Italian horror movies of the 1970s and early 1980s are a mixed bag of delight and frustration. They gleefully rip off popular American movies (Jaws, Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist, Alien, etc.), amp up the blood and gore and music and intensity, but mostly fall flat because they can't be concerned with plot, dialogue, characterization, good production values, etc. But we love them because of these charming flaws, not in spite of them!
For me, the essential '70s Italian horror movie is Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 (known in the US as simply Zombie), a 1979 rip-off "sequel" to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was known to the Continent as Zombi. Now, Dawn gets all the love, which it deserves because it is truly groundbreaking, but Zombi 2 is pretty much my favorite Italian horror movie and zombie movie. It has stuff Dawn does not: disgustingly wormy, squishy, rotting zombies; a mad scientist on a deserted Caribbean island not unlike Dr. Moreau; and an air of grim desolation I find much more appropriate to the proceedings than the cheeky satire of Romero's film.
How is Zombi 2 representative of Italian horror? First, it comes complete with bad dubbing and wooden acting. Yes, that is Mia Farrow's sister Tisa in the lead, which hilariously puts Woody Allen well within six degrees of separation from exploitative Italian horror movies. American and English actors down on their luck often turned up in these flicks. I don't think they expected to be part of a cult movie history. Ian McCullough, seen above, turns in an audio commentary on the DVD and he states he has never seen the movie.
Then there's an astonishing underwater zombie-versus-shark scene (every movie, TV show, or cartoon in the five or so years post Jaws had to have a shark in it somewhere). This sequence is, I believe, literally a cinematic one-of-a-kind! And the zombies themselves are Spanish conquistadors who we see rise from their graves in the jungle in the middle of the day. Very effective. Also it's a great example of Italian horror's love of inept, nonsensical ideas: how do corpses hundreds of years dead bleed a gout of fresh blood?
There's infamous eye violence sequence (a staple in Fulci's movies – Luis Bunuel had nothing on him) followed by a glorious tableaux of gore as the zombies devour their eye-penetrated victim, accompanied by the infamous and clumsy zoom shot so beloved of Italian horror filmmakers. Overall, though, it's the ridiculously, gloriously over-the-top gore that makes this a classic of its genre.
When I first saw Zombi 2 I was probably 15 or 16 – the perfect age to appreciate such shenanigans – when my friends and I had the habit of renting the nastiest-looking foreign horror videos, which usually had a thin patina of dust upon them. I was reintroduced to it at a 4th of July party about 7 or 8 years ago where I'd indulged a bit too much to be social, so I wandered into the empty living room, where I found, to my surprise, a nice remastered VHS copy. Delighted to be acquainted with an old friend, I put it on, finding it perfect for the condition I was in.
Other party-goers would wander in, chat a moment during one of the dull parts (which are plentiful in Italian horror), drawn by that implacable score, and then suddenly be gob-smacked (the ones not used to Italian horror movies, anyway) by a scene of unremitting violence and dubbing ineptitude. This is an Italian horror WIN.
The movie's climax is like an early Lovecraft story ("Argh! Aaack! They've got me!") but it works in a fun, satisfying way. But its implications are inescapable: there is no transcendence here. Bodies are consumed, brains displayed, blood is merely an appetizer; eyes, once windows to the soul, are now squeezed tight in shock and fear and ultimately penetrated to reveal no soul whatsoever. Romero's vision of the zombie invasion has people finding their common humanity; when Fulci's zombipocalypse arrives, we find we are meat, and nothing besides.Note: This post is my contribution to the ITALIAN HORROR BLOGATHON.
Note: This post is ALSO my contribution to the COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN.