I can hazard a guess at what you might be thinking: another discussion of Zombie? Is there really a need? Well, perhaps not if truth be told, but here goes anyways...
The main issue, I think, is trying to see the film with fresh eyes and thereby recapture something of what it must have been like to have watched it as a first-time viewer back in 1979.
Would we have really expected to see an underwater zombie, never mind a fight between it and a shark?
Would we have anticipated the extremity of the spike in the eye sequence?
Asking these questions and answering them – a 'no' in both instances, except perhaps for those few individuals who had followed Fulci's career to that point and knew what he was capable of – helps emphasise the way in which Zombie works best, as a waking nightmare in which the worst can and will happen in Fulci's worst of all possible anti-Panglossian worlds, whereby the various plot contrivances, inconsistencies and illogicalities thus come to possess a perverse internal logic of their own.
We have come to eat you, travelling east to west and left to right
We open with a boat drifting into New York harbour, an arrival that brings death and disease in its wake like some modern-day version of Nosferatu. (It's always useful to be able to pair up a critically disreputably Italian horror film with a classic of art cinema, isn't it.)
Having nearly collided with the Staten Island Ferry a harbour patrol vessel boards the boat, an early indication of the Fulcean worldview comes across from the fact that two patrolmen are more interested in the potential bonus should the boat indeed be devoid of life than of what fate might have befallen its former occupants; yes, Elisa Briganti scripted the film, but the fact that Enzo Castellari passed on directing it and suggested Fuli as the man for the job is telling.
Where do the centipedes come from?
One of the patrolmen goes down below and is attacked by a monstrous figure who tears out his throat before moving up on deck.
The other patrolman empties his revolver into the creature, causing it to fall off the boat and sink beneath the water.
Note the way Fulci hangs on the image of the New York skyline for a moment after the zombie has been blasted into the bay
As news of the incident spreads reporter Peter West is assigned to cover the story by his paper, while Anne Bowles is questioned by the police, the boat having belonged to her father.
The two investigators soon meet and agree to work together.
A letter from Anne's father mentions a mysterious disease sweeping the Caribbean island of Matool, leading the two to fly out to the Domican Republic and to go in search of a boat they can character. As (bad) luck would have it another two Americans, Brian Hart and Susan Martell, are about to depart on a two-month cruise and agree to take Peter and Anne to the island.
This proves easier said than done, however, until a chance encounter with a shark – and, as already mentioned, another zombie – leaves the boat damaged, compelling the group to cast anchor off the nearest island.
Giving them what they want: breasts...
... shark ...
... zombie ...
... and zombie vs shark
Sure enough, it is Matool and, as a parallel narrative establishing Dr Menard's futile attempts to understand and control the spread of the mysterious plague rapidly spreading across the island has made clear, things are about to get a whole lot worse for all concerned...
Sometimes the zombies seem more interested in watching than flesh eating
As I've said before, Fulci was a better and more subtle director than he is often given credit for, with more to his films than their notorious splatter set pieces.
As evidence of this we can begin by noting the whip pans on the boat as Anne is interrogated by a pair of detectives, as an approach that demonstrates a willingness to experiment compared to the usual establishing shot and shot / reverse shot decoupage, and which also convey Anne's confused state and the detective's inability to summon up much in the way of sympathy for her.
More generally, Fulci again makes effective use of in-camera editing through pulling focus or moving his camera around the action rather than cutting, and displays a strong grasp of the mechanics of generating suspense and shock, using atmospheric build ups interrupted and concluded with dramatic zooms and / or cuts at the right moment.
On the downside some of the more expository scenes suffer from a lack of visual imagination, such as the classical shot-reverse shot pattern of the negotiations over the boat between Brian and Peter. Again, however, a case could also be made for even this scene, that Fulci is visually conveying the conflict between the two men over their conflicting goals – West's need to go to Matool against Brian's desire to preserve his holiday – followed by the formation of a single group of the two that had existed at the start of the scene through the subsequent reframing in the four shot.
Limited resources and retakes are also evident in the way in which the underwater zombie seems to lose, regrow and lose his arm in the course of the fight with the shark and the tendency of the molotov cocktails thrown by the survivors in the final showdown to produce a blast of flame that lasts but an instant – specifically until the next is thrown – and to never set anything except zombies ablaze.
