Wow. Director Marino Girolami has managed to do the impossible: with Zombie Holocaust, he made a zombie movie which is even worse than Bruno Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead.
In terms of sheer storytelling ineptitude, the two movies are pretty much equal. Both contain...
The difference is that Mattei's movie is crammed full of bizarre action scenes, many of which move so fast that you don't have time to reflect on their idiocies. Girolami's movie is much slower and talkier, and the things the poor characters are forced to say make you long for the naïve political posturings of Hell's scriptwriter, Claudio Fragasso. At least Fragasso has a point of view.
The other thing which separates Hell from Holocaust is its soundtrack. Mattei simply stole the Goblin score from Dawn of the Dead; regardless of whether you like Goblin's progressive-rock sound, you have to admit they gave polished, professional performances. By contrast, here's my simulation of the Main Title Theme from Zombie Holocaust:
That's it: one note. Oh: occasionally there's a sort of (thup- thup - thup - thup - thup - thup - thup - thup...) electronic "drumbeat" noise. The titles themselves are superimposed on a dark, grainy cityscape that looks like it's been blown up from Super-8. The viewer knows immediately that this movie is going to be an ordeal.
Initially, the film concerns itself with a wave of corpse mutilations at a new York hospital. Someone has been sneaking into the morgue at night... through the unlocked, unguarded doors... wearing a dark trenchcoat and a floppy hat, while carrying a suspicious bag... and lopped off parts of the bodies. Naturally, no one has any idea who is committing these terrible acts.
Even though they're not concerned enough to... oh, I don't know; guard the doors, or call the police, maybe... the hospital's chief surgeon takes some time to confer with his trusted aide, Dr. Lori Ridgway. As played by Alexandra delliColli, Dr. Ridgway is the last person in the world I would trust my life to on the operating table. However, in the universe of Zombie Holocaust, everybody's an idiot, so it should come as no surprise that Dr. Ridgway has an extra doctorate in anthropology. Apparently the Cracker Jack boxes are particularly generous here. Anyway, the ritualistic method of the dismemberments leads the two doctors to discuss primitive civilizations. Are we, they muse, really so far different from savages and cannibals? We're veering dangerously into Fragasso territory here, but don't worry: this silly theme will never be mentioned again.
Later on, the mysterious bit-snatcher returns to the morgue. This time he removes the heart from a cadaver. Just as he's about to take a nice big bite out of the organ, à la Joe D'Amato's Buio Omega, the doctors and their orderlies jump him. In the real world, this might be a job for the police, but remember: this is a universe where Alexandra delliColli's character holds two advanced degrees. After all the yammering about primitive cultures, it's amusing to see the doctors' reaction to the mutilator's identity: "Why, it's the intern who comes from a remote South Seas island, with the tribal tattoo on his chest! What a surprise!" Unfortunately, the orderlies are unable to restrain him, and he takes the first available opportunity to jump out of a high window. Down he plummets, looking remarkably like a mannequin... and when he hits the ground, one of his arms snaps off and spins offscreen. We get our first hint of the supernatural when we see the man lying in a bloody heap on the ground: his arm has been miraculously restored!
Before the broken criminal dies, he is able to gasp a single word: "Keto!" Dr. Ridgway understands this to be a reference to an obscure archipelago in the Pacific. Of course, she doesn't think he might have been referring to, say, Qito in Ecuador; what fun would that be? As it happens, Dr. Ridgway herself grew up in that obscure archipelago. She even has a ceremonial dagger at home, with "the mark of Keto" on it.
Coincidence just isn't what it used to be.
Returning to her apartment after all the excitement, Dr. Ridgway -- let's just call her Lori (if only I had a font with a little circle instead of a dot over the "i", it would be perfect for her) -- is interrupted by a visit from a pesky "girl reporter", who wants an exclusive on the hospital atrocities. Lori gets rid of her, and goes off to meet a Dr. Chandler from the New York Health Department.
Surprisingly, or conveniently if you prefer, Chandler has done his homework about Keto and its legends. He goes with Lori to see her learned professor, who babbles for a little while. When they go back to Lori's apartment, they find the place has been ransacked. Again, nobody goes to the police... even though something has indeed been stolen: the ceremonial dagger of Keto!
(In case you're wondering, we never actually find out who stole the dagger, or why.)
Chandler then assumes powers which, in the real world, would never be accorded to a guy in the New York Health Department. He intends to get to the bottom of the hospital situation (and similar events in hospitals all over the country) by going out to the archipelago and seeing what's what (by this point in the movie, the bad acting and dopey dialog will have numbed your brain like Novocaine, so when the Doctor's plan is unveiled, you'll probably just nod and smile).
Going with them on the expedition is some jungle guy whose name I can not be bothered to remember, and... you guessed it... the pesky girl reporter.
Without even a transition shot of an airplane or a boat, we suddenly find our heroes in the "Pacific Islands". Actually, it seems the exteriors were shot a few miles from Rome. This is evident in a scene cut from the movie, which is included as an extra on the DVD: Lori and Chandler are seen ambling through a typical European deciduous forest in autumn, with fallen brown leaves all around them. It's as un-tropical as you could get, and it's no wonder they cut the scene from the finished picture.
The group seeks help from a certain Dr. Obrero, who has been living in the area for many years. Obrero provides them with a guide and some (groan) native bearers -- a mix of Asian and Italian extras who are overdubbed with "ugga-bugga" dialog. Before they can depart, however, the disrobing Dr. Ridgway is shocked to find a maggotty severed head in her bed. Apparently the primitive Keto natives have used their intelligence system and their spy satellites to get information on the party's activities. Reaching into their strategic stockpile of maggot-ridden heads, they... oh, forget it.
Obrero gives the team a boat, and points them in what he says is the right direction. Engine trouble forces them to land at a different island from the one they were aiming for, and this makes Obrero's guide very nervous. The first night the party is ashore, a native bearer, who has apparently gone off to take a leak, is suddenly heard screaming in the distance. The stolid Dr. Chandler shrugs it off: if he comes back, he reasons, great, but if not... there's nothing we can do. What the hell: the poor slob's character doesn't even have a name.
The next morning, they find the bearer -- or part of him, anyway -- half-eaten in the shrubbery. Chandler again reacts with studied callousness, while everyone else looks away and goes "ick".
The next night, the second bearer goes off for a piss (if this is starting to sound like the setup for a dumb ethnic joke, well... it is, in a way; just don't expect the movie to be clever enough to deliver a punchline). The second spear-carrier ends up with a huge wooden caber through his stomach; it should be gruesome, but it's hilarious. The third bearer gets it the next day, as the party is ambushed by cannibals. Not only does the bearer end up impaled on a trap, he also gets his throat cut and his entrails torn out. The poor extra just stands there looking vaguely bored while all these terrible things are supposed to be happening to him.
The reporter is caught when the natives throw what looks like a length of red silk around her. I have no idea where these "naked savages" got their silk from. Come to think about it, I'm not sure how to explain how these "stone age primitives" got their hands on metal machetes. Anyway, the girl is carried off screaming, while the guy-who's-not-Ian-McCulloch (I can't be bothered to remember who he is) gets torn to bits and eaten. The wax head used in this scene, from which the eyes are torn messily, is one of the movie's better effects.
Thinking of eyes being torn out, you do get the connections here, don't you? The year before this film was released, two Italian productions had changed the world of European exploitation: Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2. What better guarantee of success than to rip off both box office hits? Zombies and cannibals: how could they lose? And to make sure everyone knew what to expect, they just concatenated the two titles: Zombi 2 + Cannibal Holocaust = Zombie Holocaust.
(Included with the Shriek Show DVD is an interview with Maurizio Trani, the special effects artist on Zombie Holocaust. Trani, who worked with Gianetto diRossi on Lucio Fulci's films for Fabrizio deAngelis, is blunt about the influence of Fulci's film on Girolami's. It's a complete rip-off, only [he insists] Fulci would have done it better. Trani even admits to never having bothered to watch the finished movie.)
To get back to the movie: just as the remaining survivors are about to be dismembered, out of the jungle shambles... a zombie! Close by is another, then another crusty-faced monster. The cannibals panic and run away. Our heroes show no curiosity about the wretched-looking things that have apparently just saved their lives. The zombies are very slow-moving (in this scene, anyway), so Chadler, Lori and the guide are able to outdistance them easily.
