The zombie film is not only a staple of the horror genre but arguably one of the most diverse sub-genres within it. Relatively cheap to produce, easy to market and with few rules to adhere to it is no surprise that the trend driven Italian film industry leapt upon the fad to exploit it, before throwing it away like so many other genres that came before. However, what Italian filmmakers couldn’t know at the time was that their brand of film making was unique and as a result offered international audiences something they could not get from their own domestic markets. Like the Eurocrime genre of the seventies, the Italians had stamped their own mark; moving miles ahead of the pack, and showing what many others wouldn’t dare . Because of this, their work has endured, finding new audiences with every subsequent entertainment medium upgrade.
From the gorefest to philosophical, the sleazy to the surreal and everything in between, the Italian zombie is a unique creature. So let’s take a journey to discover just why that is the case.
Now a word of warning: definitions of a zombie film can vary wildly both from film to film and fan to pedantic fan. In order to get around this and best represent the genre as a whole, this article will include anything zombie-like at all, regardless of the source of zombification or their behaviour.
Life before death
The Italian productions (or let’s be honest co-productions) before the watershed year of 1968, are different beasts (if you pardon the pun), when compared to what contemporary audiences generally understand as representative of a “zombie film”. Back then there were no rotting flesh eating creatures, but rather a master/slave dynamic that had endured since the early thirties. A good example of this can be seen in Vari’s Rome Against Rome (1964) where a politician and his wizard summon a slaughtered Roman legion in order to take control of the empire. While a decent watch, this is likely to only appeal to those who are already a fan of the peplum genre. The film is most notable for featuring John Drew Barrymore, father of actress Drew, in the lead.
Meanwhile a year later saw Pupillo’s much more Gothic use of the undead in Cemetery of the Living Dead aka 5 Tombe Per Un Medium (1965) or Terror Creatures from the Grave which can only really be recommended for fans of Barbara Steele and is merely mentioned here as little more than a footnote as although it does have zombies, they are not actually a focal point.
Final mention, pre-Romero, has to go to the first adaptation of the Richard Matheson book I Am Legend, American-Italian co-production: The Last Man on Earth (1964), which starred horror legend Vincent Price. Although the creatures involved are vampires and not zombies there are a few similarities to the zombie in regards to its use as a cinematic trope. The story, a post-apocalyptic tale of survival, would go on to greatly influence George Romero and in turn hundreds of other zombie films.
Origins of the contemporary genre
The genre changed forever in 1968 as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first hit the big screen, catapulting a new flesh-eating zombie into mainstream consciousness. Sure, the film itself never referred to them as such, preferring the term ghouls, but much like the later protestations of Lenzi with Nightmare City (1980), for all intents and purposes (particularly for marketing) these are the zombies we have come to know and love. The siege format of the film and its conception of a new cinematic monster helped create the blueprint for many spaghetti zombie films but in a rare delay of imitation it would be a further eleven years before the first notable Italian zombie effort.
In the meantime Armando De Ossorio brought the murderous creatures to Europe, with his terrific Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972); where the editor clearly discovered the slow motion button and gave a master class it its use. However, it would be fellow Spaniard Jorge Grau who would really pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Romero, when he made his 1974 effort The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue; which starred Italian genre favourites Ray Lovelock (Oasis of Fear (1971), Violent Rome (1975), Live Like a Cop, Die like and Man (1976), and Murder Rock (1984), Aldo Massasso (The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), Contraband (1980), The Wax Mask (1997), Sleepless (2001) as well as Giorgio Trestini (Milan Caliber 9 (1972), Four of the Apocalypse (1975). As was common at the time, these films were co-produced by companies across several countries (giving rise to the term Europudding when the results were not quite as desired), with many actors crossing borders to star. In fact this was common practice for Spanish films in particular, in order to get around any restrictions placed by Franco’s board of censors.
Death Smiles on the Murderer (1973) is also worth a quick mention as it does feature an ancient Incan formula that raises the dead and briefly features the legendary Klaus Kinski in Joe D’Amato’s first horror.
Post-Dawn of the Dead
Things were set to change after the major success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) included an exclusive European edit by none other than Italian maestro Dario Argento. Zombie fever swept across the Italian industry, becoming a sure fire hit with audiences ready for violence, gore and fun. Especially considering the tumultuous decade the Italians had just witnessed filled with criminal violence and civil dissent.
