Back to the grave
1981 was a peak year for the Italian zombie genre, which meant there was only one way to go. The following year no major zombie films were produced by Italian studios; although France and Spain kept the Euro-zombie flag flying high with Jess Franco’s Mansion Of The Living Dead and Oasis Of The Zombies. 1982 was also the year of Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl aka La Morte Vivante.
Thankfully, the ‘82 drought did not mean the end for innovation with the zombie film. The following year saw Pupi Avati (The House With Laughing Windows, 1976) deliver his own unique take on the genre with Zeder (1983) — an edited version was released in the United States under the title Revenge Of The Dead.
The film involves a young journalist, Stefano (played by Gabriele Lavia who starred in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, 1975 and Sleepless, 2001) who purchases a second hand typewriter and realises that there is still some legible text on the ribbon. Through this he manages to reconstruct the story of scientist Paolo Zeder; a man who discovered that a type of terrain, named K-Zones, had the ability to revive any dead buried there. As plucky Stefano begins to investigate the theories of Dr Zeder, it soon becomes apparent that it is not the dead he needs to worry about, it’s the living.
Despite the cover and marketing (featured by several distributors) Zeder is not a really a zombie movie. Admittedly it deals with the dead coming back to life, but it is much more of a horror mystery than anything else. It does have the potential to entertain those with an open mind, as long as no one goes in expecting another Zombie Flesh Eaters. Avati’s effort was a rare outing for the zombie during this period, slasher movies ruled the horror roost. Zombie fans would have to wait another couple of years before they could get their next fix. It would prove to be well worth the wait.
Having honed his chops on horror titles Macabre (1980) and A Blade In The Dark (1983) — as well as the action flick Blastfighter (1984) — director Lamberto Bava, son of the great Mario, would reinvigorate the decaying zombie sub-genre with fast-paced, rock-and-roll influenced Demons (1985).
Clearly aware of Lenzi’s Nightmare City and Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Demons was the perfect combination of a young, up-and-coming filmmaker, with a strong eye for visuals, all the right connections and a terrific genre script (co-written in part by legendary Dario Argento, Fulci regular Dardano Sacchetti, Franco Ferrini).
In fact, if ever you wanted a top example of either nepotism or star studded Italian horror, this has to be in the running. It also has music by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin, makeup and effects by a young Sergio Stivaletti, stunts by Ottaviano Dell’Acqua and performances from the likes of future director Michele Soavi (who also starred in City Of The Living Dead), Nicoletta Elmi, Bobby Rhodes, an uncredited Giovanni Frezza (The House By The Cemetery) and Dario’s daughter Fiore Argento, amongst many other familiar faces.
Despite being an Italian film it was shot in Berlin during June and July of 1985 and released in Italy later that same year. The Italians certainly didn’t mess around when it came to post-production.
And neither did the writers, at least in terms of pacing, providing a frantic adrenaline ride in which a group of cinemagoers are trapped inside the Metropol movie theatre, where the dead are not only coming back to life, but literally coming out of the screen! Demons throws everything in, and even neatly plays with convention, using the staple siege situation started by Night Of The Living Dead, the movie uses a reversal where the victims are already trapped inside. This results in arguably one of the most fun zombie films of the decade, which is easily comparable to the fast paced American classic Return Of The Living Dead. No wonder Lamberto Bava has claimed it to be his personal favourite piece of work.
Due to its relative success it is of no surprise that a sequel was released just a year later. What was a surprise, however, is that not only did Lamberto Bava return, but also Argento, Sacchetti and Ferrini who assisted with writing once again. Sergio Stivaletti returned to supply the special effects, while Bobby Rhodes and Lino Salemme would reappear in front of the camera, albeit as different characters.
Demons 2 also marks feature film debut of Asia Argento and future Argento regular Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni (Opera, Mother Of Tears).
For the sequel, the action is transported to a high-rise apartment block which, as you could guess, becomes infested with Demons. While the makers try to channel the spirit of the first movie, the weaker, less cohesive, script simply fails. Even by Italian standards, the story appears forced.
While notably inferior to the original there is enough here to recommend the film to zombie fans; even though the film leans more toward the possessed of The Evil Dead and conceptually one could make an argument that it owes even a small debt to Cronenberg’s Shivers.
Around this same time the bottom appeared to be falling out of the Italian film industry, as talent and money began to move towards the ever more popular medium of television.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the next zombie effort by Lamberto Bava, the TV episode Graveyard Disturbance (1987) which formed part of the Brivido Giallo series. In between this and Demons 2 Bava directed the giallo Delirium and helmed six episodes of the TV series Turno Di Notte, which put him in good stead for this feature length episode of horror.
Arguably Graveyard Disturbance is one of Bava’s weakest efforts. The film follows five robbers who spend a night in a dark catacomb in order to win a priceless treasure. However, before they get to the treasure, they find themselves battling zombies, vampires and staring death in the face.
A year later Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei worked on Zombie Flesh Eaters 2. Which was clearly an attempt to cash in on past successes — after all it had been nine years since the original titled film, with part two being really a sequel in name only. The plot focuses on a group of scientists in a government laboratory, developing a chemical — aptly named Death One — that turns those infected into pus faced flesh-craving zombies. The army deal with the initial outbreak but foolishly decide to cremate the bodies, sending the virus airborne. Channelling the spirit of Reanimator, Return Of The Living Dead, and any other zombie movie that was even halfway popular at the time, Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 delivers a relatively straight forward, yet derivative, slab of trashy entertainment, in which fun overrules logic.
The same year the bizarre and obscure gross out comedy horror My Lovely Burnt Brother And His Squashed Brain was also released. The story follows a badly burnt junkie who turns into a zombie after he gets infected by some urine from his crazy sister. It is always exciting to discover a new underground gem, but this is far from being one.
Back to more readily available and (relatively) higher budget fare there was the delightfully titled Killing Birds; which would later be confusingly known as Zombie 5, in yet another distributor attempt to make a sale.
In the film a soldier returns from duty to find his wife together with her lover. In a fit of rage he goes on a killing spree only to end up losing his sight in a vicious bird attack. Yep, that’s right. Now normally that would put you off birds, but not our G.I. Joe, who goes onto become a bird expert. Years later a group of college students travel out to the same area to find a rare species only for the undead to eventually make an appearance and raise hell.
Ultimately a bit of a mish-mash of horror genres there is very little to recommend but still enough to warrant a watch for completists.
Meanwhile Claudio Fragasso and his wife Rosella Drudi would quickly capitalise on the overall positive reception their last film. Before the zombie film completely died they would rush into another sequel resulting in Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 aka After Death, which was released in June 1989.
A bunch of scientists on island attempt to find a cure for cancer but instead a zombie apocalypse is unleashed. Only a little girl manages to survive the onslaught. Years later she returns, alongside a bunch of mercenaries, to close the gates of hell that were opened all those years ago.
Reviews are mixed on this one and with good reason. But if you are a low budget zombie fan there is a high a probability that you will like it. One a final note, this film actually gave pornographic star Jeff Stryker his first non-pornographic credit, but unfortunately for him it wouldn’t be his breakthrough into more mainstream fare.
Also released the same year was The Hell’s Gate aka Gate Of Hell (1989) by Umberto Lenzi and if you haven’t heard of it, then don’t worry, very few have.
According to the box art on one release the film is presented by Lucio Fulci, but very little, if any, evidence can be found to verify this fact. In a way it sums up this film as a product designed to part the zombie fan with cash, as opposed to providing quality or even entertaining viewing. The plot revolves around a bunch of scientists exploring a cavern, while ghostly zombie monks stalk and kill the group. To keep fans happy Lenzi throws in a few expected violent shots but for the most part the director phones it in.
It would be remiss to not to throw a cursory mention to The Church aka La Chiesa which also came out in 1989. It was originally set to be the third film in a Demons trilogy, causing horror fans much inconvenience when it became one of several releases marketed as part of the Demons film series. Director Michele Soavi decided to take things into a different direction, reducing any sort of connection to the original film.
Into the nineties
The first Italian zombie film of the nineties marked a return to the genre for Umberto Lenzi — although he might claim that he was never in it — with Black Demons. Like The Church it was originally meant to be part of the Demons franchise. Black Demons follows the hapless trio of Kevin, Jessica and voodoo enthusiast Dick, as they travel through Brazil while recording local music and voodoo rites. To cut a long story short they end up on a plantation where dead slaves start to rise up, with more than just rebellion in mind.
When the director is so unhappy with the cast and blames them (with the exception of Joe Balogh) for ruining the movie, it doesn’t bode well. Unintentional hilarity aside, this is not a film to dwell on.
Finally in 1991 came Frankenstein 2000 from Joe D’Amato, which is as one would expect, another erotic tale with a member of the deceased. The film should count itself lucky to even be mentioned here.
With the zombie film all but dead in Italy it would fall on Michele Soavi to try and resurrect it. Despite having roles in City of the Living Dead and Demons previously, Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man would be a much more nuanced affair. The film looks at the living dead, but also the meanings of love, companionship and the nature of reality.
