Like many of the classic Italian grindhouse films, 1980’s Zombie Holocaust opens in New York City. A hospital attendant is caught devouring a cadaver in a morgue. After he attempts to escape by throwing himself out of a window, it’s discovered that 1) he’s a native of the Asian Molucca islands and 2) he’s only one of several natives to have both recently immigrated to New York City and gotten a job at a morgue. Dead bodies across NYC are being eaten and anthropologist Lori (played by Aelxandra Delli Colli, who is best known for being the only sympathetic character in Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper) is determined to discover why.
In order to investigate, Lori and Dr. Peter Chandler (played by Ian McCullough, who was also in Fulci’s classic Zombi 2) lead an expedition to the island. Almost as soon as the expedition arrives, they find themselves being pursued by not only cannibals but zombies as well! Even worse, it turns out that there’s a mad scientist on the island. Dr. Obrero (Donald O’Brien, an Irish actor who appeared in a few hundred Italian films of every possible genre) is convinced that he can unlock the secrets of life by experimenting on dead bodies and doing brain transplants.
(To be honest, I’ve seen this film a few times and I’m still not quite sure what exactly Dr. Obrero was trying to accomplish but I guess it doesn’t matter. He’s a mad scientist with his own private laboratory so I guess he can pretty much do whatever he wants.)
I love Italian zombie films but, for the most part, I try to avoid the cannibal films. I saw both Cannibal Ferox and Cannibal Apocalypse because they both featured Giovanni Lombardo Radice and I saw Cannibal Holocaust because, seriously, that’s one of those films that any student of cinematic horror has to see at least one time. But otherwise, I tend to avoid the cannibal films because, to me, they’re just not that much fun to watch. (And the fact that most of them contain scenes of actual animal cruelty doesn’t help…)
However, Zombie Holocaust is one of the rare cannibal films that I can watch and enjoy because it’s just so ludicrous and over-the-top. It also helps that the film’s gore is so obviously fake that it becomes almost a postmodern statement on Italian cannibal films. And, finally, this film has got zombies in it and who doesn’t love zombies?
Of the countless zombie films that came out of Italy during the early 80s, Zombie Holocaust is one of the odder entries in the genre. While most Italian exploitation films were shameless when it came to imitating other movies, Zombie Holocaust attempts to outdo them all by cramming the conventions of three different genres into one mess of a movie. As such, the movie starts out as a standard cannibal film just to suddenly become an almost shot-by-shot remake of Zombi 2 before then finally wrapping things up by having Donald O’Brien pop up, acting like Peter Cushing in a Hammer Frankenstein film. There’s nothing graceful or subtle about this film’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to its story and, while the end result isn’t exactly pretty, it’s still watchable in much the same way that a televised police chase is watchable.
Director Marino Girolami was a veteran filmmakers who was ending a long career with his work on Zombie Holocaust and you have to admire the fact that, as opposed to many other filmmakers who have found themselves in a similar situation, he made an honest and unapologetic exploitation film, a shameless rip-off of about a thousand other films. Instead of being embarrassed by the film’s silliness, he instead embraced it and his cast did the same.
Playing the lead role, Scottish actor Ian McCullough plays his character with an attitude that, at times, almost comes across as a parody of stiff upper lip English imperialism. You may have to be a fan of grindhouse cinema to truly appreciate it but, whenever I’ve sat through this film, I always found myself smiling every time that McCullough discovered that another member of his expedition has been killed and responded with a frustrated, “And none of this would have happened if you had simply done as I had told you to do.” By the end of the film, I was expecting McCullough to approach the last remaining native and tell him, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”
However, the film is truly stolen by Donald O’Brien, who plays the mad scientist with an almost alarming sense of authenticity. For the most part, nothing that O’Brien says during the film makes the least bit of sense but he delivers the lines with such conviction that it really doesn’t matter. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, O’Brien delivers the line, “Patient’s screams annoying me…performed removal of vocal chords.” It takes a special type of actor to make a line like that work and O’Brien was that actor.
Indeed, watching a film like this, it’s hard not to admire the fact that both the filmmakers and the cast managed to stay sane regardless of how ludicrous the film eventually became. That’s perhaps the best way to describe Zombie Holocaust. It’s ludicrous but it’s still a lot of fun.
(Speaking of ludicrous and fun, when Zombie Holocaust was released here in the States, it was renamed Dr. Butcher, M.D. and it was apparently advertised by a sound truck known as the Butchermobile. To me, that sounds like a lot of fun and it again reminds me that I was born a few decades too late.)