The myth of the reanimated corpse, the zombie, has its worm-ridden roots in the folklore of 17th century Haiti. Though the island was originally claimed by Columbus in 1492 and named Hispaniola, French control started in 1660, when it was renamed Saint-Domingue. On the backs of stolen African slaves, the French colony attained immense wealth by producing sugar and coffee on vast plantations. Haitian slaves revolted in 1791 and the island’s independence was declared in 1804. Haiti was the first black republic to win its independence, and demonizing rumors of dark mystical practices circulated, as the island nation’s very existence threatened the colonial West.
According to some scholars, the term zombie (originally written as “zonbi”) likely comes from “nzambi”, the Kongo word for the soul, and “ndzumbi”, a Gabon word for corpse. The slaves who were transported to Saint-Domingue developed the Vodou religion, a mixture of African, Protestant, and Catholic religious traditions, the latter two brought by the colonialists. It was in the soil of colonial oppression and misery that the myth of the zombi took root and grew. Voudou belief holds that the souls of those who die unnatural deaths (who are murdered, for example) remain by their graves and can be trapped in a bottle by a Boko, or sorcerer. The Boko can then control the undead body, the zombie. Some particularly malevolent bokos commit murder to make a zombie. The voudou tradition of zombies, then, is tied to the mindless, backbreaking misery and toil from slavery and colonialism. Zombies are essentially slaves, controlled by a Boko, in a living death of servitude. The result of the synchronization of voudou folklore with the brutal reality of the life of a slave, the zombie is perhaps the first horror creature in Western literature and cinema to not be derived from European traditions, a New World monster.
America occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress the voudou religion. Instead, very much like the boat sailing to NYC with the living dead aboard at the onset of Fulci’s film, America brought the zombie myth back with them. The Magic Island, William Seabrook’s 1929 account of his travels to Haiti, was the first English language book to include zombies. A bestseller in its time, Seabrook’s work included a chapter on “zombies” working the cane fields of a plantation. The Western literature and film integration of the zombie mythology owes a significant debt to The Magic Island.
Cinematically, zombies can be traced back to Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie, released towards the end of the US occupation of Haiti and inspired in part by The Magic Island. The titular White Zombie is Madelaine (Madge Bellamy), turned into the walking dead by sorcerer Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi). Halperin’s movie is also set on Haiti, though much of it was shot on the Universal Studios backlot. Following White Zombie, several zombie films came out in the ‘30s and ‘40s, including Val Lewton’s poetic and masterful I Walked with a Zombie (1943), one of the few to respectfully integrate the voudou religion.
George Romero turned the zombie genre on its head in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, which severed the connection to voudou and did not even refer to its creatures as zombies. The sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) was a huge financial success and cemented the new cinematic conception of the zombie as a flesh-eating ghoul that spread the undead plague through its bite.
Enter Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), both a continuation of the Romero zombie and a reintroduction of the voudou connection. Born in Rome, Lucio Fulci began his career in cinema by working on documentaries and comedies. He moved into directing giallo thrillers including Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971), Sette note in nero (The Psychic, 1977), and Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972), plus several Spaghetti Westerns. These features began Fulci’s notoriety for using explicit violence. Zombie was both his first outright horror film and his first massive international hit.
Initially conceived as Zombi 2, an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead (Italian title: Zombi), Fulci’s gut-muncher opens on a note of mystery with an unpiloted ship sailing blindly into New York City. The ghost ship is boarded by harbor patrol, who finds it deserted and scattered with garbage and moldering food. All that’s missing to make this an explicit Dracula reference is the captain’s corpse lashed to the helm. A door splinters open to reveal a zombie, who feasts on one of the cops before being shot, falling into the water. Reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) investigates, as does Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) whose father owns the boat. Her father and his partner Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson) are conducting research into the zombie phenomenon on the remote Caribbean island of Matul, to which Peter and Anne voyage by sea to find her father.
