Zombie Flesh Eaters Review
Since its gruesome, haemorrhaging birth in 1979, Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters has frequently been considered - even to many of those who are not entirely averse to the grisly onscreen antics of this budget shockfest - a substandard rip-off of George A Romero's astonishingly yet justifiably popular Dawn of the Dead; indeed, the title under which it was released in Italy - Zombi 2 - was a deliberate attempt to cash in on the success of Romero's film, which was released as Zombi in Italy. With retrospective analysis, this leads to something of a dichotomy; the film was enormously successful, not only in the director's homeland of Italy (where his career was beginning to wane), but also in the rest of Europe and the USA, and here we are today continuing to discuss and enjoy this unlikely genre stalwart. And yet one can almost feel vicariously aggrieved on behalf of Fulci; whilst this cynical marketing trick undoubtedly boosted the profile of the film (and, subsequently, the profile of the director), his zombiefest is sufficiently distinct, in stylistic and creative terms, from Romero's seminal societal shocker, and to tarnish Zombie Flesh Eaters as some sort of pale Romero imitation is both unfair, and ill-informed.
Romero's superbly crafted analysis of the obsessive nature of modern Western consumerism is a truly absorbing and painfully human tale, but Fulci's film bears scant resemblance to the shopping malls and biker gangs of Dawn of the Dead. Whatever your feelings may be about the marketing ploy of the film's Italian name, the fact is that Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti had written the script for Zombie Flesh Eaters (albeit under a different title of Island of the Living Dead, which some may feel is similarly derivative) before Romero's film was released in Italy, and whilst it may have undergone some tweaks and adjustments after Romero's film was released, the fundamental plot is clearly very different. Indeed, Fulci's zombie classic bears closer resemblance to some of the early zombie flicks than it does to films like Romero's genre-changing Night of the Living Dead. Admittedly, Night of the Living Dead constructed a bridge for the zombie to shuffle over, a bridge which would lead towards statements, subtexts, and societal observations - not to mention the emergence of the survival mentality - and the zombie genre would never be the same again. Yet Zombie Flesh Eaters dares to evoke the moodily beautiful locations and atmospherics of the early classics; the film has an almost tangible feel of the thick tropical air as experienced in White Zombie (1932), the wonderful Island of Lost Souls (1932), or Jacques Tourneur's chilling I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Perhaps this explains why that despite the orgy of visceral gore, despite the crudeness of the delivery, and despite the fact that this film was branded as one of the dangerous potential triggers for global societal meltdown, many of us hold these 91 straightforward, gory, and almost naïve minutes with an affection which few other horror films can garner.
Breathe in the palpable atmosphere of Fulci's carefully constructed Caribbean nightmare, and revel in the outrageously ambitious visceral violence, because these are the jewels inside this gruesome film. Don't, however, go hunting for subtexts amongst the visual cacophony and madness, because you won't find any. Zombie Flesh Eaters is a director's vision of a zombie hell, and in this hell, all other elements are neutralised. For instance, no-one can accuse Fulci's film of having a racial or cultural motive - in either direction; the 'white man' on the imperiled island - Dr Maynard (played with predictable confidence and utter conviction by Richard Johnson) - fails utterly to rationalise the zombie outbreak, yet his village assistant, the likeable local man, Lucas, despite his fears, demonstrates greater insight and prescience than the doctor; but none of the arrogance. Indeed, Fulci and his writers make efforts to pour cold water on any such suggestions before they can be made; the rise of the Spanish conquistadores - a scene which is undeniably powerful and superbly executed - is deliberately manufactured to demonstrate that the zombie threat is as likely to affect those from invading European empires as the locals of the island of Matul.