So it is that with Romero, Argento and their grey faced consumerist ghouls, our story really begins. The film would see its Italian premiere in Argento’s favourite city, Turin, on the 1st September 1978, eight months before hitting the States in a different cut. Dawn of the Dead proved to be a watershed moment, ushering in a new wave of popular and profitable genre cinema. So much so that it encouraged a renaming of the film now commonly known as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) which was released domestically as Zombi 2 to directly cash-in on Romero’s original title.
Often misconstrued as a rip off, as so many of the Italian cinematic releases were, Zombie Flesh Eaters was shot during June and July of 1979. This gave plenty of time for the crew and financiers to become familiar with the work of Romero, although not enough to know how successful it would be worldwide. Regardless of this, in order to give themselves the best commercial chance and to capitalise on Romero’s film, which was still fresh in the minds of the public, the producers rushed it out. Zombie Flesh Eaters had its cinematic debut on the 25th August 1979, eleven months after Dawn of the Dead first hit Italian cinemas.
Although Romero proved the catalyst for Fulci’s film, the creative influence came from the Tex Willer comics. Genre writer Dardano Sacchetti has openly stated these formed the basis for the original script idea, with the film seeking to be a jungle adventure as opposed to a Romero-esque zombie bloodbath. However, as soon as the executives realised they could not secure the rights to the Tex premise, the concept was shifted to Caribbean voodoo.
Rather interestingly, depending on who you talk to, there are reports that famed director Enzo Castellari (The Bronx Warriors (1982) passed on the film, while producer Fabrizio De Angelis would later claim that his [Castellari’s] failure to land the job was due to his financial demands knocking him out of the running.
If you haven’t seen it already, the film follows investigative reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) as they travel to the uncharted Caribbean island of Matool to investigate the disappearance of Anne’s father, when his deserted yacht turns up in New York. Joining the pair are holiday makers Brian Hull and Susan Barrett— who certainly end up getting the trip of a lifetime; as they encounter voodoo rituals, undead conquistadors and sadistic violence. While a consideration of the plot might hopefully debunk the myth that Zombie Flesh Eaters is a direct rip off of Dawn Of The Dead, the premise does actually work well as a prequel to Romero’s film; with a couple of elements tying in nicely, even to the point of being more consistent than Romero’s actual prequel Night Of The Living Dead. All of this however is pure speculation of this writer’s part.
The reasons for the film’s success are vast: ranging from the fun, exotic action, to the over the top splatter ad gore (employed by make-up artist and Fx guy Gino De Rossi). While Romero’s zombies in Dawn Of The Dead were simply discoloured, De Rossi took homeless winos and created walking worm infested pus bags out of them. Alan Jones, in his article Morti Viventi: Zombies Italian-Style, quotes De Rossi as stating, “Although I’d done the make-up for The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, nobody took any real notice until my work with Fulci…I just smeared clay on whoever’s face was in front of me and, by accident, it turned out to be the perfect look for the film”. De Rossi’s distinct look lead to the undead in the film being humorously known as walking flowerpots.
Undeniably a classic, Zombie Flesh Eaters belongs in every self-respecting horror fan’s collection. I personally would recommend picking up Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release which not only presents the film with a glorious HD restoration but also is chock full of fantastic extras and has to be the definitive release.
Let the knock-offs flow
The first film of note to follow Fulci’s forerunnner was Zombie Holocaust (1980) aka Dr Butcher M.D. which, as the title suggests, is a mishmash of concepts aimed to broadly appeal to anyone looking for a zombie film, a cannibal film or just a nasty horror. It’s all in here. The title was changed because the US distributor lost the rights to use the original title. To make sense of the new name, additional footage was injected from the incomplete film Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out to help smooth things over, which only added to the confusing plot. While the soundtrack for the American version was appropriated from a 1975 pornographic film called Anyone But My Husband.
Directed by Marino Girolami, who is better known for the Maurizio Merli Eurocrime vehicles Violent Rome (1975) and Italia A Mano Armata (1976) (under the alias of Frank Martin) Zombie Holocaust would see Ian McCulloch return to battle the undead and the nefarious Dr Obrero (played by Donald O’Brien).
