Monday, May 31, 2021

"I Hope It's Not a Gingerbread House" - Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1987) - Film #205

Although it might not reach the cinematic heights of Claudio Fragasso's Zombie 4: After Death (1989), the follow-up film in the "series," Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1987, oddly), is a sober supernatural film about doomed bird-watchers that features the always reliable and always entertaining Robert Vaughn.

Your universe's critics are as harsh about Zombie 5 as about other post-Fulci films in the series. Reviewer movieman_kev writes, "Horrid acting, unsympathetic characters, lackluster plot, lack of action and insipid plot all combine to make this one to miss." Reviwer OnePlusOne writes, "In the end it's simply mind numbingly dull." And reviewer oskar-jungell-611-182266 writes, "I can't find anything that works here. The camera works, the audio, the plot, the acting, the effects... It's just not good. There is nothing good about it."

Read on for the truth about Claudio Lattanzi and Joe D'Amato's Zombie 5: Killing Birds...

A tractor-trailer rolls down the highway, stops, and lets a hitchhiker climb out of the cab. We watch the hitchhiker, dressed in a soldier’s gear, walk through Louisiana until he reaches a big old house whose front porch is full of bird cages, which in turn are full of live birds. The man pets a falcon before going inside, only to find a woman sleeping with another man. He slits the man’s throat, leaving the woman asleep beside the dead man and then disappearing. When she wakes up, she finds him outside on the porch with the birds, so he kills her by slashing her throat, and then he kills two neighbors and kidnaps their baby.

Apparently with revenge on its mind, the falcon flies at the man and pecks out one of his eyes.

Later, at Loyola University, a student named Steve shows his friend Paul a letter telling him they got a grant to find a rate ivory-billed woodpecker in the wild — an accomplishment that will be published in Scientific American. After taking a great deal of time and bicycling to notify others about the grant (a sequence that includes vector computer graphics simulating pornography, not to mention a German woman reciting the Post Office motto in reference to journalism, for some reason), Steve and Paul are joined by Anne, Mary, Brian, and two other friends on the trip. (Despite attending Loyola, Steve wears a t-shirt for the LSU Raptor Rehabilitation Unit.)

They reach a plantation house, and Anne and Steve enter the house to see if anybody is home. Rudely looking through documents without permission, they are surprised by Dr. Frederick Brown, the blind man whose eye was pecked out in the opening sequence, who is now played by the great Robert Vaughn.

Mr. Vaughn explains that he is studying bird calls in the area. Anne asks him about the ivory-bill woodpecker, but he deflects their questions. However, he does give Steve a paper he has kept for many years, telling him, “I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”

Steve concentrates on Mr. Vaughn’s paper, but the defensive and unpleasant Anne is more interested in a photograph she saw in the house; her background research on Mr. Vaughn revealed that his family disappeared after he returned from Vietnam. 

There follows an extended montage of the students taking photographs, video, and audio recordings of birds in a swamp. They make reference to an incoming fog, though the day is crystal clear despite the image being somewhat out of focus. Then they find a dead body in an abandoned car.

They run from the car and find a house. “Let’s hope it’s not a gingerbread house,” Anne says.

“Everything’s a joke to you,” Mary replies.

It is not made of gingerbread, but the house appears abandoned. It is the house from the opening sequence, where Mr. Vaughn’s character committed murder and the bird pecked out his eye. After exploring the house for approximately twenty minutes (the filmmakers do not indicate whether the ivory-billed woodpecker makes its home in abandoned plantation houses), they find a trapdoor in the porch that leads down into a cellar. They find an old generator, and one of them quips that it hasn’t been used in centuries.

Eventually, Anne finds an old newspaper sitting on a chair covered with dust (or possibly flour, based on the texture). She also finds a photograph of a couple that rots away in her hand, though she says nothing about this supernatural event. Elsewhere, Steve encounters a rocking chair that rocks by himself, and he says nothing about this supernatural event. In another supernatural twist, he finds himself alone in the house, though the filmmakers show us the others gathered in the living room. Steve has a vision of the bloody aftermath of Mr. Vaughn’s murders, and then he sees the blind Mr. Vaughn stalking him, not to mention a clean aviary full of live birds. His vision climaxes when the camera sweeps through the house as doors open in front of it, Evil Dead-style, he sees Anne crucified on the wall, and then he walks into the living room where everything is normal.

As characters do in movies, the group decides to spend the night in the abandoned house. They start the old generator, then find places to sleep. After Mary has a dream in which a Vietnam-era soldier slices her throat, she wakes up and watches Jennifer behaving fearfully in the aviary; from Jennifer’s POV we see a mossy zombie stalking her.

