Like unicorns, the Italian Zombie movie is a wondrous, magical amalgam that has no basis in reality. Like most magical things, they came from the ‘80s in a vortex of ambition, deception, cheapness, and pure creative insanity. Though far, far, far from the best of those movies, Zombi 3‘s fascinating production history and schizophrenic plot make it stand out from even this ludicrous pack. Zombi 3 falls into the loving tradition of the Italian faux sequel, where the production company took completely unrelated knock-offs and brazenly marketed them as direct sequels to popular movies.
The ‘Zombi series’ is one of the most interesting examples. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the well from which all Italian Zombie movies spring, was re-cut and released in Italy as Zombi. Enormously popular, it was immediately followed by Zombi 2, a film directed by Lucio Fulci which had no direct connection with Romero’s movie (although, my personal theory, which makes complete sense, is that it is actually the immediate prequel to ‘Dawn’). In turn, Zombi 2 (aka Zombie in the States, Zombie Flesh Eaters in the U.K.) was a great success and spawned an expanding line of sequels, each ever more tenuously connected than the last. Zombie 5: Killing Birds isn’t even about zombies. Come to think of it, there aren’t that many killer birds in there, either. I’m not really sure what its deal is.
The steady decline in quality takes a severely steep plunge with Zombi 3, the only film in the series to have a returning director, sort of. Lucio Fulci is credited as the director, and since Zombi 2 is widely considered the best of the Italian batch, this seems promising. Fulci, however, in failing health and cheated out of the resources he was promised, filmed only about an hour’s worth of footage before calling it a wrap and getting the hell out of the Philippines. Producers were furious and got Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso to re-shoot and finish the film. While Fulci is a master of Italian horror and suspense who brought us classic horror flicks such as The Beyond and Don’t Torture a Duckling, Mattei’s speciality is fun trash like Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror, and Fragasso, made, uh, Troll 2. Consequently, Zombi 3 ends up a stunningly uneven Frankenstein creation, if Frankenstein had built his monster from scraps in a condemned Philippines butcher shop while on a three day meth bender.
The story (as much as I can understand) begins in a secret American medical facility in the tropics that closely resembles an unused power station. Dr. Holder (Robert Marius, uncredited) is having disappointing results with his unfortunately named re-animation serum, Death One. He shuts down the experiment when his test cadaver’s face explodes, but before he can hand off Death One to the military, the facility is attacked by a gang of terrorists (I’m guessing) and the sample is stolen. During the bungled heist, a nearby town is exposed to the zombifying junk and soon the whole region is crawling with disgusting, fungus-faced undead. As the epidemic grows, the scientists desperately search for a cure by staring at a Dry Erase board with “Death One” written on it, while General Morton (Mike Monty, also uncredited) enacts the classic military strategy of murdering everyone in sight. Amidst the chaos, a group of off-duty soldiers and an RV full of students (maybe?) struggle to stay one step ahead of both the zombie hoard and decontamination death squads.
It won’t come as a big surprise to learn that this movie is a disaster on almost every level. Given how cheaply it was made (the production values make Zombi 2 look like Lawrence of Arabia), I doubt Lucio’s original version would have been any better. The three-way director mash up, though, turns this into a truly astonishing cinematic train wreck. The first casualty is continuity. When the infection starts, everything in the unnamed Asian city is functioning normally. A couple of scenes later, cobwebs are everywhere, the jungle has overtaken the buildings, and everyone other than our group of witless heroes have turned zombie. You would think the movie had skipped ahead six months, but thanks to the radio DJ voice-over, we know it’s only been a couple of hours. This is because Mattei and Fragasso could only get three of Fulci’s original cast to return for the re-shoots, so they had to get inventive. They created The Crazies inspired military containment subplot from scratch and shoehorned it into Fulci’s simpler survivors-on-the-run story. It is a miracle the footage matches up as well as it does.
The zombies themselves make even less sense. Their oozy green faces provide an interestingly organic look, like their flesh is sporting colonies of algae. It seems both appropriate for the hot and muggy environment and, more importantly, super gross. Behavior-wise, they are all over the map; slow and shambling one minute, jumping around like rabid maniacs the next. There are numerous instances of them leaping from the rafters, ninja-style. Sometimes they tear out people’s intestines with one swipe, other times they ineffectively try to strangle their prey. There’s even one random machete-wielding zombie. Most ghouls are unintelligent murder machines, but a few con talk for some reason (like when they need to steal another ROTLD setup). One is even an eloquent motivational speaker.
The movie mostly sticks to the pseudo-science explanation of reanimation due to virus/bacteria/radiation (take your pick, Death One is described as all three at different points). That doesn’t stop it from going batshit crazy from time to time. In one of the notorious highlights, a hapless survivor opens a refrigerator and is surprised when a decapitated head leaps out (as heads do) and latches onto the poor schmuck’s neck. Not only that, it continues to bounce up and down on the victim, as if exclaiming, “Take that, physics!”
The strangest thing, however, is that despite the low-rent effects, ridiculous plot, and stilted acting, the movie is still kind of effective as a horror. It’s not scary in the traditional sense, but it nails the feeling of desperation. Like Lamberto Bava’s vastly superior Demons, the group of survivors are outnumbered, are constantly picked-off, and never given a moment’s rest. The group’s collective stupidity actually adds to the tension because you know they will never do anything that might work. One scene has them boarding up the doors of an abandoned building to keep out the zombie hoards — classic zombie flick move, except there are no actual doors to board up. They just nail boards together into a rickety latticework that the zombies knock over the second they touch it. Not that doors would have made much of a difference, since all the walls are made of thatch. It’s like being separated from a hungry lion by a protective screen of cellophane. There is never a sense of safety or a moment of reprieve, unless it’s to set up an even worse situation.
Setting most of the action in real, overgrown, decaying buildings (the same ones used in Apocalypse Now, in fact) helps give the movie an unsettling feel, despite all the goofiness. My favorite location was an old hotel (?) with a huge, murky pool instead of a courtyard. This is not the kind of water you would ever want to go into, even without the threat of zombies lurking below the surface. It looks unsafe all on its own, so when a fleeing couple are forced to jump into it (a couple of times), every second they are swimming is anxiety inducing. It felt like the actors were actually in danger, of dysentery if nothing else.
I have to admit that, though I have seen this film several times, I can never remember who any of the major characters are. Asides from the overly dramatic doctor and the callous general from the beginning, all the besieged survivors are so bland as to be indistinguishable from each other. They can be broken into subgroups, like the soldiers, the RV girls, the dorks, that girl who just showed up later, but none of them stand out. Oddly, this works too, because it evokes the old drive-in adage; anyone can die at any time. This makes Zombi 3 the perfect rewatch. You can’t guess who the survivors will be, or remember them after the credits roll. It’s like seeing Alien for the first time, but every time.
Incidentally, despite having well over a dozen major characters and even more secondary characters, the credits only lists EIGHT people in total. Not even the filmmakers could remember who was in this movie it seems.