Gore Blimey: The Zombie Holocaust World Of Dr Butcher


One of the more outrageous films from the Golden Age of Italian exploitation cinema.

One of the joys of the long-dead Italian exploitation film industry was its wonderfully derivative nature – cheerfully knocking out quick cash-ins on global hits (or films that were expected to be hits), Italian producers and directors often came up with bizarre, demented hybrid movies that were more fun than the major studio movies that they were copying – partly because the men making these knock-offs often hadn’t even seen the film that they were supposedly copying, but often because of the sheer lunatic imagination that ran through the industry, meaning that genres were blurred and ideas twisted to the point where the copycat film often had no similarity to the film that it was supposedly ripping off. There is a real joy to these films, some of which are ham-fisted re-runs of The Exorcist or Mad Max 2, but many of which just take the vague concept of a hit movie and run with it in strange directions.

George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a surprisingly popular choice for imitation at the end of the 1970s. Or perhaps it wasn’t so surprising, given that the film was co-produced with Italian director Dario Argento, who released his own edit – faster, louder, less political – to great success in Italy. It quickly spawned Lucio Fulci’s shamelessly-titled Zombi 2 (the Italian title of Dawn… being Zombi), a glorious bit of cashing in that had little in common with Dawn… beyond the idea of flesh-eating zombies and cheekily set itself up as a prequel to the movie. It became a worldwide hit in its own right, as Zombie (in the USA) and Zombie Flesh Eaters (in the UK). Zombies were suddenly big box office and led to several movies that were arguably more copies of Fulci’s work than Romero’s – Zombie Creeping Flesh/Hell of the Living Dead, Zombie Horror/Nights of Terror and, later on, Zombi 3 and 4.


All this preamble leads us to Zombie Holocaust, which is remarkable in that it is a shameless imitation of an imitation – a rehash of Zombie Flesh Eaters, with the same male lead and same producer. But it is also a cash-in on the current craze for cannibal films, in the wake of Cannibal Holocaust‘s success and controversy. Hey, if you are going to rip off one film, why not rip off another at the same time? And so Zombie Holocaust manages to combine both genres in a gloriously trashy, ludicrous and outrageous movie, one that you can’t honestly call good but which is nevertheless very entertaining.

The film was produced by Fabrizio de Angelis, the man who had previously produced Zombie Flesh Eaters, and so it would be reasonable to expect more of the same. Indeed, that’s what you get to a degree – but this film goes in its own direction under the direction of veteran Marino Girolami, mixing elements from zombie and cannibal films, ‘blonde goddess’ jungle movie tropes, Mad Doctor stories and everything else that could be crammed into a sometimes confusing narrative.

Ian McCulloch, fresh from Zombie Flesh Eaters, is the lead, wandering through the jungle with a perpetual look of confusion/distaste on his face as he leads an expedition to a mysterious island in search of the Kito cult tribe who have – for reasons that will remain somewhat vague – been lopping limbs off corpses in a New York hospital. Along for the ride are sexy doctor Alexandra Delli Colli (who is here simply to appear extensively naked later in the movie), sassy reporter Sherry Buchanan and other minor league players and native bit parts who are in the film simply to be killed and eaten in spectacularly gory ways. And this film is certainly a gore fest – possibly even more than many of its zombie rivals as it sees its pasty-faced zombies offed with motor blades and eyes gouged out by hungry cannibals.


Responsible for the ‘zombies’ that are roaming around this cannibal island is mad doctor Donald O’Brien (sadly not actually called Dr Butcher) who is performing brain transplants straight out of 1940s horror movies and cheerfully feeding the scalps to the natives. Sadly, they don’t seem to be especially appreciative of this gesture, especially when – in a great bit of plot fudging – they adopt Delli Colli as their naked queen (and who wouldn’t, to be fair?) and attack both the doctor and his zombie creations.

This is joyful nonsense, full of trashy performances enhanced with iffy dubbing, splendid dialogue (“The patient’s screaming disturbed my concentration so I performed removal of the vocal cords”) and ludicrous-looking zombies – if they actually are zombies, given that they are actually the victims of brain transplants, don’t eat anyone and might not even be dead. In fact, while it attempts to cash in on Romero/Fulci, this is actually a throwback to the Mad Doctor films of decades earlier – you can see more of a connection to The She Demons or Mad Doctor of Blood Island here than to the film’s modern contemporaries.

Zombie Holocaust wasn’t a huge hit in Italy and tended to creep out elsewhere, emerging on VHS in the UK with little fanfare in a cut version that managed to avoid the attentions of the police for the most part. In America, however, it had a rather different story. There, the film was picked up by grindhouse distributor Terry Levene, who renamed it Dr Butcher M.D. (Medical Deviate) – a not uncommon practice with US exploitation distributors handling Italian productions, though few retitles have quite the visceral impact of this one – and also chose to add a new musical score (lifted from Roberta Findlay’s X-rated movie Anyone But My Husband) and insert extra footage at the start of the film, snaffled from Roy Frumkes’ work on the unfinished compendium film Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out (Wes Craven also worked on this aborted project). Why he went to this effort is anyone’s guess – it adds nothing to the film, not even referencing Dr Butcher himself. Still, this new version was heavily and imaginatively promoted, with a poster that shamelessly lifts an image of Salvador Dali, a ‘Butcher Mobile’ driving the streets of New York, spilling blood and demanding that patrons attend the screening, where they were greeted with barf bags from nurses on entry. Let no one say that Levene didn’t do his best to make the film a hit and his efforts were not unrewarded.


Whichever version of the film you see – and to be fair, the differences are slight once you get past the opening titles – this is a hugely entertaining slice of nonsense. It’s not classic horror by any means, but sometimes all you really need is something cheerfully mindless, shamelessly derivative and gleefully exploitative. Like most of the Italian horror films of the era, it has production values above what you might expect (a few terrible special effects and sloppily edited scenes aside) and is unrelentingly gory – once we get to the jungle, you are never more than a few minutes away from another gruesome death. They don’t make films like this anymore, sad to say – but like much of the Italian genre product of the era, this has seen a new life on collector’s edition Blu-rays (as both Zombie Holocaust and Dr Butcher M.D.) and so you can easily recreate the glory days of grindhouse cinema at home.



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