult flick) theatrical re-release. This 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer has been scanned from the original negative in 2K resolution, and then restored using the company’s patented magic wand technology (which may or may not exist).
A lot has changed over the past seven years. When I first reviewed the Shriek Show release for DVDAnswers I mostly complained about the sharpened and lightened quality of the transfer, bemoaning the loss of those dark and muddy transfers I ‘grew-up’ with. These days I’ve been turned towards the thought process that says films should be seen as the director intended, and Fulci probably didn’t intend the film to be miscoloured and muddy. Unfortunately I was a year from born upon Zombie’s first run, so I have to make assumptions in comparing this crystal clear and finely scrubbed new transfer to Fulci’s original intensions. Zombie’s production design isn’t quite as excessively textured as City of the Living Dead, but there’s still plenty of busy background business that goes missing in standard definition. HD doesn’t make as much of a difference in close-up details, but when blown up to big screen sizes a decent amount of previously lost fine texture is revealed. These sharper details are a mixed blessing for the film’s special effects, as they give up many of the make-up crew’s magic tricks, but also allow fans to revel a bit more in the layered artistry. Colours are much more vibrant than older releases, which led me to realize how often Fulci plays with the juxtaposition of nearly monochromatic backgrounds, and primary coloured costumes. There’s a lot more red, especially in the warmer hues, which leads to some slightly awkward skin tones, but is an overall improvement over the washed-out look of the various DVD versions. Blue hues are much richer than those found on old releases, and the jungle foliage is so lusciously green you’ll find yourself wanting to touch it. The only time I was troubled by the influx of vibrancy was during the underwater scenes, which now feature too many red highlights, and less overall cool tint.
The transfer’s most obvious issues all pertain to overall exposure levels. Some scenes benefit from richer blacks that cut nicely against minor highlights that go missing on the SD releases, and create sharper edges in fine details. Other scenes, often those taking place indoors during daylight hours, are way over-darkened, leading to a loss of detail and colour. Still, overall I’m (mostly) supportive of these crushed blacks, because the Shriek Show and Blue Underground DVDs were so light several sequences were deprived of their atmosphere. There should be a wider middle ground, though. Compression artefacts are entirely done away with as far as my eye can tell, but I do have some concerns about the relative lack of grain. The under water sequence, and some of the seafaring shots are reasonably grainy, but for the most part these look ‘right’. Other scenes, especially bright daylight scenes show signs of what I think is DNR enhancement in both their lack of grain, and their slightly softened quality (some scenes are even softer than their DVD counterparts). This isn’t the waxy, plastic-face brand of DNR propagated by Fox on that hideous Predator release, this is the more subtle brand of DNR, and for the most part it isn’t an annoyance, and most viewers are going to look right by it. But sticklers will notice an overall softness to some shots, and some jagged digital noise (possibly from a telecine transfer process?) around many of the edges. It should also be noted for the hardcore fans in the house that the credits were apparently newly created for this release.
Though the strides in video quality have always taken precedence when discussing Zombie’s home video releases, the audio quality has gone through some effective changes as well. The film was, like most Italian films made with an international market in mind, filmed largely without sound, and then dubbed (using mostly the on-screen actors) into monaural sound for both the English and Italian language releases. The simplicity of the overall soundtrack made for decent VHS quality audio, though the format’s limitations opened the first DVD release up to improvement. Anchor Bay went to Chance Audio for a 5.1 remix, and the final effect was pretty sloppy. Effectively the remix separated Fabio Frizzi’s score into the stereo channels, and sloshed a little canned water effect in the rear channels during the scenes on the water. The Shriek Show release worked from the same basis, but was more accurately separated, and the music featured a better LFE presence. It also, along with the Blue Underground release, featured the original English and Italian Mono tracks, which was a good move for the purists in the house.
This Blu-ray features two sort of newly mixed 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, both English and Italian, along with two somewhat superfluous Dolby Digital EX tracks, and two original mono tracks (that are not PCM or DTS-HD MA according to my system). The English 7.1 track follows the lead set by the older releases, but manages to widen the scope of some of the effects, starting with the sound of helicopter blades and rushing ocean water that opens the film. Gunshots tend over-extend themselves on the LFE channel, but for the most part I was unable to point specifically to any added, or improperly augmented blast effects. The incessant blare of outside wind on the island, and the Darth Vader-like sound of the zombies’ breathing are the most effective surround elements, and work well for the mix. The vocal performances are mostly centered and natural, but are occasionally roughly crammed into the stereo channels to create movement, and overall sound very similar to those of the compressed tracks on the DVD. The Italian 7.1 track also spreads the dialogue a bit outside of the center channel, and creates some unfortunately reverb. Frizzi’s music is a mixed-to-good bag. The main title theme and other synth-heavy elements are a bit dampened and flat. The less melodic music, specifically the scare cues and the xylophone work fare better, and extend nicely over the speakers without too much inter-channel bleeding. The track’s biggest improvement over other releases is found in the placement of the tribal drums that drive through the film. Purists may find them too low on the track at some points, but I quite enjoyed the subtle, almost subconscious manner that they infiltrate some scenes. Fans of the score will want to stick to the English 7.1 track, where it’s a noticeably stronger aural element.
