The film that reinvented Lucio Fulci’s career and forever cemented his reputation among gorehounds worldwide, ZOMBIE (1979) has become—and remains—the pinnacle, most-iconic achievement of Fulci’s long and varied career. Sure, he’s made better films, but it’s ZOMBIE that has become inexorably synonymous with gory Italian splatter flicks (or “gutcrunchers,” as the late, great Chas. “Deep Red” Balun might call them), some of whose notoriety can (and indeed, must) be attributed to the film’s bold and brash U.S. ad-campaign (“We Are Going To Eat You!”) courtesy of filmmaker-turned-now-legendary exploiteer Jerry Gross. ZOMBIE has been pretty much available since the very dawn of home video on a number of different formats many times over (it famously became one of the key titles to be persecuted by the BBFC during the U.K.’s “Video Nasty” witch-hunts of the ’80s, which only added to its notoriety), but with Blue Underground’s 40thAnniversary Limited Edition, this may be the final—and best!—incarnation of the film we’ll ever see.
A mysterious sailboat is found adrift in the New York City harbour, but when a Port Authority officer is viciously killed by an unknown assailant after he boards the apparently unmanned vessel, an investigation is duly launched. Peter West (Ian McCulloch), an ambitious reporter, soon gets wind of this and teams up with Anne (Tisa Farrow), the missing boat skipper’s daughter, who is also seeking answers. They eventually make their way to Matoul, a supposedly cursed island in the Antilles (“That’s not a cool place to hit! The natives claim it’s cursed and avoid it like the plague!”), which, thanks to some dubious research by Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), has become overrun with the living dead...
Incredibly gory, ZOMBIE has become—thanks in no small part to the talents of makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi—best-remembered for a number of unforgettable and gleefully over-the-top gore scenes which have since become legend, including the infamous, and agonizingly slow, ‘splinter-through-the-eye’ scene, which, even after all these years, still manages to shock and induce cheers among horror fans to this day. Initially devised to capitalize on the enormous success of George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which was released in Italy as ZOMBI—hence the present film’s cash-in Italian title, ZOMBI 2—Lucio Fulci and his writing team of Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti decided to harken back to age-old voodoo rituals, and in this respect ZOMBIE takes as much inspiration from such films as Victor Halperin’s voodoo-themed WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) and Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton’s atmospheric I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) as it does from the more modernist DOTD. Matoul’s desolate island setting is wonderfully captured by Sergio Salvati’s widescreen lens, whilst Fulci’s evocative direction (which is especially evident during the stalking sequence of Dr. Menard’s wife [Olga Karlatos]) and Fabio Frizzi’s imaginative score really bring out the film’s death and decay in all its decadent, ever-encroaching glory, which is quite an accomplishment given the film’s rather nominal plot and indifferent performances. British thespians Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson headline the mostly Italian cast, which also includes perennial Fulci favourite Al Cliver (a.k.a. Pier Luigi Conti) and who are, for the most part, very nearly as lifeless as the living dead themselves, but given the film’s strange and unearthly appeal, it all somehow manages to work.
ZOMBIE was first released onto U.S. VHS/Beta videocassette by Wizard Video in 1981, which was later rereleased in one of their oversized “big boxes” in 1985. And then, in 1989, Magnum Entertainment obtained the rights, and, in conjunction with Image Entertainment, even issued it onto laserdisc. In spite of its gaining popularity during the ’80s VHS boom, these early releases didn’t do the film any justice whatsoever, with unattractive fullscreen transfers that gave little indication of the film’s true look. In Japan, Sony Video Software issued ZOMBIE on VHS and laserdisc as SANGUELIA (the onscreen title was ZOMBIES 2, its original English export title) in what was, for the time, a substantial improvement merely for the fact that it retained the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. In 1998, The Roan Group issued the first-ever domestic widescreen edition of ZOMBIE on Laserdisc, in an edition which was also far more colourful than any previous transfer, but the artificially-boosted colour palette seemed a little too artificial for these eyes. Nonetheless, it remained the benchmark for the time, which also included an audio commentary with star Ian McCulloch and Diabolik magazine’s editor, Jason J. Slater as well as the U.S. theatrical trailer and various TV and radio spots.
