Horrors of War

It may be sacrilegious to be thinking about war-themed horror films on America’s birthday, but the idea started when I was trying to think of chillers with a Fourth of July theme. The only one I could come up with was 1997’s Uncle Sam. Despite the dream cast (Timothy Bottoms, Bo Hopkins, William Smith, Isaac Hayes, P.J. Soles and Robert Forster). a screenplay by Larry Cohen and direction by William Lustig, it’s terrible!

The plot sounds great: the body of a Gulf War veteran, killed in action, is shipped back to his hometown where he returns from the dead as a murderous zombie, intent on taking out all the unpatriotic townsfolk during the 4th of July celebrations. But it’s unbelievably slow and boring, and the murders lack oomph. It’s so surprising—Cohen and Lustig separately made landmark genre films (It’s Alive, Maniac) and teamed up for the amusing Maniac Cop, but here they just seem to be treading water.

Lustig’s own Blue Underground recently released the special edition Blu-Ray DVD, and it sounds like it’d be fun to watch it with commentary by Lustig and Cohen. Evidently they faced up to the fact that it was a stinker and took some amusing jabs at it.

A far better war-themed horror is Bob Clark’s 1974 Deathdream (aka Dead of Night). When young soldier Andy is struck down in action in Vietnam, his dying thoughts involve his promise to his mother that he’d return home to her. He comes home, much to the surprise of his grieving family, whove been told he was KIA.

Andy is changed, though. He’s barely communicative, wears dark glasses, sits in his room alone and refuses to see anybody. He only becomes active at night when everyone else is asleep, venturing out to find human victims to provide the blood he needs to preserve his living-dead state.

The film works both as horror and as an indictment of the Vietnam War, which was still raging at the time of its production. Though made on an extremely small budget, it’s quietly effective and has a truly heart-rending finale. I remember seeing it for the first time on “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” back in the ’80s. Her version was so cut up and lacking in continuity that for years I thought it was a bad movie until I saw the Blue Underground (again!) DVD years later.

Not a feature film but an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, Joe Dante’s magnificent 2005 Homecoming is a devastating story of American casualties rising from the dead to vote against the warmongers in Washington. It’s reminiscent of Abel Gance’s 1919 J’Accuse, which features a powerful climax in which the ghosts of dead soldiers rise up to protest the futility of war.

Homecoming is a jet-black social satire and a take-no-prisoners political statement with intense moments of melancholy. Its liberal view of the “War on Terror” inflamed some conservative horror fans, but I think it’s one of Dante’s best works, and surely one of the best episodes of the variable series. You can see the real passion he had for the subject matter. And the story’s cynical depiction of some of the country’s more—ahem—extreme political commentators is hilarious.

Moving away from the war protest allegory, other horror films with war themes that come to mind are the 2002 British film Dog Soldiers, which features a pack of werewolves attacking a platoon on a mission in the Scottish Highlands and the more recent Dead Snow, about reanimated Nazi zombies menacing a group of twenty-somethings on holiday. I reviewed this film last year. I found it to be disappointing and annoying at the same time. Nazi zombies also figured in Jean Rollin’s horrible 1981 Zombie Lake and Ken Weiderhorn’s far better Shock Waves (1977).

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and especially Day of the Dead (1985) have a lot of military themes. But here the soldiers aren’t the dead ones—they’re attempting to maintain order in a world gone insane. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Lateralso feature the military cracking down on an out-of-control populace.

There are action horror movies set against the backdrop of the Civil War. 1971’s The Beguiled is more of a psychological horror, as wounded Yankee soldier Clint Eastwood is taken in—and then abused—by a sexually frustrated group of Southern schoolteachers led by Geraldine Page. Jeff Burr’s 1987 The Offspring is an omnibus film with a story about Civil War soldiers in the clutches of malevolent children.
World War II seems to be a hands-off topic, except where Nazis are concerned. Bela Lugosi’s Return of the Vampire (1944) was set in wartime London, but the war didn’t really figure into the plot except that a handy bomb in a graveyard awakened a slumbering vampire. The upcoming Panzer 88 is set during the German-Russian conflict, but the monster is of the supernatural, rather than human, variety.