The film, set on a Caribbean island (surprise surprise), features a mad scientist who is investigating the transference of life through the act of taking the brain out of one body and into another. After some body parts go missing in New York, the evidence points to a Caribbean island. Dr Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch, in danger of being typecast as “that zombie man”) teams up with an ancient culture expert (Lori Ridgway) to investigate just what the dickens is going on.
Overall, this is a bit of a mess of a film that tries to capitalise on both cannibal and zombie fads without actually nailing down the winning formula for either. This said, it is, like many of these films, not without its moments and will entertain most zombie fans. Although not actually a Video Nasty the film was treated in much the same way, falling foul of many obscenities laws across Europe. Zombie Holocaust would also be the first of many zombie films to be released in what could arguably be called the start of the zombie golden period (1980-1981) (although this title refers more to volume than quality).
One release in which the quality would shine through however, is Lucio Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead (1980). The director had wanted to move away from the zombie genre but money talks, so it would be that the whims of distributors would eventually shape the unofficial Gates of Hell Trilogy, that begins with this first part. Those who had expected something along the lines of the director’s iconic Zombie Flesh Eaters were in for a shock. Fulci eschewed the traditional zombie approach in favour of something much more supernatural and surreal.
An apparent homage to the works of American writer H.P. Lovecraft, the story is actually set in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Dunwich. Here a local priest, Father Thomas, commits suicide thereby opening a gateway to hell. In a line more familiar in the gialli, an investigative reporter (Christopher George – Pieces (1982) attempts to find out what is the cause behind a series of strange occurrences in the town. In order to do this he needs help, which comes in the form of a nearly buried alive medium (Catriona MacColl) he saves in one of the many memorable scenes in the film. Somewhere in the surreal plot, the story becomes irrelevant, thanks to multiple red herrings, inconsistent world rules and minimal characterisations. Then again, narrative coherence isn’t the point of this film. When evaluated in the spirit in which it was intended City Of The Living Dead becomes an atmospheric entertaining Gothic tale; albeit one full of sadistic violence and regurgitated guts.
An interesting fact is that the ending of the film is not the original. Instead, Fulci had planned to reveal that the boy was now a zombie, but this footage was destroyed in the lab resulting in a reworking now seen. Fulci went on record to say that the original version was too commercial and happy for him, leading him to claim later that rather than an issue in the lab, the final scene was changed in order to present a more ambiguous ending.
Ambiguity was not the case for the the next film released that year— Joe D’Amato’s Erotic Nights Of The Living Dead (1980), surprisingly not the only porno zombie film the director made.
Real name Aristide Massaccesi, the prolific director carved out a highly respected reputation as a cinematographer earlier in his career, before slowly and surely moving across to working in sleazier and sleazier films, or should we say erotic. No, let’s stick with sleazy.
Erotic Nights Of The Living Dead follows property developer and human hard-on John Wilson (Mark Shannon – Porno Holocaust (1981), The Porno Killers (1980) as he attempts to purchase a supposedly deserted Caribbean Island with the hope of transforming it into a holiday resort. Wilson enlists the help of sailboat captain Larry (George Eastman aka Luigi Montefiore, who also wrote this film and would share a long and productive relationship with the director) and rather oddly, his sexy hotel room neighbour Fiona (Dirce Funari – Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals (1977). Fiona’s only purpose on the trip seems to be to service the gentlemen on board. Upon reaching the deserted Cat Island, it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. John Wilson and co. come across a blind old man and his ghostly grand-daughter Luna (Laura Gemser – Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals, Women’s Prison Massacre, 1983) who warn the newcomers to stay away but to no avail. The living dead soon appear to protect their land.
Filled with poor dialogue, convenient character actions and very little horror but much sex, this is a terrible film no matter how you approach it. Although there are moments that work, and despite its lack of quality, there is something much more than competent about D’Amato’s technical work which begs further questions about his motivations and effort.
Thankfully, not everyone wanted this extremely niche combination of the erotic undead and the same year saw the most successful genre hack, Bruno Mattei aka Vincent Dawn, unleash Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980) which was released in the USA as Hell Of The Living Dead.