With this contextual nihilism in mind, one should cast off the heavy burden of post-modern mass-consumer guilt placed with such devastating weight upon our shoulders, and embrace the relative purity of this horror carnival; Fulci's depiction of zombie hell to this day feels gloriously liberating with its beautiful Caribbean location, utter indifference to cultural and societal factors, and almost hedonistic immersion in exhilarating and overwhelming visceral gore. Of course, to the casual viewer more accustomed to the polished output of the big budget studios, a Fulci film must seem bizarre at best, and inept at worst. And it's certainly fair to highlight the cruder elements of Fulci's delivery; his focus on character development is so slight as to seem utterly pointless. And where character development does seem to be taking place, it becomes confusing; the depiction of Dr Maynard (Johnson) is momentarily fascinating, yet we're never quite sure - even in the framework of such a straightforward plot - whether the doctor is genuinely benevolent and desperate to save the residents of the island, or some sort of sinister, nefarious force dabbling with voodoo and annoying his frustrated wife. Despite this, Johnson is unerringly solid, but selected other members of his cast have to take responsibility for some failings; Tisa Farrow, in particular (and perhaps surprisingly at the time, given her familial connections), fails to breathe any real life into her character, and in her performance she appears to be entirely overwhelmed, despite the modest beginnings of this budget zombie film. Pretty Auretta Gay fares slightly better in her role as part of the couple who sail reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and Anne Bowles (Farrow) to Matul, and earns herself inextinguishable kudos in her scene beneath the waves as a reluctant observer of the most unlikely combat sequence ever committed to celluloid, yet her inexperience creates a character of similarly limited dimensions to Farrow. It's also somewhat regrettable to read that the poor fledgling actress was a frequent victim of Fulci's purported misogyny on set, and it has been suggested that Fulci and other directors of that time and genre would sometimes single out individual females on set to direct their anger towards, intentionally humiliating them in the process; utterly disgraceful. Whichever way, Auretta did not go on to enjoy a glittering career.
Other performances prove far stronger; beautiful Olga Karlatos plays with spirit and gusto as the doctor's long suffering wife, and her stunning visual presence is one of the most memorable aspects of the film, despite the rivers of gore (including that of which she becomes an unfortunate part). Johnson, as we have already seen, is typically robust as the island's doctor, and Al Cliver is ever reliable as the other half of the couple with Auretta Gay. Ian McCulloch, despite this being something of a potboiler for him after successful stints in prestigious BBC TV dramas and alongside Peter Cushing in 1975's The Ghoul, is a strong lead, and he navigates the sterile dialogue with laudable conviction. Indeed, one might argue that he almost injected too much quality into his role here; starring roles in other soon to be branded 'video nasties' beckoned shortly afterwards, and after his name became associated with such supposedly murky material, the actor struggled to regain credible and respectable acting parts in film again, and his career would latterly gravitate towards the stage.
It's difficult to overstate the importance of Zombie Flesh Eaters, not only to the zombie genre as a whole, but also to Fulci's directorial career. Such was the unpredictable success of Fulci's zombie film - hand in hand with the re-ignition of his previously flagging career - that encrusted corpses would almost become a staple of his subsequent horror output, whether integral to the plot or not. Fulci - perhaps in an effort to emulate the thrilling surreality of his fellow countryman, Dario Argento - would go on to produce films that thrived on the bizarre and unpredictable, to the point of incoherence. Whilst this was indeed effective - to a perhaps limited degree - in many such Fulci pictures, one of the genuine pleasures of Zombie Flesh Eaters is that the film knows what it wants to be, and executes its objective brilliantly. There's no effort here to divert, to confuse, or to mislead the viewer; the opening ten minutes leave us in little doubt of the direction the film will take, and with a remarkable sense of restraint - relatively speaking - Fulci introduces more and more horror to lead us towards a truly memorable climax. Even the most unimaginably bizarre moment of the film - the infamous and afore-mentioned sequence where Auretta Gay becomes a captive audience in an epic battle between a zombie and a shark - is not intended to trick Fulci's viewer; it's merely another superbly executed visual set piece which exhilarates and stuns, and fulfils its basic goal with unerring accuracy.
With the casual approach to character development and cast performances, it's far from unfair to describe Zombie Flesh Eaters as a sequence of superbly executed visual set pieces, glued together with the most perfunctory of plot threads, and whatever else you might criticise the late Italian exploitation director for, you simply can't deny the skill, stylishness, and gusto with which he carries out this work. As if to demonstrate this quality, the film also proved alluring to some other unlikely admirers; it fell victim to the same UK Department of Public Prosecutions 'video nasty' hysteria as other extreme horror films of the time and made its way onto their prestigious hit-list. Yet this association is largely unfortunate, as to compare the Italian zombiefest with a film such as Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox is selling it vastly short. Lenzi, for instance, included some admittedly impressive visual effects in his 1981 cruelty-fest, yet without the accompanying atmospherics such as those captured by Fulci, Lenzi's exploitation movie seems cheap and redundant in comparison.
