Horror movies from the 1970s didn’t have CGI or other modern effects to scare us silly.
They unnerved us all the same, in part, by their uniquely creepy soundtracks and penchant for atypical acting. That’s a kind way of saying they boasted indifferent, sometimes amateurish performances.
All of the above apply to ”Zombie,’ the 1979 Italian import sure to grab attention again this Halloween season thanks to its Oct. 24 Blu-ray release. The film, considered an unofficial sequel to 1978’s ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ earned its classic status with one of the strangest sequences in any zombie film. How many times do the undead wrestle tiger sharks?
‘Zombie’ opens with a seemingly abandoned sailing boat drifting into New York harbor. The owner of the boat’s daughter (Tisa Farrow) pairs with a reporter (Ian McCulloch) to find out what happened to her father, last seen doing research on a tropical island. Their journey leads them to that very same island where the locals speak of a voodoo curse bringing the dead back to life.
Island resident Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson) has seen the dead walking himself, but he dismisses that voodoo talk in favor of hard science. But can the good doctor crack the mystery behind the zombie uprising before they overtake the island?
Director Lucio Fulci’s zombies don’t just stumble across the screen in haphazard fashion. They are dessicated, having spent years, sometimes decades, underground. And it shows via some clever, and vile, close-ups involving flesh-eating worms. ‘Zombie’ manages a measure of restraint in the first two acts, rendering each zombie appearance more potent – and unsettling.
That puts the focus on the ingenious kills – like the doctor’s hysterical wife (Olga Karlatos) enduring a very sharp stick to the eye. Setting such ugliness on a beautiful island only enhances the film’s jittery tone. Add a creepy score which rises up whenever the zombie menace flares, and you’re left with far more chills than other, better acted horror films.
Seen today, ‘Zombie’ appears a sturdy, if unspectacular shocker only due to our culture’s undead overload. But while Fulci clearly had little interest in drawing humanistic work out of his cast, he knew precisely how to maximize the scares with ingenious camera placement and an unflinching approach to zombie snacking.
Note: ‘Zombie,’ uncut and digitally remastered from the original negative, will be playing at midnight Oct. 22 at The Esquire in Denver and Seattle’s Egyptian Theatre (the latter event includes an in-person appearance by ‘Zombie’ co-star McCulloch).