Lucio Fulci & Zombie (1979)- Some Hard Truths
Updated: Feb 27
There is so much lore surrounding 1979's Zombie, written by Dardano Sacchetti and his wife Elisa Briganti and directed by Lucio Fulci, the actual history of the film's creation can be damn difficult to discern.
The first thing that must be established is that Zombie is in no way a rip-off of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. This was assumed the moment Jerry Gross put it in stateside theaters. Why? The obvious connection is that when Dawn's Italian co-producer (maybe Special Guest Producer would be a better title) Dario Argento released the film in Italy, it was renamed Zombi ("Zombies"). Easy peasy. Happens all the time.
Dawn of the Dead was a huge hit all over the world. Of course Ugo Tucci and Fabrizio De Angelis wanted to tie their film to the most popular zombie flick in a decade, so they named their dead dude romp Zombi 2. (The title changed to Zombie when Jerry Gross picked it up for its U.S. release.) Instant sequel.
So, immediately, this was seen, especially in European markets, as a direct sequel to Romero's Dawn. This may seem unscrupulous, but the Italian film market delivered such "sequels" as Patrick 2, Jaws 5 (Cruel Jaws), Terminator 2 (Shocking Dark), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (Night Killer) among many others over the decades, so anything goes!
Zombie and Dawn of the Dead are two very different films. In Dawn, there is no explanation for why the dead are returning to life and munching on the living. In Zombie it is because of a scientist experimenting on the indigenous people on the island of Matul. Right from the start there is little to connect these films other than the walking dead.
Many view Dawn as a satire on capitalism, consumerism and greed while Zombie is usually dismissed as an empty-headed gore flick. Dawn came with expectations. It was Romero returning to the zombie genre that he helped create in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. It was that rare unrated horror film that Roger Ebert praised. Dawn helped kick off the gory golden age of the late '70s, early '80s splatter era in grand fashion. Whatever the next zombie movie was, it was undoubtedly going to be seen as a rip-off of Dawn.
I argue that Zombie has much more on its mind than just gore. The story centers on the class struggle between an educated white doctor who comes to an island to experiment on the "ignorant" indigenous inhabitants. It is about twisting the intended good in one's work for purposes of power and gain. It is about a pandemic that spreads quickly and gets out of hand before anyone knows what happened. It is about not trusting people of authority, especially doctors. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
"Stay home if you don't need to be out. If you must go out, where a mask. We should be able to beat this thing in no time if everyone co-operates and does their part."
For decades Zombie has been solely identified as the work of its director, Lucio Fulci. This is the film that brought him to prominence. In the U.S. and the U.K. Zombie was a huge hit. In fact, in the U.K., notorious gentleman scoundrel Michael Lee was able to keep his fledgling video company VIPCO afloat just from sales of Zombie Flesh Eaters (the U.K. title for Zombie) on VHS alone.
So where did Zombie come from? I recently read a piece that suggested "Fulci was searching for a horror movie and found the Zombie script." I believe this to be an overly simplified and exaggerated version of real events.
Let's go back a little further. Scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti had a string of successful Poliziotteschi (crime thrillers) to his credit that made him a bankable young writer. In addition to an endless imagination from which to draw, Sacchetti was also able to write scripts quickly and craft them for whatever budget the producer had to spend. (He tells stories of working on multiple scripts simultaneously and Elisa goes further to say she remembers him writing with their infant daughter bouncing on his knee, the clacking typewriter never slowing!)
Sacchetti has worked closely with his wife throughout his career. It is a working relationship that saw them developing scripts together, talking them through to the point Dardano could stop at any point in a script and Elisa could pick it up and continue writing. It was a seamless collaboration, an harmonious partnership that worked. (Any doubts can be wiped away just looking at the long list of classic films that were made from their scripts over the years.)
To understand how Sacchetti worked, you must forget all the stories you have read about writers and directors working together in the U.S. For the most part, scriptwriting is a solitary vocation. For Sacchetti he rarely made it onto a movie set, as he was already on to his next script before that last script started filming.
In his early days, Sacchetti would visit producers personally and sell them a story, a scenario for a movie. Whether the producer was ready to make it or not, most of them bought the proposal along with a finished script figuring it was better to have a script by Sacchetti rather than not have a script by Sacchetti.
Producers were the people with the money and Sacchetti dealt directly with them. Once a pitch was sold, a contract would be written up and a check was cut. Sacchetti returned home to write the script and then delivered the completed script. Sometimes the movie was immediately made and sometimes it sat until the right time came to put it together. Years could pass before the script was made. For those that were made years later, many had credits for additional writers who were brought in to rewrite the script in some way without Scchetti's input. When you ask Sacchetti about these “collaborations” he will tell you bluntly he never worked with any of those people on the script and in many cases has no idea who they are. (A perfect example is his script for Mario Bava’s Shock, which he wrote years before it was made. When it was finally made it was re-written by Lamberto Bava and Sacchetti received “Story by” credit, when in fact he delivered an entire script.)
