(Gli Ultimi Zombi, Zombie, Zombie 2,
Zombie Flesh Eaters, Island of the Living Dead)
Synopsis: An abandoned ship floats into New York harbor... abandoned by the living, that is. Policemen investigating the ship are attacked by a hulking cannibalistic monster, which falls overboard and doesn't come back up.
(As usual, please forgive the poor quality of my screen shots.)
The ship turns out to have been the property of a scientist, last seen in the vicinity of a Caribbean island called Matool. The missing man's daughter, accompanied by an obnoxious reporter, their sailor-guide and the sailor's girlfriend, journeys to Matool -- only to find the island overrun by the living dead. The travelers take refuge at a decrepit hospital run by the enigmatic Dr. Menard as the island's undead population come looking for blood.
"My inspiration came from Jacques Tourneur, not from [George] Romero... His living dead are alienated creatures who live on the fringes of society. It's the revenge of the defeated in life."
-- Lucio Fulci, interviewed in Deep Red magazine,
quoted in Chas. Balun: Lucio Fulci: Beyond the Gates
(San Leandro, CA: Blackest Heart Books, 1996)
"5 September, Rome:
...We saw Zombie II -- science fiction horror film.
Ghastly; repulsive trash.
Andrei Tarkovsky, from his diary
(published as Time Within Time, New York/Calcutta: Verso/Seagull, 1989-93)
The Tarkovsky quote above amuses me far more than it should. I'm not surprised by Tarkovsky's opinion; I'm just pleasantly shocked that the great Russian director (arguably the greatest religious artist of the 20th century) ever even saw a Fulci film. Fans of either directors' work will probably send me hate mail for daring to mention the one in the same breath as the other... Tarkovsky's life and art could not possibly have been further removed from Fulci's; his refusal to acquiesce to the demands of commercial cinema contrasts sharply with Fulci's decision to work exclusively within its bounds; whereas Fulciphiles tend to look askance at art films since Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski had the nerve to die on the same day as Fulci.
Yet, if I may suggest that there is any kind of connection between the two, it would be that both (at their best) were acutely aware that image and the manipulation of subjective time were crucial elements of successful cinema. In other words, both were aware that conventional narrative was not neccesary to film, and that images are poweful enough to stand on their own without interpretation. And both were able to create in thier best films a unique, highly personal rhythm, independent of plot, that was "in this world, but outside time" (to use Fulci's words).
But I'm geting way off-topic: Zombi 2, while Fulci's most famous film, is not really one of his best. It's been criticized as being too derivative of Dawn of the Dead, which was known as Zombi in Europe. Actually, Fulci's film bears little resemblance to Romero's, other than in the basic premise of the walking, hungry dead.
Among this movie's strong points are the superb effects by Giannetto de Rossi, and Fulci's incredible ability to convey a sense of squalor and decay. Particularly effective is a shot of a dirt road running through a deserted shanty-town -- a ghost crab scuttles across the foreground, and in the distance we see something unhealthy shambling toward us.
Also interesting is the ambiguity of Dr. Menard's role in the whole situation: there are strong hints, never explained, that he has had some role in the creation of the zombies. Midway through the movie, he narrates a flashback about the missing scientist's death, a scene which is partly shown in the movie's prologue... however, in Menard's version, the scene is lit differently, takes place in a brighter, cleaner version of the hospital, and shows him firing a different gun. At first I thought this was an embarrassing lapse on the part of the continuity director, but now I see this must have been intentional: Menard is lying.
Producer Fabrizio de Angelis had originally intended Zombi 2 to be directed by Enzo Castellari (much admired by Quentin Tarantino, and director of the famous Bronx series made in the wake of John Carpenter's Escape from New York); Castellari declined, so the job was given to Fulci. It may be true that this was exclusively an economic decision - Fulci's detractors generally accuse him of being willing to do anything for a lira - but the choice was both fitting and inspired. Fulci's previous films, ever since Beatrice Cenci, had featured escalating graphic violence; this ultimate taboo-breaking movie tore open a brand new artery in Fulci's career, and lead to more personal films such as L'Aldilà and the uneven but clearly autobiographical late film, Un Gatto nel Cervello/Cat in the Brain.
It's important to bear in mind that Gli Ultimi Zombi was actually among the first zombies: the dozens of zombie films which followed Zombi 2 mainly drew their inspiration from Fulci's film, not directly from Dawn of the Dead... Marino Girolami/"Frank Martin" 's Zombi Holocaust/Queen of the Zombies/Dr. Butcher, MD followed in 1980, on many of the same sets, and Andrea Bianchi's abysmal Notte di Terrore, despite its Gothic setting, follows the basic outline of Zombi 2 almost slavishly, even down to the eyeball-gouging scene.
Zombi 2 (pardon the expression) grossed more at European box offices than Dawn, probably because it was simpler and more spectacular, and also probably because the Fulci/Briganti/de Rossi idea of the zombie is less recognizably human. From Zombi 2 on, the zombie would lose the pathos it had inspired as a former human being, in movies as early as White Zombie (1932) through Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and even in Romero's Night/Dawn/Day trilogy.