Not horror but sci-fi satire and still one of my favorites is Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997). It took me a couple of viewings to fully absorb it because I wasn’t up on the Heinlein novel it was adapted from. Now that I “get it,” it’s a film I enjoy revisiting every few years. Filled with out-of-control action, hilarious dialogue and Robocop-style commercial spoofs, it’s a riot to watch.

In brief, it’s about a unit of impossibly beautiful young soldiers who all share the same lust for war and desire to defeat intelligent, militant bugs on a distant planet that are threatening to destroy the earth.

Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris play the students who are persuaded by their teachers and other authority figures to “join up and go kill bugs.” My favorite scenes involve recognizable character actors in these roles: Clancy Brown as the over-the-top drill sergeant; Michael Ironside as the civics teacher who reminds the kids that “service guarantees citizenship”; even Rue McClanahan as a war-maimed biology instructor!

Told in a mock documentary style, it’s got plenty of Nazi symbolism, gung-ho patriotism and splattery action. Some critics were angry about its fascist and militaristic themes; others were angry that it made fun of militarism! Go figure. When interviewed about about the film, Verhoeven himself said, “War makes fascists of us all.”

Van Dien returned for two direct-to-DVD sequels. I’ve only seen part of the first (which was bland), but I understand the second one is truly miserable. It’s a shame… Starship Troopers doesn’t deserve miserable sequels. Now, Hostel deserves the most miserable sequels it can get!

Giallo di Fulci

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve covered a couple of his films previously, House By the Cemetery and his epic Zombie, but today I’d like to focus on two of his 1980s giallos, the vehemently Italianate murder mystery genre that features a mysterious killer with gloved hands, cops on the case, lots of red herrings and extreme deaths.

Ripping One

1982’s The New York Ripper (aka Lo Squartatore di New York) is hands down Fulci’s filthiest, foulest film. You don’t just want to take a shower after viewing it—you want to be steam-cleaned. Chock full of nasty sex, extreme violence and some of the splatteriest gore he’d ever committed to celluloid, Ripper is completely repellent, one of the most polarizing titles among his hardcore fans.

Never before had he attempted anything as extreme as this film, so I can only guess that he was attempting to cash in on William Lustig’s X-rated Maniac (1980), a sublimely sleazy grease spot of a film that stunned even the most hard-bitten Times Square audiences. Doing the earlier film one better, Fulci amped up the gore and pushed the sexual content to near-pornographic levels. It’s truly a piece only the most hardened sleazehounds can enjoy.

The plot is fairly rudimentary: the brutally butchered bodies of women are turning up all over town, and the lead cop on the case keeps receiving taunting calls from the killer, who speaks in a cartoonish voice and quacks like a duck. The typical giallo “who’s the killer?” story follows.

Taking a page from Argento’s playbook, Fulci lets the anticipation of the violent scenes build slowly, throwing in false leads and tightening the noose until the killer strikes. The first murder takes place on the Staten Island ferry, where a female bicyclist who’s had an argument with a man whose Volkswagen she accidentally ran into and scratched, sneaks into the hold to scrawl an obscenity on the windshield of his unoccupied car. Caught in the act, she tries to make nice with her surprise visitor (whose face we never see, of course). He begins to quack, the switchblade comes out, and the slicing commences.

In another scene straight out of DePalma’s Dressed To Kill (Angie Dickinson’s surprise elevator murder), a woman who’s been indulging in a little S&M in a sleazy hotel room begins to suspect her sexual partner is the killer the police have been looking for. She frantically releases herself from her bonds and runs into the hall, only to be confronted by the Quacker, who slices her stem-to-stern in savage fashion.

The murders are excruciatingly drawn out. You see every cut in graphic detail. The climactic killing—the most notorious in the film—features Fulci’s trademark eye-gouging and slashing of particular body parts in loving close-up. Still, fans of pre-Disneyfied Times Square will love the exterior shots of the long-gone grindhouses, sleazy bars and sex clubs, and the subway back when the cars were still filthy and covered with graffiti. Interiors are equally sleazy, with a real feel for down-at-its-heels Manhattan.