None of this is to say that Sacchetti never worked directly with directors. On occasion he did. He spent a day with Mario Bava developing Chain Reaction, which would eventually be known as Bay of Blood. He speaks highly of working with Umberto Lenzi, who made their working relationship over eleven films much more personal and included great dinners and family get-togethers. He even worked with Fulci years earlier, developing Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes (1977- The Psychic), an experience he did not enjoy.
It was not for the directors that Sacchetti wrote, it was for the producers. And it was Fabrizio De Angelis that he did some of his most iconic work.
After a pitch to De Angelis for a living dead film, Sacchetti delivered Nightmare Island. Elisa Briganti was given sole writing credit. I have had the opportunity to ask both of them why that was and both have told me it was time for Elisa to get a solo writing credit on a script. (I’ve read different reasons elsewhere, but I will accept this as truth since it is coming from the actual two people who wrote the script.)
When it was delivered to De Angelis, the cover page sported the title Nightmare Island (Island of the Living Dead) with "Story & Screenplay by E. Briganti." I was able to read the English adaptation of the script by Chuck Smith. On the bottom of the page is the notice "All rights reserved by VARIETY FILM – 1978."
Cover page of the script that eventually became Zombi/Zombie
With script in hand, De Angelis began looking for his director. He offered it to every major Italian director working at the time. None were available. (Enzo G. Castellari is the director most connected to the project in its earliest stages, but he eventually backed out as he was more an action director than a horror director.)
Enter Lucio Fulci, a dependable filmmaker and craftsman who had been in the business for decades. He had directed in nearly every genre and had a couple successful giallos in the early ‘70s, but he had never directed a horror film before.
To say Fulci was looking for a film is true. Already in his 50s, he needed a project to keep his career going. (His most current film at the time was 1978's Silver Saddle, a fun (thanks to star Giuliano Gemma) but late entry, if not one of the last, in the Spaghetti Western genre.) He was not necessarily looking for a horror film to direct, but any film to direct.
Fulci eagerly accepted the assignment, not realizing the script was actually a collaboration between Briganti and Sacchetti, the young writer he did not get along with while developing the story for Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes years earlier.
Until reading the Zombie script, I had never read a script that was so closely followed by the movie into which it was made. It is scene for scene, word for word. Whether or not De Angelis suggested Fulci follow the script precisely, or Fulci, a seasoned director but a novice at horror, instinctually knew a great script when he read it and knew he should just follow the script and connect the dots, is uncertain, but trust me when I say the film is a perfect cinematic reflection of its script.
Every agonizing second of this scene is detailed in the finished screenplay.
Now we get into murky waters. This is where people start giving all the credit for Zombie to Fulci for bringing the script to life. This is where fans automatically say, “Lucio Fulci directed Zombie. It is his story. He made it.” Not true. Stay with me.
We tend to give a film’s entire credit to the director. Like they are the only one on set with the actors, making the movie. That discounts the dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of other talented technicians and craftsmen who bring their skills to the production. This is where the writer, and everyone else for that matter, is always forgotten. (I will go to my grave insisting Halloween would not be what it is had it not been for Debra Hill, and Night of the Living Dead would not have been what it is had it not been for John Russo, but fans tend to only mention John Carpenter and George Romero when they talk about those films.)
I don’t know why writers get the short-end of the stick time and time again for their work. There would be no movies or books or comics or songs without them. This is what that Friday the 13th fight between Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller is all about. I mean, who really came up with the story, the person who said, “Write a story with a bunch of murders at a summer camp and make it scary,” or the person who actually had to think the story through and live with it for weeks and months on end while it was developed and written?
I’m always going to vote for the person who had to write the dang thing.
In the case of Zombie, my vote is no different. Zombie’s story belongs to Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti because they had to write the dang thing.
Like everyone, we all have parents, and we have a family. Our parents make us, and our family (as a collective whole, whether bound by blood or our "found family") raises us. Zombie is no different. Sacchetti and Briganti make up one parent and Fulci the other. It was brought to beautiful life first on the page and then brought to beautiful visual life on screen. (The cast and crew of technicians then, are the family who helped raise it to life.)
Don’t think for a second I’m undercutting Fulci’s talents as a director. He stages some wonderful scenes of action and gore, but every one of them is present in the script. He’s connecting the dots, and with a script as strong a Zombie, that's what you want to do. His visual flair is all over the film. (The scene of the wind sweeping the deserted island scenery, with one figure in the distance and a crab in the foreground clicking by, is one of the eeriest scenes ever committed to celluloid! It always gives me chills.)
Don't you hear that creepy wind blowing through the dusty streets when you look at this still?
