At the time of its release, cinemas had to hand out airsickness bags to Zombie audiences.
A cursory scroll through Netflix’s horror offerings will tell you that the world of streaming fright flicks is a mixed bag. Even good scary movies tend to divide viewers, so going off audience ratings is ill-advised and marketing materials are so generically similar and titles so derivative that finding something entertaining is a shot in the dark. That’s presumably why Amazon has concentrated its efforts on gathering an exemplary assortment of excellent, often under-seen scary movies on its Prime service, positioning itself as a de facto leader for streaming horror.
One such classic is Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, lurking mysteriously behind a blank title card instead of the film’s poster. It’s easy to stumble upon, as it’s the first result after a search for “zombie” in Prime Video (if you don’t have a Prime account, the film is also available on Vudu and iTunes). Released in 1979 as Zombi 2, Zombie originally served as a pseudo-sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy as Zombi after giallo magician Dario Argento re-edited it and commissioned a new score from Italian progressive rock band Goblin (who collaborated with Argento on his masterpiece Suspiria). The film was already written by screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (under the title Nightmare Island) when it was decided that it would become a sequel to Zombi/Dawn of the Dead, and as a result, the opening and concluding scenes were added to Zombie’s script in order for it to better connect to its “predecessor.”
Zombie begins with a boat drifting towards New York. Thinking it abandoned, police investigate and discover a zombie aboard, which is hardly a surprise considering the title. After a scuffle leaves one officer dead at the hands of said zombie, investigators attempt to find the boat’s owner. They interview his daughter, who explains that her father has been missing for some time. She’s understandably concerned after finding out his boat came back carrying a zombie, so she teams up with a journalist and heads to her father’s last known location, a mysterious Caribbean island.
What happens next is an interesting marriage of many styles of horror. Zombie evokes earlier magical voodoo undead films such as White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, I Eat Your Skin and The Plague of the Zombies, but it is also obviously inspired by the Romero style of zombie film that dominated the genre in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Finally, Zombie could also be classified as a giallo film, as it is a wildly violent, supernatural Italian gorefest.
The makeup and cinematography in Zombie are exemplary, and as a result, the film holds up incredibly well nearly 40 years after its release. It’s a beautiful, vivid film and the tropical setting marries well to the vibrant gore. One scene involving an eyeball is just as gut-churning as anything one could find in a more recent release. And the film’s most famous scene, which sees a zombie face off with a tiger shark, is suitably over-the-top yet also rather disquieting. There is something off about seeing the monster take on an animal, perhaps because we expect zombies to devour humans.
That off-kilter feeling is present throughout much of Zombie and that’s a testament to Fulci’s horror chops. The best horror makes viewers uncomfortable in subtle ways so that their nerves as amply frayed in time for the big scares. Everything about Zombie, from the lurid colors to the awkward dubbing to the indulgent gore, creates genuine unease. As a result, when the jumps come, they are big ones.
At the time of its release, cinemas had to hand out airsickness bags to Zombie audiences because so many viewers lost their lunch while watching it. Though today’s audiences will be desensitized to the more sickening horror on display here, it’s a testament to Zombie’s enduring quality that it will probably make you want to set your popcorn aside.