The tale focuses on cemetery manager Francesco (Rupert Everett) and his simple assistant Gnaghi, who together maintain peace for the grieving townsfolk by dispatching their loved ones when they return from the grave. No one knows why the dead return. Almost none of the town are even aware what happens to their dead. Matters become complicated when Francesco falls in love, only to be denied that one joy. The stress and rigors of the job get to him as he starts to contemplate the point is of his role and what there is out there in the rest of the world.
Truly a masterpiece, the casting of Everett was quite a coup for Soavi. The actor admitted that he had only taken on the role because the lead character in the Dylan Dog comics (which the film was based on) was originally based on him. Therefore no one else could really play the role. Despite this, in the initial round of securing investment, an American company offered to put up the cash with one major stipulation: Matt Dillon was cast in the lead. Certainly some similarities could make this plausible, but really there was only one choice. Thankfully the Italian team knew that.
Surreal and downbeat Dellamorte Dellamore straddles the line between profound and preposterous but is a must watch for all fans of Italian cinema.
The modern zombie
Into the millennium a darkness would descent upon the Italian zombie scene again, despite a couple of low rent efforts from Bruno Mattei with Zombies: The Beginning in 2006 and Island of the Living Dead the following year.
Both films, straight to video, with batshit crazy kitchen stories — written by Antonio Tentori (A Cat In The Brain, Symphony In Blood Red, Dracula 3D) — were shot in the Phillipines. They really have to be seen to be believed and arguably mark the end of the innovative and unique Italian zombie movie. It is only fitting that it would be a director from the sub-genre’s golden period who would see it out.
After these films the productions became a bit more sterile and generic. Eaters: Rise Of The Dead, by Luca Boni and Marco Ristori, is a competent piece of work but one that could have been made by any nation.
Set in a post-zombie apocalypse world, a group of hunters fight for survival in which key characters Igor (Alex Lucchesi) and Alen (Guglielmo Favilla), frequently have to go brave the outside against both the living and the dead. They attempt to wrangle some more living undead at the request of the Dr Frankenstein-esque Gyno — doing his best attempt to channel Logan from Day Of The Dead — as he carries out experiments to cure the virus and restore some normality.
Shot in Tuscany, on an estimated budget of around $100,000, the film featured a key marketing point as a ‘Uwe Boll presents’ film. Although in reality his involvement apparently only extended to helping the debut directors secure a distribution deal. Despite some good makeup and FX the film is easily disposable.
It did help launch their zombie careers and the directing duo would go on to make the CGI-laden Zombie Massacre and Apocalypse Z in 2013 (films that again fail to stand out from the crowd). The same could be said for Zombie Massacre 2: Reich Of The Dead which at least has the novelty of being set in World War 2. It looks like someone was paying attention to the popularity of the Call of Duty add-on.
Meanwhile writer/director Francesco Picone would give us Age Of The Dead — released with a cover that does everything to ride on the success of The Walking Dead TV series, which no doubt helped sales. Although, this is doing the film a slight disservice, as it is a pretty decent modern second tier zombie movie. It is certainly worth picking up in the bargain buckets, where you will most likely find it.
One film that certainly is not generic is the Fulci-esque Inferno Veneziano, which channels the supernatural aura of The Beyond while giving it an art house setting. Although the zombie element is restrained to one slightly bizarre scene. Therefore it is only included here for posterity’s sake.
This leads us right up to present day and the horror Anthology Catacoma from Lorenzo Lepori; a film that sees the dead come back to life in a couple of segments. There is also the Lovecraft-esque Virus: Extreme Contamination from prolific director Domiziano Cristopharo (co-written by Antonio Tentori). From the initial released trailers and publicity shots, Virus looks the most likely to capture that synth-heavy, violent weirdness which permeated throughout the eighties output, with hint of unmistakable Italian style.
…what made the Italians so good at zombie films back in the day? What was the unique element that separated their films from the rest of the world’s productions? Film journalist Stephen Thrower proposes in Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci that in some circumstances it was the nation’s own relationship with Christianity, and its interpretation of the body and soul, that added the unique twist and “iconoclastic connotation”, with the body separated from the spirit. Therefore not only leaving the physical shell to remain and become corrupted, but also something much more.
And while for the more intelligent directors (Fulci, Avati, Soavi) this may be the case, for others (Mattei, Fragasso, Bianchi and clearly D’Amato, who has gone on record with this view) it is much more likely the chasing of money was involved; never saying no to distributors and doing everything possible to get a decent return on investment.
More extreme than the Americans and British, and certainly stranger than the vast majority of their mainland European counterparts, the Italian zombie films of the eighties gave the fans something no one else could and for the newer, contemporary fans they still provide something that hasn’t been matched even by today’s Italian directors…although there is still time.