I have, perhaps oddly, a rather nostalgic fondness for Zombie Flesh Eaters. My interest in horror films was sparked initially by my interest in censorship, and my desire to see movies that I wasn't supposed to see, and Zombie Flesh Eaters (albeit in a cut version which missed out some of the 'best' moments) was one of the first 'video nasties' I ever saw. Though I've discovered more and better films by its director Lucio Fulci in the years since, I often come back to Zombie Flesh Eaters because it's a fun and undemanding gut muncher.
The story, such as it is, involves zombies, probably raised by voodoo, taking over a Carribbean island where Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) and Peter West, a reporter (Ian McCulloch) have journeyed to try to find her missing father. They meet Dr Menard (Richard Johnson), who had been working to treat the zombie-causing illness with Anne's father. Mayhem ensues.
Though titled Zombi 2 in Italy, to make it appear to be a sequel to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (released there as Zombi), Lucio Fulci's first zombie film - he would make three more - strikes a very different tone from its notional model. Fulci has little interest in using his zombies as metaphors, or in filling his narrative with commentary on ideas of race or consumerism, rather Fulci is a shamelessly, and rather joyfully, sensationalist filmmaker. The script is more a loose series of scenes designed to knit together Fulci's set piece moments, and while I'm all for deep and multi-layered horror films, not everything in the genre needs to be cerebral.
The cast, a mix of American and English C-Listers and reliable but not hugely expensive international players acquit themselves as well as the dialogue and dubbing will allow. Farrow and McCulloch have little chemistry, but the attraction the script shoehorns in is hardly key to the film, and they both do solid work, giving the credulity straining situations as much credibility as possible. Richard Johnson, however, is in a different league; his sweaty browed scenery chomping is one of the film's great joys, and he strikes just the right tone as Dr Menard, even when chewing on some pretty awful lines. Other players make an impact for different reasons. You'd be hard pressed to say that either Olga Karlatos (as Menard's wife) or Auretta Gay (as one of a tourist couple that Anne and Peter hitch a boat ride with) give especially good performances, but they both make for stunning set decoration, and each have a part to play in some of the film's most memorable moments, even some of the zombies carve themselves into the memory, particularly the first one we see, played by the magnificently named Captain Haggerty.
The reason that Zombie Flesh Eaters works, the reason it's still compelling today, isn't really as much to do with the people in front of the camera as it is the people behind it. At the time of the video nasties panic these films were seen as hack work; ugly films made by people with little talent and no standards - and to be fair some were - this isn't the case with Zombie Flesh Eaters. Fulci trained with Fellini, and while they had wildly divergent careers and styles Fulci had honed a keen, sharp, and very identifiable directorial eye. With DP Sergio Salvati providing a largely bright and soft lighting scheme that sets the film apart from many in the genre, Fulci wheels out trademarks like his extensive and impactful use of close ups on and his fondness for violence to eyes and sprinkles them through a series of varied set pieces.
The set pieces are just stunning, from a suspenseful opening to the closing zombie walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, but three really need discussing. The famed Zombie V Shark sequence is as remarkable as it ever was. It's brilliantly choreographed and shot, at times reminiscent of Creature From the Black Lagoon, and it looks amazingly dangerous, seemingly staged without a hint of fakery. It's the sort of thing you could just never shoot now; the shark would be CG, and the sequence would lose all of its excitement. There is also the graveyard scene, sometimes omitted between the breathless praise for the other set pieces, but perhaps the one that combines viscera and suspense most effectively. There is an eerie slowness to Gianetto DeRossi's zombies as they rise from the ground, along with that creaking, tearing sound that is so unnatural, and that only makes it more shocking when the zombies swiftly attack. Most striking though is the eye scene which, though famed for its visceral payoff, also has a stunning slow build as zombies try and break into Dr Menard's house to eat his wife (who, because this is an exploitation film, has just had a shower). Almost as nightmarish as the amazing effect that ends the scene is the build up, because even on a first watch you can be pretty sure where the scene is headed, and it makes the skin crawl.
Talking of effects, Gianetto DeRossi, who created the make up and gore effects, is really the star of the film. Working with low tech tools like clay, he created some of the most disgustingly convincing zombies I've seen on screen. The zombies were always my problem with Dawn of the Dead; they just looked like spray painted people. The zombies here look dead, and as if they are rotting, bits being baked off them in the Caribbean sun. There is also a strong variety in the zombie design, as well as some seriously painful looking blood and prosthetic effects (the aforementioned eye, a ripped out throat). On occasion you can see the joins, but the film is such fun, and most of the effects work so spot on, that it's hard to mind very much.