During the DVD era, the film was released a number of times by various companies worldwide, which are far too numerous to list here. The film’s first U.S. DVD came hot on the heels of The Roan Group’s laserdisc in 1998 courtesy of Anchor Bay, which featured the exact same package, but this time, the transfer was far less colourful; so much so in fact, that the new disc format in town didn’t win over many people at the time. Unfortunately, when Anchor Bay decided to revisit the film on DVD in 2002, they simply repackaged the exact same disc once more. In 2004, Blue Undergound and Media Blasters (under their Shriek Show banner) both released separate editions, and while the BU disc—which featured a much better-balanced colour scheme—took the edge in terms of overall picture quality, Shriek Show’s 2-disc set included a number of ‘all-new,’ in-depth extras highlighted by Building A Better Zombie (97m30s), an interesting but way-overlong doc, which featured on-camera interviews with a number of the film’s cast and crew, including F/X guru Giannetto De Rossi and score composer Fabio Frizzi.
Publicized in 2011 as “The Ultimate Edition”, Blue Underground’s 2-disc Blu-ray included a brand new 2K transfer (supervised by ZOMBIE’S DP Sergio Salvati himself) that was a noticeable improvement in HD, which still managed to complement the film’s gritty veneer but, at the same time, it also appeared that some digital clean-up was done, a fact which definitely caused some controversy among fans. The disc included audio tracks in both English and Italian (with optional English subtitles translated from the Italian track) in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (which includes some rather off-putting, slightly-revised sound effects), Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby Digital Mono. A plethora of optional subtitles in a multitude of languages was also included. The first Blu-ray also contained the aforementioned commentary; a brief introduction to the film from long-time genre fan Guillermo Del Toro; plus theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots and a nicely-illustrated poster / still gallery (9m51s). The second disc began with Zombie Wasteland (22m19s), produced by BU and Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures, which features highlights from the April 2010 Cinema Wasteland convention where actors Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver and Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (a.k.a. Richard Raymond) talk about their experience on the film and Fulci’s (quote) “enthusiasm” and how he (quote) “wanted the maximum” and was (quote) “never content with half measures”. The brief doc also showcases the film’s dedicated fans as well as giving the viewer a nice glimpse at this long-running convention. Other extras included Flesh-Eaters on Film (9m38s), in which producer Fabrizio De Angelis discusses the globe-trotting production and how they (quote) “stole” many shots in NYC including the film’s memorable ‘shock-twist’ ending; Deadtime Stories (14m33) features interviews with Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti, who discuss the film’s genesis and the wonderful teamwork behind the production. In World of the Dead (16m34s), DP Salvati and production designer Walter Patriarca talk about the film’s look and how directly involved Fulci was in the project; in Zombi Italiano (16m37s), makeup artists Giannetto De Rossi, Maurizio Trani and special effects tech Gino De Rossi talk predominantly about the ‘look’ they wanted to give the zombies and many of the tests they performed prior to the film going into production; Notes On A Headstone (7m25s) is a brief interview with Fabio Frizzi, who discusses his perceived limitations and how parts of the score developed little by little, like (quote) “Grandma’s recipe”. The remaining featurettes are All In the Family (6m08s), an interview with Fulci’s daughter Antonella, who believes ZOMBIE is her father’s best film, and how his “Theater of Cruelty” is (quote) “full of irony”; plus Zombie Lover (9m36s), which is a lengthier appreciation by Guillermo Del Toro. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to search for a very worthwhile Easter Egg!
The following year, U.K.-based connoisseur label Arrow Video released their own 2-disc edition of the film culled from the (quote) “original camera negative”. This edition certainly raised eyebrows—in a good way—and was, up to that point, the best that ZOMBIE had ever looked, so was well worth double-dipping for. As a bonus, this Arrow edition also allowed the viewer to play the film under three different titles: as ZOMBI 2, ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS or ZOMBIE. This time around, the film included an introduction by its star Ian McCulloch, and also included two different audio commentaries compared to the U.S. disc. First up was Beyond Terror author Stephen Thrower and film critic Alan Jones, who have plenty to say about the film and keep the track lively and informative as they discuss its personnel and all sorts of other tidbits related to the film and Fulci’s career; really terrific stuff! Next up, Callum Waddell interviews Elisa Briganti, who once again talks about working alongside her husband Dardano Sacchetti, as well as her reasons for taking sole writing credit on the film, plus plenty of other anecdotes related to the film and other productions from the same time. The most significant extra on the first disc is From Romero to Rome: The Rise of The Italian Zombie Film (59m36s), which charts the evolution of this grisly subgenre of Italian horror and features plenty of clips and promotional materials to gawk at along the way. Disc two begins with Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies: A Trilogy of Terror (45m52s), which spotlights the brief-but-memorable Italian movie career of Ian McCulloch, wherein he discusses ZOMBIE, ALIEN CONTAMINATION (1980) and DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (1980), iconic Italo splatter shockers all. In Music for a Flesh-Feast (29m25s), Fabio Frizzi talks at the Glasgow Film Theatre and in the short-but-interesting featurette, Zombie Flesh-Eaters: From Script to Screen (3m18s), Sacchetti discusses his early script treatment entitled “Nightmare Island”. In the last featurette, The Meat-Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi (26m34s), the acclaimed special effects artist discusses much of his work during this time, including a number of fan favourites, such as CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (a.k.a. THE GATES OF HELL ), PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981) and BURIAL GROUND (1980). The initial print-run also included a terrific booklet of liner notes that included more thoughts on the film from Stephen Thrower, a Fulci filmography put together by Jason J. Slater, some of the issues with the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) by Craig Lapper, and an interview with star Olga Karlatos.
