Retrieving Zeder from the K-Zone

This is a story of a cinema treasure hunt, and as such, may be a bit tedious to those outside the rather narrow confines of “Lost Italian horror films of the 1980s” fandom. But I suspect everyone loves a mystery, and I’ll do my best to make this one interesting.

Right around the turn of the last century, I recall reading—I don’t know where—about a 1982 Italian film called Zeder. It was described as an atmospheric, understated masterpiece that depended more on building a sense of dread than displaying splatter effects. Its plot kicks off with an ingenious device: a struggling writer acquires a new typewriter, and discovers, thanks to the words typed on the old one-use ribbon, that the previous owner believed there were places around the earth called “K zones” that could bring the dead back to life. Intrigued, our hero investigates, growing closer to the truth, and to danger.

The movie’s initial US release, direct to VHS, was cut down by nine minutes, retitled Revenge of the Dead, and christened with a new cover that has been called one of the biggest bait-and-switch moves in horror history (right up there with the poster for the 1979 Screamers). And it’s true: there are no zombies at all, much less ones bursting from the sewers. I can’t recall if I saw this one myself in the VHS era, but if I had, I doubt I thought much of it.

Now, to fans, this sort of thing isn’t news. Italian horror films of that era, much like their spaghetti western counterparts a generation before, were cranked out quickly, cheaply, and often sold as unofficial sequels to American films. Thus Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 was presented as a sequel to Zombi, the Italian title of George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead.

What was a surprise is how unlike its brethren Zeder apparently was. The article (and I believe it was in a print magazine, which was still a thing then; Video Watchdog, maybe?) stressed that the uncut film was a triumph of mood and atmosphere, so I added it to my mental list of things to watch for when I prowled used-media stores (a hobby I maintain to this day).

And wouldn’t you know it? I finally ran across the VHS under its original title, running the full 98 minutes, and saw Zeder for myself.

Well . . . sort of.

The print used as the VHS source was speckled, grainy, and with such high contrast that many night scenes were simply indecipherable. Worse (although this was standard for VHS), it presented the dreaded “full screen” version, which cuts off the ends of the widescreen image. So again, it required a great deal of effort to mentally look past these flaws and see the allegedly good movie buried beneath them.

I did respond to it, though, despite its best efforts to put me at bay. The hero Stefano is an unpublished novelist, something I could definitely relate to at the time, and I could easily imagine being drawn into such a mystery. He’s an actual grown man as well, something you seldom see in American horror, now or then. He’s married, and his wife is reasonably supportive of his increasingly nutso quest. In other words, these were fully-thought-out characters, not just zombie fodder.

It also features a trope I still enjoy, the convergence of science and superstition. The K-zones are investigated by a mysterious group whose exact origin and purpose is never quite explained, and they use state-of-the-then-art gear such as video cameras that peer into coffins. They’re dangerous, but not crazy.

I put the VHS on the shelf, then in a box, and then forgot about it…until just last month. I was going through that box of VHS tapes I’d held onto because, at the time, it was the only way these films were available. But now, for the most part, that was no longer the case. But I was unsure about Zeder. So I checked online, found it, and ordered the DVD. I spent the next week eagerly watching the shipping progress online.

You’ll notice is has the exact same cover as the VHS. What you can’t tell until you watch it, is that it’s the exact same copy as the VHS. They (Image Entertainment) literally copied the VHS onto DVD, to the point that in places tracking patterns (remember those?) are visible. Worse, the volume was so poor that the dialogue was all but inaudible; I had to crank the volume to 90(!) and sit on the coffee table two feet from the screen just to follow the story. And still worse, there were no subtitles. I was seriously disappointed, and even more determined to find a good copy of this obscure film.

Luckily, one existed, produced (though out of print now) by the specialty label Code Red. I ordered it from eBay, and again watched its progress to my door. It was a blu-ray, containing both the English and Italian audio, as well as subtitles. More importantly, the film was gloriously clear: few speckles, the contrast was perfect, and you could make out everything happening in the widescreen image. I was finally able to see Zeder in all its glory.

So, was it worth it?

For me, you bet. Here’s what blogger Ryan Marshall has to say:

“Favoring petrifying ambiance over surface-level schlock, though impartial to entertaining the latter when apt, [director] Pupi Avati’s horror films are characteristically infused with a kind of sinister, otherworldly energy; as if the man responsible for them always has one foot in reality and the other in the spirit world. In this sense, ZEDER (aka REVENGE OF THE DEAD) is straight from the heart of its maker, being (among other things) a film that deals directly with those disconcerting voices from beyond and why they are necessary to a superior understanding of our surroundings.”

The other online reviews follow suit, with most of them also mentioning the similarity (particularly in the climax) to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Avati’s film was released in Italy on August 25, 1983 and King’s novel on November 14 of the same year, so they would’ve been “in production,” so to speak, simultaneously in different parts of the world. Did one influence the other? It seems unlikely. Sometimes concepts are just in the air.

Of course, not everyone cared for it. Corey Higdon at House by the Video Store was, to put it mildly, not impressed:

“Upon finishing this crap, I searched for other reviews of this film to see if anyone else shared the same opinion. To my surprise, I found a reasonably larger amount of people defending the film than expected. Some people seemed very offended that viewers would even dare call it a bad film. They even went as far as saying that it was an ‘amazing masterpiece’ that ‘deserves respect’. Well then, I must be as blind as Stevie Wonder and as dumb as Snooki. I watch movies to be entertained, plain and simple. I’m sure that to some people thought that this was a great piece of suspenseful slow burn art, but to me this is about as stale as it gets. I mean, the directors name is even Pupi. Seems to be a way more fitting name for this film.”

For me, Zeder was well worth the hunt, but if you track it down, understand what you’ll be getting. If you’re expecting an Italian gorefest similar to the works of Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento, this is not the movie for you. If you enjoy horror films that rely of atmosphere more than shocks, or that make you think more than jump, I’d recommend it. If you’ve seen it, let me know what you think in the comments.

And if you’ve gone through similar travails to track down a favorite movie or book, also tell me about it in the comments.

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