Whether you call it Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombi 2 (the first installment being George A. Romero's completely unconnected Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy as Zombi), or just plain old Zombie, Lucio Fulci's 1979 masterpiece is just that -- a messy, messy masterpiece. Unlike Fulci's later efforts, Zombie actually makes sense, even though some questions linger long after the credits roll. We'll get to those in due course. But for now, let us praise undead men (and the occasional woman).
Loathed by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher for being a so-called "video nasty," Zombie is indeed a gorefest, as one would expect in a zombie film. Then again, Fulci and his fellow gristle merchants upped the ante in terms of cinematic violence, although the argument could be made that Dawn of the Dead, which Fulci and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti shamelessly tried to ripoff, is even bloodier. But whatever the case, Zombie is a heavy on the red paint and heavier on cruelty. Oh, plus there are whacky hijinks, too.
The film begins at an unspecified location. We see a man who looks like some kind of professional put a bullet in the brain of someone wrapped in a white sheet. Look, given the film's title, it's obvious that the latter is a zombie committing his first undead sit-up, while the former is a zombie killer. The mystery goes even deeper when the living hero mutters "The boat can leave now. Tell the crew."
Flash forward to New York harbor. An abandoned sailboat drifts aimlessly in the water. There's no sign of a crew, and from the looks of things, the former sailors left in a hurry. The harbor police find evidence of several meals, but also blood. Then, when they go below deck, they find a rotting, bloated zombie (played by Arthur Haggerty) who quickly makes mince meat out of one of the coppers. Hit the deck; the violence is about to start.
Back on land, English reporter Peter West (played by Ian McCulloch) gets assigned the case of the murder yacht by his curmudgeon news editor (played by Fulci himself). Meanwhile, Anne Bowles (played by Tisa Farrow, sister of the more famous Mia) is questioned by the boys in blue because her father (played by Ugo Bologna) was the boat's owner. West gets wind of this, and while trying to dig deeper into the story, he and Anne both come across a letter written by the elder Bowles, which explains that he had gone to the Caribbean island of Matool (really Saint Tomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands) in order to examine a strange disease. After pretending to be a couple on the lookout for a quick nookie, thereby escaping the full attention of a police officer tasked with guarding the crime scene, West and Anne catch a plane, then a boat in order to find Matool.
Once inland, West and Anne meet a pair of Americans out on a holiday tour of the Caribbean. This couple -- Brian Hull (played by Pier Luigi Conti) and Susan Barrett (played by Auretta Gray) -- not only agree to let West and Anne join them, but they also agree to the New York duo's request to find the legend haunted Matool. As it turns out, this decision puts everyone at risk of catching the zombie cold. A very ugly cold, indeed.
Once on Matool, we get to meet Dr. Menard (played by Richard Johnson) and his nervous wife (played by Olga Karlatos). Why is she so anxious? Well, Matool is overrun with the walking dead, and yet Dr. Menard is desperate to complete his research. Funny enough, Dr. Menard's research concerns the recent outbreak of zombies on Mantool. Quite a vicious circle, no?
So what's causing all the zombies? Voodoo, it seems, and yet we never see any bad juju going on. Sure, we hear drums and certain talk about a conjure man, but nothing definitive other than a few whispers about the entire island being cursed. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. The dead have risen on Matool and they're hungry for the living. They're also everywhere, even underwater.
Although it's one of the greatest zombie movies ever, and although it has a fairly comprehensible plot (by Fulci standards), Zombie is mostly remembered for a few key scenes. The most reviled occurs when Paola, Dr. Menard's wife, is attacked in her home by a pack of zombies. One of these zombies manages to split open one of the houses's wooden doors, and while trying to drag Paola within biting range, he jams her head into a sharpened splinter that pierces her eye. Fulci handles this scene with the care and delicacy of a butcher, thus creating one of horror cinema's most infamous visual passages.
Next up is the hilarious duel between a zombie and a shark. Both predators are after the near-nude body of Susan (who rocks one of thinest thongs in all of creation), but fall into fighting once blood gets spilled. The scene is so ridiculous that it's launched a thousand memes and a million more geek references. It has become so popular that no one ever asks why a zombie is in the water in the first place.
Finally, the other noteworthy scene in Zombie is the moment when the Conquistadors rise. While fleeing the recent dead, the American foursome come upon an old Spanish cemetery that's finally rocking again after four hundred years. Much like Amando de Ossorio's blind, dead, and bloodthirsty Knights Templar, Fulci's Spanish knights are the ghastly archdemons of the whole parade. Even after they get their heads split open, they stick in the minds of the audience like paella-chomping parasites.
Zombie's ending prefigures Fulci's later creation, The Beyond. In both films, bullets are aimed at brains in sequences that seem perfect for video game consoles. It's no wonder then that Zombie clearly inspired the video game Dead Island, which deals with a zombie outbreak on a remote tropical island. Zombie has also inspired numerous other horror films, for it remains one of the quintessential zombie films ever made. Everything about it is almost perfect, from Fabio Frizzi's score to its final apocalypse (the film ends with New York falling under a zombie hellstorm). Even the goofs and gaffs make this film better, and without question Fulci never made anything quite as good again. No bad for a blatant marketing ploy...