A movie about a murderous, experimental service monkey that becomes telepathically linked to its quadriplegic owner ought not be half as good as Monkey Shines. George A. Romero is, of course, going to be forever renowned for bringing us the modern version of the zombie (as opposed to the older school Vodun drugged or brainwashed version), but for sheer degree of difficulty alone, Monkey Shines should get more love than it does. Making a terrifying classic about a bunch of cannibalistic undead people is a bit like having a dynastic championship sports team that’s loaded with Hall of Famers; it’s obviously still a remarkable, legendary achievement, but the odds are still highly in your favor. Making a solid horror movie about a psychic, homicidal, lovable-looking service animal more often seen in comedies and family films is like eking out a winning record with a bunch of underachievers. In short, Night of the Living Dead Romero is like Vince Lombardi with Green Bay; Monkey Shines Romero is like Lombardi in Washington.
All of that said, the movie has its limitations. The acting is decent around, but the performances can’t overcome the fact that we’re still talking about a cute little capuchin named Ella committing horrifying acts and attacks that still kind of come off as cute shenanigans. You ever see one of those “Cute animals amok” family movies and think, “Oh sure, this is presented as all fun and games, but in reality, someone could really get maimed or worse if this actually happened.” That sort of feels like the underlying premise of this movie; like the elevator pitch was “It’s Curious George, except Murderous George.” When Ella throws a plugged-in hair dryer into a bathtub to electrocute someone, for instance, and then scampers out of the bathroom, it feels like a playful prank gone horribly wrong more so than a malicious act of vengeance. Instead of thinking “Someone needs to stop this rampaging animal!” you might find yourself thinking, “Someone needs to put that cute little miscreant in a corner until it learns that its goofy tricks might be going a little too far.” Ultimately, there’s a reason why we didn’t see any of Italian knock-off killer-capuchin horror movies.
Most horror film fans can tell you what kind of Italian knock-off horror flicks we did receive, however: Romero-style zombie movies. Fittingly, Italy’s 2nd unofficial Dawn of the Dead sequel, Zombi 3, was released theatrically on July 29th, 1988, the same exact day as Monkey Shines, Romero’s first big studio film.
Zombi 3 doesn’t have anything nearly as memorable as Zombi 2‘s infamous suuuuper slow wooden shank through the eyeball scene, or a zombie vs. shark “fight.” The closest thing the movie has to anything that stands out is a scene of an apparently self-propelled, severed zombie head latching onto a guy’s neck, but as unintentionally humorous as that may sound, the actual visual isn’t even silly enough to elicit a chuckle, just a soft, confused, “Hm?” at most.
The film’s directorship is subject to some debate, as it’s claimed that Bruno Mattei filmed about 40% of it while Lucio Fulci, who directed Zombi 2 and several other Italian horror cult hits, directed the rest before bailing on the film either due to creative differences or illness. While Fulci’s work varies pretty wildly in quality, it’s hard to imagine he directed the bulk of this picture. It doesn’t even look like a Fulci film, and even his worst efforts look more competent than this one. It certainly looks and feels like a Mattei film, visually and story-wise, given Mattei was just coming off directing two Rambo / Missing in Action rip-offs, Strike Commando and Strike Commando 2. The film might as well be Strike Commandos vs. Zombies so I feel pretty comfortable in assuming that Fulci handed the reins to this one over to Mattei even before he officially left the project.
Unless you’re a zombie-flick completionist, masochist, or both, there’s no need to waste any time with Zombi 3. I’m not even sure the inclusion of Ella the killer capuchin could have salvaged this one.