Terror Cult: Undead Italians

Devon Ashby introduces you to the ultra-gory Dawn of the Dead knockoffs that put the original film to shame.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Welcome to Terror Cult, CraveOnline’s weekly foray into the obscurest annals of the horror genre. This week’s installment focuses on some of the most notoriously gory (and gloriously cheesy) horror movies ever produced: low-budget Italian zombie movies, most of which were blatant rip-offs of George Romero’s successful Dawn of the Dead.

If Italians are known for anything cinematically, it’s for doing everything big. Italy’s popular films in particular pretty much pull out all the stops as far as ridiculousness is concerned, and when you add horror into the mix, the result is a distinctive blend of operatic, cheeseball nastiness unlike that produced by any other country.

Italy notably preceded the slasher subgenre with its giallo tradition, an incredibly popular variety of gory murder mysteries that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following the international success of American gore films, however, Italy felt obliged to step up its game and counter the United States’ relatively prim output of guts, blades, and crass sensuality with a string of films so unspeakably vile and pornographically violent, they’re still sought after today by fans of shocking and grotesque cinema.

The country’s two major trademark subgenres both involved murderous flesheaters. One was a series of pseudo-mockumentary films, inspired partially by the immensely popular Mondo Cane series, about explorers in obscure countries being prayed upon by aboriginal cannibals. This subset of movies includes legendary sleazefests like Cannibal Holocaust, Deep River Savages, and Make Them Die Slowly. The second, frequently overlapping tradition of late ‘70s extreme grindhouse horror from Italy were zombie rip-offs, inspired by the American Romero/Savini canon, about rotten-faced ranks of the walking undead overrunning urban centers and terrorizing their citizens. Often these two plotlines were awkwardly shoehorned together into the same film, often with a third lurid erotica or gritty polizia subplot crammed in for good measure.

Strictly cannibal-oriented films from Italy, as well as their antecedents and forebears, we’ll save for a later installment. This week, however, we highlight some of the cheesiest and most disgusting standout examples of Italy’s proud, purloined zombie tradition.

Zombie (1979)

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was marketed in Italy under the simplified title Zombi, and when Lucio Fulci decided to release this on-the-cheap unauthorized sequel less than a year later, he roguishly titled it Zombi 2. Fulci is possibly one of the most controversial exploitation filmmakers of all time, reviled by many serious critics for his hackjob pretentiousness, but revered by a cult of devoted followers as an unrecognized auteur. Zombie certainly isn’t high art, but it’s a more entertaining zombie movie than many that were released in the U.S. following the success of the Romero franchise. Zombie stars Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia, and a frequent collaborator with Fulci and other Italian grindhouse filmmakers. It’s rife with nudity, tendon-ripping gore, and maggot-infested gross-out effects, plus there’s a scene where a zombie gets into an underwater fight with a shark. No joke.

Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

Directed by lesser zombie film maestro Bruno Mattei, Hell of the Living Dead makes questionable attempts at political commentary by weaving a confusing and ultimately inscrutable story about covert government negligence resulting in the release of a zombie-causing virus. True to form, it also manages to incorporate a seemingly irrelevant offshore plot about government agents infiltrating remote enclaves of cannibal savages in search of vital information about the outbreak. The strongest element of Hell of the Living Dead is probably its score by infamous Goth electronica powerhouse Goblin, but the rest of the movie is not without its kitschy charms.

Dr. Butcher, M.D. (1980)

Also available under the less-colorful title Zombie Holocaust, Dr. Butcher tells the story of a bizarre flesh-eating plague infecting a major metropolitan area of Italy. To get to the root of the problem, a random assortment of medical professionals decide to journey to the remote island of Quito in search of a savage population of primitive cannibals who may hold the secret to the source of the outbreak. Many scenes in the film are culled directly from the coffers of Cannibal Holocaust and its brethren, bookended with more conventional urban zombie fare that features some impressively crappy latex zombie make-up. In its uncut version (which, during the pre-Internet era, could be pretty tricky to come by), Dr. Butcher is a staggeringly gory movie, rife with eyeball-stabbings, disemboweling, and even some real archival autopsy footage, augmented by hilariously splorchy, overdone Foley effects. There’s also plenty of totally bizarre full-frontal nudity, including a scene toward the end where a blonde covered in body paint gets strapped to a giant sacrificial sex wheel by hoards of chanting, presumably horny natives.

Anthropophagus (1980)

Another film available in multiple versions and under multiple titles, Anthropophagus’ only official release in the U.S. for many years was under the title The Grim Reaper, with the majority of its more harrowing scenes excised. Most famously, the movie ends with the singularly creepy, stringy-haired zombie that’s been stalking the cadre of central characters howling demonically while ripping out and feasting upon its own intestines. Good times.

The Gates of Hell (1980)

Slightly secondary to Zombi 2, Fulci’s Gates of Hell also features a zombie apocalypse of sorts, this time brought on by an obscure series of weird occult foibles. Once again featuring Farrow, this time in a supporting role, Gates of Hell was also released under the title City of the Living Dead, and includes a heart-stoppingly brutal drill-through-the-head sequence, a storm of supernatural flying maggots, and most famously, a scene where a possessed young woman literally pukes her guts out all over her boyfriend’s upholstery.

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)

By far the silliest and most inexplicable film on the list, Burial Ground is slightly lighter on gore than most movies of its ilk, but its multi-faceted, bugnuts absurdity more than makes up for its lack of literal and figurative bite. The movie is best remembered for its totally inexplicable incest subplot, featuring character actor Peter Bark as a barely-pubescent teenager furtively banging his mother. The zombies themselves are gloriously tacky, the dialogue and delivery are stilted and absurd, and the movie is rife with nudity of a more comfortable and conventional variety as well. Following in Lucio Fulci’s opportunistic footsteps, the creative forces behind Burial Ground boldly chose to market the film in Italy as Zombi 3, perhaps aptly concluding one of the most bizarre guerilla film trilogies in history.

Come back next week for an introduction to a new horror microsubgenre with CraveOnline's Terror Cult!

Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.