Monday, October 28, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Zombi 3 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters 2)

It may seem odd to some readers that during the four years I’ve done this blogathon, I have never done a proper review for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 — one of the most famous of all Italian horror films. So now would seem like as good a time as any to get it out of the way, right? However, for this reviewer, Fulci’s failed sequel seemed like a more interesting film to tackle for a couple of reasons: one, I hadn’t yet seen the film; second, I wanted to make sure I got to at least one Bruno Mattei/Claudio Fragasso (the brain trust behind Troll 2) collaboration for this blogathon. Finally, how often does one get to tackle all three filmmakers — Fulci, Mattei, and Fragasso — with one review? So I decided to move forward with a review of Zombi 3, an horrible attempt from a filmmaker trying to reclaim his glory from earlier in the decade and a depressing avatar for the dying days of Italian horror.

Lacking hardcore gore and an atmosphere of dread, Zombi 3 plays more like Mattei’s Italian action films than a legitimate sequel to Fulci’s famous film — something fans of the film noticed immediately and booed accordingly after the film premiered in Italy. In fact, it plays more as a sequel to the Mattei/Fragasso shitfest Zombie Creeping Flesh. The film that actually plays more like a natural successor to Zombi 2 was actually Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror), what with its emphasis on makeup and gore effects. At least Bianchi’s film — despite how goofy it is in parts — wanted to be a serious (a relative term, I know) horror film like Zombi 2. Fragasso and Mattei’s film just plays like any other ‘ol Bruno Mattei movie with its horridly bland exterior medium shots, flippant attitude towards mise-en-scene, pedestrian pacing (there are no painfully tense moments like the “splinter in the eye” scene to be found here as scenes of “tension” are over before they begin), and shoehorned action scenes (often ideas for scenes that were left over from his countless action films that he would film simultaneously in one location).

Quickly, the plot: Zombi 3 opens with a man stealing an experimental chemical weapon known as "Death One"  (which isn’t as good as previous Mattei/Fragasso chemical weapon name “Operation Sweet Death” from Zombie Creeping Flesh) from a lab. As the authorities chase after the thief, they accidentally shot the container of “Death One”, spilling it all over the thief. The wounded thief flees to the nearest hotel to hide before turning into a zombie. As the military descends upon the hotel (dressed up in white suits with gas masks a la the military from Romero’s The Crazies, which isn’t the first time Mattei stole this image), they shoot and kill the thief, burning his body per the orders of the US General responsible for “Death One.” The scientists working on “Death One” advise against this since the ashes could get into the air and infect the locals. The General will have none of this talk from a scientist, and orders the body to be burned, outbreak be damned.

Well, as you probably can guess, the body is burned, and the ashes are released into the atmosphere, causing hundreds of people to turn into zombies. As was the case with Mattei and Fragasso’s previous zombie film, a random group of military men (GIs? Mercenaries?) happen upon the region and meet up with an RV filled with women and Patricia, who has lost her boyfriend to the zombie plague. They eventually make their way to the hotel where the outbreak initially occurred, running into a bunch of zombies. This is all cross-cut with the scientists (who are outraged that they had to work on such a dangerous assignment...because I guess the name “Death One” wasn’t a big enough tipoff for them?) arguing the military officials about the best possible way to stop the outbreak.

After several years of promising a legitimate sequel to Zombi 2, Flora Film announced Zombi 3 with Lucio Fulci as director. This would no doubt excite fans of the horror film (who hadn’t seen a good, serious zombie movie for quite some time), but more specifically it would invigorate Fulci acolytes (who admittedly weren’t as large a group in 1988 as it is now; however, fans of  the director still very much existed, and they still hadn’t seen a good Fulci film for almost seven years) whom Flora was expecting to flock to see the film — after all, Zombi 2 was one of the most popular and profitable horror films to come out of Europe during that era (in the extremely rare case of a domestic film making more money than an American import, it out-grossed Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, titled Zombi in Europe) — so it wasn’t like the people at Flora were grasping at straws, here. The only problem was that the people at Flora hired the hackiest hack of them all Claudio Fragasso to write the script, and what he produced was a script that Fulci abhorred, causing him to abandon the project.

Now, there are so many conflicting rumors regarding the making of Zombi 3. In Jay Slater’s book Eaten Alive! he interviews Fragasso who claims that Fulci was ill and the film was supposed to be a direct sequel to Fulci’s Zombi 2 (okay, but then why was the script so dissimilar to Fulci’s first film?). Later in the same chapter of Slater’s book, he mentions an interview with cast member Beatrice Ring who recalls very little about the shoot and which director shot which scenes, only remembering that the shoot was a complete disaster and utterly chaotic, claiming that Mattei didn't know what the hell he was doing. In Stephen Thrower’s book Beyond Terror (hard to find, but I highly recommend it for Fulci fans), he cites an interview with Fulci and Fulci’s daughter who both debunk the most popular rumor that Fulci couldn’t complete the film because he was deathly ill. In fact, Fulci claims he was not critically ill — although he was uncomfortably ill at the time of the shooting due to the tropical climate of the Philippines — he was just fed up with Fragasso’s script and Flora’s unwillingness to all him to alter the script. All of this led to Fulci walking off the set, forcing Flora to turn to Fragasso’s buddy and hack extraordinaire (yes, a hackier hack than even Fragasso): Bruno Mattei.

