Zombie Holocaust Review
Girolami’s savage copycat may be lurid and bloodthirsty, but it has no heart or conviction, no suspense or style
Extreme vintage violence gets a hi-def reprieve from Shriek Show and Media Blasters in this US Blu-ray of Zombie Holocaust. But does it still bring home the bacon?
George Romero opened the blood-gates to zombie horror in 1968 when he unleashed Night Of The Living Dead upon an unsuspecting world. Little did he know that he would be responsible for creating an entire sub-genre that would be dedicated to the flesh-eating antics of shuffling dead-heads. But it was possibly Jorge Grau and his Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (BD reviewed separately) from 1974 that informed the veritable deluge of blood-spewing cognoscenti that would splat and splash against cinema screens and, most essentially, the more imtimate home screens that were the province of the Video Nasty.
But whilst there were plenty of the pasty-faced undead hell-bent on chewing latex off shrieking cast-members and bobbling-about quite uselessly in the gun-sights of the heroes, there was also a contingent of the living who longed to dine from the same messy table. These, of course, were the cannibal cousins of the zombies … and a grim lot they were too. Only happy when gathered around some hapless cretin who had strayed into their patch of jungle, this mob would usually be composed of bowel-headed immigrants acting as one jibber-jabbering unit under the heavily orchestrated command of a director who, himself, was under no illusion that he was creating anything that resembled high art. In fact, even when it came to the grindhouse shovel-pits of grubby excess, the cannibal movie was at the bottom of the food-chain. Umberto Lenzi had kicked things off in 1972 with Deep River Savages, which was like a cannibal variant on A Man Called Horse, and he would return to the back of beyond for more depravities in the cult-favourite Cannibal Ferox (Make The Die Slowly) that emptied audience stomachs 1981. Ruggero Deodato hit upon the now de-rigeur idea of creating a fake documentary approach in 1979's incredibly gruelling Cannibal Holocaust, turning out what was actually a very effective and extremely good film as a result. And along the way, we'd also have Antonio Margheriti's flesh-addicted Vietnam-vets on the rampage saga, Cannibal Apocalypse, in 1980, and Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach in Sergio Martino's really rather naff Prisoner Of The Cannibal God in 1978. At the same time as this visceral explosion in lost tribe antics, the zombie film became exploitation gold with flesh-eating ghouls lurching about almost everywhere you looked. It seemed a cinch that someone would eventually get around to combining the two genres together.
And so Marino Girolami’s infamous Zombie Holocaust, a definite offshoot of this unholy coupling, was born in blood.
Yet, despite its gorehound-snagging title, this little ode to gratuitous medical malpractice is not your typical run-of-the-mill zombie-slogger. This really has much more in common with the cannibal offal-guzzling excesses of Umberto Lenzi and Rogero Deodata than it does with Romero or Fulci. Romero was the catalyst of the graphic form that we came to know and love, but Fulci was the proprietor of the really down and dirty. It was he who showed how this sort of thing should be done. He who raided abattoirs and worm-farms to illustrate how both the grievously explicit wounds, and those who tended to inflict them, should look. The “cannibal” and the “zombie” exploitation flicks became synonymous during this period with shock and outrage, but the single common denominator, the currency that was profoundly bankable to both, was the extremely visceral carnage on lingering display. You knew what you'd get if the either of the words Zombie or Cannibal appeared on a movie's poster.
The plot of Zombie Holocaust is largely irrelevant and does not require any, ahem, narrative dissection. It begins in one direction and then catapults itself in another, but its real excuse for existence is to show audiences innumerable scenes of highly gratuitous super-violence. Which, for this type of thing, is just what the doctor ordered.
Nasty deeds are being committed in a New York hospital. As with Tyburn’s gleefully sadistic and ambitious Scream And Scream Again (1970), patients are having bits of their bodies hacked-off and made away with. But unlike Gordon Hessler’s vampirical guilty pleasure, these bedridden victims aren’t waking up in any fit state to complain about it. There appears to be some sort of underground cannibal cult at work in the Big Apple, practising its despicable cravings upon those unfortunately bedridden and unable to escape their clutches. When evidence points towards the cult's origins on the East Indian island of Moluccas, grumbling medical investigator Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch) and the hospital's alluring Dr. Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) lead an expedition out there to expose its dreadful secrets. But, once on the island, they find themselves caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. On one side, they've got the cannibal tribe, themselves, to worry about. Over on the other, there's a gaggle of pizza-faced, chisel-toothed zombies on the prowl. And somewhere in the middle of the ensuing bloodbath, there's the sadistic Dr. Obrero (Donald O' Brien), who has a habit of opening-up people's heads and conducting some very unorthodox experiments with what he finds inside. Pretty soon, the island is awash with gore as the party is whittled-down, one by one, by the greedy munchers and only Chandler and Ridgeway are left to carry on the fight and escape from the slaughter. If they can.
