The film tells the story of a Caribbean island cursed by voodoo, whose dead residents rise as zombies to attack the living. A scientist's daughter journeys to the island after her father's boat turns up abandoned in New York City. Intended by its writer as a return to "classic zombie tales", Zombi 2 was filmed in Italy, with further location shooting in New York and Santo Domingo.
Produced on a small budget of ₤410 million, the film earned several times its production costs back in international gross. It attracted controversy upon its release in the United Kingdom, where it became listed as a "video nasty". However, later years have seen a greater appreciation for the film from critics.
An abandoned sailboat drifts into New York Harbor and is boarded by harbor patrol officers. One is killed by a zombie, which falls overboard after being shot by another officer. The police question the boat owner's daughter, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), who claims she hasn't seen her father for months. At the morgue, the officer's corpse stirs. Anne meets journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch), and the pair follows her father's trail to the Caribbean island Matul. En route, they befriend Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay), who are sailing around the area and agree to take them to Matul.
On Matul, Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson) has been running the hospital whilst researching voodoo rites. His wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) wishes to leave the island, but Menard insists on staying until he understands the phenomenon. At the hospital, patients are dying of a strange illness, and the islanders are frightened by reports of people rising from the dead. Menard begins shooting corpses to stop them from reanimating. Paola is attacked at home by a zombie and dragged out through a smashed door to her death, her eye impaled on splintered wood.
On the boat, Susan dives underwater and encounters a tiger shark. Taking shelter behind a reef, she is attacked by an underwater zombie. She escapes as the shark and the zombie attack each other. Brian shoots at the shark, and the shark rams the boat, damaging it. Eventually, the group arrives at Matul, firing distress flares to request assistance. Menard goes to meet them, leaving his nurse (Stefania D'Amario) to supervise the mass burial of dead patients. He tells Anne that her father is dead—a victim of the troubles on the island—and asks the group to check on Paola. They are horrified to discover her corpse being devoured by zombies.
The four escape in Menard's jeep, but the vehicle crashes when Brian swerves to avoid a zombie, and in the process injures Peter's ankle. Making their way back to the hospital on foot, the group stops at a clearing which is actually a Conquistador graveyard. Anne and Peter are attacked by corpses rising from the earth. Brian rescues them, but Susan is killed.
The trio returns to the hospital, resolving to defend themselves against the zombie horde. Setting up barricades and making improvised weapons, they battle the zombies, but Menard is killed. The patients reanimate inside the hospital, killing the staff, as the zombies breach the defences. Peter, Anne, and Brian escape as the hospital is consumed by fire. Brian is attacked by a zombified Susan, whom Peter shoots before the three make it back to the boat and leave the island. At sea, Brian dies. Anne and Peter lock his body in a cabin as proof of what has happened on Matul. His reanimated corpse begins banging on the door, as Peter and Anne listen to a radio report that the New York Harbor incident has escalated into an epidemic: as zombies advance on the Brooklyn Bridge, the entire city is under attack.
Zombi 2 serves as a sequel to Zombi, a re-edited Italian release of George A. Romero's 1978 film Dawn of the Dead; Zombi had been edited by Dario Argento and given a new score by the Italian band Goblin, and proved successful upon its release in Italy. As Italian copyright law allows any film to be marketed as a sequel to another work, the film was quickly greenlit and financed by producer Fabrizio De Angelis. Enzo G. Castellari was offered to direct Zombi 2, but turned it down as he didn't feel he would be the right director for a horror film. Director Lucio Fulci was De Angelis' second choice for the project, and was hired based on his handling of violent scenes in his previous films Sette note in nero and Non si sevizia un paperino.
Screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti had already worked with Fulci on Sette note in nero. Sacchetti has since stated that his initial script for Zombi 2—originally written under the title Nightmare Island—had been influenced by The Island of Doctor Moreau and had been intended to return to "classic zombie tales" such as I Walked with a Zombie, The Walking Dead or Voodoo Island. Sacchetti began work on this script in July 1978, before it was optioned by Angelis' company Variety Films that December and re-tooled as Zombi 2. Lead star McCulloch was cast primarily on the success in Italy of the 1975 BBC television series Survivors, which had impressed producer Ugo Tucci.
Production occurred during June and July 1979. Filming took place in Latina, Italy, as well as in New York City and Santo Domingo. Several of the actors' contracts had specified being provided with trailers for the duration of production; however, none were present when filming started and only Johnson was able to convince the producers to provide one. McCulloch and Johnson had known each other for many years by the time they collaborated on Zombi 2, having first met while they were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, with the younger McCulloch coming to idolise Johnson's work. The underwater scene featuring a shark attack was devised by Ugo Tucci; it was shot without Fulci's approval by Giannetto De Rossi in Isla Mujeres, with the zombie portrayed by a local shark trainer.