I've no desire to get critically high-minded about this film; it's an entirely unpretentious feast of silliness and gore, and that's exactly the way I've always approached and enjoyed it. Honestly, your reaction to the film will largely be dictated by your reaction to the title, if "Zombie Flesh Eaters" has you thinking there's a fun evening of horror in store then that's exactly what you'll get, if it makes you picture an idiotic waste of time then I'd imagine that's what you'll find, and if you're picturing a morally reprehensible 'Video Nasty', well, you'll probably find that here as well. Me? I'm just going to revel in the great photography and the fun, splashy, set pieces once more.
The Picture and Sound
Arrow Video have earned a very good reputation for the care and attention they have shown to genre films that might not have previously received such lavish treatment. Their restorations of Fulci's The Beyond and City of the Living Dead were both hugely impressive, but this presentation of Zombie Flesh Eaters absolutely blows them out of the water. This is a spectacular restoration, revealing not only undreamed of detail, but shedding much more light on how brilliantly the film was photographed by Fulci and Sergio Salvati and how impressive the composition is. The clarity does sometimes show a few of the joins in the effects, but it also shows the breathtaking detail and quality of the make up work.
The sound (though I can't comment on any surround use) is strong, with the impressive and haunting score (something sometimes undervalued in Italian exploitation films) coming through strongly, but never dominating above the dialogue. I only listened to the English language track, because that has the real voices of at least the principal cast, but the original Italian dub is also available.
A generous package split across two Blu Ray discs. On clicking Play on the main menu you'll get to choose from the three titles that Zombie Flesh Eaters went under. The only difference is in which title sequence you see, the film itself is the same; a cute bonus, but not a terribly exciting one. When you start the film (under whichever title) you'll also get a short intro from Ian McCulloch, who, as ever, seems surprised but happy that anyone remembers this movie.
The major video extra on disc one is an hour long documentary about the lineage of zombie movies, tracking from Night of the Living Dead, through Fulci's zombie quartet, and then to the many Italian films that cashed in on Zombie Flesh Eaters. There's not much new here for genre fans, but the talking heads are intelligent, and the clips are fun. People just discovering these films would be well advised to watch it with a notebook handy to write down titles.
If you want to truly appreciate how good the film looks on this Blu Ray, have a look among the selection of Trailers at the trailer for the old Vipco release, which looks like third generation VHS. The trailers are fun, but not something I would find myself watching much. Also among the trailers are some brilliantly silly Radio Spots.
The major audio extras on the disc come in the form of two audio commentaries. The first is with co-screenwriter Elisa Briganti and moderator Callum Waddell, it seems to have been recorded in a somewhat echoy room, which can be pretty grating, it's quite a general commentary for the most part, but Briganti is animated and Waddell gets some good, if not screen specific, stories from her. It's worth a listen, but is really for fans more than casual viewers. More essential is the second commentary, driven largely by Stephen Thrower, who literally wrote the book on Fulci (it's called Beyond Terror, and belongs in every horror fan's library). Thrower is a fantastically engaging speaker, and here he's joined by Alan Jones; another encyclopedic authority on Italian horror films. The two stick closer to what's on screen, but also talk around their subject about the Italian film industry and the larger careers of many of the people who worked on this film. It's a very good track, and recommended to anyone with an interest in Fulci and his work.
The second disc of extras is led by a 46 minute interview with Ian McCulloch. He tells a few familiar stories, but is as genial and informative as I found him in our chat.
Zombie Flesh Eaters: From Script to Screen is an utterly pointless feature in which [uncredited] screenwriter Dardano Sachetti show us the original draft of the screenplay. Unfortunately we can't read any of it because the feature is not even 3 minutes long, is shot in wobblyvision, and largely consists of Sachetti flicking through the script. If you're going to do a feature like this either make it an interview or put the original screenplay on the disc as a PDF.
A half hour Q and A with the film's composer Fabio Frizzi is a welcome and interesting addition, but it would probably benefit from optional subtitles, because the sound quality isn't brilliant, particularly on Frizzi's translator. Still, it's very watchable and if you listen carefully you won't miss anything. It's very nice to see Frizzi get his due on this disc; his soundtrack is one of the great things about the film.
Finally for the video extras The Meat Munching Movies of Gino DeRossi provides a 26 minute look at the work of Italy's own Baron of Blood. Seeing inside his workshop is a real treat for a gorehound (the exploded head from The Beyond is still sitting on a shelf, and still looks amazing) and DeRossi comes across as personable, dedicated and hugely fond of his work. He's also got a lot of interesting recollections about the films he's worked on. Arrow need to get him to do a commentary one of these days.
The extras are rounded off by a booklet, which sounds very exciting, but was not made available for review.
One of the essential releases of 2012 for horror fans; a near classic film, with a stunning transfer, backed up by extensive and mostly intriguing extras.