Zombie 3 (1988)
I was reminded of the consistent and hilariously varied use of “bullshit” in Mel Brooks’ undervalued History of the World: Part 1 (1981) as I watched Lucio Fulci’s (technically) Zombie 3 (1988). Why? Because I wrote it about fifty times while watching this train wreck. Stitched together with glue and Karo syrup, the triumphant return of the Italian horror master to the genre which made his career turned out to be nothing less than a disaster. Fulci described the screenplay as “dreadful” and considering it was from the writing team that brought us Troll 2 (Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi), I believe it. He combatted this problem by drastically simplifying the film, which likely improved the film’s story but resulted in a 70-minute film. This in turn shocked producer Franco Gaudenzi (Robowar), who demanded Fulci return to bring the film to feature length. When Fulci refused, Fragasso brought in the “big guns,” which amounted to calling his buddy Bruno Mattei, affectionately known as “The Italian Ed Wood.” So, we’ve got a film begun by an iconic horror director with a rabid fanbase and finished by the combined talents of the filmmakers behind After Death, Cruel Jaws, Rats: Night of Terror, and Strike Commando. What could possibly go wrong?
I’m not going to blame the production staff of Zombie 3 for Fulci’s declining health, but the “cursed from the start” atmosphere on-set did little to alleviate the physical problems the director was having from both cirrhosis of the liver (liver, LIVER!) and diabetes. While it’s inspiring to hear about Sir Laurence Olivier essentially fending off cancer through sheer force of will during the production of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, the opposite appeared to occur on Zombie 3. Some stories have even leaked out that Fulci suffered a stroke, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The film was troubled and needed to be completed. It’s estimated that over half of the film is indeed Fulci’s, while most of the scenes involving the military dressed in white hazmat suits and mowing down zombies with machine guns belong to Mattei, whose own Hell of the Living Dead (aka Virus, 1980) acts as something of a spiritual companion piece to Zombie 3 rather than Fulci’s own vastly superior Zombie (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979). As a highlight reel of random zombie action, it’s passable, but as a long-awaited follow-up to the film which kickstarted the Italian Zombie subgenre, it’s a disjointed mess.
The film begins with an abrupt cold open; often cut by most distributors besides the Japanese and only re-instated (poorly) by Shriek Show in 2002. Severin Films would restore the entire film in 2018, including the prologue, where we encounter Dr. Holder (Robert Marius, War Without End) instructing his assistant to “Give me Death One.” While Marius is relatively calm in this stylish opening scene, which is lit like we’re next to a Christmas display case at Macy’s, his performance rapidly grows more over-the-top before his acting, aided in no small part by the dubbing, practically becomes Shatnerian. It’s full of random pauses, staccato delivery, and bugged-out eyeballs. "Death One" is an experimental serum created by the military and is currently being tested by Holder and his staff. It’s not specifically stated what the army’s endgame is here, but I have to assume it’s to revive fallen soldiers and allow them to continue fighting, which isn’t a bad idea, if it weren’t an utter disaster. We get some lovely, gooey melting effects as the injected corpse writhes around and goes from a relatively handsome young man to a mushy, pulsating zombie.
Stefano Mainetti’s synthy rock score gives the film that vintage Italian horror vibe, but it’s nothing special. Still, it lends a sense of urgency as an unidentified group of men abscond with the case containing Death One and there’s a nifty chase along a jungle river (the film was shot on the cheap in The Philippines) between the thief and a helicopter. He should be more careful because he gets some Death One on his hand and rapidly begins to change into a zombie with some rough-looking make-up effects and green liquid pouring out of his bubbling sores. He does try to self-amputate, which leads to a decent splatter on a bathroom wall. He holes up in a hotel and infects an unlucky room service attendant while pinning a maid to the door with a huge knife, Michael Myers-style.
The aspect of a biological weapon getting loose in the simplest way possible is nothing new, but it’s done relatively well here, with one particular twist. In a bit which feels directly lifted from Dan O’Bannon’s ferocious Return of the Living Dead (1985), the military brass, headed by the particularly heartless General Morton (Mike Monty, Ninja Warriors), although I’d’ve preferred General Mortars myself, decide to burn the infected thief’s body and “eliminate everyone” at the hotel. “Dig a mass grave.” Damn, what an asshole.
