Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Creepy Dead Folk Revisited: The Foreign Dead

[This post is actually one leftover from my failed Halloween project. I actually teased it once before saying I'd be back with more Zombie movies, and then my overall enthusiasm died out. There's a few more like this, and I plan to eventual clean out my backlog over the next, I dunno, few weeks.]

You'd think that with the success of Night of the Living Dead zombie movies would be all the rage. I mean, current Hollywood trends have seen any moneymaker imitated and repackaged until the well runs dry, and that is by no means a new thing. However, it wasn't really until Dawn of the Dead that the zombie movie really exploded into it's own. Dario Argento helped George Romero with financing on Dawn of the Dead in return for distribution rights overseas, and the right to film a few of his own scenes, and the success of that version led to a string of sequels, both official and unofficial.

The first sequel was Zombi(or Zombi 2, technically) by Italian gore-master Lucio Fulci. Fulci is regarded as a god to thousands of horror fans who ran across his films while hunting for new and more extreme horror films on video. To be sure his films are full of gallons of blood and tons of inventively gruesome death scenes(and quite a few eyeball gougings), but they're also full of glaring inconsistencies and slap-dash story lines. It's clear where Fulci's real interest lies, and everything else gets short shrift. Imagine him as a forerunner to Japanese auteur Miike Takashi, with a 'see what stick's' attitude to film making. Zombi, believe it or not, is one of Fulci's more coherent and restrained movies, but don't let me fool you into thinking it's gore-free.

Zombi is really a sequel in name only(Dawn of the Dead was released as Zombi in some areas), with the zombie invasion beginning in this film, and of very definite voodoo origins, as opposed to the already-present, and unexplained, zombie threat in Dawn. It's often considered a rip-off of Dawn, although it was written and partially filmed BEFORE Dawn came out, with only the New York intro and epilogue added once they decided to capitalize on the popularity of that other movie. The film concerns a reporter investigating a boat that drifts into New York Harbor carrying nothing but dead people. The trail leads him back to a tropical island where a scientist is experimenting with reanimation of dead flesh through a mixture or science and voodoo. The results are about what you'd expect in a horror movie, and soon zombies are overrunning the island.

Zombi was a real eye opener when I first saw it, since at the time I was still fairly new to Italian horror, and I must admit that I wasn't quite ready for it. I think, based on it's reputation, that I was expecting a more conventionally good horror film. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of outstanding stuff in this one, but like most Fulci(and, to a slightly lesser degree, most Italian horror that I've seen) there's plenty of silliness, the tone is very uneven, and it sometimes feels like a movie that woudl've appeared on MST3K if they had done R-rated stuff. There's some hilariously out-of-nowhere nudity, a torturously slow close-up of an eye being punctured by a sliver of wood, and a scene with a zombie versus a shark. Yes, a zombie versus a shark.

That scene is probably what Zombi is most famous for, and to be sure, it's quite impressive. In a silly, dumbass way. I understand the shark was probably sedated, or recently fed or whatever they do to keep sharks calm, and I understand there was a trainer(although I was unaware that you could actually train sharks), and yes, I know the zombie's arm that gets bitten off is a fake one. But still, your underwater, taunting a shark until it tries to bite a piece of you off. Italian stuntmen are crazy!

Fulci has done a few other zombie movies, all of them of about the same overall quality. For the most part I would recommend them for the horror aficionado looking for something new, and not really concerned with logic. Sometimes, however, his films are just a mess, and oftentimes way too slow for their own good. I could only sit through Don't Torture a Duckling(gotta love them clunky translations) once, and I couldn't even make it through House by the Cemetery. That's actually quite a statement, because I can count on one hand the movies I've not watched in their entirety once I started them. Same with books. Even if I hate something I have to see it through to the end, just to give it that shot to win me back.

Of special note, however, is Fulci's quasi-zombie masterpiece The Beyond. I say quasi-zombie because this movie DOES have reanimated dead people, but their more haunting spirits than flesh-hungry ghouls. I first saw The Beyond at the Capri, a one(tiny) screen theatre that was dirty, small and rundown. And I miss it immensely. Some of my favorite movie-going experiences happened there, and I was saddened to see it close. I saw The Beyond with a small group of friends, and aside from one other person we had the place to ourselves. To give you an idea of what to expect, the one other patron complained to management that we were laughing too loudly. To be honest, I feel bad about that now. I understand all too well how it feels to pay for a movie only to have people who don't appreciate the film as you do ruin it. But to be fair the movie is pretty silly. At first.

You see, when I first saw this movie I was awestruck by how BAD it all was, how over the top the gore was when obviously the technical skills of the filmmakers were not quite up to the challenge. There is a rather nice visual sensibility to the film, with some beautiful cinematography at moments, and a nicely catastrophic ending. I bought the movie on DVD to relive that experience, and a funny thing happened. The movie grew on me. Quite a bit, actually. I bought the soundtrack(the music is crazy awesome), and started watching the movie as I went to bed, because I found it somehow hypnotic. Around the sixth or seventh viewing, everything changed. One scene in particular stood out to me, and I became very, very scared, despite knowing this film backwards and forwards. It's a small, nothing scene where a blind woman is talking to the main character, becomes nervous about something, and flees from the house. As she's running out the door there is an insert shot of her feet moving along the floor, and as the main character thinks about why she ran away, they play this shot over and over again, about 3 or 4 times. Each time slower, closer, and with weirder and weirder noises on the soundtrack. It made no sense at all, no matter how hard I tried to figure it out. And suddenly, at 4am all alone at home, this fact scared the bejesus out of me.
Also worth a peek is City Of The Living Dead, which REALLY tested my(admittedly weak) gag reflex with some truly disturbing gore.

No comments: