It’s probably not a good idea for me to start this review off on a rant. You and I have had a good rapport up until this point, I think, and I was debating asking you to come up to my place for a nightcap after this latest date (I really love you for your mind, baby). But we need to get something situated first; there is no zombie apocalypse happening in the world (the real world, the one we all have to live in when more people than I’d care to contemplate don’t have their heads up their own asses). Corpses are not rising from the dead and attacking the living. There is no Zombie King orchestrating a coup d’ etat employing a brainwashed, braindead army of automatons. We are not being overrun by the recently deceased and slowly being picked off, unsuspecting until it’s too late to stop the tidal wave of bodies. The recent news reports you’ve been reading have no basis in the supernatural whatsoever. No, gentle reader, we are actually in the midst of a cannibal apocalypse. No living dead, rotting and maggot-riddled; just tribes of feral people, teeth filed to knife-sharp points and hunting for easy prey to rip the still-beating hearts out of and devour. See? Don’t you feel relieved, now?
A shadow-painted stalker skulks through the halls of a New York City medical school/hospital. He doesn’t kill people, but he hacks up easily accessible corpses and makes off with various parts. Of course, missing limbs will usually draw the attention of the higher-ups, and Doctors Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) and Drake (Walter Patriarca) soon feel that something is amiss. When the culprit is unveiled, Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch) shows up with all kinds of stories about worshippers of Quito the cannibal god (also the name of an island in the East Indies, one of the Moluccas, if you can follow any of this in the film) and plans an expedition, including assistant George (Peter O’Neal) and go-getting cub reporter Susan (Sherry Buchanan). Of course, when they show up at Dr. Obrero’s (Donald O’Brien) island villa, they soon encounter more than they bargained for (go ahead, guess).
This is the basic premise of Marino Girolami’s (pseudonymously credited as Frank Martin) Zombie Holocaust (aka Zombi Holocaust, aka Dr. Butcher, M.D., an American recut which included material from a never-released zombie portmanteau film produced by Roy Frumkes called Tales That’ll Tear Your Heart Out and even included a segment directed by Wes Craven). Like so many movies coming out of Italy at this time, it piggybacks off George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (aka Zombi) but even moreso off Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka Zombi 2), which even if this wasn’t stated outright by Makeup Effects Artist Maurizio Trani is astoundingly evident just from watching the picture. The zombies have that thrown-together, wax and clay, monsterfied look that Italians excelled at. There is some juicy eye trauma that tries to one-up Fulci’s classic “Splinter Scene” (it doesn’t quite surpass it, but it is gross). There is an abandoned mission in the middle of the jungle where the finale will take place. Our protagonists consist of two men and two women (one of whom, Ian McCulloch, is in both films). And just to take it to another level, the filmmakers chuck in cannibal/primitive elements made popular in such films as Mondo Cane, The Man From Deep River, and Cannibal Holocaust (which, as I understand, was released in Italy much earlier than it was in America).
The film (as just about every film dealing with primitive, cannibalistic tribes in a jungle does) posits the question whether or not we civilized people are any better or different than the “savages” who will soon make life hellish for the cast? But unlike films such as the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust, the question is completely rhetorical. Girolami and company could care less about exploring this question in any way, shape, or form. In this filmic world, we white folk are, of course, superior to the aboriginal peoples of some far-off Caribbean island. As the native bearers get picked off (after first behaving like superstitious knaves, but since they wound up dead, they were kind of proven right, now weren’t they?), the white party leaders tell the remaining bearers and the tellingly-named Molotto (Dakar, also a veteran of Fulci’s Zombie) to just bury them already, so they can move on. When the cannibals (perpetually mud-encrusted) feast on the raw meat of their victims, the camera switches to handheld with a wide-angle lens moving in and out amongst them, accentuating their otherness and focusing on the gory details of their acts. Any way you look at it, the film exists in whitey’s world, and is told exclusively from the white, “civilized” people’s perspective. While this is, in and of itself, kind of offensive, the movie’s premise is so outlandish, it’s difficult to take any of this casual racism seriously on any level. Despite this, the superficial racist aspects are largely undercut by a second theme; playing God. To say more would be to spoil much of the insanity that makes this film fun, but suffice it to say, white people hold the power of gods here. That they are not punished altogether for this hubris but individually (this behavior is displayed by both pro-and antagonists) could be seen as significant but more likely than not is simply expedient and/or arbitrary.
Zombie movies and cannibal movies both share a common element; they both deal directly in the realm of Survival and many times take on aspects of Siege films, for at least part of the runtime. The main difference between the two is location. When we think of Survival films, we think of protagonists trying to outrun a group of enemies (usually faceless, by and large) with limited to no resources to rely on. The Siege movie takes the same premise but stages the action in a centralized location into which the faceless baddies are trying to break. They can share aspects at various points or even side by side throughout. And, of course, we have both facets in Zombie Holocaust. What’s interesting here is that the cannibal scenes are faster-paced and tenser than the scenes involving zombies. The pace, in fact, slows down once the zombies appear, thus allowing for one of the most fantastic info-dumps in cinema history, but also unfortunately killing the momentum needed to provide a fully satisfying climax. The film is still fun, gory, and entertaining enough, though, that one could almost understand the general populace’s misunderstanding about the type of apocalypse in which our world (y’know, the real one) is currently embroiled.
MVT: If I’m being totally honest, I have to go with the gore. This flick is gory for gore’s sake, and there is blood and entrails galore. Enough, in fact, to satisfy even the most discriminating (ahem) palate.
Make Or Break: The Make is the wildly delirious, over the top monologue delivered in the old mission. It’s ludicrous on its face, but spoken with such banal matter-of-factness, it will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
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