We’ve covered the lawless world of 80’s Italian genre cinema quite a few times before, be it their blatant disinterest in copyright laws to their whatever-it-takes attitude when it came to marketing. Yep, as long as their was a buck or two in it, the people behind actually getting these notoriously dodgy movies out into the world would stop at nothing in order to gain some profit and that sometimes meant a bit of creative work when it came to titles.
This brings us to Killing Birds, a muddled horror flick from 1988 that was eventually rebranded in some countries to become Zombi 5, the fourth unofficial sequel to George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (itself retitled Zombie) and Zombie Flesh Eaters 4 in others, just to make things extra confusing. However, probably the most telling example that Italian producers simply could give the vaguest of fucks is the amusing fact that Zombi 4 – aka. ludicrous undead gutcruncher After Death – was actually made and released in some places after Killing Birds, hence the rather unique matter of a sequel technically coming out before it’s predecessor.
Anyway, I only mention all those because it’s far more interesting than most of the bloody movies themselves with Killing Birds being no exception.
Fred Brown returns from the Vietnam war only to find his wife polishing another man’s bayonet and after a moment of deliberation decides to leapfrog divorce proceedings by slashing the throats of her and her lover and then goes on to also murder his in-laws too. This sates his bloodlust enough for him to hold off on slaughtering his infant son (Wait, a baby son? Hasn’t he just returned from Vietnam.), but while he’s mulling over what he’s just done, he gets some instant karma when a falcon from the house’s private aviary takes it upon itself to peck out one of Fred’s eyes and blind him in the other and soon the authorities arrive to arrest him and take his son into some much needed care.
Twenty years later, an overwhelmingly annoying bunch of college students lose their collective shit when they get a grant to locate the rare Ivory Bill Woodpecker that is in danger of going extinct by 1992 and they all pile into a van and do various “science” things by a lake while their security detail serenades them with a harmonica and they try to record various species as they trample through the place with all the mearsured dignity of a black friday sale – seriously, you would not believe how excited these kids are about this fucking woodpecker.
Anyway, after getting some info from an incredibly intense, old blind professor – guess who that’s going to turn out to be – they continue on with their method of tracking down rare birds by randomly wandering through some woods), things take a darker turn when, after stumbling across a rotting corpse in the rusting hulk of an old van, the group find the old, decrepit house where Fred Brown slaughtered his family years ago.
After settling down for the night, the group is soon under attack by supernatural forces that murders them in various different ways, but how does this all connect with the group’s leader, Steve and the creepy old blind dude who senses they need his aid?
Released after the Italian zombie boon had crawled back into it’s grave with a sheepish expression on its mauled face, Killing Birds defies expectations firstly, by not technically being a zombie film and secondly, not even containing any birds that actually kill people – which is extra weird when you consider that Zombi 3 actually featured contaminated birds that infects someone with an undead plague.
No, what we have instead is more of a ghost story, where, instead of vengeful spirits, we get a couple of cobwebby zombie show up presumably because the producers decreed that they’d be cheaper to realise than ghosts. But before these zombie/spirits turn up to mutilate a bunch of moronic teens by bashing there head against a wall or by various throat rippings, we have to stick with this group of insipid, woodpecker obsessed, chuckleheads as they spend the majority of the film blindly ambling from A to B and following every cliche in the book with blank expressions on their faces. At one point the group elects to search for a missing friend by initially opening a single door and yelling her name out (yeah, that’ll do it), but once they realise that that’s probably not going to cut it, they begrudgingly split up and search the house in order to helpfully facilitate the logistics of whatever death the script has in store for them. But whether getting garotted by their huge, chunky jewelry getting stuck in the workings of a generator or suddenly getting immolated by some spilt gasoline (with neither technically being attributed to ghost zombies), none of these actors manage to deliver a single line reading that actually lands which often means you can’t tell if they’re genuine idiots or just really bad at sarcasm. Example: upon find a rusty generator, one guy actually states that the decrepit machinery hasn’t been used for centuries – uh, you wanna run that one by me again, sport?
In more capable hands such as Lucio Fulci or Michele Soavi, such lumbering guff could have been a stylish, logic-free blast of pulpish rock and roll, but adsurdly prolific director Joe D’Amato – a man with nearly 200 directing credits on IMDb, none of which you’ve probably ever heard of – and co-director Claudio Lattanzi are content to let things unfold at an unhurried shuffle as our desire to see these annoying teens grows more by the minutes.
Things take a slight upturn with the arrival of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. himself, Robert Vaughn, who plays the older Fred Brown (Gasp! I didn’t see that coming!) and who is Steve’s real father (What? No way!), who is given the unenviable task of trying to explain the entire movie after inexplicably showing up at the end after we saw him overact his way through a melodramatic heart attack. Still, even if his reasoning needs a little polish (the house is evil and killed people because of their fear – or something), he seems to be enjoying a paycheck that sees him wear shades a lot and utter such greetings to people as “I meant to frighten you and I’m glad I did.”.
Mercifully the last of a string of movies slapped with the Zombi label in an attempt to make them sell, Killing Birds hardly resets the bar when comparing it to its peers, but at least it makes a little more sense than say, After Death, which had scientists cause a zombie outbreak by trying to cure cancer with voodoo.
Nevertheless, Zombi 5 is a truly zombie movie for the birds…