ZOMBIE (1979) (2-Disc Ultimate Edition) Blu-ray
Director: Lucio Fulci
Blue Underground

Lucio Fulci, now regarded as the king of Italian splatter, became internationally renowned with the release of ZOMBIE, presented in its homeland as ZOMBI 2 (an unofficial sequel to George Romero's quintessential zombie masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD, whose Italian title was ZOMBI. In England, where it was banned for years, it’s known as ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS). By this time in his career, the controversial director had already dabbled in just about every genre imaginable, but was most successful with a string of giallos which included DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING and A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN. But it was ZOMBIE which put his name on the worldwide map, opening the doors for numerous living dead cash-ins and sequels, many of which the director himself conceived. Probably he best known effort by a country mile, Blue Underground now unleashes the flesh-eating antics of ZOMBIE on Blu-ray in a two-disc special edition that may in fact be THE Halloween release.

A lone sailboat drifts into the Manhattan harbor. As two police officers investigate, they discover a grossly overweight pasty-faced walking corpse who makes a snack out of one the cop’s throat, while the other is able shoot him until his rotund figure plunges back-first into the water. As it turns out, the boat belongs to the father of Anne (Tisa Farrow), who she hasn’t heard from in months. A ballsy British reporter named Peter (nepotism got him the job with a NYC newspaper) uncovers a letter from Anne’s father, as the two team up to travel to the small island of Matoul, near St. Thomas, to find out what happened to dear old dad.

Anne and Peter run into a nice but odd young couple (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay), hiring them to charter their small speedboat to the island. On Matoul, they meet British scientist Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who, while conducting experiments on corpses, has inadvertently resurrected the dead through ancient voodoo rites. After Anne learns of what happened to her father, the island’s population is increasingly overrun by hoards of the undead, as they viciously dismember the living and help themselves to their warm flesh as a means of nourishment.

Although at times slow moving and dully acted (in their defense, most of the supporting cast members had their voices re-dubbed in the post sync), ZOMBIE has its critics who feel its just a blatant rip-off of what Romero did much better. But the film has held the test of time, especially the ever-impressive and still stomach-turning gore effects by Giannetto De Rosi. Looking at his magnificently fabricated throat and neck biting, cranium hacking, exploding heads and eyeball spikings makes today’s listless, embarrassingly overdone CGI gore feel like ordering a processed frozen dinner in a fancy steakhouse by in comparison.

By far, this is not Fulci’s best artistic triumph, but it’s archetypical of the new era of gore films produced in Italy in the 1980s, most of them involving zombies, demons or any other excuse to showcase extreme visceral. If ZOMBIE’s biggest flaws are its pacing (which actually builds up the uncomfortable tension to a rollercoaster-ride fiery climax) and the simplicity of its plot, then its other qualities surely deem it as a masterpiece, one that makes a modern-day cinematic art form out of the grotesque (meaning the exaggerated illustrations in graphic pulp horror comics brought to vivid detail on the big screen). Like many of his films, Fulci shot ZOMBIE in Scope, scenically moving the action from a very late 1970s Manhattan to the beautiful Santo Domingo where most of it was lensed. Almost every shot of the film has a sense of dread and uneasiness for the viewer, and its all taken dead serious despite some unintentionally humorous post dubbing. Like the effects, the zombie make-ups are by large intricate and unsettlingly flawless, and most of the heavily concealed actors convey the walkind dead hauntingly, as they lumber about with their heads down-turned, but able to go in for the kill like an attack dog. The film doesn’t turn away from some gratuitous nudity (Auretta Gay’s almost-naked scuba diving and Greek actress Olga Karlatos’ pre-death shower), and some of the standout scenes include a zombie having a munch battle with a famished Great White underwater and a burial ground of worm-incrusted Conquistadors slowly rising from the dirt to torment our heroes.

Blue Underground is now issuing ZOMBIE on Blu-ray (along with a coinciding standard 2-DVD set on the same date) in a new 2K High Definition transfer from the original uncut and uncensored camera negative. In 1080p HD resolution, the film has been presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and BU reports that every “flesh-eating” frame has been lovingly restored under the supervision of original cinematographer Sergio Salvati. It certainly shows, as ZOMBIE looks incredible and needless to say, miles better than all previous DVD releases. The levels of detail are astounding (especially during close-ups on actors’ faces), and colors (especially those picturesque blue skies and bodies of water, as well as the deep crimson stuff) are impeccable. Sequences such as the infamous underwater shark bit now can be viewed as a revelation, and since most of the island scenes aren’t specific to their era, ZOMBIE in most cases looks like it could have been shot last week. Audio tracks include English 7.1 DTS-HD; 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX and the original mono, with all three options also available for the Italian language version (the film was largely shot in English with at least McCulloch, Farrow and Johnson dubbing their own voices). Like the visual aspect, all audio options for this release sound terrific, with sound effects, music and dialogue all standing out, and optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Deutsch, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai (since this is an all-region release, assumedly Blue Underground wants to market it to a very wide audience).