In the film zombification is a side effect of government experiments run by the HOPE Centre in New Guinea in a bid to reduce the world’s population through the ethically dubious method of cannibalism. However, some crazy activists back in the States get wind of this plan and try to warn the world. Although this isn’t the direction the film wants to take, as the do-gooders are quickly massacred. Their killers get sent to New Guinea for a new mission. You get the feeling that Zombie Creeping Flesh wants to be political and has something to say, but the writing team of Fragasso, Drudi, Mattei and Couilles just don’t have it in them to actually pull it off. This is a pattern that will be repeated later in the decade with their subsequent zombie efforts. Like many other films of the period Zombie Creeping Flesh was an Italian/Spanish co-production. Barcelona was utilised for many of the shots as well as Studio Mafera in Rome, despite the fact the film set in the developing world. Welcome to the world of Italian cinema, where stock footage is used in abundance.It’s interesting to note that according to director Mattei this film was actually intended to be a direct rip off of Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, albeit with more comical overtones. While the attempt at comedy isn’t exactly obvious, the director would go on to simultaneously state that the violence was only included at such high levels because it was in keeping with the fashion at the time.
If there is one thing you can say about the Italian zombie scene, it is, if nothing else unpredictable. In a single year there were Caribbean adventures, erotic Caribbean adventures, teleporting zombies and feeble attempts of combining social commentary with gore and exploitation. However 1980 still had a couple more aces up its sleeve.
Ground breaking in its method, Nightmare City (1980) would pre-date the running infected seen in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead (2004) remake by over two decades , with Umberto Lenzi’s aforementioned flick injecting a much needed pace into the genre.
Nightmare City begins with the arrival of an ominous, seemingly unmanned craft making an unscheduled landing at an airport. Surrounded by military personnel, the aircraft doors open but the waiting soldiers get a nasty shock when a horde of disgusting ravenous violent mutants burst out. It’s up to charisma vortex Dean Miller (played by Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz – yup Eli Roth named a character after him) to stay awake and work out what the hell is going on.
Lenzi gives us a film that is big on explosions, breasts and hilarity—in particular, the slowed down massacre of the dancers sums up the film perfectly. Despite being riddled with errors and convenient plot gaps and everything just works. This is a must view for fans of the genre, but that ending. That ending.
All of this variety would ultimately come to an end with the most definitive lowest common denominator example of the genre – Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights Of Terror (1981). Confusingly, the film was also put out (in one circumstance) as Zombi 3 for a quick cash grab.
From genre writer Piero Regnoli, who also co-wrote Come Cani Arrabbiati (1976) and Nightmare City amongst others, Burial Ground really is the epitome of Italian zombie cinema. It piles on the sleaze and violence, adding just a dash of social commentary (intentional or otherwise) as Bianchi and Regnoli imbue a hint of the class struggle and dare we say rebellion into the core narrative. However, when considered in light of their other work, most critics would likely err on the side of caution and say it was most likely an unintentional high-brow position. After all neither are exactly Pasolini.
Shot in only four weeks, the budget was apparently disproportionately allocated to the effects work of the legendary Gino De Rossi and Rosario Prestopino. Despite this weighting and their stellar work, producer Gabriele Crisanti actually claimed that one of the highlight shots of a zombie on fire was no stunt but rather an accident that was caught on tape and used.
The plot of Burial Ground is quite simple; a professor opens a crypt near his villa and accidently reanimates rotten zombies. A group of frivolous hedonists then proceed to come to visit the Villa for a weekend of fun and the proletariat zombies rise up and attack them.
Amongst the hilarity on offer is the choice to cast a blatantly mid-20s actor (Peter Bark) as an Oedipal pre-teen thus doubling the creepy edge to an already perverse relationship dynamic. Looking even stranger than Bob in House By The Cemetery (1981) sounds, Bark pays the role straight, maybe in the hope that no-one would notice. I would be worried about the audience if they didn’t.
Meanwhile, of all the films covered here the location used in Burial Ground probably receives the most attention. Filmed in Villa Parisi in Frascati, located just twelve miles from Rome, the location also featured in Patrick Still Lives (1980) and Nightmare Castle (1965) amongst others.
