We all know that this Halloween will not look like other Halloweens from years past. And yet, the month of October waits for us all the same. It is about time we put the spirit of Halloween back into that abandoned department store that we call the year of 2020. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together a curated, month-long series called Screen Screams. This time, we will be covering all things zombies. For the review, we will look at a pivotal progression in the zombie genre: Italian import Zombi 2. The version of the film being reviewed in the most readily available: the English dub entitled Zombie.
The most peculiar thing about Zombi 2 is that there is no Zombi, at least not in the traditional sense. Zombi was the title given to the Italian release of Dawn of the Dead, a version edited by the master of giallo slashers himself, Dario Argento. The roaring success of the film inspired overzealous Italian filmmakers to quickly rush a “sequel” into production. Zombi 2, however, is very much its own beast.
Directed by another prominent giallo filmmaker, Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 feels like a transitory film in the zombie canon. It pushes the decaying envelope in its actual portrayal of the undead, yet it leans on the unfortunate origin of zombie stories in “voodoo”. Wrapped up in a decidedly lo-fi package, Zombi 2 stands as a fascinating case study of how a genre changes over time.
After her father goes missing, Anne Bowles (Tia Farrow) decides she needs to go to his last location: the Caribbean island of Matul. Accompanied by an English journalist (Ian McCulloch), they find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew on Matul as, you guessed it, the living dead are afoot. They collide with Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), a scientist who is trying to stop the creatures. Their affliction, he surmises, is a voodoo curse.
So much of horror is built on honoring tradition. It’s what makes the slasher genre enduring; seeing the number of ways filmmakers can build on the same skeleton of an idea. Zombie films represent a tricky situation in that sense. The earliest zombie stories are racially insensitive caricatures that greatly misrepresent “voodoo”. Night of the Living Dead veered hard away from those origins to great effect. The genre as a whole followed suit, but Zombi 2 embraces the old narrative with open arms.
Not only does it take the genre back to its racially insensitive roots, it’s plain boring. The narrative is tired, and there’s little to no characters to latch onto. I suppose Dr. Menard is hammy enough to sustain the audience’s interest, and Tia Farrow and Ian McCulloch have enough chemistry to chug things along. Yet that’s hardly praise. Although the bones of Zombi 2 are flimsy, there’s some quality meat on them.
My favorite thing about Zombi 2 is the score from Fabio Frizzi. Eerie electronica echoes through the picture, making the most minute of dialogue scenes chilling. But we’re not here to wax lyrical about scores. Let’s talk about the creatures!
The zombie effects here were the best in their class at the time. Lurid cinematography from Sergio Salvati captures a whole new type of zombie. Gone are the identifiably human creatures from the Romero films. In their stead, we have shambling, barnacle-encrusted, decaying honest-to-God monsters. They feel like more of a threat than ever before, and I think this was a positive shift forward for the genre.
Films like Return of the Living Dead picked up the baton and further elaborated on the more inhuman kind of zombie. On its own, however, Zombi 2 has plenty of pleasures in the action department. The blood runneth over in a variety of zombie shoot-outs. Some impressive gore scenes include a positively brutal eyeball gouging and a scene where a zombie fights a shark. Yes, you read that correctly: a zombie fights a shark, and it somehow works.
By the point we reach the third act, the gore does reach a point of diminishing returns without a good story to anchor it. And that’s kind of the Zombi 2 experience. It’s enjoyable for its effects work, score, and willingness to try something new with its creatures. Otherwise, it struggles to overcome a weak script that leans on the worst parts of zombie mythology. Truly, the best of the genre was yet to come. –James Preston Poole
Zombi 2 is now streaming on Shudder and available to own on home video and Digital HD.