Anyone interested in horror movies, particularly those films at the trashier end of the spectrum, must at one time or another have seen, read up on or heard about Lucio Fulci's 1980 horror classic Zombi 2 (or Zombie, or Zombie Flesh Eaters or, well, a whole host of other titles) and the bewildering array of sequels which followed it. While the horror genre is renowned for milking its franchises to death and wringing every last bit of life from a successful film, the saga of the Zombie series demonstrates this practice taken to its logical conclusions.
Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Amytiville Horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street, all these films and many, many others spawned endless, increasingly crummy sequels, which eventually rendered the original films laughable. But the Zombie series of films is probably the most interesting horror franchise of all to examine, purely because it is so fragmentary, so unofficial and so dogged by the cynical marketing ploys of home video companies that it is positively bewildering to contemplate. Let's see if we can untangle its threads and chart the development of this bizarre and schlocky bunch of films.
In 1979, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was released in Europe and became an overnight smash-hit. Zombie 2, which was actually written before George Romero completed Dawn, was released in Europe as an unofficial sequel to Romero's movie. You see, Dawn of the Dead was released in Europe with the title Zombi, so those cagey marketing men in Rome decided to cash in on the success of Dawn by releasing Fulci's outing as Zombi 2 (or Zombie 2. From here on out I'm going to refer to the films using the title Zombie rather than any other variant - there are literally dozens of variations of the titles of all the films in the 'series').
However, something very odd happened to this quickie cash-in: it was a hit at the box office. A huge hit in fact. In Europe Zombie 2 was as successful, if not more so, than Dawn of the Dead, and this isn't as unbelievable as you might imagine.
While most film buffs and movie critics agree that Romero's Dawn of the Dead is a thoughtful allegorical film about American consumerism, the response to Zombie 2 was, and remains, fairly sniffy. The film was lambasted as a generic exploitation flick with very little merit, a criticism which I find unfair.
I mean, any film featuring a scene in which a zombie fights a real-life shark under water deserves at least a modicum of respect, right?
Hell, I got a real kick out of that scene again just finding the YouTube link. But novelty isn't all the film's got going for it. The make-up and gore effects in the movie are so impressive and revolting that it wasn't until as recently as 2005 that the movie was released uncut in the UK. Anyone who has seen the infamous eyeball-meets-splinter scene will doubtless wince at being reminded of it, and the offal-munching scenes and zombie get-ups are superb. Even the soundtrack's great:
Sure, the movie's hampered by bad dubbing, a few logical inconsistencies and occasionally sluggish pacing, but it's no worse than most of the schlock churned out of Hollywood and it's an enjoyable romp, in no way deserving of the critical scorn poured upon it.
Still, no matter. Zombie 2 made money so, naturally, Zombie 3 had to be shot. Although interestingly, here's where the infamously odd and semi-official nature of the Zombie 'series' begins to make itself known. The film released as Zombi 3, directed by Lucio Fulci (in the main) was not released until 1988, - a full 8 years after Zombie 2, which appeared in cinemas in 1980.
In the interim however, two other zombie movies were unleashed which could have been deemed 'sequels' to Fulci's Zombie 2. Zombie Creeping Flesh, while technically not part of the Zombie series, acts as a sort of unofficial prequel to Dawn of the Dead, in that it features four boiler-suited marines who bear more than a little resemblance to those seen at the start of Dawn as the film's main protagonists. It's also a thoroughly inane but harmless movie, noteworthy only for its atrociously bad dubbing, piss-poor humour, anundant stock footage and a brilliant soundtrack by Goblin (although that was half-inched from the film Contamination but, m'eh). It was also directed by one Bruno Mattei, who we'll come back to shortly.
A more serious contender for the dubious honour of following up Fulci's film was Marino Girolami's Zombie Holocaust, which stars Ian McCulloch (the star of Zombie 2) and features Dakkar, who also appeared in Fulci's movie. Jay Slater points out in his brilliant book Eaten Alive! that the producers of Holocaust used Zombie 2 as the template for their film and simply chucked in a few cannibalistic elements to justify the presence of the word 'Holocaust' in the title. According to IMDB, Zombie Holocaust was actually released as Zombie 3 in America before Zombi 3, which was subsequently released in the States with the 'e' absent from the film's title. Confused yet? This 'series' only gets more and more mind-bending in complexity as it goes on.
