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The Lure of the Ghost Train: Lucio Fulci’s Zombie

Ghost train, Sydney Royal Easter Show, photo K. Sakkas

For many, a large part of the fun of the fair is to be had in Sideshow Alley, in and around that zone of lurid nightmare known as the ghost train.  With its kitsch aesthetic, the ghost train aims to flood the senses by employing as many horrific elements as possible, however incongruously these might fit together.  Murderous nurses; electric chair victims; graveyards spewing up the dead; vampire bats and so on can all be found in close proximity to each other.  Something of this eclecticism permeates the horror films of Lucio Fulci, particularly The Beyond (1981) and Zombie (1979).

Ghost Train, Sydney Royal Easter Show, photo K. Sakkas

Capitalising on the success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), Zombie, which cannily positioned itself as a sequel/prequel to Romero’s classic, relates the genesis on a small Caribbean island of a zombie pandemic.  Like the ghost train, it’s simplistic in narrative but rich in imagery, transforming our fears of disease, death and putrefaction into a series of eye-popping tableaux (sometimes literally—Fulci was partial to a bit of eye-popping).

In one scene, a woman takes a shower, unaware that outside a decaying hand is pressing itself against the window.  In another, a topless female scuba diver goes underwater to photograph fish, only to be accosted first by a shark, then by a zombie, in an overloading of sex and horror elements that exemplifies the ghost train (and Fulci).  It should be mentioned that the shark in this rather magical scene is real, although of a seemingly placid variety.

Zombie and shark scene, Zombie

Fulci’s gloriously festering zombies are figures of heightened horror whose grotesque artificiality has a strong kinship with the monstrous automatons of the ghost train.  As is only natural, they are the gruesome heart of the film.  The camera dwells on them in loving detail as they slowly rise from the grave; wrestle sharks; accost beautiful women; and in the final scene, take over the Brooklyn Bridge, while in the distance, thanks to Fulci’s guerilla filmmaking approach, traffic can be seen going about its business.

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