“What is all this about the dead coming back to life again and having to be killed a second time?
I mean, what the hell’s going on here?”
Why do we watch bad movies?
By “we”, I obviously don’t mean me; I’m crazy enough to do the kind of thing you do on a bet without the bet year after year.
No, by “we” I mean horror movie fans. The question comes up because it is definitely that group that has kept today’s Killtoberfest 3 film alive. This is the third film in my 70s sounder, and it’s the one that has decayed the most, although it retains a shambling semblance of life on internet lists and the obscura of horror fandom: 1979’s Zombi 2.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that this film is sustained by fandom, because it was an act of fandom from the very beginning. The story of its making starts in 1968, when the Hays Production Code finally gave up the ghost once and for all. In that brief window of unparalleled artistic freedom between 1964 (when the first code-approved movie featuring bare breasts was released) and November 1968 (when the MPAA established the modern rating system) were released a number of films featuring extreme sex and violence; and skating right in there at the end was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released exactly 47 years and 3 days ago today. Reinventing an old form of movie monster previously associated with voodoo culture as a symbol of social decay, Romero’s film coincided with political upheaval and national turmoil. In 1978, a big-budget, color sequel followed, Dawn of the Dead. The films talked about issues of race and class, and depicted the breaking of deep-seated cultural taboos. They were also really, really gross, and that appears to have been just what Italian audiences were looking for. Recut by Dario Argento (one of the original writers and producers, to be fair) with a new score by Goblin, Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy as Zombi and actually premiered months before the movie’s American debut. International success inspired a sequel, and that–and weirdo Italian copyright laws–is why a completely unconnected zombie movie was billed as the sequel to Dawn of the Dead.
I paraphrase Wikipedia retell this history here not just because it’s interesting but because Zombi 2 is completely defined by its artistic and historical context. Romero completely changed zombies forever, and Zombi 2 was one of the first films to follow in his footsteps. The problem is that it doesn’t go any further in its own direction than any of the hundreds if not thousands of zombie movies and media released since; and when you combine this failure to innovate with technical incompetence and a total lack of redeeming social commentary, that question rephrases itself: why should anyone watch this bad movie?
Well, there is a part where a zombie fights a shark.
The story starts off well enough. A boat floats in the harbor outside of New York, seemingly abandoned. The police are summoned to investigate. Inside they discover a rotting corpse, moving around and hungering for flesh. The boat belonged to one of the missing men; his daughter, along with a reporter, travel to the small island where he was last known to be, an island where the people are dying and the dead are rising. Along the way to the thrilling conclusion to a story the movie never gives us reason to care about, the plot wanders and lurches like a one-legged amnesiac, shifting its attentions fitfully from one soon-to-be-victim to the next. Each scene progresses the running time without really advancing anything else of note. For example, one subplot involves a doctor on the island studying the rash of zombism and his wife. She’s introduced arguing with him over whether they should leave; later, she’s killed by a zombie; still later, he learns of her death from a third character. None of it amounts to anything meaningful or even emotional. It’s just stuff, and that describes virtually every part of the film.
There are a couple of sequences where the movie clicks and is at least beautiful, some combination of the pulsing score, the slowed visual action, and the detailed make-up and prosthetics that gives the film a kind of charge. One of these is the infamous zombie/shark fight scene, which I had expected to find comedic but which is actually visually fascinating–the underwater photography is gorgeous, and the scene is presented essentially in isolation, only seeking to justify itself on its own terms. Another is the sight of old Spanish zombies rising from their island graves, sloughing off the sand and dirt that buried them. But moments like these are few and far between; more often the film is bogged down by pointless scenes, banal and poorly dubbed dialogue, and the lack of any characters worth watching (outside of a few topless sequences). By the time the movie’s action climax rolls around, all patience has evaporated. In the end, there’s only so far that grossness can carry a film, even grossness so well-executed as this. The film’s one redeeming factor is that its make-up effects are really, really good–and that it’s willing to go farther than you’d like with necks and arms and legs and eyes, like a fighter in the street. In some cases, that’s enough of a reason to watch a bad movie, especially for horror fans.
But I’ve seen zombies. Slow zombies, fast zombies, baby zombies, Nazi zombies, I’ve seen them all, and I’m here to tell you that none of it is different enough. Maybe the concept of zombies simply isn’t flexible enough, the way, say, vampires are. Or maybe filmmakers just aren’t adventurous enough, by and large, to find new stories to tell with them. Zombi 2 is a little piece of history, carried forward by fans for those few memorable moments of violence or ridiculousness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the movies it looked up to, or the movies that still today look up to those. If Zombi 2 belonged to a limited trend, it might be an important example of that particular kind of zombie film, one of the handful over a decade or two before the genre shifted in a bold new direction. But there was no shift. That trend continued on after Zombi 2, and it shows no sign of slowing. And even in this tired, worn out form, there are better examples out there, ones more worth remembering. We should bury this movie in the past where it belongs. And shoot it in the head first, just to be sure.
As for whatever life value there might be in watching a zombie fight a shark? Youtube has you covered.
(also, this is a jammin’ theme) (SFW):
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.