With this film, Sacchetti and Briganti taught Fulci how to make a horror film. That may sound a bit pretentious but think about it. Fulci had no prior experience directing horror. He came to a perfect script. He studied it inside and out to enable him to visualize it and in doing so he learned the structure and the beats of how a horror film worked. Everyone has to learn somewhere, and this is where Fulci learned the basics of Horror Filmmaking 101.
Again, Fulci was in his 50s when he came to the project. He had been directing features since 1959. He was known more for comedies. Watch Zombie with the eyes of an adult, not the eyes of an enthusiastic teenage gorehound, and you will see a movie that is weaving a tale of class struggle, the exploitation of indigenous people, distrust for authority, and a belief of superstition over science. Sacchetti and Briganti were in their early 30s when they wrote the script. These are definitely the ideas of "angry young people" that are calling out injustices they see around them in society. Sure, it has got gut munching and spectacular headshots, but this film has as much on its mind as Dawn. (Romero, as Dawn's writer and only a couple years older, can also be seen as the "angry young man" behind its cynical look at commercialism and capitalist greed.)
Does Zombie preach any of these ideas? No. Heck, I saw the movie dozens of times before I ever slowed down to really pay attention to what it was "about." It's not "about" zombies eating guts. The story uses zombies in the same manner Romero used zombies- as a force of nature the characters have to contend with. They cannot be controlled. The zombies are no different than a flood, a forest fire or an earthquake.
The pursuit for power results in the death of the world. Richard Johnson in Zombie.
Over the next couple years, the team of De Angelis. Sacchetti & Briganti and Fulci delivered a number of classic 80’s horror films like no others. They are still cherished by fans, old and new, to this day. City of the Living Dead (The Gates of Hell), The Beyond (7 Doors of Death), and House by the Cemetery soon followed. Fulci also took other horror directing gigs, such as The Black Cat, Manhattan Baby and The New York Ripper, which further endeared him to fans as a hardcore purveyor of gore and thrills.
The Gates of Hell was released in some areas as Twilight of the Dead.
As the films progressed, according to Sacchetti, Fulci felt fans only wanted bigger and wetter gore scenes. This is where Fulci began changing scripts and signing his films as one of the writers. (Sacchetti has said Italian directors in general tend to take a writing credit on their films whether they wrote anything or not.) The movies began to get gorier and more outrageous, causing the storylines to suffer and become "dream-like," as some have written, which is the same as saying "incoherent." This is why House by the Cemetery can seem a jumbled mess at times, as story elements were excised for scenes of gratuitous gore to satisfy different world markets, and Manhattan Baby all but fell apart, as Fulci tried to punch it up with scenes of violence.
Fulci's career continued with horror and eventually he got around to making a follow-up to Zombie, Zombi 3 in 1988. It has its moments, but it is certainly no Zombie. It is difficult to even see that it is directed by the same person. (And to be honest, Fulci only directed about half of the film, having to bow out due to illness. He was replace by Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, who added scenes that may have killed the mood but did breath some goofy life into it.)
The later films of Fulci's career all but prove what I proposed earlier is true. How can the same man who directed Zombie also be the same man who directed stuff like Aenigma (1987), Touch of Death (1988), Sodom's Ghost (1988), Demonia (1990) and Voices from Beyond (1994)? Easy. Because the same writing team that wrote Zombie did not write any of these other films.
It's all in the script and it all starts with the script.
It's all about the story.
As fans of something we truly love, we owe it to the people who created these films to preserve their history as best we can. It's never too late to go back and rewrite what we once thought of as true. It's called learning, evolving.
Give credit where credit is due. Fulci took a fantastic script and visualized it brilliantly. He brought it to life for the screen and it is one of the greats that will live on forever. But it was never his story. Don't be afraid to give Sacchetti and Briganti their due. Had it not been for their script, Fulci's career might have simply crossed the finish line. Because of Zombie he squeezed another decade and a half out of it thanks to this single script.
Although this is the only scripted scene cut from the final film (possibly to preserve the mystery of the zombies), it seems to have been filmed exactly as it was written.
It's worth noting that in the '90s, Sacchetti reunited with Fulci briefly and offered to write any movie for him that he wanted. Fulci desired a chance to make an epic monster movie and chose The Mummy as his preferred creature. Sacchetti fashioned a scenario that melded the mummy mayhem with high adventure. It would have been a perfect final film for Fulci to end his career. The scenario made the rounds with much interest but they were unable to obtain financing in a timely fashion and Fulci changed his interest to the The Wax Mask project with Dario Argento. (He died shortly before filming began.)
Interestingly enough, a big-budget Hollywood spectacle was released a few short years later that melded mummy mayhem with high adventure.
To read more about Dardano Sacchetti's amazing, decades spanning career, check out It Came From Hollywood Book 1 for one of the most comprehensive interviews with the writer ever. You can get it here: Amazon Barnes&Noble Books-A-Million Half Price Books and anywhere books are sold.