Another zombie slams Jennifer’s head against the wall, apparently killing her. Mary wakes Paul up and tells her something happened to Jennifer. “What?” he asks. “Why?”

The group looks for Jennifer but finds nothing, until one of them is supernaturally set on fire (by what appear to be the tracks of a DeLorean reaching 88 miles per hour) and runs off into the forest.

“How did it happen?” Anne asks.

“He wouldn’t stop,” someone says, inappropriately suggesting a person set on fire should stand still. “We couldn’t help him.”

Back at Mr. Vaughn’s house, a tape recorder switches on by itself and plays birdsongs while Mr. Vaughn reads a Braille book. Then Mr. Vaughn has a sudden heart attack, but he doesn’t let it stop him from walking into the next room.

After finding the flaming man’s body (bloody but unburnt), the group decides to return to their “camper” (actually a van), though some return to the house to get a computer first. They find the computer without incident and return to the van, but when they try to hot-wire it, zombies slowly approach the van. In a gruesome scene whose physics may be a bit difficult to understand, Mary’s throat is torn by a zombie holding onto her head.

The attack forces the others to return to the abandoned house. They try to figure out who attacked them. “How can anyone live in the swamp?” Steve asks.

“Live? Maybe they’re not really alive,” Anne suggests.

“You mean lost souls that can find no peace? There’s no such thing.”

The electricity goes out so Paul and Rob go to the cellar to restart it, fixing a leak and adding gasoline. (Somewhat oddly, the ceiling lights are on as they do this, somehow functioning without the generator.) The generator works, but Rob is killed non-supernaturally when the massive compass he wears around his neck is caught by its gears. 

Upstairs, the computer turns itself on and displays a Hill House-inspired message: WELCOME HOME, STEVE. “What does it mean?” asks Anne.

Paul runs upstairs and breathlessly tells Anne and Steve, “They got him. He’s dead.” (Apparently, Paul interprets Rob’s death as murder by zombies, despite the fact it was caused by his own compass-wearing proclivities.) They board up the doors but fail to foresee the zombies coming through the eggshell-thin walls.

Anne, Steve, and Paul escape to the attic. A zombie breaks through the trapdoor, but then falls silent. After a few suspenseful moments, the zombie attacks from the roof, killing Paul. 

When morning comes, Anne and Steve leave the attic. They slowly move through the house, hearing birds pecking at the windows—until the pecking sound becomes the sound of Mr. Vaugh’s cane tapping the floor. “I’m glad I got you in time, son,” Mr. Vaughn says, perhaps misunderstanding the situation. “There’s no reason to be afraid. You’re out of danger. It’s me they want.”


“They feed on fear. It animates them, gives them strength. It was fear that killed your friends. They hold no power on me. How can you be afraid when you live in eternal darkness? The real darkness is inside of me. It is me.”

“You’re Steve’s father,” Anne deduces. (Some might say this revelation is weakened slightly by the fact that it was never set up, never pays off, and is only alluded to by the possessed computer a few minutes earlier displaying WELCOME HOME, STEVE.)

Mr. Vaughn tells Steve and Anne to go away so “they” can have their revenge on him. As the couple leaves, birds fly in the air, presumably gathering at the old house. We hear Mr. Vaughn scream. The image freezes.

The End

As with many Italian classics, including those shot in the United States, one highly appreciated quality of Zombie 5: Killing Birds is that it refuses to offer an explanation for the supernatural goings-on. The zombies (or possibly the singular zombie) stalking the bird-watchers do not appear to be dead people returning from their graves. They simply exist. Perhaps they represent the existential dangers of life waiting around the corner for twenty-somethings about to graduate from college. Perhaps they represent some aspect of religion--why else would Steve have a vision of Anne crucified against a wall? Or perhaps there is only one zombie, the reanimated corpse of Mr. Vaughn's wife's lover who has come back for revenge because Steve, Mr. Vaughn's son, has returned to Mr. Vaughn's old abandoned house. We will never know for certain, and that is the enduring charm of the film.

Birds appear to be an important symbol in the film as well, not least because they are mentioned in the title. Perhaps the birds are vengeful spirits seeking to avenge the death of Mr. Vaughn's wife (possibly their owner) by plucking out his eye in the past, and finally killing him (offscreen) when he perhaps ill-advisedly returns to his old house. If this interpretation is correct, the birds in this film serve as counterparts to the ravens in Dario Argento's Opera, also released in 1987. Those birds have a similar penchant for eye trauma, and for avenging murders. Killing Birds is thus more than simply a title; it's a subgenre unto itself, though it is a grammatically ambiguous phrase. Are the titular birds doing the killing or are the birds being killed? Alas, this is another mystery that will never, ever be solved.