This is a film which offers a challenge to auteurism, an approach which I often take in attempting to bring out the stylistic and thematic continuities in the work of Italian filone directors generally recognised, if at all, as mere metteurs en scene.
For the driving force behind Zombie Holocaust is plainly producer and co-writer Fabrizio de Angelis who, having bankrolled Zombie a few months earlier, clearly hoped that lightning would strike twice with this rehash / remake that uses some of the same cast, crew, locations and even, on occasion, footage.
The idea being to make as much money as possible out of the zombie and cannibal filone before public interest waned
This wouldn't in itself necessarily be an issue but for the fact that de Angelis's motivations are clearly 100% financial, of the 'leave messages to Western Union' type, and that in selecting Frank Martin / Marino Girolami as director he has a journeyman helmsman concerned with nothing more than giving the audience what they want, in the form of Alexandra Delli Colli's frequent gratuitous nudity and plenty of crude, unconvincing gore, whilst getting the film in the can as quicky and efficiently as possible.
The first victim is disovered
A somewhat obviously latex human torso, curiously devoid of a ribcage
Put differently, it's filone cinema at worst, where hybridisation of ideas, most particularly from the post-Romero zombie and indigenous cannibal sub genres in particular, results less in progress than patchwork / pastiche / failed bricolage; the last term tying in with the film's dubious anthropological elements.
A pointless establishing shot of a car driving off
We opens in New York city, that frequent mecca for Italian filmmakers seeking to take advantage of US locations at the time, with what first appears as a series of unexplained corpse mutilations at a city hospital.
and a nurse's understandable reaction shot
Doctors Dreylock (Walter Patriarca, who also served as production designer) and Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) lay a trap for the perpetrator, catching an orderly as he is about to take a bite out of a freshly removed heart. Rather than be taken alive, the orderly then leaps out a window, leading to another one of those plummeting dummy moments we all so know and love, complete in this case with an arm flying off only to be reattached when we cut back to the actor lying in a pool of stage blood.
Dr Ridgeway notices a distinctive tattoo on the man's chest, which she recognises thanks to not only holding another degree in anthropology but also having spent her early years on the same islands, the Moloccas, as the man came from!
A static tableaux shot of Delli Colli undressing; the filmmakers don't bother making use of the mirrored surfaces in the room to add a bit of visual interest
The tattoo is the symbol if Kito, the name of a Moluccan island and its deity, whose cannibal cult was thought long extinct; even more coincidentally Ridgeway also has a sacrificial knife with the same symbol in her apartment, that is stolen soon thereafter by a burglar who suspiciously takes nothing else.
Note the detaching / reattaching limb and the mark of Kito on the man's chest
The two doctors learn that theirs was no isolated incident, with similar incidents at other hospitals. In each case the perpetrator was from the Moloccas and bore the mark of Kito.
In light of these discoveries Dr Chandler (Ian McCulloch) plans an expedition to the islands and invites Ridgeway along on the basis that her knowledge of the islanders and their culture will prove useful. Also accompanying them are Chandler's colleague George Harper and – in yet another contrivance – his girlfriend, Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan), a scoop-hungry newshound who has already gotten on Ridgeway's wrong side with her invasive approach.
A familiar image from Zombie
The plan, Chandler explains, is to first go to see Dr Obrero (Donald O'Brien), an old acquaintance who has spent the past five years in the islands with his medical mission. If anyone knows what is going on it will be Obrero, who should also then be able to provide the expedition with a boat and a guide to take them to the island of Kito itself.
On arrival in the archipelago they are treated courteously by Dr Obrero, though the placing of a severed human head in Ridgeway's bed serves as a reminder that this is hardly safe territory for the white (wo)man.
Obrero's servant Molotto (Dakar, who had performed a similar role in Zombie) is charged with guiding the expedition's boat to Kito.
Engine trouble forces a landing on a nearby island for the night with the plan being to continue on towards Kito come morning. An attack by the cannibalist natives and the discovery of Kito's mark soon indicate, however, that this island is Kito, suggesting that Molotto is either less than competent or has been instructed to try to lead the expedition astray.
More signs of Kito
A series of encounters with the cannibals then thin out the party's numbers faster than Ian McCulloch's hair, before the survivors are saved thanks to a timely intervention by the zombies – creatures created by a certain mad scientist who is also behind the natives' return to their old ways...
Zombi(e) Holocaust is one of those films that was released under an at times bewildering array of titles, including Zombies unter Kannibalen in German speaking territories; the alternate Italian AKA of La Regina dei cannibali; and, of course, the US Dr Butcher MD edit, which cannibalised some footage from yet another film, the aborted horror anthology Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out. What's most significant here is the way in which these titles emphasise different aspects of the film, presumably to increase its appeal to audiences less interested in zombies than cannibals or mad scientists depending on what happened to be in vogue at any one point in circa 1980-82.
Some of the crude gore and zombie makeup effects
As further evidence of the film's derivativeness we also get the Mountain of the Cannibal God and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals deus ex machina of the white / non-native woman as primitive goddess motif, allowing for yet more gratuitous nudity from Delli Colli, and composer Nico Fidenco actually reusing some cues from his Black Emanuelle scores.
Despite the title Zombie Holocaust is one of the less apocalyptic example of the filone, with the survivors apparently able to return home pretty much unscathed all things considered and the 'natural' order of things restored. As such the implicit message comes across as a less revolutionary, more reactionary one than most of its ilk, namely that some degree of western exploitation of the primitive is justified by our superiority, but that mad scientist type experiments in creating zombie labourers are going a little bit too far...
Delli Colli appears in the same pose in The New York Ripper
It's also worth noting here that 'obrero' means worker in Spanish. Were the good doctor's enterprising experiments thus a misguided attempt to pull himself into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, to establish himself as master rather than slave? Could there be a longer paper / essay on the Italian zombie film as proletarian revenge fantasy and / or expression of Nietzschean ressentiment or somesuch in this?
[The screengrabs here come from the UK Stonehaven DVD release]