The film is well-made, with some of the most realistic effects seen in a Fulci work, as well as truly sleazy and embarrassing-to-watch sex scenes. There’s not a lot of unintentional humor to leaven the tension, which certainly enhances its repulsive atmosphere. I can only imagine what an experience it would have been to watch Ripper in a theater with strangers back in the day…and wonder if they were enjoying it.

Unfortunately, Ripper initiated the final phase in Fulci’s career in which he would produce some of his weakest films, seemingly turning his back on his fans by refusing to deliver the extreme gore they demanded.

Slash Dance

The above title is a pun, but it’s also one of the alternates for Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984), a cross between the giallo, Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983). Get ready for leotards and leggings, folks. It’s a Lucio Fulci musical!

Well, not really, but it’s the closest he ever came. Like Ripper, it’s also ostensibly set in Manhattan (Lucio just loves those harbor shots), but it’s pure Eurotrash all the way. A killer is stalking students at New York’s Arts for Living Center, headed by Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos, Zombie‘s original eye-gouging victim), and cops arrive on the scene to investigate.

Candice is a former dancer whose own career was cut short by a motorcycle accident. Apparently she’s getting her revenge by forcing her students to perform some of the most spastic, super-aerobic dance moves I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the mystery portion of the movie isn’t really that mysterious and it’s pretty slow going, but these numbers, along with some of the casting, give Murder Rock some watchability.

It’s almost a who’s-who of Italian horror actors of the ’70s and ’80s. Along with Karlatos, there’s Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), Christian Borromeo (Argento’s Tenebre) and, in uncredited roles, Al Cliver (Zombie) and Silvia Collatina (House By the Cemetery). Fulci, of course, provides his usual cameo.

The killings are committed with a hatpin to the breast, so there’s no gore. The story attempts to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, but it’s mostly just blurry, since so much of it is set in darkness—with strobe lights. And it’s too damn slick, missing the beloved Fulci trademarks. Gone are the smash zooms and extreme close-ups of characters’ eyes and noses. The English dubbing isn’t as hilariously dodgy as the director’s earlier supernatural horrors, which is a shame, because the characters talk a lot. Sample exchange (on the telephone):

Candice: Bob—what happened?

Bob: Something terrible…Susan.

Candice: What?

Bob: At the school. The police are here.

Candice: What are you saying?

Bob: She was…

Candice: What do you mean she was…she’s dead?

Much of the dialogue goes on in the same fashion, but unfortunately it never reaches the dizzying heights of—say—Karlatos in Zombie: “You won’t be happy until I meet one of your zombies!”

I suppose the dance numbers are well-shot and edited, but they’re so goofy they defy measurement. With music by Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Keith Emerson, they provide whatever fun the film has to offer. What the hell kind of school is the Arts for Living Center anyhow? The Institute of the Pelvic Thrust?

I want a performance space or nightclub in New York to do a show featuring detailed re-stagings of all the dance numbers from Murder Rock—without a trace of irony. It’d be a huge hit.

After New York Ripper, Fulci’s career seemed to go into decline. He made The New Gladiators (1983), a post-apocalyptic action film in the style that was popular at the time, but Murder Rock really signaled the beginning of the end. An attempted sequel to Zombi 2 was taken over by Bruno Mattei due to his illness. He made a couple of TV movies considered too violent to air even on Italian television. I’ve seen one of them on DVD, but it was pretty nondescript.

One of the last films Fulci made was Cat in the Brain, in which he plays himself, a director so tormented by nightmares of his own creations that he consults a psychiatrist. It’s really no more than a clip show, with newly-shot wraparounds “introducing” scenes from earlier horrors.