A tough act to follow, but considering ZOMBIE is one of Blue Underground’s flagship titles, it’s not surprising that they decided to take another shot at it, and it’s a jolly good thing they did! Taken from a brand-new 4K transfer from the (quote) “original uncensored camera negative”, this new transfer—which is slightly darker than the Arrow Blu-ray—appears to be the most-accurate of the lot, but the overall picture allows for more shadowy detail to come through. The naturalistic colours look just about perfect, restoring—and possibly even improving on!—the film’s fetid, morbid atmosphere. Once again, BU have seen fit to include both English and Italian audio options (with properly-translated English subtitles) in both DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and the original—far more pleasing!—DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track. And for you Francophone fans out there, they’ve also included a French Dolby Digital Mono track as well. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also included, as are a vast number of other subtitle options.
Of course, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of extras, and once again the disc includes the old Ian McCulloch / Jason J. Slater commentary from 1998; Guillermo Del Toro’s brief intro for the film, and that generous poster / still gallery. New extras produced exclusive to this release include an additional audio commentary from Splintered Visions author Troy Howarth, who provides his usual fact-filled track, including some background info on some of the film’s more obscure bit players, including Arthur Haggerty as the boat’s captain, morgue attendants Leslie Thomas and James Sampson (latter of whom also appeared in such favourites as CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and, years later, in Claudio Fragasso’s AFTER DEATH ), as well as the numerous voice-dubbing specialists involved. Howarth also goes on to talk about many of ZOMBIE’s technicians and how Fulci and his crew made (quote) “films on the cheap that really, really looked lavish indeed,” as well as Richard Johnson’s contributions to the film and how he rewrote much of his dialogue for the occasion. Of course, Howarth also chats about Fulci’s mistreatment of certain actors on-set, verbal abuse which he usually reserved strictly for the Italian ones. It’s a solid, detailed summary of the film. The other new extra is When the Earth Spits Out the Dead… (33m05s), which is yet another fantastic on-camera interview with Stephen Thrower (directed by Severin head-honcho David Gregory), who talks about Fulci’s diverse career and how he ended-up directing ZOMBIE (“He was no stranger to blood and guts.”), which is all nicely highlighted by clips from various Fulci trailers. Thrower also goes on to discuss the film’s (quote) “emphasis on putrefaction”; the aforementioned infamous splinter-in-the-eye scene, which he wittily refers to as Fulci’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Terrific! As always, it makes for a great listen and an excellent—and most welcome!—new extra. The second disc is an exact replica from BU’s earlier ‘Ultimate Edition’ and features Zombie Wasteland, Flesh-Eaters on Film, Deadtime Stories, World of the Dead, Zombi Italiano, Notes On A Headstone, All in the Family and Zombie Lover. Fabio Frizzi’s memorable score is also included as a bonus CD, which features 9 tracks (26m41s), including the previously-unreleased Linda Lee song, “There’s No Matter”. A slick, nicely-illustrated 22-page liner notes booklet featuring further writing by Stephen Thrower is also included, which this time focuses on the film’s critical reception upon its various theatrical releases around the world. BU are also offering a choice of three—count ’em!—different lenticular eye-catching covers! Whew!
After years of indifferent transfers, it appears that Blue Underground have finally released the definitive edition of ZOMBIE, and it’s hard to imagine Fulci’s landmark film ever looking any better than it does here. Simply put, it’s an absolute must-have! DiabolikDVD currently stock all three different covers here, here and here, and they are also available as 3-Cover Bundle. For you Canadian readers, Suspect Video also offers the all three covers here, here and here, plus the 3-Cover Bundle as well.