The film quite intentionally riffs on Fulci’s first, and greatest zombie epic from 1979, and is at pains to create not only a similar setting but also the look of the older sets. They shot some material in New York, though mainly in Italy, but found coastal regions that had palm trees – the clear intention being to mimic Lucio Fulci's location work in the Caribbean, but there was no way that their funds could allow such a trip. They even use some footage from Fulci's Flesh Eaters – check out the jeep drive through the shanty-town that cuts to a closer shot of the new cast inside the vehicle. Suddenly Tisa Farrow and Al Cliver vanish, and the steering-wheel jumps to the other side! The ominous pulsating synth-score from Nico Fidenco is also a considered variation upon Fabio Frizzi's cult themes for Fulci, even down to the exotic tribal elements. Fidenco had previously scored a number of the Emanuelle films, one of which was the rather apt Emanuelle And The Lost Cannibals (1977) for Joe D'Amato. Donald O’ Brien’s sinister quack is clearly modelled upon Richard Johnson’s estranged and maniacally driven island medico in Zombie Flesh Eaters, although he is a much nastier incarnation who is not as willing to reverse the situation he has initiated as he is to perpetuate it. We even visit the same dilapidated hospital that was festooned with the living dead in Flesh Eaters, a place in which the obsessed Obrero is determined to tap into a consciousness that exists after death, seemingly in order to create a shambling, monstrous parody of life for, well, no valid reason at all, really. There are shades of Dr. Moreau at play here, too, but the screenplay by Romano Scanariato does not concern itself with much of the moral dilemma of Man's quest for forbidden knowledge. Mad scientist = bad guy, that's all we need to know. The bad doctor's ethics and his desire to find a way to prolong life for many at the expense of a few reluctant guinea-pigs doesn't smack of anything other than a handy expositional excuse to permit him to hack out a girl's vocal chords so that she can't complain when he then cuts into her skull with a bone-saw. We all know of Romero's socio-cultural statements amid the exploding heads, but even Fulci's films had a level of subtext and deeper meaning that it would, at first glance, appear. Scanariato and Girolami have no such aspirations, of course.
I can recall the first time that I saw Zombie Holocaust uncut, under the alternative title of Doctor Butcher MD (standing rather magnificently for Medical Deviate), and being blown away by the amount of extra gore it contained. All of a sudden that childish delight at seeing something taboo and utterly uncensored became acute and delicious. The UK cassette was a sanitised Cbeebies travesty by comparison. There were scenes in that print that are not present in this cut, scenes that were used to pad out the film for the foreign markets – most notably an action sequence involving our two leads and deadly pit-trap in the jungle. This lengthy sequence can be viewed as an extra feature on the disc. It doesn't really fit in the rest of the film, with some sparsely wooded Italian forest standing in for the slightly more lush jungle environment seen elsewhere. But, in a cruel irony, the film now seems quite weak and inoffensive, despite its full-frontal violence and scenes of nudity. It just doesn’t have the bite that the true classics of the “Nasty” are still proudly able to extol. And yet this was one of the most sought after titles during that crazy period in media witch-hunting. Even in the States, where the original cassette was quite widely available in its unrated form, the film gained some notoriety. Of course, this isn't just one film, though. There's two distinctly different stories going on under the catchy, crowd-drawing heading of Zombie Holocaust (or Zombi Holocaust, as it was originally monikered to cash-in on Fulci's Zombi) and part of the story behind this revolves around some enterprising exploitation producer/marketer called Terry Levine who dusted-off the obscure and poorly received Queen Of The Cannibals and combined it with material from an uncompleted student film entitled “Tales That Will Rip Your Heart Out” to revamp, bolster and em-bloody the exploits of one “Doctor Butcher MD” into the zombie-crossover that we have now. Confused? Well, this was something of a common practise back then. Badly mismanaged foreign films or low budget independent quickies that couldn't find a release were routinely chopped-about, spliced together, retitled, re-badged and had lurid crowd-snaring trailers made (often boasting footage that didn't exist in any of the parent movies) by such entrepreneurial opportunists as Levine in the hope of getting them sold and distributed … and hopefully making some money back. In this case only a handful of shots actually link the two films, and the resulting edit is known as both Doctor Butcher MD and Zombie Holocaust.