Burning the body is a bad move, bro, because the ashes float into the air, infecting the birds. This weaponizes our avian friends and sends them blasting out of the sky like a goddamn battalion of flying rats to wreak havoc upon our standard zombie movie “lambs to the slaughter.” There’s a trio of horny, douchebag soldiers who encounter a random caravan of young hotties. Before they can invite the ladies to a USO show or perhaps the Hollywood Canteen, the birds swoop down and peck the shit out of everyone in the mobile home. I’d identify these hapless victims, but barely any of them register as real characters, so it’s not really worth it. I’d go so far as to say they don’t even approach caricature or archetype. They’re just warm bodies destined to be murdered. Ditto a random couple speeding around in a red sports car.
The couple also gets the royal bird treatment, but prior to this, we get the kind of choice dialogue which made Troll 2 so spectacular. It’s almost English, but not quite. “If you don’t feel like my company...” I’m not sure how my wife would respond if I threw that out there. The dude (Glenn) starts to get sick and his girlfriend Patricia, played by Beatrice Ring, checks out a dilapidated gas station in a useless search for water. By the way, I need to address something really quick. The actor who plays Glenn isn’t listed on IMDB and doesn’t appear in the end credits. The problem is, combining the word ‘zombie’ and the name Glenn will only ever lead to Steven Yeun. Incidentally, see Burning. It’s really good.
Beatrice Ring would later appear in the Fragasso-scripted Interzone, directed by her Zombie 3 co-star Deran Sarafian, who plays a soldier and is one of the few performers who went on to have a major career as a director/producer of major television shows like House and Rosewood. A bizarre recurring theme of green light accompanying zombie attacks is an interesting touch but ultimately distracting and serves no real purpose.
Dario Argento was always the master when it came to using extreme colors while Fulci tended to go for a grittier approach. The use of color feels experimental and unnecessary. An attack on Patricia is pretty visceral and intense, with one zombie attempting to chop her up with a machete. She says ‘fuck it’ and blows up the entire gas station. That was easy. She even says “Don’t worry” to her ailing friend. Really? I think you should probably worry.
In the Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie (2009), Fragasso comes off as a bit of a prick when someone questions the incongruous nature of the presence of goblins in a movie called Troll 2. One thing Fragasso can be counted on is his belief in vegetarianism and the conservation of the planet; both noble causes that are filtered through a weird prism of filmic ineptitude. An ecological DJ named Blueheart spouts off various Captain Planet-style catchphrases in a Wolfman Jack grown and warns of the impending ecological disasters plaguing the countryside. His presence as the film’s narrator is a classic example of a lazy screenwriter’s attempt to connect all of the dots. Considering the turmoil behind-the-scenes, his infrequent updates at least serve to implicate the military's desperate and aggressive attempt to quell any unrest and spread the falsehoods that the contamination hasn’t spread.
We don’t get to see the planned slaughter of the hotel guests and staff, but the aftermath is clear as the group of zombie treats arrive at the now-wrecked hotel. Should’ve splurged and hit that Holiday Inn Express. This kind of shit would never go down there. The one member of the group who actually seems to be succumbing to the Death One-laced bird pecking is bleeding green liquid. One idiot remarks, “Blood! It’s so dark!” Dark?! It’s fucking green!
It’s around this time that the film absolutely reaches the point of no return and goes off the deep end as far as logic and basic zombie movie rules go. First and foremost, there’s no consistency to the behavior of the zombies. They’re either mindless and slowly shuffling, which is acceptable, or they’re agile and aggressive, which makes little sense. It’s not a question of fast versus slow zombies, but rather uniformity. Second, it’s generally accepted that zombies die when the brain is destroyed. Here, a few bullets to the chest are enough to take them down. I’ll accept that, but later, one of them is impaled through the neck with a long pipe. It reacts, then just keeps on coming! You’re telling me it can withstand a devastating blow like that but will drop dead from a few measly bullets? Officially, logic goes out the window, both literally and figuratively.