Still, for a filmmaker whose career spanned more than 40 years and included almost every genre (westerns, a couple of White Fang movies, even a comedy with Barbara Steele!), to be remembered for a notable handful of thrillers isn’t a bad record at all. Here’s my list:

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Zombie (1980)
City of the Living Dead (1980)
The Beyond (1981)
House By the Cemetery (1981)
The New York Ripper (1982)

Scary Scandinavia

Boy, is it cold up north. The last three Scandinavian horror films I’ve seen all utilize the unforgiving climes to dramatic effect. The first two were terrific vampire stories, but the latest, which I saw yesterday, was a Nazi zombie story as lousy as anything produced in America. Not that I’m a foreign film snob, but I just think that filmmakers from other countries tend more toward auterism as opposed to the cookie-cutter formulae of the Hollywood corporate film factory. Look at the “Transformers” sequel (God knows I won’t). Hideous reviews and still on its way to being a record-breaker.

Back to the topic at hand. I thought “Dead Snow” was going to be another delight, but the Norwegian director/co-screenwriter, Tommy Wirkola, let me down. He worked so hard to follow the crappy American formula that it’s exactly what he produced. What a shame.

“Dead Snow” has a lighter-than-air concept: medical students go to a remote cabin in the mountains for Easter vacation and are attacked by an undead unit of Nazi soldiers. Period. Still, if it had been done cleverly, with amusing dialogue and fun splatter, it could’ve worked, but a heavy air of “been there, done that” hangs over the proceedings.

Clearly inspired by Sam Raimi’s superior “Evil Dead” series and Peter Jackson’s (also superior) early splatters, Wirkola sets up his simple concept with dull, stereotypical characters (the fat guy, the bimbos, the nerd) and gut-wrangling action sequences that are more tedious than exciting. Even the splendid scenery is virtually ignored, as much of the film takes place in the same boring cabin set. And the set-up is so-o-o slow you have plenty of time to start hating the protagonists before the zombies arrive.

The Norwegian rap soundtrack, amusing at first, quickly becomes grating. The make-up for the zombies is no better than the low-budget Italian monsters of the 1980s, and why do the zombies have rich red blood gushing from their mouths when 1) they’re really old; and 2) they’ve been buried in frozen earth for God knows how long? And I don’t care how drunk the bimbo is. The idea of her following the fat guy into the outhouse and having sex with him right after he’s—ahem—eliminated just doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t the smell in the air at least cool the fire in her loins? Blecchh, to paraphrase Mad Magazine.

Though you can’t compare the two, last year’s “Let the Right One In,” from more or less the same neck of the woods, stands head-and-shoulders above yesterday’s Nazi-zom-com. It’s a splendid, affecting coming-of-age story whose protagonist happens to be a vampire. Its quietly chilling premise, set in a snowy industrial suburb of Stockholm, perfectly captures the isolation of a young boy, Oskar, who is picked on at school and lonely at home due to his parents’ separation.

When Eli, a new neighbor, moves in next door, he is drawn to her for the company and the fact that she seems to be about his age. There’s something strange about her, however: she’s impervious to cold and she smells—well—bad. But even when he discovers her secret, he is more fascinated than terrified.

This story is richly layered. In addition to the innocent romance blossoming between Oskar and Eli, we also get a portrait of the townsfolk, who are shaken out of their miserable routine by the vicious murders of their friends. And Eli’s “caretaker,” a middle-aged man whose job is to go out and get blood for his mistress, is completely and unquestioningly devoted to her. When you realize the source of this devotion, it’s mind-boggling, but I’m not going to give that away. I want you to see the film!

The special effects are subtle but powerful. Lina Leandersson, the talented young actress who plays Eli, wears contact lenses that give her eyes a subtly inhuman appearance. And the director, Tomas Alfredson, provides quick, jolting glimpses of a wizened Eli to reinforce the idea that her youthful visage is an illusion. There’s some surprising mayhem, but none of it threatens to rip the delicate web that this spellbinding film weaves. Kåre Hedebrant, the boy who plays Oskar, is ideally cast. Blond, pale and soft-spoken, he encompasses the sadness of his character while also providing him with a feisty determination.

Another Swedish vampire film I saw at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood last year is a prime example of how to correctly make a horror comedy. “Frostbitten,” from 2006, shares some of the same attributes of “Let the Right One In.” The protagonist is Saga, a teenage girl who moves to another depressing Swedish town where her mother has found employment with a somewhat sinister scientist—whom she idolizes—at a mysterious clinic. Saga hates her new environs and quickly falls in with a group of local party animals. When two of them break into the clinic to steal what they think are hallucinogenics, they actually end up with a bag of the mad doctor’s vampire-making pills and they quickly infect the kids in the town. To make matters worse, it’s the time of year when the sun will not make an appearance for a month.