The survivors follow hastily-radioed instructions from Dr. Obrero, and meet him at an abandoned mission. The mission is apparently a re-build of the famous hospital in Fulci's Zombie, this time painted white instead of red. Obrero meets them, and tells them where they can find a raft to use to get off the island. He wants the guide to go with them, but Chandler insists that he and Lori go by themselves. Obrero says he'll send a search party to look for the missing reporter.
As they get to the beach with the raft, Chandler confesses his misgivings. They had been misdirected to the location of the authentic Keto, and had only arrived at the proper location by accident. So how did Obrero know where they really were? Also, the beach setup is a little too convenient. Chandler intends to let Lori take the raft out on the open ocean for a while, while he goes back to spy on Obrero. Just then, a knife-wielding zombie lunges at them! Chandler grabs his only available weapon -- an outboard motor -- and turns the zombie's head into applesauce.
Of course, it turns out Dr. Obrero is really a mad scientist, using the natives to build a race of zombies. He likes to take the brains out of one dead native, put them in the body of another dead native, and voilà! Zombie! How this system is preferable to having two live natives in the first place, I don't understand. Anyway, to further his decadent exploits, he's been encouraging the locals to return to their long-discarded practice of cannibalism. So Obrero's an all-around Bad Hat.
What's more, he's got the female reporter in his lab, where he's been performing a little creative brain surgery on her. Effects director Maurizio Trani was particularly fed up with the director for his mis-handling of the brain operation. As he relates in his DVD interview, Trani had set up a really nifty set of gore effects, but Girolami chose to film the sequence as a throwaway. Fulci would have done it better, Trani says wistfully.
Chandler manages to delay Obrero and his assistants (living and dead) long enough for Lori to make a run for it. Unfortunately, she runs right into the cannibals, who decide to save her for dessert. While Chandler struggles to escape from Obrero's clutches, Lori is stripped naked by the natives and painted with dainty blue flowers. She looks more like a piece of wallpaper than a decorated sacrifice, and in fact the whole scene makes the similar body-decoration scenes in Hell of the Living Dead or Trap Them and Kill Them look like a National Geographic special by comparison.
The cannibals take Lori out to a huge stone table. Here we learn what the cryptic "mark of Keto" really means; in a better movie, this would have been quite a nice shock. In the center of the tablet is a remarkably detailed impression of a human form (something I doubt these cannibals would have had the technology of the inclination to carve out). Of course, Lori fits the table exactly. The cannibal high priest prepares to eviscerate poor Lori (using the ceremonial dagger of Keto -- evidently it took an earlier flight to Keto International Airport and got there first... here we see that not only does it have a shiny metal blade, it also has a molded plastic handle. Clever, these cannibals). Suddenly, the altar begins to move! It goes from an almost-upright position to a completely horizontal one. The high priest begins making "ugga-bugga" noises: clearly this means the Golden Haired One is their Queen!
I can't believe I just typed that sentence.
In fact, I have very little more to say about this rotten movie. You can figure out what happens in the last few minutes; you've seen it all before. I will point out two more things, though: first, it becomes very clear why Girolami wanted the stone table to move during the sacrifice. The camera pulls back for a wide shot, and we get a rather... uhh... spectacular view of Ms. delli Colli. Next, at the end of the day, when we tally up the body count, we come to the very disturbing realization that the zombies kill absolutely no one in the entire film. Compare this to the attitude of practically everybody else: cannibal, mad doctor or even pesky female reporter: they will kill someone at the slightest provocation, with any weapon at hand.
The movie has gone under a number of alternative titles, including Queen of the Zombies and Doctor Butcher, M(edical) D(eviate). According to the IMDB, it is yet another movie that has been marketed under the name Zombie 3; if so, then I believe it is the worst film ever to receive that title.
I'll let that last statement sink in a moment.
Furthermore, I apologize if I have made this film seem even mildly interesting. It's the dullest zombie movie I've ever seen. The zombies are barely in it at all, but even the cannibal sequences lack the gritty effectiveness of films like Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. Go watch the bargain-basement zombie epics of Umberto Lenzi, Andrea Bianchi or Bruno Mattei; go see a cannibal flick by Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato or Joe D'Amato; even the worst of them will be more entertaining than this.