Movie Review – Zombi 2 (1979)

Zombi 2 is an Italian exploitation film from 1979 and directed by Lucio Fulci. This original title was given not because it was an official sequel to Zombi, but to cash in on George A. Romeros’ Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy the year prior to great commercial success under the title Zombi. Because of its title, the film has a reputation of being a cheap knock-off of Romero’s instant classic, although the people who gave it this reputation probably never saw the damn thing. In truth, the two films have very little in common with one another other than sharing genre and of course the main antagonists, the zombies.

Before we go any further, let me briefly explain what an exploitation film is. They are a very broad genre of cheaply made, violent genre films, mostly horror and action, aimed at teenagers and blue collar workers. They were especially popular in the 1960’s to the late 1980’s but also exist in today’s market often in the form of movies paying homage to the old films of the exploitation genre such as Grindhouse (2007), Machete (2010) and Hostel (2005).

It should be stated that as is the case with most of its peers, Zombi 2 is an incredibly graphic film, so violent in fact that it earned its director the nickname ‘The godfather of gore.’ It contains everything from prolonged scenes of cannibalism, eye puncturing, throats getting ripped out to heads getting bashed in. These scenes of extreme violence is what the film is most fondly remembered for by its avid fans although it is certainly not the only thing the film has going for it, as I will explain in this article.

Zombi 2 follows four Americans, a journalist named Peter West, Anne Bowles and a couple Susan Barett and Brian Hull, who travel to the small island Matul, located in the Antillies to track down Annes’ father, who at the start of the movie has been missing for months. On Matul they encounter Dr. Menard who happens to be the island’s only remaining white man. He explains to his guests that the dead has come back to life to eat the living. From there it’s a pretty standard zombie affair. The four main characters are killed one by one in brutal encounters with the zombies until a few survivors manage to escape after a final siege in an abandoned church.

The film does have several idiosyncrasies that makes it unique compared to its American counterpart, Dawn of the Dead. First and foremost the film’s setting differs wildly from that of Dawn of the Dead or other contemporary American produced zombie films. While the latter usually takes place in an urban environment, Zombi 2 takes place on a remote island complete with long forgotten cemeteries, run down churches and zombie infested bungalows. The zombies are also not white as they are in American zombie films, but instead black natives from the island and conquistadores – the Spanish who in the past came to the Caribbean Islands to colonise islands like Matul. While this idiosyncrasy is not immediately significant, upon further analysis of the film, it becomes one of the more interesting aspects of the film.

See the zombies in Zombi 2 are a direct response to the zombie’s original, racist point of origin. The zombie was in the West introduced as a form of exotic ‘boogey-man’ who was depicted in extremely fictionalised travelogues such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island from 1929. This representation was used as a vindication of white imperialism, as the colonised were seen as pagan sub humans, which justified the complete domination over them.

Some critics of the film have accused it of being racist because of this depiction. These critics state that the zombies in Zombi 2 represent immigrants from other countries coming to the West by posing a similar threat as the zombies – that their culture is incompatible with ours, that they should be seen as violent invaders and that they are naturally hostile towards us.

Another interpretation of the zombies in Zombi 2 is that they represent not immigrants, but the oppressed, colonised native’s weapon against the white invaders. The white protagonists of Zombi 2 are killed with the same violence and gruesome mutilation, which laid the foundation for a dominant, white society, in part built on resources pillaged from colonised countries and natives forced into slave labor.

In other words the film does not take the side of the group of white protagonists fighting against an unknown force of animalistic monsters summoned by the vile and inhuman locals, nor do the zombies represent a racist and irrational fear of foreigners immigrating to the West. Instead, the zombies can be seen as a representation of the discontent shown by the colonised natives towards the West, in a literal sense buried, but not forgotten. Taking this interpretation of the zombies in Zombi 2 a step further, the specific inclusion of a conquistador zombie could represent white guilt back from the past to haunt its forbears.

With this said however, there are several technical aspects inherent to this specific genre that I could imagine would make a film such as Zombi 2 hard to sit through. First of all is the dubbed soundtrack and voice over, meaning that every sound you hear in the movie was added post filming. This was a widespread technique used in exploitation films made outside of the US both because the intended audience was often English-speaking and most of the actors weren’t, and it kept production costs to a minimum. Another issue with the film is that the script was obviously written in Italian, and then hastily translated to English. As a result the dialogue is in general pretty stiff and atrocious.

Whereas the dialogue is bad and the dubbed sound effects are distracting, the rest of the technical aspects of Zombi 2 are an absolute marvel to behold. Most notably are the practical effects used in the film made by special make-up and effect wizard Gianneto De Rosso. Both the zombies themselves and the way in which they kill the protagonists are artistically striking and inventive.

These effects are further enhanced by a unique soundtrack inspired by progressive rock of the 1970’s and a fantastic cinematography which both takes clues from the slasher genre with the a lot of point-of-view camera settings and the spaghetti western genre with its many extreme close-ups of characters’ eyes, smoking gun barrels and open flesh wounds. These factors make Zombi 2 an incredible visual experience, more than a strong narrative story thereby diminishing the importance of the awful dialogue.

While Zombi 2 certainly has its audience, it is a film that is often looked down upon, not being considered to have any cinematic value outside of its initial shock value. However, while the origin and intent of this film is certainly exploitative, the cinematic understanding, memorable scenes, rich thematic nature and unique stylistic choices both in terms of cinematography and music makes it worthwhile of the attention of any fan of cinema, not just gore hounds such as myself. And if that doesn’t sell you, there’s a scene in the film featuring a real life shark fighting off a zombie. That’s right. An actual, god damn shark. Now go watch this piece of cinematic brilliance.

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