For the first time since Romero’s Night, voudou is reconnected to the New World zombie folklore. Matul is infested by an epidemic of zombies the result, it is hinted, of a voudou curse on the island (Menard is also accused at one point of meddling with native rites in his research). “Have you heard of voodoo?”, asks Menard, “Whatever it is, it makes the dead stand up and walk.” The doctor, however, has been desperately trying to find a natural explanation for the zombie plague. Once the hordes of the walking dead are seen, it’s obvious they are designed to resemble those from the voudou zombie tales, shuffling almost catatonically. Composer Fabio Frizzi integrates traditional Caribbean-style drums and instruments into the electronic score, further making the voudou connection.
The reanimated corpses in Zombie can be read as the victims of colonialism rising to take revenge upon the colonizers, ultimately turning them into slaves (zombies) themselves. What makes it particularly interesting is when the rotting corpses of Conquistadors, the colonizers of the past, rise and struggle up through the earth to take a bite from the colonizers of the present. Capitalism feeding upon its own.
Though Fulci composes some striking and almost poetic visual moments, he is notorious for upping the gore factor to 11, both here and in his subsequent horror stories. Makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi doesn’t hold back from blood-spurting zombie bites and wounds, rotting undead flesh, and gut-munching action. A particularly notorious set-piece shows the agonizingly slow splinter piercing of an eye in loving close up.
Perhaps the most famous and insane of the picture’s moments is the shark vs. zombie fight, which has almost no gore. The producer Ugo Tucci suggested the shark scene, inspired by the success of the Mexican Jaws rip-off Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977). Fulci didn’t like the idea and the sequence was shot by the second unit. Before filming, the tiger shark was fed and doped up with tranquilizers. The aquatic zombie is played by the shark trainer Ramón Bravo. (Incidentally, if you like the idea of underwater zombies check out the short story Scapegoats by Clive Barker, which can be found in The Books of Blood, Volume III.)
Fulci’s Zombie has a long censorship history, with various titles and edits. In the 1980s it was added to the UK’s “video nasty” list. This rather hysterical list was put together by the British Director of Public Prosecutions to compile videos that were liable for prosecution under the Video Recordings Act of 1984. The whole sordid affair of the moral panic of the video nasties, blatant censorship egged on by the odious Mary Whitehouse and Daily Mail, can be researched online for all those interested. Zombie’s high gore content made it an easy target for the self-styled moral guardians.
Blue Underground’s 4K disc of Zombie has the full, uncut version of the film sourced from a 4K 16-bit scan of the original 35mm 2-perf camera negative. The picture is vibrant and organic, significantly more so than even the previous (and superb) Blue Underground blu ray. The colors pop from the screen and the image is finely detailed. The Blue Underground team has seemingly used voudou magic to make Zombie look this beautiful.
The set has a second disc, a blu ray, that holds only special features. These appear to have been carried over from previous releases of the film, with the exception of an interview with Stephen Thrower, who wrote Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci.
Blue Underground’s gorgeous 4K release of Zombie is unreservedly recommended. The company is to be commended for releasing classic genre fare in the Ultra HD format, and horror afficionados owe it to themselves to support Blue Underground’s efforts.
The complete list of special features:
- Audio Commentary with Troy Howarth, Author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films
- Audio Commentary with Star Ian McCulloch and Diabolik Magazine Editor Jason J. Slater
- When The Earth Spits Out The Dead – Interview with Stephen Thrower, Author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci [NEW]
- Theatrical Trailers; TV Spots; Radio Spots
- Poster & Still Gallery
- Guillermo del Toro Intro
- Zombie Wasteland – Interviews with Stars Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson & Al Cliver, and Actor/Stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua
- Flesh Eaters on Film – Interview with Co-Producer Fabrizio De Angelis
- Deadtime Stories – Interviews with Co-Writers Elisa Briganti and (Uncredited) Dardano Sacchetti
- World of the Dead – Interviews with Cinematographer Sergio Salvati and Production & Costume Designer Walter Patriarca
- Zombi Italiano – Interviews with Special Make-Up Effects Artists Gianetto De Rossi & Maurizio Trani and Special Effects Artist Gino De Rossi
- Notes on a Headstone – Interview with Composer Fabio Frizzi
- All in the Family – Interview with Antonella Fulci
- Zombie Lover – Guillermo del Toro talks about one of his favorite films