ZOMBI TIME EATERS: An Entire Day On the Couch With an Italian Franchise

On a Monday in early July, I took advantage of my day off to watch all five installments in the Italian Zombi pentalogy. Starting by watching Dario Argento’s cut of Dawn of the Dead, titled Zombi for its Italian release, all the way through 1988’s Zombi 5: Killing Birds, it was all gut-munching, all day. Inspired by Severin’s recent Blu-ray releases of Zombi 3 and Zombie 4: After Death, I figured I might as well see what all the fuss was about.

It was an odd experience, since I was experiencing some of the films for the umpteenth time, while others were only slightly familiar, and one was completely new. It was like a slow descent into a newly-discovered sub-basement in a house where I’d lived for years. I know that’s a tortured metaphor, but “sub” is going to come up again. And possibly again.

As stated, I started with Zombi, which was definitely a unique experience. I’ve been hearing about the Argento cut of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead for years, but never bothered to track down a copy of the film. It’s always been described as being a big change from Romero’s coded knockdown of consumerist society. Hell, even the DVD blurb talks it up like it’s the second coming of Christ:

“This film by Dario Argento delivers a radically different film from George A. Romero’s original cut, removing the film’s American humor to make it more of an intense action shocker and replacing the muzak soundtrack with a savage score by legendary rock band Goblin.”

All in all, having now watched Dawn of the Dead roughly a billion times, and Zombi once? I don’t get the big deal. First of all, it’s only nine minutes shorter, and all the cuts seem to take away from the plot. Zombi might have a better soundtrack — one of Goblin’s best, really — but there’s nothing going for it that makes it a superior picture. It didn’t move along any faster because, seriously: nine minutes. I used to watch Horror Remix every month; until you’ve seen The Video Dead trimmed down to a tight 20-some minutes, you don’t know “more intense.”

After this, I went and mailed some records at the post office, hit the coffee shop for some fancy iced tea (Snow Plum!) and came back to watch Zombi 2, aka Zombie, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, aka Lucio Fulci does that thing where Italian directors make a movie based on an American success, and even though it’s not officially related, they still make it seem like it’s part of a series.

See also: La Casa.

Anyhow: Zombi 2 is one of my favorite movies. It’s exactly the right pacing, where just when the plot starts to get in the way, Fulci offers up either disrobing or gore — and, in the case of one scene, a topless scuba diver followed by a zombie fighting a shark. It’s like it was designed in a lab for 13 year-olds.

However, whereas Dawn of the Dead made direct reference to Night of the Living Dead (also helped by the fact that they had the same director) via conveniently interspersed news broadcasts on radio and television, continuing the story from one film to the next and showing that “an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins” is, in fact, because “the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims,” Zombi 2 has Fulci figuring that if he slaps the “Zombi” moniker on his picture and has the living dead in it, people won’t question anything.

I mean, if you really want to push it, when Peter is speaking with Stephen and Francine about the possible cause of the infection in Dawn of the Dead, he brings up voodoo during the “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth” scene, and that is pretty much definitively the case in Zombi 2, as opposed to a Venusian probe, so they’re tangentially connected, if you’re willing to push it.

Still: Fulci’s made a fucking great movie, though. It’s loaded with iconic imagery, and has a killer score, and manages to be the least-convoluted flick he made during his really iconic period of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It also has this really great build to it that feels like you’re ever-so-slightly increasing the pace as you watch it, to the point where you don’t even notice that you’ve reached the end, and the last 20 minutes are just pure violent madness, up to and including that perfect final shot.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good. I’d seen two of my favorite movies, even if the first one was a little chopped and screwed, and I’d had fun watching Zombi 3 before, so it should be even more fun with an improved 2K scan that lets me see the crazy gore parts, rather than having to squint at blurry splices from a Japanese VHS tape on the earlier Shriek Show DVD.

The verdict? It’s fine, I guess. If nothing else, there are some fantastic extras on the Blu-ray which explain a little better as to why the film’s so very much all over the place. The fact that Zombi 3 is notorious for Lucio Fulci not finishing it, and the production company having to bring in Bruno Mattei to make it a complete film is part of its appeal: you’re never 100% certain as to who directed what, and in “The Problem Solver,” an interview with Mattei, even he can’t quite fully remember which scenes were his.

He does acknowledge that every bit with the men in the containment suits are his, as well as the beginning and the ending, but other than that, he’s not sure, because as he says, it wasn’t his movie, so he didn’t remember it; it was Fulci’s, and he was just working on it. The end result’s a little disjointed, but it’s actually not as a bad in this uncut version, especially when everything’s been pulled from good elements.

It’s kind of surprising how people lose their shit over fast zombies these days, and back in ‘88, Fulci and Mattei made a movie that features a zombie with a machete going off like a goddamn kung fu master, along with a zombie head which attacks people by flying through the air. Maybe it’s because the cause of the zombies in this film is explicitly stated to be a weird chemical. Like, we literally see the chemicals injected into a corpse at the beginning, and trace the route of the outbreak for the entirety of the movie.

The whole thing’s held together by radio broadcasts from the island DJ, Blue Heart, who basically acts like a Greek chorus describing the various plot points which we don’t ever see, and informing the viewer as to what exactly is going on, right up until the final denouement, which is kinda/sorta like the final bits of Zombi 2. It’s lazy-ish, but seems to work, and if you’re ever seen Vanishing Point, Blue Heart is 100% a knock-off of Cleavon Little’s Super Soul, so it’s a nice homage.

At this point, I’ve watched the three movies with which I’m most familiar, and we’re delving into slightly unknown territory. Zombie 4: After Death, I only watched when the Severin Blu of the movie showed up about a week or two prior. All I can remember is that with this 1989 Claudio Fragasso movie, we’re back into the realm of voodoo, and that things get weird. Fragasso was the co-writer on Zombi 3, and helped Mattei salvage the film, so we manage to have a weird game of telephone from 2 to 3 to 4.

