e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
1979, Dir. Mario Girolani
Zombie Holocaust. How does one even go about describing a movie this inane? Well for starters there is no holocaust in this film and there are very few zombies. In a classic "it sounded good at the time" idea, the makers of Zombie Holocaust decided to emulate both Lucio Fulci's Zombie and the cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. So do these two great tastes taste great together? Well no, or at least not in the hands of Marino Girolami. Instead of the Reese's peanut butter cup of Italian genre cinema we get an ultra low budget hackjob that slavishly imitates rather than builds upon or subverts its forebears. The acting is terrible, the dialogue laughable at best, and the gore is amateurish. All of which combines for a cinematic viewing experience that is, of course, breathtaking.
To say that Zombie Holocaust's influences are apparent is like saying that Brian Lumley is a mild fan of H.P. Lovecraft. It follows the narrative pattern established by the films of the previously mentioned directors in which we begin with strange events in New York that necessitate an expedition to a remote island. On said island, the expedition team is whittled down to a survivor or two who manage to escape. There are nods to Lenzi's Eaten Alive and a gore effect lifted from Dawn of the Dead, but the film steals most heavily from Fulci's Zombie. At times you may even wonder if theyíre using discarded footage, especially during exterior sequences involving a very familiar jeep and an even more familiar rickety old building. The presence of actors Ian McCulloch and Dakkar in roles that are practically identical to their Zombie incarnations cements the connection.
The key word for this flick is unimaginative; it can be applied to just about everything from camerawork and music to acting and dialogue. Girolami's camera is static and the shot composition is drab throughout the film. But there is one (1) shot that struck me as being intelligently composed and it occurs as the men keep watch at night in the jungles of Kito. The shot encompasses the clearing in which the team has pitched their tent. Chandler (McCulloch) stands near the tent, his central position indicating his leadership. His assistant George (Peter O'Neal) crouches at the periphery of the clearing and is aligned with the jungle by his green jacket. Moloto (Dakkar) stands on the other side of the clearing, his shadowy intentions underscored by the darkness of the jungle behind him. But that's it: just one shot in this ninety minute film where they gave some thought to composition and use of color.
So now that I've gotten that film school bullshit out of the way, let's get back to outright mockery. The music is typical of the Goblin ripoffs of this era in that it's downright awful. The same shock note is used at least two dozen times in conjunction with things that aren't even too shocking to begin with, somehow making them even less shocking. The rest is your typical synthesizer bleating and whining that makes everything sound like it was filmed next to a video arcade.
Much has been said about the character of Dr. Lori Ridgeway, played by the voluptuous Alexandra Delli Colli. Dr. Ridgeway holds two advanced degrees, one in medicine and one in anthropology. Now I'm not going to say that an attractive woman can't also be intelligent, so let's just say that neither Delli Colli nor the film she's in does any work to convince us otherwise. She is used primarily for gratuitous cheesecake scenes and uncorks [sarcasm] very intelligent lines [/sarcasm] such as "all primitive cultures practiced cannibalism, without exception."
The main reason I would suggest watching Zombi Holocaust is for the wonderfully overwrought performance of Donald O'Brien as the mad scientist Dr. Obrero. In Zombie we had our doubts about Dr. Menard but there's no two ways about Obrero: this guy is one hundred percent stark raving shithouse mad. And he's mean about it too; picture Dr. Moreau as played by Harvey Keitel and youíve got Obrero. His dialogue is totally goofy and insane, even when compared to other mad scientist speeches. Take for example lines like "patientís screams disturbing me, performed removal of vocal cords!" and the all-time classic "I could easily kill you now, but I'm determined to have your brain!!"
Another key word here is "impoverished." This shows up most obviously in the haphazard gore effects. For example, cannibal feeding frenzies are marked by obvious bulges in shirts that have been stuffed with prop meat. Zombie Holocaust features perhaps the most hysterical dummy fall of all time simply because of what happens upon impact. The fact that it remains in the finished film is mind boggling and I'd hate to ruin it for you. Also, at some point in the film they must have run out of money for native extras. All of our cannibal natives are Asiatic in appearance, but the scene in which they worship the goofily painted Lori features several conspicuous caucasians. While the legitimate looking natives chatter and look vaguely interested in what's going on the white guys seem to be discussing yesterday's soccer match - it's a hysterical moment (watch it in slo-mo).
The zombies of this flick are of that curious breed that has only decomposed above the neck. While most of this type at least try to cover up their lack of rot with, say, Nazi soldier uniforms, these shirtless zoms are quite brazen about their intactness. I guess the fact that Obrero operates on the heads of his victims is supposed to account for this, but it's a stretch. Some of the designs are interesting, especially the one that looks like a dog.
Zombie Holocaust is a clear indication of how quickly the Italian gut-munching subgenre became creatively bankrupt. But that's not to say that it's completely without merit. OK, so it is completely without merit. It doesn't have the bizarre atmosphere of Andrea Bianchiís Burial Ground nor does it have the visceral nihilism of Zombie, but as far as beer and pizza movies go, this one is just about as good as it gets. You have a ridiculous story, overwrought performances, ludicrous makeup and effects, and the guys in the crowd get to check out an oft-nude Alexandra Delli Colli. So check your brains at the door, lest they be munched upon by Zombie Holocaust.
One final note on interpreting this film: watch it in conjunction with Zombie and pay close attention to the characters played by Ian McCulloch (Peter West in Z, Peter Chandler in ZH). ZH is clearly a Donnie Darko-esque alternative universe imagined by Peter West in which he gets to be a dynamic action hero. The lowly reporter has turned into his own boss who can just up and organize expeditions to exotic islands. His female counterpart is upgraded from the mousy Tisa Farrow into Delli Colli and he gets a nemesis in Dr. Obrero. Where Peter West had to share and sometimes concede alpha male status to Brian, Chandler is always in charge and even has a flunky in George. He gets to engage in action hero-type exploits like being captured and drugged only to make a daring last-minute escape, and even wears a goofy jungle adventure outfit.
I think Iím going to have to give Donnie Darko a rest for a while.