Extras on Disc One include an audio commentary with star Ian McCulloch, moderated by Jay Slater, which has been ported from the original Anchor Bay DVD. Although the commentary is at least a decade old, it’s still interesting to listen to as McCulloch talks about getting the role in ZOMBIE after appearing on the cult BBC sci-fi series “Survivors”, shares anecdotes about being on location in NYC and Santo Domingo, working with Fulci and his co-stars, as well as discussing some of his other Italian horrors (ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, CONTAMINATION). The original Jerry Gross American trailer (which offered patrons airline barf bags just in case), an international trailer, two TV spots, four radio spots and a massive 9-minute photo gallery (featuring practically every poster and video cover known, and much, much more) round out the supplements on the first disc. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is also on hand to do a brief on-screen introduction.

Moving on two Disc Two, there are some excellent new interview featurettes presented in HD (in fact, all of the supplements are in HD except for the two TV spots). “Zombie Wasteland” (22:19) contains interviews with stars Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver and actor/stuntman Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (he played the film’s notorious worm-eyed zombie seen on the U.S. posters, as well as this video cover). The interviews were conducted when the four (who've all aged quite gracefully) were reunited for Ohio’s Cinema Wasteland convention, as part of a 30th anniversary celebration of Fulci’s classic. All four are on hand for sit-down interviews, as well as being seen mingling and signing autographs for devoted fans. Out of the four, only McCulloch seems bewildered by the film’s popularity, but still has a good sense of humor about things (even exclaiming how he thought Fulci resembled Benny Hill). Johnson, Cliver and Dell’Acqua have definitely embraced their association with ZOMBIE, especially the latter who willingly throws on a rubber mask replica of his poster boy ghoul character to pose for photos. “Flesh Eaters on Film” (9:38) is an interview with co-producer Fabrizio De Angelis who discusses his affable working relationship with Fulci (while other producers couldn’t stand him), shooting scenes in NYC without permits and a failed lawsuit brought on by Dario Argento (who was responsible for bringing DAWN OF THE DEAD to Italian audiences). “Deadtime Stories” (14:38) includes interviews with co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, who was uncredited. Both seem very satisfied by how Fulci transformed their script into a worldwide cult phenomenon, and have great admiration for the technical crew who could create so much out of so little. “World of the Dead” (16:29) has cinematographer Sergio Salvati and production and costume designer Walter Patriarca. Salvati talks about his skillful approach to shooting the film of using “brutal” lighting to make the zombies appear even uglier, and Patriarca discusses creating the zombies’ costumes, as well as the designing and constructing of the church mission house, one of the film’s central settings. “Zombi Italiano” (16:34) has interviews with special make-up effects artists Gianetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani, as well as special effects artist Gino De Rossi. Here, everything from the zombie make-ups to the frequent gore (including the intestine munching and infamous eyeball mutilation) is touched upon. “Notes on a Headstone” (7:25) has composer Fabio Frizzi mentioning how important the function of music is to a film (his busy synth score truly provides a mood of apocalyptic doom) and describes Fulci as a man of passion, deeming ZOMBIE as his best film. “All in the Family” (6:08) is an interview with Fulci’s daughter Antonella, who gives us some insight about her late dad and also maintains that ZOMBIE is his best film. “Zombie Lover” (9:36) has filmmaker Guillermo del Toro telling us how he saw ZOMBIE (one of his favorites) in a movie palace in Mexico City as a kid, and he gleefully dissects it from there. He is also proud that the underwater shark scene was shot in his home country of Mexico, and that the scene’s stuntman (Ramón Bravo) was in fact Mexican. An Easter Egg on this disc has further interview footage with Maurizio Trani, relaying an anecdote about how Auretta Gay almost drowned during her scuba diving scene, with her co-stars coming to her quick rescue!

Although fans who have the previous Media Blasters DVD of ZOMBIE may want to hold on to it for its different set of supplements, the Blue Underground release is a an absolute treasure with its faultless visual and audio presentation, as well as some remarkable interviews which truly show how the Italians love their craft. It’s definitely a Blu-ray worth picking up so you can show off how good 30+ year-old low budget gore films can look, and usher in the Halloween season properly! (George R. Reis)