Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE: The Exploitation Classic That Never Dies
The Quintessential Zombie Film
Another Halloween will come and go, and the zombie fad is still going strong.
Halloween is a special time for horror faithful, and those that might not have indulged in a horror film for some time will look online to rent a favorite horror film. Halloween may even lead some to rent a few truly guilty cinematic pleasures. High on top of those guilty pleasure lists for many will be the 1979 Lucio Fulci's classic ZOMBIE.
For many horror fans, ZOMBIE is the quintessential guilty pleasure. It is also a film with great historical significance as it is one of the films that laid the path for the current zombie craze, which are the rage in movie theaters and on television. Anyone with even a passing interest in living dead films is vaguely familiar with this exploitation classic.
Seriously, who could ever forget that sick looking Spanish conquistador zombie that stares out from the poster to proclaim, "We are going to eat you"?
The Only Zombie Poster You Ever Need to See
The worm eyed living dead creature of Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE has remained an iconic character. The stunningly tacky look of the most revered of the many zombies that shamble forth in the film still helps the poster sell in collectible circles to this day. The image even adorns T-shirts. Having seen one worn by a teenager in 2002 in a supermarket, I was a bit bemused at the garish image's appeal's longevity.
The first time I saw the poster was outside of the Mayfair movie theater in Philly in 1980. I was a pretty striking image on the proverbial impressionable mind. For those looking for cheap thrills from a horror movie for a $1 a ticket, that poster would catch your eye. It helped the film draw customers to the notorious Deuce of 42nd street in NYC in the early 1980s. The same could be said of other urban areas. For the drive-in circuit, the equally lurid television and radio spots promising insane carnage also attracted the curious.
A Garish Advertising Campaign
The DVD release of the film comes with some of the TV spots. I know there were more because I saw them on both local Philadelphia and New York television (via North Jersey TV stations) in the summer of 1980. The TV spots were scary even by the era's standards when scores of slasher movie commercials were beginning to flood the airwaves. (Some of which were equally classic)
I also remember watching the film for the first time in the mid-1980s when it was released by Wizard video. The video store would log the number of times it was checked out and which customer had taken out the video by logging the customer's ID on a piece of tape affixed to the side of the box. (Video stores were not very hi-tech in those days unless one had a Commodore 64) I remember this movie was enormously popular with horror fans visiting the old mom and pop grindhouse-style video stores of the 1980s.
A Long Stumbling Hit
ZOMBIE is not a film that has only recently become appreciated, although there is a renewed appreciation for it thanks to the interest in zombie films these days. When ZOMBIE shambled across movie screens throughout the globe between 1979 and 1980, hitting drive-ins and grindhouses, it earned something in the range of $30 million world wide. It made money on video in the 1980s. In early 2002 or so, it saw its first DVD special edition release. Now, it has received another DVD special edition release.
Shockingly, an edited version of the film even aired on a small New Jersey TV station in the 1990s.
ZOMBIE even receives theatrical play at revivals now and then. This odd entry in Italian Zombie mayhem films has never stopped making money, and it has never stopped reaching an audience. It is doubtful all the money this film has earned over the years will ever be fully tabulated.
Origins: Voodoo or Otherwise
ZOMBIE is commonly referred to as the unauthorized sequel to Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. I'm afraid I have to disagree. I would consider it a prequel. Or a look at the early beginnings of the Zombie outbreak experienced by different people in a different part of the world. THE WALKING DEAD, the various DEAD films by Romero, ZOMBIE, and a host of other zombie films could have taken place in the same universe. (Although in ZOMBIE, it would have to be a universe where logic is left at the gate by the characters based on their actions and dialogue)
The Question that Never Dies
What is it about ZOMBIE that makes it survive year after year and find a new audience?
A few reasons exist as to why the film is the perfect grindhouse feature that has now reached cult status. Yes, the hyper gore contributes to it. The insane Zombie vs. Shark scene (a gratuitous attempt to cash in not only the success of DAWN but also on JAWS) is so absurd it gives the film a memorable carnival barking scene.
There are a few other elements that allow ZOMBIE to stand out.
The Creepy Grindhouse Score
The haunting music of Zombie certain adds to the eeriness of the proceedings. The art of making a compelling and creepy horror movie score is a lost art. SAW would likely be the only horror film known for its fantastic score, and it debuted in 2003. Fabio Frizzi created a brilliant score with ZOMBIE as it offered a strange and haunting melody that helped the audience realize that Zombie was something special. Even with so many amazingly talented music composers that are horror fans, producers seem to avoid tapping into their skills when making low budget horror fodder on cable TV.
The haunting and creepy "Zombie Theme"
Action and High Adventure on a Horror Movie Budget
The thrilling action sequences near the climax of the film offer a sense of high adventure. The frightening look of the zombies, thanks to the amazing special effects of Gianetto Di Rossi, create the perfect mix of horror and action. Fulci drives home a feeling of menace when shooting the film, thanks to the tension and nihilism the ending eventually leads to.
Perhaps it is the nihilism of this film and every other Zombie film that makes it popular. Who would not find it frightening to be trapped in a world where everything previously existed has turned into an alternative reality where humans are prey. There is a lot of symbolism in such images, which can be interpreted in many different ways.
For most, there is likely a visceral panic experienced when watching films like this. The visceral nature can make a movie like this both repulsive but such a sickening display you cannot turn away because it has touched a deep nerve.
In the film itself, the origins of the zombies never receive an explanation. No surprise, the origin joins the non-explanation of the film's success and appeal. Maybe that contributes to its cult status as well.