It’s one of the many memorable images from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka Zombi 2): hordes of the undead shambling across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge on their way to invade Manhattan. Now fans of Fulci’s baroquely gory and often delirious brand of zombie fare have themselves been invading midtown as “Zombo Italiano,” a three-week summer film series, has taken over a cultural institution in the heart of New York.
Nothing unusual these days about screening zombie flicks, you say. And you’d be right. Except this event takes place at the decidedly uptown Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle, in the shadow of the Time Warner Center. Talk about trash culture in a high-gloss setting. Running in conjunction with the inspired “Dead or Alive” exhibit that features stunning installations, sculptures, and collages composed (or de-composed) of bone, feather, taxidermy, and the like, Zombo Italiano seems to have brought the alt-culture crowd to “high art” and vice versa. Focusing on the period from 1972 to 1985, albeit with one latter-day entry in the cycle (1994’s Cemetery Man), the series includes works by filmmakers ranging from Lamberto Bava to Paolo Pasolini.
But is this a case of highbrows simply exploiting the current zombie craze? Well, not really, and that’s what’s so interesting. Programmed by Jake Yuzna, a lifelong horror fan and nephew of Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, Zombo Italiano puts on a show that oozes genre cred every step of the way. Prior to the screening of Fulci’s The Beyond, for example, author Roger Ma gave an entertaining self-defense demo based on his book The Zombie Combat Manual. Then the audience was treated to a crowd-pleasing reel of vintage trailer sleaze (e.g. I Dismember Mama) courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing. On a more serious note, it’s clear that Yuzna sees horror archetypes, style, and trends as reflecting important political and social realities – just like any other form of art. Intrigued, I asked if I could pepper him with some questions, and he obliged.
The program notes state that the Italian zombie “movement’s bleak, apocalyptic vision can be seen as a response to the tumultuous state of Italian society.” What was going on in Italy at the time? And do zombies always reflect certain social concerns and conditions?
The Italian Zombie Movement began as a global recession was sweeping over Europe and America. The popularity of these films continued until the economy rebounded in the late 1980s. It’s interesting to look at the similarities of this time period and what is happening today. It may be just coincidence that interest in zombie films seems to blossom during periods of economic downturn, but I think it’s something worth examining. It’s hard to make a concrete statement that zombies always reflect certain social concerns and conditions. After all, no two time periods are identical.
Several of the titles in the lineup are not strictly zombie films. While “zombies” is a convenient category head, might there be a better term – something like “extreme Italian horror” or “trangressive gore of the ’70s” – as an overarching way of thinking about the period?
Zombie films are definitely a subcategory of Italian horror, but the definition of a zombie is a broad concept that’s always evolving. “Plague” and man-made zombies are predominately used in contemporary zombie films, but this hasn’t always been the case. For instance in a lot of 1970s films, zombies had supernatural or mystical origins. While programming Zombo Italiano, I paid special attention to the broad scope of films centering on “the living dead” that were coming out of Italy at the time. Some of these fit into contemporary ideas of zombies, some don’t. I think it’s important to remind audiences that there is a variety to any genre. In order to provide context, a series should showcase this kind of scope, and Zombo Italiano reflects this approach. At first glance some of the films chosen seem unexpected, but that is part of the point. They give a perspective and context to what was being made. I like it when programming choices cause a person to stop and reconsider.
How does the film series connect to the Dead or Alive exhibit?
Dead or Alive came first, long before I was involved with the museum. When I first was in discussions about programming cinema for MAD, they had mentioned their idea for a zombie film series. It was serendipity in way, with my background in horror films.
Care to share some of that?
When I was nine or ten I would read Fangoria, Movie Monsters and any other horror magazine out there. I would bug my parents to take me to midnight movies. At the same time I would take classes in fine arts…and go to poetry and literature readings and lots of plays. I was surrounded by what is often considered high culture and low culture, but I never saw a difference between the two. This was a huge development in my personal perspective. I still don’t see the difference. Now, I’m certainly not the only person or group who is gleefully working to break down the old and tired walls between groups, but I’m certainly embracing it whole heartedly.
What is there stylistically about these films that earns them a spot in a museum series? I know the social commentary aspect is important, but what is the relevancy in terms of “design” or art/film history? For example, do Fulci films have a certain look that makes them worthy of attention from the art world?
Any filmmaker’s work has his or her own stylistic stamp on it, but these films where not chosen for that reason. They where chosen for their quality. I see any film series as an opportunity to highlight really good filmmaking. I’m also against the art world as being something people can’t relate to. There is often a disconnect with people seeing the art world as something unapproachable. It should not be an ivory tower. Art and cultural institutions exist to present, preserve, and celebrate art. They should be something people are excited by, and feel a part of. I want my programming to be something people are passionate about and can find a connection to.
So what kind of response have you gotten from the museum community after announcing this series?
Chuckles and excitement. Those who have no connection with horror films have fun with the series, and the horror fans in the museum community get really excited. Hopefully it will bring new audiences to the museum, but that is not the highest priority for me. Cultural institutions exist to support communities and showcase important artworks. With the old support structures of horror and cult cinema – namely, video stores, midnight movies, and drive-ins – dying out, it becomes vital for cultural institutions to step in and protect these important works. The goal of having series like this is so that people can have access to these films, and to be a place for the horror community to come together. To come together and watch together as a community. There still isn’t anything like seeing a film in a theater, on the big screen, with an audience that loves the films like you do. That is so important, especially now that so many get their cinema off a laptop.
Well said. So what’s next in terms of your role as a curator? Where else do we get this rich nexus of politics, art, history, and really interesting films?
Oh, there will be more horror and cult cinema coming to MAD if I have anything to do with it. For instance, we’re having a retrospective of Alejandro Jodorowsky in September. There are tons and tons of films that are a nexus of politics, art, and history. I think you have to trust your instinct. If there is a group of films or filmmakers that you and others think are amazing, then you follow that excitement. Research them and you will discover that context. There are so many to choose from. This might sound overly sentimental, but I think it’s important to have these works shown to younger audiences. With so many remakes being produced in recent history, I think it’s important to educate the next generation of horror and cult filmmakers about what has come before. To try to encourage them to break the mold, like these great filmmakers have.
Peter Gutierrez writes horror – and about horror – for a variety of publications. He’s also a producer at Wild Eye Releasing (wildeyereleasing.com) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.