The plot summary refreshed my memory somewhat:

“When a white scientist’s cure for cancer enrages an island voodoo priest, it will unleash the ultimate plague of ninja zombies, exploding heads, appalling performances, eye-gouging, face-ripping, power ballads and big bloody mouthfuls of flesh-chomping havoc…and that’s just the first 20 minutes.”

The movie features a young woman with a mysterious pendant, a bunch of soldiers for hire — who are, in fact, doing hardcore drugs as they arrive at the island — along with adult film actor Jeff Stryker, who ends up being one of Zombi 4’s highlights. Other than that, the film is fairly OK. Things slow way the hell down after those batshit opening scenes, and maybe the last few minutes are the only ones which really keep your interest.

There’s a surprising amount of character development in After Death, which I didn’t remember at all from my first viewing, but the various hikers and mercenaries are given opportunities to grow, such as when when the female best friend, Louise, develops a relationship with merc Rod, which ends up making their respective death and turning more poignant.

Other than that, it’s a bit of a blur. The issue with Zombi 3, Zombie 4, and Zombie 5 is that all three smear together in one’s memory, filled as they are with jungle scenery, interchangable characters, and oddball zombie makeup. The disco-tinged soundtracks to 3 and 4 really don’t help matters, either, although thanks to the included compact disc versions that Severin packed in with the Blu-rays, you can eventually differentiate between the two after the fact. I’m particularly fond of Stefano Mainetti’s pop-rock “The Sound of Fear” and Al Festa’s hair metal-esque “Living After Death” from Zombi 3 and Zombie 4, respectively.

The best special feature on the After Death Blu is “Jeff Stryker in Manila,” an interview with actor Chuck Peyton, better known as adult film actor Jeff Stryker. He’s clever, and witty, and it covers a lot of the actor’s non-naked roles in addition to the films for which he’s best known and the ensuring infamy. It’s quite a nice documentary.

By this point, it was late afternoon, and I was wondering what the hell I’d done to myself. I had another 90 minutes to go, and the final installment, Zombie 5: Killing Birds, wasn’t anything about which I had heard good things. It was also known as Raptors, and seemed to only tangentially involve zombies. It also featured a post-Delta Force Robert Vaughn performance, which is never a good thing, unless he’s parodying himself a la Baseketball. This is not a parody, although it seems to come close.

Zombie 5 came out in 1988, before After Death, so any connection to any of the other films is tenuous at best. The Zombi series connection was made in this case, not by greedy Italian directors, but by the folks at Shriek Show, who saw how much money After Death made when added to the canon, making this maybe the first and only time an American company faked up a connection to a popular franchise.

The version of Killing Birds I watched was the Shriek Show DVD, and it looks super-hazy, which might have something to do with the fact that there’s a ton of fog in this movie. There’s a lot of fog in all of the other movies, too, except the original, and I have no idea why Italian horror movies love the effect so much, especially in this case, because it’s the Louisiana swamp.

Plot summary is, essentially:

“A Vietnam vet savagely slaughters his cheating wife and her lover, his parents, and his pet bird. Years later, a team of specialists researching the mating habits of a rare species of bird stumble upon a sinister blind man and some angry feathered friends. Soon, the dead rise and a vengeful winged terror swoops down upon the living!”

The plot makes no sense, it sounds terrible, and the special effects are only slightly better than Birdemic for most the film’s run time. A major plot point is revealed via email, which is very technologically forward for 1988, but no less lazy in terms of exposition than it would be today. The zombies at the end look pretty solid, but that’s about it, and I was so worn out by the end, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm. The director, Claudio Lattanzi, certainly couldn’t.

Would it surprise you that this mess was co-produced by Joe D’Amato? It shouldn’t. Bringing us back to the early idea of building upon the notoriety of a successful American film by retitling an unrelated feature as a sequel, D’Amato produced Ghosthouse and Witchery, also known as La Casa 3 and La Casa 4, faux sequels to La CasaThe Evil Dead, to say nothing of La Casa 5 as well.

It’s basically a La Casa movie, but with zombies at the end, and killer birds — also at the end. Mostly, it’s grad students wandering around in the swamp, reciting dialogue which is both poorly-written and poorly-recorded, and then they meet Robert Vaughn with his terrible makeup, things get weird, movie’s over, thank God.

When Zombie 5 was over, I didn’t even bother to take the disc out of the player. I just powered everything down and sat there on the couch, shaking my head. While this had started out as a fun experience, there is a marked decline in quality once you get past any Argento or Fulci involvement, and the sheer amount of guns and living dead make it really hard to distinguish between one film or another after a while. Time will definitely skew the plots in your mind, and jumble things up to a terrible degree.

After having spent an entire Monday watching these films, and spending two weeks after processing the whole thing, I really can’t say I’d recommend doing this alone. You need a partner, at least. My cats only provided so much assistance in the viewing experience, because they’re not particularly well-equipped to quip back with me, and due to a mild sickness, it’s not like I could spend the day drinking to take the edge off, either.

I did this all stone-cold sober and alone, and I feel like that was a particularly bad idea on my part. Make this a social gathering, or spread it out over the week. One a night would be way easier on your psyche and well-being. That’s not to say that there aren’t positive aspects to seeing the entire Zombi series: having now seen the third installment in a clear, uncut format, I can safely say that I enjoy the hell out of it, and will be returning to it more often. Zombi 2 still holds up, Dawn of the Dead in any format is worth revisiting and, well, I can say I’ve seen After Death and Killing Birds, so that’s worth something, I suppose.

Zombi 3 and Zombie 4: After Death are available on Blu-ray from Severin.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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