ZOMBIE Blu-ray Review – Fulci’s Fantasy Island Gut-Muncher Gets a Spit & Polish
Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Olga Karlatos, Al Cliver
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Distributed by Blue Underground
When the topic of zombie films is brought up, the question for me isn’t “fast vs. slow” but “American vs. Italian” because, really, those are the two countries that have done more to get flesh eaters on the map than anywhere else. On the U.S. shores, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) is nearly impossible to top, delivering social commentary, gross-out gags, richly developed characterization – and he did it all with style. Plus, a score by Italy’s progressive rock outfit Goblin (billed as “The Goblins” in the opening credits) only further elevated the groundbreaking feature. Italian filmmakers are always looking for a hit film to unofficially sequelize into oblivion – thanks to a weird copyright rule allowing for such things – and George’s seminal sequel was fertile ground. Just one year later, Italian writer/director Lucio Fulci, who at that time was best known for his giallo pictures, took up the reins and delivered what is arguably Italy’s greatest undead feature, Zombie (1979, a.k.a. Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, et al.). What Fulci’s film lacks in subtlety and social awareness it more than makes up for with gruesome FX work and horrific death scenes, key selling points for getting it banned or censored in countries across the globe.
After New York City cops find a zombie aboard her father’s boat, Anne (Tisa Farrow) travels to the Caribbean with journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to visit the island of Matul, her father’s last known whereabouts. There, Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) and his wife, Paola (Olga Karlatos) run the local hospital, which has seen an outbreak of dead patients returning to life. The villagers think voodoo ritual is to blame, a claim Dr. Menard finds dubious. Anne and Peter hook up with Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay), a couple sailing around the islands, and secure passage to Matul. Bad move. The island is beginning to teem with the undead and there isn’t much time before the place is overrun. What begins as an exploratory mission quickly becomes a frantic attempt at escape. Also, a zombie fights a shark.
Fulci gets so many elements of this film right – atmosphere, gore, story, decent characterization – but everything is practically overshadowed by one key moment (that he reportedly wasn’t even there to shoot). Of course I’m talking about the epic undersea battle between a waterlogged zombie and a tiger shark. This fight is fake like professional wrestling is fake, and no matter how many times I watch this movie it blows my mind that a shark trainer in full zombie make-up wrestles a fearsome beast (a friggin’ tiger shark; those things eat anything). The fact all of this is competently shot underwater, in the open sea, with the shark practically acting (after what I’m sure were many, many takes) while a sorta-stuntman spews fake blood and gnashes at its tender white underbelly… can’t get away with that shit these days. It’s an astonishing sequence in a movie filled with enduring cult moments.
Not only are the make-up effects exquisite but I was shocked by how well all of it holds up under the scrutiny of a brand-new 4K restoration. Usually seams and latex and make-up become more readily apparent – no so here, largely thanks to the Italians’ love of chunky, splattered gore effects. There are the expected hordes of generic flesheaters shuffling around, but Fulci frequently features zombies with distinct looks, usually swathed in smoky atmosphere and appearing like an apparition ripped right from the pages of an E.C. Comics issue, such as the famous “worm-eyed zombie” that adorned U.S. posters alongside the legendary tag line “We Are Going To Eat You!” Cinematographer Sergio Salvati deserves much praise for his tight lensing and lighting that set an unmistakable mood which captures the essence of horror.
Tying all of these elements together is a gut-churning synth score, courtesy of frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi. The soundtrack runs the gamut from lumbering lo-fi keyboard themes to tropical island motifs, settling viewers into each scene with complementary mood music. Frizzi has gone on tour in recent years to perform his most famous themes, this among them, proving the endurance of his work.