Anyway, Fulci began filming Zombie 3 in the Phillipines in the latter half of the 1980s with a script written by Claudio Fragasso, who also happened to pen Zombie Creeping Flesh. All was not well however, with Fulci being taken violently ill during the shooting of the film and directorial duties were handed over to Bruno Mattei, the man who brought us Terminator 2 and Jaws 5.
The resulting motion picture is probably (and undeservedly) the most villified of the Zombie films. Sadly, because this is the official sequel to Zombie 2, expectations were high and the hodge-podge turned in by Mattei (but released with Fulci alone credited as director) did not compare favourably with its predecessor. Zombie 3 was not released theatrically outside Italy but was a firm favourite with low-rent video firms, who ensured its notoriety world-wide.
After this embarrassment Fulci ceased to have any involvement with the Zombie films, but this didn't stop a cabal of writers, directors and producers from releasing further installments to cash in on the cult reputation of Zombie 2, which by this point was infamous in the UK and world-wide for being included on the DPP's 'video nasty' list. Indeed, Zombie 3 was let loose in the UK under the title Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, making the most of the UK title of Fulci's original film.
Zombie 3's writer Claudio Fragasso would lens the next in the Zombie series, originally filming his movie under the title After Death. As was only natural, the resulting shambolic mess that Fragasso produced was released on home video in the States and Europe as Zombie 4: After Death, and in the UK as Zombie Flesh Eaters 3, despite the fact that the plot of the film itself has nothing whatsoever to do with the preceding movies. Zombie 4 itself is truly awful, looking like an Iron Maiden music video and boasting the kind of cheesy score that seemed to infest b-productions produced in the '80s. The fact that the film's male lead had a day job as a porn star should tell you what kind of territory the movies were now entering. Logic and good taste were entirely cast aside but thanks again to the series' notoriety, the movie was a financial success on home video, paving the way for Zombie 5.
Zombie 5, as it appeared in the USA, is the strangest and most tangential of all the Zombie series. In actual fact it was shot two years before Zombie 4 with the title Killing Birds. As The Cinema Snob has pointed out, Zombie 5, despite its title, isn't actually a movie about zombies at all: instead it's a god-awful cheapie about a murderer blinded by birds, whose wife returns from the dead to exact revenge on her bloodthirsty husband. (Actually, I should point out that's just my interpretation of the plot - the presence of the movie's 'mummy' creature is never explained in the film itself). This film has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Zombie series but thanks to cynical video companies exploiting the Zombie name it has become canon.
Shockingly enough, a Zombie 6 was released in America after the abomination of Killing Birds. This time a 1981 horror movie starring George Eastman of Anthropophagus and Porno Holocaust fame with the title Rosso Sangue was forced upon unsuspecting movie fans as Zombie 6: Monster Hunter. However, this film is better known as Absurd, the sort-of sequel to Anthropophagus, and has about as much to do with zombies as Casablanca.
This is what I mean about the Zombie series making an interesting cinematic case-study. While Halloween III is probably the most infamous horror sequel to bear no relation to the films preceding it, the diverse and sometimes completely irrelevant Zombie movies make that film look positively proper. The sad thing about the Zombie films is that, bar Zombie 2, they are unwatchable garbage, released purely to cash in on the underground notoriety and name value of Fulci's first movie. Indeed, as with most of the video nasties, had these films not been attached to the Zombie series, they would have long-ago have faded into complete obscurity. But it is now the case that you can purchase a legitimate DVD release of, say, Killing Birds which features extra features such as interviews with the cast. Imagine that: a name-only, crappy 'sequel' to a low-brow horror film is now available to own with more extras on the disc than the original release of (Cameron's, not Mattei's) Terminator 2. Boggles the mind, eh?
So what have we learned here? Well, apart from not to waste our collective time actually watching Zombie 5, the best thing we can take away from the Zombie movies is perhaps this piece of advice I'll offer to aspiring horror directors: shoot your living dead movie on 20-year-old film stock, fart all over it with synths and try to get it released as Zombie 7: Beyond the Grave. Shriek Show are bound to put it out and sad, nerdy horror fans like me will buy it, dissect it, analyse and argue about it, and you'll go down in history along with the likes of Fulci, Mattei, Fragasso and their ilk... Wait, wait! Come back! I was only talking hypothetically...!