Dawn Of The Dead was one of the most influential horror movies of its time, offering a blend of horror, action and social commentary that filmmakers all over the world rushed to capitalize upon.  Italy was one of the first places it made that influence felt, mainly because co-producers Dario and Claudio Argento acted on their right to release their own edit of the film in Italy.  The end result was released a year before Dawn of The Dead made it to U.S. screens and was wildly popular, spawning a series of Italian zombie films that continued well into the 1980’s.

Lucio Fulci’s Zombie was at the vanguard of this cycle of films.  In fact, it was in Italian theaters within two months of Dawn Of The Dead’s release in Italy (where it was called Zombi, which meant Zombie was known in Italy as Zombi 2).  “Serious” critics often deride it as a cheap imitation, failing to realize that Zombie is the rare imitation matches all the elements it borrows from its inspiration with new touches of its own design.  The finished film may borrow some commercially viable elements from Dawn but it has a mood and a style that is all its own.

The story begins on a Dracula-esque note as a seemingly abandoned boat rolls into New York’s waters.  When two harbor cops investigate, a zombie promptly attacks one of them before being shot into the waters.  The boat belonged to the father of Anne (Tisa Farrow) and he’s not found on it.  Anne teams up with newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to go to the island of Matoul, her father’s last destination.  Teaming up with boat-owning vacationers Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay), they set sail for the tropical island despite warnings about its bad vibes.

Of course, those bad vibes come to the fore once the quartet reaches Matoul.  They meet up with Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who reveals that not only is Anne’s father dead but the island’s population is being swept by a strange illness that kills people and then seemingly brings them back to life.  In short order, our heroes discover these revived corpses are hungry for warm human flesh – and they are trapped on all sides.  Cue a great building-under-siege finale with molotov cocktails a-plenty, followed by a fun sting-in-the-tail coda that brings everything full circle.

The end result is obviously inspired at a conceptual level by Dawn Of The Dead yet manages to feel nothing at all like that film. In fairness to its critics, Zombie lifts a number of key conceptual elements from Dawn: building the story around a quartet of heroes, mixing action with shocks, a zombie plague of vague origins and a climax built around a siege on the heroes by large numbers of zombies.  However, Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti’s script takes the film back to the roots of the zombie genre by giving it an adventure movie-styled “journey to a tropical isle” premise and bringing voodoo into the mix.

However, the bigger reason for the stylistic difference between Zombie and Dawn Of The Dead is Lucio Fulci’s approach to the material.  He bypasses the comic book flair and dark wit that George Romero favored to create an atmosphere of oppressive dread.  Though his technique is very stylish, Fulci digs into the essential grittiness of the post-Romero zombie genre.  Zombie is a film filled with sweat, screams and viscerally depicted suffering of countless varieties, all happening to heroes whose reality is being slowly dismantled before their eyes.  Whether you’re watching a potential victim or one of the walking dead, no one here escapes unscathed – and the brutal aftermath is shoved right into the viewer’s face.

Sergio Salvati’s cinematography plays a vital role in realizing this aesthetic, bringing a precision of framing/movement and elegant lighting to the film (note how often makes the rotted buildings of the tropical isle resemble a gothic spaghetti western locale).  Even when the film is dealing in gory shocks – like the heroes discovering a scene of zombies devouring an unfortunate victim, depicted like a perverse burlesque of “The Last Supper” – such moments are laid out in with a calm, unearthly elegance.  The marriage of Salvati’s artful visuals to Fulci’s go-for-the-jugular instincts retains its power to unnerve long after the first viewing.

And Salvati isn’t the only crewman doing top-shelf work here. In fact, he is a part of a trio of Italian genre film pros who would become key to realizing the style of Fulci’s most popular period as a filmmaker.  Editor Vincenzo Tomassi gives a fluid progression to the film’s mounting-nightmare feel and transforms each setpiece into its own mini-movie, complete with beginning, middle and end.  The final piece of the puzzle is Fabio Frizzi’s music, which blends John Carpenter-styled electronic minimalism with jittery tribal rhythms to create a subtly eerie sonic stew that creeps under the audience’s skin with ease.  Any shock-horror fan of a certain age can hum this film’s theme, a testament to Frizzi’s skill at creating a memorable melody.

Finally, the performances serve an oft-ignored purpose here (even though no one would consider Zombie an actor’s film).  The main weight is shouldered by McCulloch and Johnson.  McCulloch goes about his work like a b-movie Michael Caine, offering a professional turn as a reasonable man trying to stay sane in the midst of insanity, while Johnson easily sells the viewer on his character’s burnt-out attempts to stay in charge of situation that is spiraling out of his control.  Their straight-faced approach does a good job of selling the audience on the film’s horrors.

Even the lesser performances add to the texture here: Cliver may be wooden during the emotional beats but he’s great with the physical acting during the action-oriented finale and Farrow’s haunted, blank-eyed quality would be a deficit elsewhere but instead adds to the doomy mood of this film.  Finally, Olga Karlatos deserves kudos for her brief but memorable turn as Johnson’s hysterical wife, hitting and sustaining a shrill note of intensity that clues viewers in to the madness at play on the island.

In short, Zombie is a film that has transcended its derivative origins to become a part of history for horror movie cultists.  Fulci would go on to bolder, more baroque flights of macabre fancy but this film laid the bedrock for his success and defined a controversial but effective approach that holds a dark spell over many Italian horror aficionados… not bad for a knock-off, eh?