Probably the best known film of prolific Italian director Lucio Fulci, Zombie Flesh-Eaters was one of the films banned by the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions in the moral panic over ‘video nasties’ that gripped the United Kingdom in the early eighties. Now of course these once legendary works are regularly being released in high definition glory, and (with a few significant exceptions) uncut.
Flesh-Eaters opens with a striking and eerie sequence of a deserted yacht entering New York harbour. The sequence is an example of how visually stylish Fulci could be. The boat drifts into view, its wheel unmanned, detritus swilling around on deck, and nearly collides with the Staten Island ferry. Coast guard radio chatter erupts and aerial views are cut in. This sequence is extra haunting to modern eyes due to the towering presence of the World Trade Centre in nearly every long shot. Of course the craft is not as deserted as it seems, something a member of the coast guard discovers to his ultimate misfortune as a corpulent zombie bursts out of a cabin below decks.
British reporter Peter West (McCulloch) and an American woman Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia) team up to investigate. West is looking for a story, Bowles is trying to find out the whereabouts of her father, the yacht’s owner. Discovering that the boat has sailed to New York from a remote island in the Antilles called Matool (yes, Matool, really!), the pair fly out and enlist the aid of a young couple with a boat to seek out the uncharted island. Once firmly set down upon Matool (this joke never gets old), they find it ravaged by a strange illness. Local doctor David Menard (Richard Johnson, star of original version of The Haunting) is trying to find a cure, but only has a fly-filled chapel of near corpses to show for it. In the jungle Voodoo drums beat…
Fulci’s film was released in Italy under the title Zombi 2 to ride the coat tails of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – Dawn had been a significant hit with Italian audiences when it was released under the title Zombi. Flesh-Eaters had actually been in pre-production before Dawn’s release and was slightly retooled during production to bring it closer to Romero’s vision of the undead. In fact it is quite significantly different. Most modern zombie films treat Romero’s original Dead trilogy as a year zero, the Fulci film (made from a script by Dordano Sacchetti although it is credited to his wife for purported tax dodging reasons) ties back to an earlier era of films like White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies which used zombies created by Voodoo.
Perhaps because it is an earlier script being bent into the shape of a recent hit the film’s narrative is somewhat schizophrenic. For example, what is causing the zombie plague in the first place? Initially Johnson’s character is presented as a sinister figure talking darkly of experiments. Could the zombies be the result of a medical experiment gone wrong? Later in the film the doctor becomes a more benign figure. Then the Voodoo drums start to pound. Are the undead being called from the earth by a witch doctor? There is a great scene of zombified conquistadors rising from their graves, so perhaps the evil originates because of western expansionism? None of these ideas are developed at all. The doctor never mentions his experiments again, no voodoo practitioners are ever seen, and the zombies although literally rotten are too well preserved to be centuries old Spaniards.
This is not a good film by any rational standard of the term. Very little of it makes any sense whatsoever. Added to which the english dialogue is incredibly banal, the characters paper thin, and the pacing all over the place. The male characters can’t hit a barn door at five paces with a shotgun, and the female characters treat every crisis situation by acting like they have been nailed to the floor. Fulci favours slow zombies, and many scenes involve characters simply standing on the spot and screaming as they are slowly advanced upon.
So why did this film make so much money that it changed the face of the Italian horror genre overnight? The answer is gore. Flesh-Eaters set a new standard for grue in 1979. Upon seeing its success Fulci embarked upon a series of gore films that become increasingly bizarre and incoherent and which made his international reputation. The Italian industry as a whole embarked upon a gore craze that while ultimately short lived gave us some memorable films (and a lot of utter crud).
Viewed with modern eyes, Flesh-Eaters while reasonably moist, is actually tamer than most episodes of The Walking Dead. However there is one standout scene of ocular catastrophe that has always been problematic for the censorious. Unlike modern gore which is fast cut, and over before he audience can register it. Fulci mounts his gore set-piece at an incredibly slow pace. He establishes the threat, and then brings the victim towards it in an agonisingly stately way. He then refuses to cut away at the point of the graphic horror, holding the image of abjection for an indecently long time. Remove this scene and it’s hard to see what the fuss was about (but that is generally true of most of the nasties).
Beyond the gore, Flesh-eaters does manage to conjure some imagery that lingers after the film’s frankly atrocious plot has faded (which takes about two minutes and 32 seconds, I timed it). There is the haunting opening, the zombies clawing their way out of the grave, corpses wrapped head to toe in sheets being shot in the head, and a mind boggling scene in which a zombie takes on a shark (you will not see that in World War Z). Fulci’s films often have a focus on physical disgust, and in Flesh-Eaters case this is most memorable in the zombies themselves. Romero’s zombies have the look of the recently deceased, you can see the people they were days or hours before. Fulci’s zombies look like they have been in the ground for months, they are grey, worm-ridden, dressed in tattered shrouds. It might not be a great film but it is a memorable one.
Released on UK Blu Ray and DVD by Arrow Video, fans of the movie should take note, this new HD version is absolutely gorgeous. For anyone who watched an illicit fifth-generation VHS back in the day, this looks like a new movie. Anyone who snorts at the idea of Fulci as a visual stylist will be choking on their derision. Arrow have also included a lavish selection of extras in their usual style. These are of variable quality, the Q&A with composer Fabio Frizzi is well nigh unwatchable, and there is a really pointless short film of Sacchetti showing pages of his script to the camera. However there is a great documentary about the history of the Italian zombie film, and a good interview with McCulloch on his experiences on this and several other Italian gore films he starred in. Best of the extras is an informative and funny chat track with Fulci expert Stephen Thrower and genre critic Alan Jones that is full of gossip and schoolboy sniggering every time the word Matool comes up.
Review previously published on screenjabber.com