The score to Zombi 2 was composed by Fabio Frizzi, who frequently scored Fulci's works, including Sette note in nero, I quattro dell'apocalisse and Sella d'argento previously. Zombi 2 marked the first time the two had worked together on a straight horror movie as opposed to their previous spaghetti western and giallo thriller work; Frizzi would go on to compose for many more horror films with and without Fulci.
Frizzi's work on Zombi 2—particularly "Seq. 6", the sequence composed for the eye-gouging scene—was inspired by the melody of The Beatles' 1967 song "A Day in the Life". Elsewhere in the score, Frizzi included Caribbean musical cues, which he noted were intended to "pleasantly deceive" the audience. A medley of the score was later included as part of Frizzi's 2013 Fulci 2 Frizzi live tour, including the 2014 live album release Fulci 2 Frizzi: Live at Union Chapel. The score itself was released on vinyl by Death Waltz Records in 2015, with new artwork by Tom Beauvais.
All tracks written by Fabio Frizzi.
Zombi 2 was first released in 25 August 1979 in Italy, before being released in English-speaking markets in 1980. The film would go on to gross over ₤3,000,000,000 worldwide, significantly higher than its ₤410,000,000 budget. Zombi 2 has also been released under the titles Sanguella, The Island of the Living Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie, Zombie The Dead Walk Among Us, Gli Ultimi Zombi, Woodoo, L'Enfer de Zombies, Zombie 2: The Dead Are Among Us and Nightmare Island.
Upon its release in the United Kingdom on 2 January 1980, the British Board of Film Classification required a total of one minute and forty-six seconds of material to be cut in order to obtain an X rating; its most recent home release on 1 August 2005 passed for an 18 rating with no cuts required. However, the 1980 release found itself classified as a "video nasty", having been considered a breach of the Obscene Publications Act. This classification, and the de facto "ban" it involved, has subsequently been used for publicity when advertising future home releases
Zombi 2 has been released several times on home video, beginning with a 1981 VHS version by VIPCO following the theatrical cuts directed by the BBFC. VIPCO produced an uncut release, marketed as the "strong uncut version", on VHS the following year; this is the release which was widely confiscated as a "video nasty". Further VHS releases followed in 1991 and 1994, with the latter being edited for widescreen viewing. The film was first released on DVD by VIPCO in 2004, with minor cuts, and uncut by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2005. Other DVD releases include a 2004 version by Cornerstone Media, and a 2012 DVD and Blu-ray version by Arrow Films.
Zombi 2 grossed higher in the domestic Italian box office than its predecessor, leading to future sequels—Fulci began directing Zombi 3 before illness forced him to hand over the reigns to Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, the latter of whom would also direct Zombi 4. The film was nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Make-up at the 8th Saturn Awards in 1981.
In a contemporary review, Tom Milne reviewed a 89-minute English-language dub in the Monthly Film Bulletin and compared the film to Dawn of the Dead. While noting that the cast was competent and the film featured "sometimes effective make-up work", Milne opined that the film "lacks-for all weaknesses of Romero's film—even a tenth of the minatory charge harboured by Zombies." The review noted that the censorship trimmed a "promisingly gruesome sequence" with a corpse undergoing an autopsy. In Italy, La Stampa described the film as "pedestrian", as well finding it hard to bear Olga Karlatos' character's death scene.
In a 2012 review for The Guardian, Phelim O'Neill described the film as "the ultimate undead movie", praising its commitment to gory scenes and convincing effects. O'Neill felt that the film stood the passage of time well, and explained that this was "because it delivers, plain and simple". He also highlighted Frizzi's work on the score, and summed the film up as "a real influence on what followed". Anne Billson, writing for The Daily Telegraph in 2013, included Zombi 2 in her list of the top ten zombie films, describing its opening scenes as "sublimely creepy" and the eye-gouging scene as "memorably nasty". Writing for the Daily Mirror, James Kloda praised Fulci's directing, finding that he consistently made evocative use of particular shots to accentuate the film's action or horror. Kloda felt that the film "can often blind with its shock violence but is well worth the look".
Writing for AllMovie, Robert Firsching described Zombi 2 as a "relatively well made shocker" which "led to the zombie-gore film becoming the dominant motif of 1980s Italian horror". Firsching rated the film three stars out of five. Empire's Kim Newman awarded the film two stars out of five, chalking up much of its "video nasty" reputation to the "eye gouging" scene, comparing this unfavourably to similar material in 1929's Un Chien Andalou. Newman did compliment several sequences as interesting, particularly one underwater scene depicting a zombie attacking a shark, but found that overall the film did not "keep up the pace or plausability sufficiently".