Blue Underground has gathered a rather sizable collection of new extras, but they start things off with the same audio commentary that has been recycled through Anchor Bay and Shriek Show’s DVD releases, featuring star Ian McCullough and moderator Jay Slater (writer/editor of Diabolik Magazine and ‘Eaten Alive!: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies’). The track continues to age poorly. McCulloch was relatively unaware of the film’s impact at the time of the recording, and despite a handful of fun behind the scenes stories his dismissing tone is a major downer. Slater does his best, but there just isn’t much here for me to recommend listening to the track, especially now that we have new extras to fill in the behind the scenes story. The disc also features a fun 30 second introduction from Guillermo del Toro, two trailers, two TV spots, four radio spots, and an HD poster and stills slide show set to music from the film.
The second disc in this two disc set features a collection of cast and crew interviews starting with ‘Zombie Wasteland’ (22:20, HD), featuring actors Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver (aka Pier Luigi Conti) and Ottaviano Dell’Acqua. These interviews were taken at last year’s Cinema Wasteland convention, and a lot of footage from the convention floor, including interviews with promoters and con-goers. Johnson and McColloch recall Fulci’s bizarre, occasionally violent behavior, recount the fashion in which they were brought into the Italian horror fold, and offer some memories concerning the film’s banned status in the UK. Cliver, who speaks in a whisper (hopefully he’s just lost his voice), is mostly just happy to feel good about his work after years of relative shame. Dell’Acqua is clearly having the most fun, and mostly talks about the process of become the ‘worm-eyed zombie’.
‘Flesh Eaters on Film’ (9:40, HD) features co-producer Fabrizio de Angelis, who recalls more of the technical issues in making the film, including hiring Fulci and the crew, shooting on location (which mostly involved stealing scenes), and Argento’s lawsuit against the film. His most interesting claim, which doesn’t line up with anything I’ve ever read from Fulci himself, was that they intended the film’s cornball tone. ‘Deadtime Stories’ (14:30, HD) features co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti. Sacchetti, who’s work was uncredited (and who is always a great intellectual interview subject on these sorts of things), reveals that Zombie started life as a western/zombie hybrid (!), but quickly morphed into something resembling the final product, and discusses the technical strengths of Fulci’s shooting style. Briganti, who was credited with the screenplay, suggests that she may have been more of a script doctor. ‘World of the Dead’ (16:30, HD) features cinematographer Sergio Salvati and production/costume designer Walter Patriarca. Salvati talks about the film as a stylistically Italian answer to Dawn of the Dead, and appears to have taken real pride in creating a definitively artistic vision. He talks in mostly technical terms. Patriarca focuses his attention mostly on the processes of dressing up the zombies, and the hospital and church sets (complete with his illustrations).
The second screen of interviews starts with ‘Zombi Italiano’ (16:30, HD), which features special make-up effects artists Gianetto de Rossi and Maurizio Trani, and special effects artist Gino de Rossi. Discussion here revolves around the process of elimination that lead them to the unique zombie look, which was developed largely out of clay covered in latex, filming the shark vs. zombie scene, and created the eye-piecing and gut-eating effects. ‘Notes on a Headstone’ (7:30, HD) features composer Fabio Frizzi, who recalls the film as his first fantasy/horror score, and discusses the unique manner Fucli used his music to build atmosphere. ‘All in the Family’ (6:10, HD) features Fulci’s daughter Antonella, who talks briefly about her father’s passions and films. The extras come to an end with ‘Zombie Lover’ (9:40, HD), a delightful discussion with Guillermo del Toro, who delves into his fond memories of the film.
Zombie isn’t a movie, it’s a shared experience. It’s a movie that brings people together. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been approached by people when I’ve been out in public wearing my ‘We Are Going to Eat You’ t-shirt. And it’s not just hardened horror fans that want to talk my ear off about Italian horror, it’s average people in grocery store parking lots shouting ‘That’s the one where the lady gets a splinter in her eye!’ at me from their cars. It played a huge role in my fixation with Italian horror cinema (if I’m remembering correctly it was the first spaghetti splatter flick I ever watched, followed in close succession by Argento’s Suspiria, and Fulci’s City of the Living Dead), which effectively led me to a fixation with motion picture entertainment overall. This Blu-ray release represents the best home video version of the film to date, but the 2k restoration has some issues with darkness and digital noise. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is about as good as I’d expect from the film, and the new extras, most of which are made up of interview segments, are both informative and entertaining. An overall stand-up release, but there continues to be some room for improvement.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blue Underground Blu-ray screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th October 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English and Italian, Dolby Digital EX English and Italian, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English and Italian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portugues, Deutsch, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
Extras: Actor and Critic Commentary, Zombie Wasteland, Flesh Eaters on Film, Deadtime Stories, World of the Dead, Zombi Italiano, Notes on a Headstone, All in the Family, Zombie Lover, Guillermo del Toro Intro, Trailers, TV Spots, Radio Spots, Poster and Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Richard Johnson, Pier Luigi Conti, Auretta Gay
Length: 92 minutes