Our own Ian McCulloch, making a break from TV’s Take The High Road, had already leapt to the gut-strewn studios of Italy’s premier purveyors of extreme exploitation when he made Zombie Flesh Eaters for Fulci. After which he would head to yet more dangerous jungles, both natural and urban, for Girolami in this by-the-numbers addendum to the cycle of intestinal-flinging. He then trod water in the dross of the shameless Alien-rip, Contamination, for Luigi Cozzi, before making the return trip to British television. But he’s not alone in reliving Fulci’s island of zombie-bashing. We also get to meet nervous guide Dakar again, who seems to been passed from one deranged doctor to another, and now serves Obrero’s skull-slicing nutter with the same devotion that he did for Johnson's face-nibbled Dr. Maynard. In fact, here, he is totally in cahoots with the clearly insane experiments being conducted in that little outback shack that we all know is going to go up in flames at some point. (It has to, we've already seen it burn down once before!) McCulloch really doesn't offer much of worth as the roving investigator who gets a fair bit more than he bargained for on this ill-fated exclusive. To all intents and purposes he is simply playing the same guy from Zombie Flesh Eaters, only this time, besides sporting a safari suit that Roger Moore would kill for, he has the unbelievably sexy Alexandra Delli Colli to keep him company, when he isn't awaiting some unpleasant and unwanted brain-surgery that is. Colli, who was so incredibly horny as the closet nymphomaniac in Fulci's The New York Ripper (see BD review) is even more ravishing here, and she is certainly a lot more attractive than Tisa Farrow, who journeyed with him to see her doomed father on his living dead-infested island hideaway previously. She's a better actress too. And she certainly doesn't seem to mind getting her kit off either. One protracted sequence has her full-frontal nude, painted with tribal flowers and worshipped as a goddess by the cannibals. Personally, I can't blame them … I've given some thought to eating her, myself! But these scenes,which harken back to earlier cannibal oddities of the seventies, and as arousing as they are, just derail the story even further The actress, who was married to the great Italian cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon A Time In The West) until his death in 2005 is probably the greatest proof of the acclaimed DOP's exacting visual flair. Basically, he knew a good thing when he saw it!
A great champion of the sleazy gore-flick, critic and uber-fan Chas Balun (now deceased), cited Zombie Holocaust as one of his all-time favourites. His passion for this ripe, but somehow un-troubling entry in the annals of unlucky evisceration is infectious … but unconvincing. Personally, I couldn’t wait to see this again with its hi-def debut, after a good many years of leaving its uncut version to gather dust on the shelf, but bloody rose-tinted goggles produced an anticipation in me that the film was simply not worthy of. A slew of release postponements from Shriek Show didn’t help with this unfulfilled expectation, I should add. But somehow the film has lost an enormous amount of its once-vaunted grimness and infamy. Those on the lookout for a zombie spectacular will be sorely disappointed. The undead are hardly even in the film. Girolami shuffles them through the foliage where they simply stand and stare, and groan and gasp with their dead lungs until the intestinal-guzzling cannibals, who are the real stars of the show, stop their gut-fondling and flee from them in awe and terror.
Now Girolami isn’t delivering any great message about the collapse of society a la Romero or, perhaps more crucially, Deodato with his grungy classic Cannibal Holocaust (which is getting a revamped re-release from which the director is apparently removing all of the real-life animal cruelty), he just wants to cut loose with a fan-pleasing cavalcade of carnage. There’s no metaphor to do with the cannibals and their devouring of modern culture. No statement against vivisection or the misappropriation of medical ethics. It’s just a man playing God … with cannibals and zombies acting as a colourful diversion to his demented dabblings. Girolami wants to show people getting torn to pieces and horribly mutilated … just for the sheer giddy spectacle of it. And, on a major plus note, he has no desire to show any animal killings, whether real or simulated. Given the era in which he made the film, and the subject matter and its associated turf, this is a definite feather in his cap.
The safety of the local wildlife notwithstanding, the shock-effects are the primary reason why you come to this. And, to be honest, they’re not that bad in their energetic and colourful depiction, if a little on the juvenile side. We have the usual, and quite amusing yanking-out of entrails that seem to have strategically heaped on top of the torso just beneath the shirt, but we also have some highly gruesome eyeball-plucking violence that makes up for its fakery with a ferociously unrepentant one-take glee. Limb-loppings are happily doled-out. There’s a machete plunged deep into a skull in one of the film’s celebrated poster-images. One poor unfortunate gets himself impaled on a booby-trapped wall of punji-spikes, his wriggling contortions of agony exacerbated all the more by the attentions of a swarm of viciously armed and extremely hungry cannibals who fall upon him with voracious gusto, drink the arterial spray from his slashed throat and then commence to devour this human kebab. In fact, anyone who falls prey to this stereotypical tribe of blank-faced gut-munchers ends-up suffering a similarly impromptu fate and becomes an outdoor smorgasbord of raw picnic. Cast members are either buried up to their heads in pits whilst the painted, near naked extras merrily chow-down on the prosthetic facsimiles of their bodies. Tom Savini had pretty much pioneered this sort of stunt for the disembowelled bikers in Dawn Of The Dead, and for Kevin Bacon's demise in Friday The 13th, and makeup man Maurizio Trani now gets stuck in to the same thing with even more livid, yet perhaps less believable abandon. The silliest thing about these moments is that some of them occur during action scenes when the cannibals are being shot at. They must literally be thinking “Ignore bullets. Eat victim!” And, I suppose, in this way they adhere to the more traditional zombie standard of unthinking gluttony … certainly more than the ghouls, themselves, do. One particularly memorable scene has McCulloch plunge a spinning outboard motor into an approaching zombie's face, literally blending its noggin to a pulp. We get to see some cranial exploration courtesy of the mad surgeon –although a more precisely performed side helping of splatter than the free-for-all gastro-parties seen elsewhere, this is much less satisfying. Even Hammer did more explicit work in the lurid Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1974) under the guiding hands of Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher. And one wild and violent stunt goes hysterically wrong when the dummy that is standing-in for a cannibal cultist (well falling-in, I should say) hits the deck several stories below the hospital window that the character has leapt out of only to have its plastic arm break very noticeably away from its body. Cut to the shocked onlookers rushing to the scene and we find the actor lying there in a pool of blood, with both real arms still attached! Honestly, it's a hoot.