Carol (Marina Loi, Demons 2) and Bo (Massimo Vanni, The Last Shark) head off to look for help and she’s shoved out a window by a zombie into an inexplicably bubbling lake. Why is steam coming from the water? Why don’t you have some spaghetti and shut up, Yank! Seriously though, there’s no reason for this and when Bo comes to the rescue, her goddamn legs are gone! While there was some bubbling near her when she went in, it’s never specified whether the water is contaminated and/or acidic or some underwater zombies (which would be an amazing throwback to the legendary Zombie shark fight) nibbled her shins off. Because of this development, Bo emerging from the water unscathed is distractingly annoying. He later runs into Patricia and Glenn, who’s still fucked up, but at least gets to deliver this awful but pretty fantastic bit of dialogue: “I feel better, Patricia, but I’m thirsty...for you!” Now we have fucking talking zombies?! Bullshit!
Back at the hotel, a disembodied head in a fridge leaps out (but it ain’t got no legs, Lieutenant Dan!) and bites a hapless victim. It’s a fun moment, but technically impossible, even when we’re suspending disbelief about the existence of zombies. There has to be some semblance of reality here. Next, the camper lights come on for no reason and the zombies stand in front of the hotel without moving. This is obviously meant to make them look ominous, but it’s nonsense. Why are they just standing there?
Zombies are mindless killing machines who never stop moving! In an even more farcical step, the soldiers now decide to barricade the doors, even though the zombies are maybe 20 feet away. It’s insanity and we never even see them set that up. All we get is a shot much later in the film where a pretty well-constructed barrier is taken down by the horde. The editing is horrendous. A few more participants become zombie chow, including Nancy, whose infected friend whispers her name which, again, fuck talking zombies! I don’t know or care whom Nancy is, so it’s not effective.
The group (oof, Walking Dead-reference) leave the hotel at daylight and one of them gets in a huge fight with a bunch of zombies while the rest of the survivors inexplicably vanish. I mean, literally. Where did they go? Aren’t they around to help him? The “white coats” chase after them in an effort to eradicate any trace of survivors or the infected. Inside a hospital, we get an unexpected treat where a full-grown zombie hand bursts out of a woman’s belly and helps to murder another woman. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that when the woman is attacked, she already has the bloody makeup all over her face. Yeesh.
In a particularly idiotic moment, the soldiers try to reason with their pursuers, who are absolutely dead-set on executing them and even have their weapons out and ready, but the soldiers suddenly switch to hand-to-hand combat. Why? Because Claudio Fragasso doesn’t need them to die just yet. One says “Go get ‘em!” Go get ‘em? Just shoot 'em, you morons! One of the soldiers does a random flip over an operating table. Y'know, for fun.
Finally, the movie stumbles to something resembling a conclusion. The zombies are surrounding the survivors, two soldiers and Patricia, but since she can’t walk, she notices a single hand grenade on the ground. This being a “movie” grenade, it can produce an unspeakable amount of destruction, so while it should only produce a small bang, it levels an entire house in no time flat. Of course, there’s a helicopter, because why not? Roger (prolific stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, John Wick 2, Leviathan and most importantly, the worm-eyed Zombie on the 1979 poster) fights off a few zombies and could easily head over, but the other two have already lifted off. He tries to grab the bottom of the choppah, but he’s pulled down and the zombies converge on him.
I’ll admit, this next bit did satisfy me. One thing I’ve always been interested in witnessing is a human’s animalistic survival instinct take over. Whenever we get the big gross-out scene where some poor schmoe gets their guts ripped out, they’re just lying there screaming. Roger fights back and although he’s likely still infected, he’s able to get all of them off. Of course, he runs right smack dab into the military and in a hilariously over-dramatic bit of slow-motion, he’s gunned down. Somebody must’ve just seen Platoon. The film ends with an obviously zombified Blueheart giving a shout-out to all his undead homies. He’s talking, of course. BOOOOOOOO!!!!!
Zombie 3 isn’t quite in “so bad, it’s good” territory, but it has some pretty amusing moments of stupidity and very poor dubbing. A highlight is arguably one of the phoniest helicopter interior scenes ever filmed. The chopper is obviously being shaken by an offscreen crew and that would be unconvincing by itself, but the scene is shot at an angle, so one can clearly see through a side window that the sky isn’t passing by the clearly inert helicopter. Gone is Fulci’s usual dynamic camera moves and no-holds-barred aesthetic. Fortunately, A Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert, 1990) was at least a partial return to form and his legacy remains admirably intact.