There's (zombie) films to drink beer and shout along with, there's films for screaming, cowering and recoiling from; there's comedies, parodies and musicals, and there's even the odd delight that, at a push, could make it to Netflix and chill. Zeder aka Revenge of the Dead as it was re-titled a few years later for a US home video audience that needed a more noticeable title isn't really any of the above. It's an odd little number; a thinking man's zombie film anomaly, with nuance, sophistication, ambiguity and a dialogue and narrative heavy story. It's also not really like anything else save maybe Dellamorte Dellamore with its surreal dream-like approach to the veil of death; or maybe Pet Sematary with the same penchant for macabre spirituality, subtle, minimalist yet disturbing presentation, and story full of dubious and detached morality.
The story rather plays out like a good H. P. Lovecraft investigative short, with a nefarious well funded organisation / cult and forces and powers they couldn't possibly hope to either understand or control. There's also the innocent and unsuspecting bystanders that become embroiled, ignoring the myriad of warnings to fall truly down the rabbit hole. Here it's writer Stefano (Gabriele Lavia), our films hero, and his discovery of a disturbing but curious letter on an old typewriter ribbon gifted to him by girlfriend Allesandra (Anne Canovas) that sets the wheels in motion, as well as affirming the main narrative thread.
Zeder refers to the late Paolo Zeder; an occultist and hierophant who posited that the world was dotted with ancient places of antiquity and power called k-zones. Forged through great acts of spirituality and death, these hubs act as permanent zero-state zones where binary boundaries like life and death become blurred and insubstantial and thus of great interest to those with the money, curiosity and moral duplicity to exploit. The film begins in one such k-zone, a flashback to 1953 and the unearthing of Zeder by cult member Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) who uses the psychic prowess of his protégé; the young naïve, innocent and quite unwilling Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) to track down the physical corpse of perpetrator of recent grisly murders. Thirty years on it's an old abandoned children's home, now abandoned unfinished hotel near the necropolis of Spina and the burial of Zeder's own neophyte and spiritual successor Don Luigo Costa (Aldo Sassi) that has both the death cult, and increasingly obsessive Stefano's focus.
Italian director Pupi Avati's story telling is slow, rich and refreshingly fluid and respectful. There's never any hand-holding or forced exposition; the viewer is treated with intelligence and expected to piece together the mystery alongside Stefano, experiencing the same esoteric incoherence and confusion. The result is a film that while could easily be accused of meandering along with a dull, over-complicated story, does offer tension, suspense and constant intrigue as long as one is prepared to invest the time and energy to keep up. If one is willing to make this investment though, Avati's story provides a mystery with ramifications that are truly terrifying and a final ten minutes or so that are perhaps some of the most deeply, brooding and disturbing I've watched.
Inside a k-zone death as a concept is unbound from any expected linear or normative paradigm. So while the zombies, when they do eventually make an appearance, can and do walk about as much a murderess flesh eater as the next, they're also simultaneously buried and very much deceased. Also detached from the confines of both their actual corporeal home, and any absolute conditions like space, they're able to appear appear and disappear seemingly at will. There's also an almost playful manner in which they view those constrained with living; an exuding confidence and power akin to a cat with a mouse. By now our brains have almost come to accept the traditional zombie; by constraining it with semantics and understanding; with viruses, possession or aliens we're not quite as scared as it fits, albeit still with absurdity, into our linear paradigm. Zeder's zombies successfully reopen Pandora's box, challenging our very foundations and provoking our primal fears with true uncertainty and discomfort; nothing is answered because nothing can be answered; like the boundary of death itself, any answer is beyond reason and understanding.
I can see why many new horror and especially new zombie fans would baulk at this narrative rich Italian eighties obscure and eccentric horror. The Cthulhu investigative story that constitutes the bulk of the film despite being well intentioned, coherent and engaging is perhaps overly elaborate, laboured to the point of legitimate complaint. It can also at times be a film that's difficult to follow; being deliberately and unapologetically incongruous and irreconcilable. Also whilst there is a fair amount of screaming, chasing and dying, many of which are quite gory in nature the actual pop-shots so to speak are predominantly off camera, resulting in a film that's extremely gore-tame not just by modern standards, but the whole Italian Giallo and zombie scene one may have expected it to also occupy. Yet it's for these very reasons I enjoyed Luigo's story telling so much. It's serious, it's brooding, it's baffling and disturbing and unlike a lot of popcorn flicks I did have a lot to think about and you know what, I coped - 8/10.