At the end of the day, Zombie Holocaust or Doctor Butcher MD, if you prefer, misses that coveted blood-junkie’s medallion by quite some way. It shows a considerable lack of genuine tension or fear, and doesn’t present any explicit gore that acts upon the viewer with a properly primal degree of shuddering revulsion, unlike the other cannibal or zombie classics. Despite the manner in which the film was marketed and hyped – they plugged the mad doctor in a way that suggested a sort of serial killer flick and then made a meal of the zombies in all the promotional material – this is not what many people expected, and although it is probably more interesting than, say, Bruno Mattei's Zombie Creeping Flesh or the various other instalments of gut-spilling Romero rip-offery, it still falls far short of hitting that tender gore-spot. It is still wonderful to see something like this get a hi-def makeover, and the fact that Girolami’s ultra-low-budget stomach-churner gets a new lease of life because of it, is something to applaud. Older aficionados may find things to feel nostalgic over, what with its copious entrails being pulled from under shirts and eyeballs plucked from sockets, and with its flagrant baring of leading lady flesh, but this quickly becomes the bloody equivalent of celluloid wallpaper. You don’t give a monkey’s about any of the characters. The zombies are utterly rubbish, and there's only a four or five of them. The cannibals don’t produce any scares no matter what appalling degradations they commit upon the cast. The gore is splashy and fun, but also completely unconvincing and nowhere near as shocking as it may once have seemed to appear. The blame for all this is the tension-sapping direction of Girolami, who mishandles every scene of atrocity until the film becomes something of a repetitively tame, yawn-inducing matinee that you could potentially watch only as a dry warm-up for Cannibal Ferox or Zombie Flesh Eaters, but will have forgotten about ten minutes into either.
As you all know by now, I love these grungy exploitational masterpieces of gore and sleaze. But whilst I can happily wax lyrical about the maggot-filled Spaghetti splatter of Dawn Of The Mummy, House By The Cemetery and City Of The Living Dead, the raw gut-spillage of Burial Ground, Cannibal Holocaust or Anthropophagus Beast and the gasp-inducing hack ’n’ slash of The New York Ripper, Nightmares In A Damaged Brain and The Burning, such low-rent and visibly lacking imagination as witnessed in Zombie Holocaust falls too obviously beneath the bloody benchmark. Girolami’s savage copycat may be lurid and bloodthirsty, but it has no heart or conviction, no suspense or style whatsoever. In fact, if I'm honest, it is not even gory enough! It wastes time with lesser slayings and neglects the one vital murder that we all want to see in icky, well-deserved glory come the finale. The lingering menace of the zombies of the title reveals them to be an utterly useless mob and, worse still, a redundant element of a slapdash plot. The cannibals, as nasty as they are, are also quite boring and pathetic. There is absolutely no excitement or fear generated and the whole affair feels lame and belaboured without any sense of momentum or point.
The film still has lots of notoriety though, what with its various versions floating about (such as international tapes and a Japanese Laserdisc, all containing differing material), and the trouble that it got into in the UK – it was never actually banned, but even its heavily censored form was strong enough to ensure that copies of it removed from shelves during the great purge – and the fact that it hails from this illustrious period of “anything goes-style” carnage. Despite my misgivings, I'm still fond of the film – but then I'm fond of practically all of these exploitational gut-munching escapades, so that really isn't saying too much. But casual fans, or those intrigued by cult mythos that surrounds such maligned titles, should bear in mind that there are much, much better examples from this bloodthirsty period out there.
Folks, the packaging for this combo-pack states that the film is Region A-coded. It will, in fact, play on a UK machine as well.