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?