Director Lucio Fulci’s breakthrough in schlock horror was Zombi 2/Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters, a for-hire gig which was obviously less personal to him than gialli like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling or weirdies like The Beyond or The House By the Cemetary. But Zombi 2 become a grindhouse/video nasty favourite, for its explicit zombie gore and anything-goes looniness (it’s the one with the shark vs zombie fight and the famous eye-bursting). Appropriately, several films were released or re-released under the title Zombi 3 before Fulci signed on for this shot-in-the-Philippines follow-up.
Insofar as a sequel to a film that poses as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead (aka Zombi in Italy) can be, this Zombi 3 is ‘official’ – though Fulci didn’t stay the course and most of the film was directed uncredited by screenwriter Claudio Fragasso (whose After Death is also known as Zombi 4) and Bruno Mattei (whose Zombie Creeping Flesh was re-released as Zombi 5). The tone is pretty much that of a Mattei movie, with ridiculous gore (a hungry severed head jumping out of a fridge to bite an unwary neck, a zombie baby emerging from its mother as an adult-sized clawed hand to attack the midwife), stick-figure characters, cartoonish politics (an evil military puts out stories about helping cure civilians but guns down the infected and normal alike), a curious lack of urgency despite the ongoing zombie apocalypse plague, and truly naff 1988 costumes, hairstyles and attitudes.
After someone absconding with a blue liquid bioweapon spills it, people become infected – it’s not clear whether they are really back-from-the-dead flesh-eating zombies or just fungus-faced cannibal mutants, but the authorities gun them down either way. Deran Sarafian (later a director of direct-to-video schlock) is a good guy grunt trapped in the hot zone, Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (aka Richard Raymond) is the hero’s loyal best friend who almost makes it to the fade-out, and Beatrice Ring is the blonde who becomes heroine by default because she survives – everyone else just gets a few scenes before being torn apart (the storyline might just have been modeled on The Crazies, which it parallels in many ways). There are a couple of imaginative bits – a guy jumping into a hot spring to rescue his drowning girlfriend hauls her to the shore to find her legs have been bitten off and she’s now a hungry zombie out to get him – but it’s mostly a clusterhump of ridiculous proportions as enthusiastic extras in gooey make-up run, stagger and claw their way through the film, while a white-garbed hit squad in gasmasks mow everyone down.
The scenes with an extremely emphatic scientist and a gruff general arguing over how to cope with the crisis are excruciatingly overplayed, with hammy dubbed dialogue laid over wildly gesticulating performances. The punchline finds a disc jockey who has been spouting the Establishment line throughout the film turning to the camera while ranting about ‘the new world’ to reveal a wholly eaten-away face. An almost clever idea, riffing on the unseen radio announcer who dies at the end of Zombi 2, this is — like everything else halfway decent here — presented so overdramatically that it turns gigglesome.
‘I’ll come looking for you to feed on your intestines! I’ll be in your nightmares!’
This series works almost as a relay race – albeit one where each new runner is weaker and more misshapen than the last. First up, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – itself a sequel to Night of the Living Dead – was an Italian co-production, and released in Italy in a variant cut under the title Zombi. The Italian exploitation biz being only too keen to serve up spurious part twos to any hit, Lucio Fulci delivered an unrelated, but pulpily engaging Zombi 2, a grindhouse smash in the US as Zombie and a video nasty in the UK as Zombie Flesh Eaters. Then, the saga got even murkier as Fulci signed up to make a Zombi 3 in 1988 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters 2), only to leave mid-production, whereupon Claudio Fragasso (who scripted it with Rossella Druidi) and Bruno Mattei stepped in to finish a piece of work which had more in common with Mattei’s Inferno dei morti viventi (aka Zombie Creeping Flesh, Night of the Zombies and the usual half-dozen other titles). Back to back with that Zombi 3, Fragasso (mildly infamous for Troll 2) made his own spurious sequel to the Fulci/Mattei/Fragasso spurious sequel to the Fulci spurious sequel to the legitimate Romero sequel to Night of the Living Dead. This is it.
It opens twenty years in the past, though none of the characters have 1968 hair or clothes, on an island with Caribbean voodoo and Asian natives (it was shot in the Philippines) as a high priest puts a curse (‘you are the ones who wanted to defy Hell, and now Hell has accepted the challenge!’) on a team of cancer research scientists who have failed to heal his daughter. A voodoo dancer is sucked into the ground and then appears as a fanged, fright-haired, gunk-slobbering witch who begins to spread a zombie plague. Jenny, the little daughter of some scientists, escapes and, twenty years later (played by Candice Daly), returns to the island on a weird holiday with a bunch of happy-go-lucky, goony-looking mercenaries – though the place reminds her of bad dreams she has always had about an island overrun by the living dead. Also in these parts is an academic team, including buff Chuck (Chuck Peyton, aka gay porn star Jeff Stryker), whose shirt is always open, and a strangely abusive professor (Massimo Vanni, aka Alex McBride) who tries to taunt his assistants into reading aloud from a handy Book of the Dead and is then surprised when his incantation summons up a horde of fast-moving, grabby zombies with rags over their faces who kill him.
In one of the most useless anti-zombie measures of all time, the hordes are kept back by a bunch of candles (even the script wonders who lights them) lit around a clunky amulet Jenny’s mother gave her – though the grungiest merc (Nick Nicholson) blows them out at the worst possible time. As it happens, the zombies are killing, biting and recruiting whether or not the candles are lit or the magic words spoken – and most of the film consists of the shrieking visitors being harried by the active, silly-looking, cackling fiends. By this stage in the cycle, wilder ideas were getting used – in the dumbest, yet most relishable moment here, a soldier approaches a just-killed comrade with a gun, ready to prevent his resurrection with a mercy shot to the brain, only for the dead man to revive, grab the gun, and start shooting his former friend in the extremities until the zombies grab and eat him. At the end, Chuck gets his heart punched out through his ribcage and squeezed while Jenny looks in a mirror as she goes zombie-faced and plucks out her own eye – in typical Fragasso style, characters stand still and let special effects gore things happen to them without even making a token escape attempt.
Like Troll 2, it has unspeakable dialogue delivered at hysteria pitch – Stryker/Peyton is spectacularly dreadful, but it’s hard to see how anyone could shine given the material he is stuck with. The ‘fast’ zombies, some quite athletic, prefigure later living dead specimens – but they’re notably sillier than they are scary. The score samples bits from earlier movies, the look is frankly hideous, and the whole thing is almost endearingly wretched.