There’s lots of offbeat humor in “Frostbitten.” The kids can’t understand what’s happening to them. They find themselves lusting for the blood of their friends and relatives; they can communicate telepathically with animals; and their social skills, even for teenagers, are just awful. One hilarious episode features a boy who—meeting his girlfriend’s parents for dinner—ends up eating their pets instead!

Although “Frostbitten” shares the concept of a month of darkness with “30 Days of Night,” it is thoroughly more enjoyable. I got so sick of those stupid “30 Days” vampires with their blank eyes and their dumb-ass philosophizing: “You are not to be alive because you will soon be dead”-style crap.

Speaking of crap, evidently “Let the Right One In” is scheduled for an American remake. God help us.

By the way, the two vampire films are available on DVD. Check them out—you’ll fang me for recommending them!

Fulci’s "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero’s shattering “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol‘ Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson (“The Haunting”) and Mia Farrow’s kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa (“Anthropophagus“), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau’s “Don’t Open the Window” (aka “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. “Alien” became “Alien Contamination”; “The Exorcist” inspired “Beyond the Door,” “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” (gee, what’s that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, “The Tempter” aka “The Antichrist.” “Zombie” is actually known as “Zombi II” in Italy, because “Dawn of the Dead” was called “Zombi” and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called “The Maniacs” with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-“Zombie” work.

Some of his notable earlier work: “Don’t Torture the Duckling” (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it’s actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento’s”Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the rest is history.

“Zombie” hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, “Dawn” was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg’lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. “Zombie,” on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can’t completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as “Con-quee-sta-dor-ay” numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl’s throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing “Chopsticks” on the piano (yes, there’s piano on the boat; it’s not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman’s throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who’d been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father’s route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like “My tool.” I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to “MST3K” the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it’s voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who’s been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in “Beyond the Door” (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they’re free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about “Matul,” or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there’s “a man down there.” Now that’s pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned “con-quee-sta-dor-ay” rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the “so scared you can’t move” expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she’s reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi’s score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The “thump thump thump” march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what’s happening on the island. It’s great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the “thump thump thump” sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard’s wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Purple Rain”) has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you’ve got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

“You WON’T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!”

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard’s house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they’re going to barf. But they don’t move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn’t the sight of the reanimated dead instill the “fight or flight” instinct in you, rather than a leisurely “I ate at Arby’s” reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn’t that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of “We Are Going To Eat You!” posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol’ Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one’s plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Fulci's "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero’s shattering “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol‘ Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson (“The Haunting”) and Mia Farrow’s kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa (“Anthropophagus“), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau’s “Don’t Open the Window” (aka “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. “Alien” became “Alien Contamination”; “The Exorcist” inspired “Beyond the Door,” “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” (gee, what’s that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, “The Tempter” aka “The Antichrist.” “Zombie” is actually known as “Zombi II” in Italy, because “Dawn of the Dead” was called “Zombi” and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called “The Maniacs” with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-“Zombie” work.

Some of his notable earlier work: “Don’t Torture the Duckling” (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it’s actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento’s”Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the rest is history.

“Zombie” hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, “Dawn” was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg’lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. “Zombie,” on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can’t completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as “Con-quee-sta-dor-ay” numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl’s throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing “Chopsticks” on the piano (yes, there’s piano on the boat; it’s not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman’s throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who’d been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father’s route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like “My tool.” I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to “MST3K” the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it’s voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who’s been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in “Beyond the Door” (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they’re free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about “Matul,” or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there’s “a man down there.” Now that’s pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned “con-sta-dor-ay” rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the “so scared you can’t move” expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she’s reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi’s score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The “thump thump thump” march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what’s happening on the island. It’s great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the “thump thump thump” sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard’s wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Purple Rain”) has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you’ve got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

“You WON’T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!”