Toss out those old VHS tapes (yes, really, you hipster Luddites). DVDs and Blu-rays both domestic and imported because Blue Underground’s new 4K restoration is the end-all-be-all on home video. The 2.40:1 1080p image is shockingly pristine, completely contradicting its low-budget roots with a picture that might as well be a literal window into another world. The print is gore-geous. The colors all pop with incredibly vibrancy. Black levels are dead-on. Film grain, while slightly variable, looks filmic and fluid. The only possible way I could ever see this movie looking better would be a legit 4K release. Undoubtedly, some of the best work Blue Underground has ever done, and if you’re familiar with their transfers that’s saying a lot.
Rejoice, fans of original language tracks and English dubs because both audio options are present, with the disc including English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio in both 7.1 and 1.0 mono flavors. There is also a French Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track, too. My usual rule is the schlockier a film is, the more likely I am to go with a dub. The multi-channel English option sounds fantastic, frequently making use of the rear speakers with respect to the original audio mix. Frizzi’s main theme has real gusto in lossless, and the hypnotic beat of the island drums will cause viewers to lull into a state of relaxation before whipping back into full panic. Subtitles are available in… big breath… English, English SDH, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Mandarin (Traditional), Russian, Swedish, and Thai.
In addition to the revelatory a/v quality, Blue Underground has also packed this three-disc set with tons of legacy features, new features, and the film’s soundtrack on CD.
Disc 1 includes an introduction to the film by Guillermo del Toro, two audio commentary tracks – one with Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films, the other with star Ian McCulloch and Diabolik Magazine editor Jason J. Slater, When the Earth Spits Out the Dead – Interview with Stephen Thrower (which is expectedly scholarly and packed with tons of vital information), a couple trailers, a couple TV spots, four radio spots, and a poster & still gallery.
Disc 2 is where all of the cast & crew interviews can be found. Included are Zombie Wasteland: Interviews with stars Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson & Al Cliver, and actor/stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua; Flesh Eaters on Film – Interview with Co-Producer Fabrizio de Angelis; Deadtime Stories – Interview with Co-Writers Elisa Briganti and (uncredited) Dardano Sacchetti; World of the Dead – Interview with Cinematographer Sergio Salvati; Zombi Italiano – Interview with Special Make-Up Effects Artists Gianetto de Rossi & Maurizio Trani and Special Effects Artist Gino de Rossi; Notes on a Headstone – Interview with Composer Fabio Frizzi; All in the Family – Interview with Antonella Fulci; Zombie Lover – Guillermo Del Toro Talks About One of his Favorite Films.
A third disc in the set contains Fabio Frizzi’s score on CD. Additionally, the set also includes a 22-page booklet, featuring an essay by Stephen Thrower alongside imagery from the film. All of this is housed in a lenticular slipcover, of which three different variations are available.
- NEW – Audio Commentary #1 with Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films
- Audio Commentary #2 with Star Ian McCulloch and Diabolik Magazine Editor Jason J. Slater
- NEW – Interview with Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci
- Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots, Radio Spots
- Poster & Still Gallery
- Guillermo del Toro Intro
- Zombie Wasteland – Interviews with Stars Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson & Al Cliver, and Actor/Stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua
- Flesh Eaters on Film – Interview with Co-Producer Fabrizio De Angelis
- Deadtime Stories – Interviews with Co-Writers Elisa Briganti and (Uncredited) Dardano Sacchetti
- World of the Dead – Interviews with Cinematographer Sergio Salvati and Production & Costume Designer Walter Patriarca
- Zombi Italiano – Interviews with Special Make-Up Effects Artists Gianetto De Rossi & Maurizio Trani and Special Effects Artist Gino De Rossi
- Notes on a Headstone – Interview with Composer Fabio Frizzi
- All in the Family – Interview with Antonella Fulci
- Zombie Lover – Award-Winning Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro talks about one of his favorite films
- BONUS CD – ZOMBIE Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi
- BONUS Collectable Booklet with new essay by author Stephen Thrower
This is Criterion-level treatment, and in some ways even more impressive. This is a no-brainer pick as one of the year’s best home video releases.