One can guess by taking a look at the final product that it was evident Fulci’s frustrations also stemmed from that fact that he was sorely missing the technical crew he employed on Zombi 2 (most important being his longtime DP Sergio Salvati, who never worked with Fulci after The House by the Cemetery, but also composer Fabio Frizzi and makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi), and the film was cast with awful actors that give the whole thing a “don’t take this too seriously” vibe (say what you want about Tisa Farrow and Ian McCulloch, but hot damn are they Oscar caliber actors compared to what we have here) — its tone is all wrong and actually is more akin to Dan O'Bannon’s spoof Return of the Living Dead (they even ripped off the theme of that movie) than anything resembling Fulci’s classics from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.

The amount of footage that Fulci shot that ended up in the film is debatable (some claim as little as 20 minutes, others claim as much as 70 minutes), but it’s certainly clear where Fulci’s footage ends and Mattei’s begins. Fulci preferred to film on a set, and the graininess/brightness juxtaposition is indicative of how the film was shot and by whom (Fulci’s scenes look like film; Mattei’s footage looks like video). Also, exteriors, when used, are lit in such way as to give them a kind of eerie City of the Living Dead feel. The scene where the zombie birds attack some poor anti-environment schmuck definitely feels like Fulci (although it is disappointingly subdued for a Fulci “animal attack” scene). As does the scene where one of the girl’s falls into some water and zombies emerge from a cave, shrouded in fog (copious amounts of fog, I should add, that seems so out of place, as if he just had some left over from Conquest and decided to use it up here) and back-lit by an eerie green light — that feels like Fulci, too.

One scene that was kept that Fucli definitely shot — and that he absolutely took credit for — was the flying zombie head scene. In one of the film’s most asinine moments, a zombie removes their head and places it in a refrigerator in order to fool an unsuspecting female victim. The person then opens the refrigerator door only for the zombie head to come flying out — but only as a distraction, mind you — as the beheaded body of the zombie leaps out and tries to kill the poor woman. Apparently Fulci was very proud of the flying zombie head scene, claiming it as one of his very favorite moments put to film. That should give you some insight into Fulci’s creative thought process in 1988 — the Lucio Fulci of The Beyond, this ain’t.

As for what we can claim as Mattei’s footage: well, as previously mentioned, Mattei’s aesthetic preference was in exterior shots (so he could mask how cheap his film looked), and in random action scenes and horror setpieces that are over before they begin, so it’s pretty easy to spot his footage there. The fast, Nightmare City-esque zombies well-versed in jujitsu rolling definitely feels like a Mattei addition. The action setpiece at the hotel is obviously Mattei. And the odd shift in tone from wacky zombie movie to nihilistic horror film at the end of the film with the dudes dressed up like characters from The Crazies (a look Mattei would use as well in Rats: Nights of Terror...yeah, I don’t know why I know that, either) killing humans in a case of mistaken identity is all very much Mattei.

Look, though, weapon-wielding zombies that move fast and do karate isn’t the reason Zombi 3 sucks (in fact, one could argue that Mattei’s additions are simultaneously the best and worst things about the movie).  I mean Fulci did have a zombie fight a shark in Zombi 2, for Christ’s sake, so he wasn’t averse to asinine ideas, and, as previously discussed, one of Zombi 3’s most asinine (and memorable) moments is a scene with a freaking flying zombie head. Just one loo at some of the bizarre setpieces that Fulci lazily implemented and executed in his post-House by the Cemetery films shows a once great director devolving into hackdom. So, no, Fulci isn’t free from criticism here; there is plenty of blame to go around for all parties involved. We can’t just assume that the old Fulci would have returned (no matter many of us wish it could have been so) and turned this steaming pile of a script into gold had he seen the project through.

What made Zombi 2 so great beyond the gore effects was the unbearable tension and dread that Fulci fills the frame with. There’s something so much more ominous about the voodoo plague infiltrating the East Coast shores of America than the silly premise of zombie ashes in the atmosphere. And that blame squarely lies on the shoulders of Fragasso and his awful script. As big a fan I am of Zombi 2, it may have just been in Floras best interest to leave well enough alone. Look, I love a “so-bad-it’s-good” movie as much as the next person (hell, I actually love how off-the-wall the Mattei/Fragasso collaboration Zombie Creeping Flesh is; it’s one of my favorite “so-bad-it’s-good” movies), but this goes beyond that fun category into ignominy; there is no “so-bad-it’s-good” or “guilty pleasure” vibe that emanates from this piece of schlocky trash.

One more Zombi film followed (there is another called Killing Birds that had the Zombi name tacked on to fool what little consumers were left that were interested in this series) in the series — directed by Fragasso and written by an even worse writer than he (spoiler: it’s his wife) — and it plays as something even hokier than Zombi 3, making for a viewing experience where one longs for a wooden splinter in their own eye.

This is such a depressing movie to think about, for Zombi 3 could have been so much more than what it was; it could have meant so much to Fulci’s future (Fulci died eight years later but not before making eight more movies), it could have meant so much to the future of the subgenre, and it could have been something that was a definitive moment for theatrical Italian horror, proving that the gory, ethereal spectacles that Fulci helped popularize in the early ‘80s was still a valuable commodity in Italian moviehouses. But, the producers waited nearly a decade to make this “sequel", and in doing so, wasted a great opportunity on a horror movie that people wanted to see; and instead, they produced what is without a doubt one of the most miserable horror experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.


  1. Love it. Zombie stuff has become so common (and a little same-same) now days that I do sometimes long for just some real bat-shit crazy stuff, flying hands or Zombie heads...