And if zombie fans thought Burial Ground, with its nods to bourgeoisie decadence and zombie incest, would be the death knell for base zombie pleasures, Joe D’Amato would prove them wrong as returning to the genre with the memorable Porno Holocaust. Although the film is not entirely original being not so much a new film, but rather an alternative riff off his earlier Erotic Nights Of The Living Dead. Sharing cast, crew and locations, it really does seem like George Eastman went to Joe and said “listen I’ve got two ideas but we only have the one cast and location, let’s just do them both and see what happens”. For those of who haven’t seen what happens in this alternative take and to spare your eyes from future discomfort, Porno Holocaust sees a group of castaways land on a deserted island…deserted all but for a sex-crazed radioactive undead monster. Oh did I mention he had radioactive sperm? No, well the synopsis may sound great but the execution less so. Around the same time Eastman and D’Amato also made Anthropophagus (1980), which let’s face it again isn’t too dissimilar if you remove the sexualised aspect. The duo certainly got some mileage out of one basic story foundation. Thankfully, those who cared about quality were again rewarded with their patience later that year as the maestro Lucio Fulci was about to unleash the final two films in the Gates of Hell trilogy.
Coming first, was the bizarre and almost profound The Beyond (1981) (commonly known in North America as 7 Doors Of Death and L’aldila in its native homeland). The film actually ended up being banned outright in Norway and West Germany, as well as ending up on the infamous DPP video nasty list in the UK.
The Beyond was shot both on location in Louisiana and at Incir De Paolis Studios back in Rome; making the excursion almost par for the course for director Fulci with an American working holiday becoming a staple in his productions around this time. The use of authentic locations in Louisiana really lets the Southern superstitions permeate throughout the story. This not only ties back to Zombie Flesh Eaters, as both hark back to the African roots of the zombie, but also made the film more marketable and familiar to American audiences.
Opening in New Orleans, 1927, an ungodly warlock tries to warn a heavy handed mob that the local Hotel is sat on top of one of the seven gateways of evil. Now mobs aren’t prone to reasoning, so they crucify the warlock and wall him up. Jump to 1981 and Liza Merrill (Catriona MacColl) has inherited the very same place. While renovating, strange and supernatural occurrences begin and zombies start to take over the town. As with its predecessor, this is a film based around atmosphere and mood, as opposed to a traditional linear narrative. It certainly delivers in that respect, while allowing those who want to speculate on its ambiguity the opportunity to read further into the context that lies at the core of the plot.
Interestingly, Tisa Farrow was Fulci’s original choice to play Liza, but for several reasons Catriona MacColl was brought back to work with the director. She must have made a decent impression (or at least was available to accomodate the director’s schedule) as she would then go on to star in The House By The Cemetery. The Beyond also starred genre stalwart David Warbeck (Twins Of Evil (1971), The Black Cat (1981), Formula For A Murder (1985), Rat Man(1988) and Antoine Saint-John (The Killer Must Kill Again(1975).
Several confusing plot points may annoy the pendantic lookng for cohesion and structure; ranging from questions over why has a New Orleans building got a basement, to the entire concept of the blind woman Emily, and the fact that the dead can escape Hell, only to be killed on earth, resulting in a strange, never ending cycle. Regardless of these details, The Beyond stands up as one of the director’s masterpieces. It was followed up by something only relatively more conventional in the House By The Cemetery (1981).
Now when discussing The House By The Cemetery as a key part of the annals of zombie lore, we need to be careful. Here, there is no horde of zombies, just a rather disgruntled Civil War doctor named Freudstein (a combination of Freud and Frankenstein) who has managed to extend his life by renewing his cells found when claiming human victims. So, a kind of zombie in a way, but also one that can teleport, use psychic powers and clean up after his murderous actions in just a matter of moments. Like the previous two films the story plays second fiddle to the atmosphere.
By now Fulci had established himself as the King of the Italian zombies, having not only the most iconic Italian zombie film under his belt, but also three atmospheric and supernatural efforts which stand up even by today’s standards; this is evidenced both in the constant reissues and the fanboy gushings of current directors. Rather than simply following the template as laid down by George Romero, Fulci took the core idea, but then proceeded to smash that particular construct in order to develop something much more abstract and evocative. However, even the most ardent Fulci fan must admit that post-Zombie Flesh Eaters this was most likely not a conscious plan. It is likely that had the director had full creative control we would not be talking about any of these films in reference to the zombie sub-genre at all.