In 1968, George A. Romero reinvented zombies with Night of the Living Dead. Instead of mindless slaves undertaking mundane tasks or kidnapping beautiful women, Romero’s ghouls were shambling corpses with a taste for human flesh. The film marks an important historical event in the horror genre – a genre which would never be the same afterward. Ten years later, Romero followed it up with Dawn of the Dead, arguably the director’s finest hour. The film was partially-financed by Claudio Argento (brother of Dario); Dario Argento was given the rights to final cut when the film was distributed in Italy. Argento trimmed the film of the humorous elements, emphasized the action and horror, and released the film in Italy under the title Zombi. The film was a critical and commercial success and started the entire Italian zombie sub-genre. The first entry in this sub-genre, and the best, was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2).
Zombie (originally entitled Island of the Living Dead) began life as a script by the husband and wife team of Dardano Sacchetti (who remained uncredited) and Elisa Briganti. Sacchetti claims that the script was written before Romero’s film was made. However, simple chronology refutes that: while the script was written before Romero’s film was released in Italy, Dawn of the Dead was already in production by the time Sacchetti and Briganti sat down at the typewriter. Whether news of Romero’s production was the impetus for the script is anyone’s guess. Once the script was finished it was submitted to producer Ugo Tucci. Tucci approached Enzo G. Castellari to direct. Castellari declined, citing he didn’t like horror movies and suggested Lucio Fulci.
At this point, Fulci had been directing films, mostly comedies, for nearly twenty years. While he had a few gialli under his belt (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling), Zombie would mark the director’s first foray into full-blown horror. At the time, Fulci believed that the chance to make a name for himself as a filmmaker had passed him by. Zombie would prove that notion false and would put Fulci’s name in the mouths of horror fans the world over.
Once Romero’s film proved to be a hit, the film’s title was changed to Zombi 2 and was marketed as a prequel of sorts (in fact, the scenes in New York weren’t in the original script: they were added in an attempt to link the two films). When word of this title change got out, Dario Argento was furious and pursued legal action. However, a judge decides that the word “Zombie” was too generic a word to fall under copyright protection. Fulci considered the ordeal ridiculous, stating, “Zombies belong to Haiti and Cuba, not to Dario Argento.” The cash-in nature of the title change might prompt fans to dismiss the film as little more than a dull rip-off, but it is so much more than that. While it cannot be denied that the film is a cash-in, and it does borrow some elements from Dawn of the Dead, Zombie is far from a rip-off and carves its own little niche by removing any and all political/social connotations and any humor, while also having a different story entirely, and by being far gorier than Dawn of the Dead. One look at the zombie makeup shows that Fulci’s Zombie is a completely different beast. Romero’s zombies are little more than pale corpses, looking more like humans who’ve spent too much time in a meat locker. Fulci’s zombies, on the other hand, look like straight-up rotten corpses complete with peeling skin and maggots crawling about – exactly what you’d expect zombies to look like. The gore also surpasses Romero’s film, the highlight undoubtedly being the film’s eye-gouge scene. The makeup and gore effects come courtesy of Giannetto de Rossi, Italy’s premier makeup artist. He would work with Fulci on some of the director’s other “living dead” films and later went to work on David Lynch’s Dune. Tom Savini, eat your heart out.
Fulci felt that the film should focus more on mood and atmosphere as opposed to action and drew from the past. As a result, Fulci’s Zombie owes more to Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie than Dawn of the Dead. Fulci certainly achieved great results: you can almost feel the dread lingering in the air, almost smell the rotting flesh of the shambling corpses, almost taste the sand blowing in the breeze. As a result, Zombie moves at a slower pace but is but delivers a satisfying final act. Fabio Frizzi’s amazing score also helps in accenting the underlying dread. From the moment the ominous bass drum beats surge from the speakers we know we’re in for something pleasantly unpleasant. Frizzi would work with Fulci on several more of the director’s pictures, always delivering a solid and atmospheric score.
Zombie was released in Italy on August 25th, 1979 with released in other countries following suite. The film was a commercial success, and though Fulci liked to claim that it out-grossed Dawn of the Dead, it didn’t. However, upon its release in the U.K., the film became one of the infamous “Video Nasties” with some gory scenes cut out. 1 minute and 46 seconds were removed to obtain an X rating; however, it was passed complete and uncut in 2005. This, of course, only helped the flick achieve more publicity and notoriety, and the film was often advertised as a “Video Nasty” to pique the curiosity of those with “alternative” tastes.
The release and success of Zombie helped solidify Fulci’s reputation as a major player in Italian horror and he would release some of his best and most-famous work in the next few years. Zombie, and the films that followed, helped Fulci earn the title The Godfather of Gore (a title shared with Herschell Gordon Lewis). While his output began to dwindle in quality and box-office returns from the mid- to late-eighties/early-nineties, followed by his death in 1996, Zombie and Lucio Fulci continue to be spoken of highly amongst genre aficionados with Zombie considered one of the best zombie films ever made. Though Fulci is about as dead as the corpses depicted in Zombie, no one watching can deny the mantra often spoken by his greatest admirers: Fulci Lives!
And so does Zombie, for the dead are always among us…