Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Tonight, the dead shall rise again

In New York, body parts are going missing from a morgue. It is discovered that one of the hospital orderlies, a member of a cannibal tribe from a small island in the East Indies, is responsible. Anthropologist Lori Ridgway recognises the name of the island and, along with fellow expert Dr Peter Chandler, his assistant George and news reporter Susan, they head off on an expedition to track down the cannibals. However when they arrive on the island, cannibals are not the only problem that they face as a rogue doctor has been experimenting on the dead.

 

Zombies! Cannibals! Mad doctors performing unnecessary surgery! Zombie Holocaust has it all. Coming hot on the heels of the successes (and notoriety) of Italian cannibal films (most famously represented by Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust) and zombie films (Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters), a producer clearly had a quick brain surge and decided that a combination of the two would lead to even greater rewards. The result of this unholy union is Zombie Holocaust, another of the legendary cult classic Italian splatter films of the 80s and made in the same year. Its mixed reputation proceeds it and it is definitely a love/hate kind of film.

For a start, Zombie Holocaust is a mess of ideas so it’s best to just unplug your brain and go with the flow. The film works better as a ‘tribute’ piece to its inspirational predecessors and director Marino Girolami certainly demonstrates that he has seen many of them with a ‘best of’ selection. In between the set pieces, the narrative does its best to keep the thin plot from falling apart…but let’s face it, as soon as the characters set foot on the island you don’t really care what happens because you know they’re going to suffer. The similarities with Zombie Flesh Eaters are obvious – openings both set in New York, Ian McCulloch playing pretty much the same character (and dressed like he’s off on safari), a small group of white folk heading off to what suspiciously looks like the same island, having the same guide and arriving at the same church building for the finale.

The writing is so weak and flimsy that you wonder why they bothered to begin with. How is this mad scientist doing Frankenstein-like experiments in a shanty hut in the middle of an island without any real equipment save for an operating table, some drips and a few scalpels? Why would a doctor and a nurse from the hospital decide to take an expedition to the cannibal island? What were they hoping to accomplish there? Why, when one of the female members of the expedition is captured by the cannibals, do the survivors just shrug shoulders and decide to escape? There are so many questions that this film raises. But the beauty is that by the end of it, you won’t care.

Everyone knows that it’s going to be exploitative but you will never guess at how badly. From having lead actress Alexandra Delli Colli get stripped full-frontal and placed onto a large sacrificial rock (which looks suspiciously like the one Ursula Andress got strapped to in The Mountain of the Cannibal God) to the copious amount of intestines on display, Zombie Holocaust punches for the lowest common denominators to hook its audience. Combining the two bloodiest sub-genres going promised that Zombie Holocaust would be a messy ride and it was certainly that. From open skull brain surgery to a zombie getting a motor boat propeller right to the face, there are plenty of gory set pieces on display. However it is the cannibals who get a bigger slice of the action and they’re very handy when it comes to offing the cast early on. Porters are killed left, right and centre with bamboo traps and such and one of the unlucky Westerners falls victim to a bunch of them who slice open his stomach and gouge his eyes out. Its intense stuff and extremely gory. Sadly, the zombies don’t do an awful lot and only appear for the first time around the fifty-five minute mark. They leave the flesh-eating to the living.

One thing that these Italian horrors usually guarantee is an excellent soundtrack, regardless of the eventual quality of the visuals and composer Nico Fidenco doesn’t disappoint here. He recycles an earlier soundtrack from Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals but the keyboard emits a nice brooding, ominous vibe to certain scenes. The other aspect of the sound, the dubbing, is done reasonably well but it’s easy to see that the actors were there for a holiday and no more. As I’ve said, Ian McCulloch plays pretty much the same character as he did in Zombie Flesh Eaters and stands around looking scared or getting involved in the action as and when he needs to be the hero. It is Donald O’Brien as Dr Obrero who has the most fun, delivering scene-chewing cheesy lines such as “I could easily kill you now, but I’m determined to have your brain!” with so much unnatural depth and feeling.

 

It’s not one of Italian horror’s shining lights of the two sub-genres it straddles but there’s no denying that Zombie Holocaust isn’t a lot of silly, sleazy and gory fun. You’ll be reminded of all of the other films that it is ripping off but the innocent way it tries to stick it all together will have you forget that in a hurry. And if not, the film will drown you in glorious 80s gore instead.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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