Above all, however, it's about the gore effects and the set-pieces, as the things which really matter to the typical viewer and as the ones where Fulci and his collaborators really deliver the goods.
Who cares if the plotting is full of coincidences and contrivances or the direction seemingly plodding – though I could go in in attempting to justify the construction of many other scenes, I won't, in the hope that the point has been made – so long as there are throat-rippings, flesh chompings and head traumas aplenty and those jaw-dropping I-can't-believe-I-just-saw-that set pieces.
The defining moment of Fulci's career?
Here Fulci, make up and FX man Gino De Rossi and production designer Walter Patriarca also succeed in conveying the physicality of the zombies and the island in a way unparalleled in any other previous zombie film I can think of, with the stenches of flesh, blood, decay, alcohol, earth, sweat and medical chemicals and the feel of the heat and dust almost palpable.
Though there some exceptions to this cinesthesia – a portmanteau term coined by Vivien Sobchack to emphasise the way in which filmmakers can convey all the senses through the audio-visual channels available to them – most notably the way in which the discovery of Mrs Menard's fate and of the two non-feasting zombies in the scene are signalled by sight in another effective shot-reaction shot combination, these can also be taken as a further expression of Fulci's preference for cinematic over narrative logic and as a precursor of the absurdist approach that would become prominent in City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, where the (un)dead can and do appear and disappear at will.
Sound and music are also important, with the voodoo drums and droning zombie synth making a vital contribution to the film's overall effect, with another intertextual indication of this being the way in which many of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci's cues would be recalled in City of the Living Dead.
Surprisingly, however, the film perhaps isn't as gory as it could have been, with a certain restraint showing in the way the dead patients have their heads covered and are not always shown receiving a bullet in the head, with the camera being equally prone to focus on Menard. Though budgetary constraints may have again contributed here, these images also tell us something about the doctor, that is he is fundamentally well-meaning and decent, as has not yet become so inured to the act of shooting his former patients that it has become in any way easier.
Menard and Lucas represent different approaches to the living dead
As with Romero's films, the filmmakers leave the zombie plague unexplained, along with their precise relationship with the unseen but near omnipresent voodoo-drumming natives. One thing that is clear, however, is that western science is unable to make sense of the zombies or to provide any answers. “Nothing fits,” as Menard despairingly remarks. More than this, his hubristic insistence on finding an explanation if anything more a hinderance than a help in the circumstances, especially when compared with some of the natives' more pragmatic if reluctant acceptance of the seemingly impossible:
Dr Menard: “Do you know what has caused all this? Is it voodoo?”
Lucas, the native assistant: “Lucas not know nothing. The father of my father always say – the dead, they will come back to suck the blood of the living.”
“That's nonsense! That's just a stupid superstition!”
“Yes, you are right doctor. You know many more things than Lucas.”
“I don't believe that voodoo can bring the dead back to life.”
“And Lucas not believe that the dead be dead.”
Had Menard and Bowles recognised their limits and left the island at the first sign of trouble, it's possible that nothing would have really happened – though then, of course, we wouldn't have had much of a film!
There's also a sense that voodoo may be being used by some of the islanders against the white man, that from a syncretic combination of African beliefs and Catholicism that could be useful to the slave master – as one who no longer really believed in magic but was quite happy to use the additional power it could grant him – it has now transformed into something with a more 'revolutionary' third worldist potential. (The famous “we are going to eat you” tagline, is suggestive in this regard in terms of the implied subject positions of third-world zombie and western world.)
Various members of the Dell'Aqua family as feature zombies
Following on from this, one of the film's weak points is often taken to be its ending. The delivery in the English dub here is somewhat ridiculous and the image of zombies shuffling across the bridge with the traffic below them flowing as normal despite the broadcaster's panicked final broadcast – they're everywhere! they're at the door! they're coming in! aaarrgggh! – not much better. However, the Italian dub is less hyperbolic and makes the more reasonable suggestion that the situation is deteriorating rapidly but not yet lost. Both also giving a neat symmetry to the film in terms of opening and closing words, which are heard over the radio, and images, of boats and New York-ness.
Perhaps the final indication of Zombie's accomplishment is that it is sufficiently rich that we can come back to the film again and, as I have hopefully indicated here, find something new we never really noticed or particularly thought about before.