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard’s house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they’re going to barf. But they don’t move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn’t the sight of the reanimated dead instill the “fight or flight” instinct in you, rather than a leisurely “I ate at Arby’s” reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn’t that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of “We Are Going To Eat You!” posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol’ Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one’s plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Working at the Drive-In ca 1978


In my senior year of high school, I only needed to attend half-days because I was already on my way to earning sufficient credits, so I decided to fill the rest of my time with two jobs: afternoons as a designer, typesetter, production artist at a shopping newspaper in South Bend; and evenings working at the Niles 31 Drive-In just over the border in Niles, Michigan. Kids have such energy.

The day I started, they showed me the ropes. Make the popcorn, clean the restrooms and keep the concession stand floor mopped so that people wouldn’t slip on the grease and butter-like substance that accumulated there. The concession workers were also in charge of chasing out “sneak-ins,” cars trying to gain entrance without paying. How that would work is when the boxoffice cashier saw a car driving in through the exit, she’d ring a buzzer wired to the concession stand. We grabbed baseball bats which were handily kept behind the counter, ran outside and flailed them in the air, hoping to frighten off the intruders.

Most of the time it worked, because the “sneak-ins” were usually stoned and the sight of a bunch of teenagers coming at them with baseball bats was too much to handle. Others just laughed, so we had to bring in a higher power…Nancy, the manager, a forbidding combination of too much makeup and too many wigs, humorless to the point of grim. She would go to the violators’ car, tap on their window, and use some drive-in manager’s incantation to frighten them off. Occasionally the police were called.

We showed some great stuff. Major studio films like “The Shining” and “Carrie” ran for weeks on screen one and came back for weeks longer on screen two (the smaller, harder-to-see screen, because the lights from the mini golf course next door would shine on it) as the third feature. It was a blast to run outside just as Carrie’s hand is about to pop up from the grave and listen to a drive-in full of kids screaming. We also played “Friday the 13th” for ages and I almost lost my mind hearing Harry Manfredini’s music and Betsy Palmer hissing “Kill her, Mommy,” night after night. Best of all was Fulci’s “Zombie,” in all of its uncut glory, released to unsuspecting Michiana residents. We were still staggered by the release of “Dawn of the Dead” a few months before and now here comes an even stranger zombie movie. I had to take all my friends to see it.

On weekends, Nancy would choose one of us to go “car counting,” which meant driving across town to the Chippewa Drive-In, our main competitor, and make an estimate of how many cars were in its lot. I don’t understand what that was about; we didn‘t use the research in any marketable way. Maybe she was just jealous, because the Chippewa was the more “fashionable” venue. The only other drive-in in town was the Western, which would frequently show the “Don’t” trilogy (“Don’t Look in the Basement,” “Don’t Open the Window” and “Last House on the Left”) but mostly softcore sex films from the Harry Novak collection.

We would occasionally get assigned lot clean-up duty, which I think paid $5.00 extra (whoo-hoo). That meant staying until after the third feature was over (sometimes two or three in the morning), turning on the lights, and picking up the trash in the lot. You can imagine what sort of trash we picked up. Let’s just say we used heavy rubber gloves.

I also was in charge of changing the movie titles on the marquee on Thursday night. Not as glamorous as it sounds. Those things are deceptively high, requiring good balance on a long, rickety ladder. And it was dark, because I had to wait until the third movie was in progress before doing so. Worst of all, the letters were kept inside the marquee, which was home to all sorts of vermin. Bats, rats and God know what else. Walking around inside with a flashlight looking for the means with which to spell “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was the real horror show.

In 1980 I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t return to South Bend until 1984. Of course, I had to go check out the Niles 31 and was saddened to see that it had become a Home Depot. By that time there was only one ozoner left in the area, the Midway Drive-In, about 30 miles south of town.

When I first moved to L.A., there were drive-ins everywhere, but they too have vanished. From time to time I read about new drive-ins being constructed in the midwest, and I think, “Good for them. Our young people need a place to drink too much and have their first sexual experiences while enjoying a show.”