BD. Region Free. Severin. Unrated.
198o’s Zombi Holocaust by “Frank Martin” (Marino Girolami) apparently started life as Queen Of The Cannibals, which immediately begs two burning questions: 1) Where does the zombie sub-genre shade off into the cannibal canon? and 2) Could anyone in their right mind actually give a toss?
Of course several characters in this film aren’t actually in their right minds or rather, their minds have been put in the wrong craniums by Donald O’Brien, a mad medic who’s set up practice in cannibal country, hoping that the culinary preferences of the locals will discourage investigation of his forbidden experiments. Bang goes that little theory when body-snatching shenanigans by Kito-cultists in a New York hospital predictably lead to the mounting of a jungle expedition (and if that – plus the presence of O’Brien – sounds horribly like Emanuele And The Last Cannibals, so does the soundtrack music, shamelessly pillaged by producer Fabrizio De Angelis from that previous, D’Amato-directed outrage.) Despite Ian McCulloch’s ostentatious safari jacket, the expedition resembles nothing so much as a bad acid remake of King Solomon’s Mines, crossed with Island Of Lost Souls and shot in somebody’s back garden (though it was actually lensed in a Roman park.)
The expeditioneers comprise anthropologist McCulloch, sleaze-queen Alexandra Delli Colli (shortly to “enjoy” her career nadir, enduring hispanic toe-sex in Fulci’s notorious New York Ripper) and the compulsory sassy female reporter, Susan (Sherry Buchanan), who’s pushing for a Pulitzer. She’s more likely to get that than an Oscar, as her acting technique consists of staring goofily into the foliage when not actually delivering lines herself. Even so, she fails to see the cannibals who arrive to drag her off to consult with the doc. Various native bearers are similarly borne off and disemboweled and the unfortunate George (Peter O’Neal) has his eyes messily plucked out and eaten in Maurizio Trani’s finest FX moment (well, considerably finer than the make-up on the heavy breathing zombies who turn up to frighten the cannibals off, anyway: these guys only appear to be decomposing from the neck up – insert your own gag about the film makers here.)
Desperately seeking Susan, the survivors are hampered by both zombie and cannibal attacks, but the ever resourceful McCulloch – veteran of countless zombie and alien pod scrapes – saves the day with his trusty machete and – in one case – an expertly wielded outboard motor.
Finally, they reach the doc’s bamboo operating theatre … and Casualty was never like this! Susan, whose brain has already scooped from its skull, never will win that Pulitzer, but at least her career ambitions were pitched higher than those of O’Brien, who apparently considers “placing the brain of a young female into the body of a male who has been dead for ten days” to be “traversing new boundaries in medical science!” The good doctor is nothing if not thorough-going (“The patient’s screaming disturbed my concentration so I performed removal of the vocal chords”); community-spirited (“I always make a point of giving the scalps to the natives, for use in their fertility rites”); and modest (“I don’t limit myself to correcting nature’s mistakes. I improve on nature!”)
He’s also scornful of his critics (“Yours is a fine example of medium intelligence”) and brushes aside any ethical shilly-shallying with the brusque observation that “science must surmount all obstacles, and this requires certain sacrifices.” Finally it’s revealed, in strictly throwaway fashion, that the natives regard Delli Colli as their goddess, which prompts them to torch the zombies and eat O’Brien, while McCulloch and the divine Delli Colli make good their escape.
In America, Terry Levene’s notorious exploitation outfit Aquarius released Zombi Holocaust on the grindhouse circuit as Doctor Butcher M.D. (= “Medical Deviate!”), recutting its intro with shots culled from the abortive Wes Craven / Roy Frumkes collaboration, Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out. I’ve never thought that this in any way enhances the viewing experience, but I’m loath to second guess as canny an exploitation operator as Levene. Surely he always gets such judgements right? Apparently not, because he’s of the opinion that it would be foolish and pointless to mount an HD restoration of Doctor Butcher, a misguided view he chooses to state during one of the bonus featurettes on the very double BD set whose existence proves him wrong… the landmark Severin release now under consideration.
Both cuts of the film presented here look better than recent rival Zombie Holocaust releases and both contain the elusive “bamboo pit” sequence (only present as an amputated “extra”, if at all, in those) as an integral part of their action. There’s still a fair bit of grain on view but I guess that’s inevitable in a film of this vintage and budget, preferable in fact to the kind of DNR pea-souping that blighted our screens in the early days of Blu-ray mastering.
… and then, of course, there’s the raft of impressive extras with which both of these discs are freighted. On Doctor Butcher you get the aforementioned Terry Levene profile and an equally enlightening guided tour around what’s left of the 42nd Street grindhouse district by Chris “Temple Of Schlock” Poggiali and Roy Frumkes… the Frumkes footage whose fragments adorned the intro of Levene’s cut is shown in its entirety. The expected trailers are trotted out, editor Jim Markovic is interviewed and Gary Hertz supplies a witty and heartfelt illustrated reminiscence of his adventures in The Deuce. My favourite supplement on this disc, though, is an interview with notorious Gore Gazette editor Rick Sullivan who reveals all on the seminal East Coast fanzine scene, how an ill-advised detour into the pirate distribution of porn nearly got him jailed and his stint on the legendary Butcher Mobile, drumming up punters in the streets of New York with a spot of grand guignol hokum. The Severin boys repeated this trick to promote their own screenings and – Carl Daft tells me – made sure that they forewarned local cops, to reduce their risk of getting shot.
Over on the Zombi Holocaust disc, Ian McCulloch continues to express good natured bewilderment at the ongoing popularity of his three forays into Italian splatter cinema (and sings Down By The River in archive audio evidence of his former incarnation as a wannabe pop star), FX artists Maurizio Trani and Rosario Prestopino discuss the tricks of their gory trade, we get more trailers, a “compare and contrast” of the film’s Big Apple locations, then and now (not much seems to have changed… one of the buildings now seems to have more rabbis hanging around outside it.) There’s an informative interview with Sherry Buchanan (looking rather lovely, speaking fluent Italian and now apparently residing in Rome) in which we learn, for instance, that this Biloxi girl’s career in Italian cinema began in a back room job on the Sergio Leone / Tonino Valerii Western My Name Is Nobody (1973.) Finally, director Girolami is remembered by his son (a certain Enzo G. Castellari) in a touching tribute illustrated with plenty of personal family photographs.
In his featurette, FX man Prestopino amplifies a charge that Dardano Sachetti has often levelled, that the producers of Italian zombie films could have pumped more money into them and created an ongoing, internationally viable franchise, but chose to cut corners disastrously in search of a fast buck. Fabrizio De Angelis failed to lure Enzo Castellari to direct Zombie Flesh Eaters, which inaugurated the Zucchini Zombie craze in 1979, and it was only after Joe D’Amato had also turned him down that Lucio Fulci got the gig and turned in the exploitation masterpiece that we know and love so well. For Zombi Holocaust, De Angelis chose Castellari’s father… if he hadn’t been able to get him, I wonder, would he have approached D’Amato’s dad?!?
Lucio Fulci once told me how pissed off he was that De Angelis had nicked not only his ZFE star, locations and sets for Zombi Holocaust, but also surplus-to-requirement footage that Fulci had shot. I had fun spotting a coupla such shots (keep your eyes peeled for Auretta Gay) and I think you will, too…
Obviously you’re going to shell out for this, but bear in mind that the first 5,000 copies also include a give-away authentic(ish) Doctor Butcher barf bag and be quick about it… chop chop!