And what glorious atmospherics Fulci creates. Those who are aware of Gino de Rossi's make-up effects will know that the visual impact of the zombies in this film are a testament to his creativity and skill, and the zombies here remain, to this day, some of the most impressive and genre-defining creatures committed to film, and have been emulated numerous times in countless zombie productions since. But it's not just de Rossi's breathtaking make-up operating in a vacuum; Fulci creates a plethora of scenes and environments for these undead wanderers to spring to life, often notching up a good deal of tension in the process. The opening scene on the boat cleverly harnesses some playful grotesquery to repulse the viewer before unleashing the first sour taste of zombie hell, but Fulci slows proceedings down a little shortly afterwards, with the horror only re-emerging in its unbound glory as the ill-fated crew head out towards the remote island of Matul. Has Fulci ever matched this almost refined sense of pacing in any of his other horror expeditions?
After this point, it's difficult to pay a respectful nod to all of the scenes which deserve it, such is the plentiful and unstemmable torrent of quality horror on show here. The unfortunate demise of the long suffering Mrs Maynard (Karlatos) is arranged brilliantly, in both a technical and an atmospheric sense, and this scene proves not only tense, uncomfortable, and shocking, but also completely unforgettable. The segment where the zombies slowly yet inexorably rise from the forest burial ground is directed with a skill and aplomb which Fulci would struggle to match in any of his other works. And the scene where the gathering maruading zombies descend upon the frail old wooden church, lurching with grim inevitability through the grainy sand-swept mist of a stormy Caribbean evening, is one of the most atmospheric scenes ever captured in zombie film history.
Fulci maintains an uncharacteristically steady hand on the pacing as the film progress, and he doesn't let us down as the film draws to a climax, either, but rather chooses to engulf us deep within exponentially growing waves of zombie attacks. OK, so it's pretty frustrating when some of the victims stand rigid to attention when zombies are slowly descending upon them, but the eventual payload is inevitably worthwhile, and as our heroes desperately defend the besieged wooden church inside the dusty sands of the dark tropical island, we are granted one of the most exhilarating - and oddly serene - climaxes in zombie film history.
Fulci's commercially successful hellish vision of zombie apocalypse, the film where everything (the gore, the musical score, the location) dovetailed perfectly, would equip him well - technically and financially - for his next few horror films. Many years later, Fulci would become involved with Zombi 3 (1988), though he had to depart from the filming schedule due to health problems. He rightly attempted - but failed - to get his name disassociated with what is a truly terrible film, yet fans of his original zombie masterpiece barely recognise the 1988 film as a Fulci movie at all.
Arrow release this prestige portion of Italian splatter on high definition format with the option of a Blu-ray two pack, or a rather appealing steelbook which will have ardent fans of this shock cinema classic drooling into their cornflakes. The release also includes a collectors booklet, and an above average (by Arrow's standards, at least) reversible sleeve, and as such, it's clear that lots of love has been lavished on this Blu-ray release of Fulci's classic.
It's therefore of little surprise to note that the visual reproduction of this 1979 film is excellent. Transferred by the respected James White, using the original negatives, and presented in entirely unexpurgated fashion, the film has surely never looked so sharp and clean (although I make this statement without having seen the Blue Underground Blu-ray release, which is apparently of a very high standard also). The region B release is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and with 1080p resolution, you should expect an extremely accurate and detailed image. Naturally, this can expose flaws in the source material, but White has overseen processing to remove scratches and dirt from the print, and the resultant image quality is quite striking for a film of over thirty years.
The excellent definition and accuracy reveals an incredible level of detail in the image, and the reproduction presents colour in a manner which feels natural and almost understated. If I were being incredibly fussy, I would mention that the reproduction of colour could disappoint some viewers, feeling a little underwhelming in terms of vibrancy, but the result of this mature approach to the representation of colour is that the film not only feels extremely lifelike and natural, but also that the reproduction seems to reveal even more detail, thanks to the controlled balance of the colour range. Fast forward to the breathtaking scene where the zombies emerge from the sandy fog to besiege the old wooden church, and the quality of the image is quite remarkable.
Other minor issues you might notice include a very slight increase in grain during the night sequence outside the boat early in the film, and a slightly over-bearing brightness from outside light sources at moments, but these points are so small as to be more a matter of taste rather than any major criticism, and given the age of the film, these qualities are far preferable to any efforts to over-engineer the image.
There are three versions of the film to choose from via the gruesome menu structure. You can opt to view the English opening titles by selecting Zombie Flesh Eaters, the Italian credits by selecting Zombi 2, and the American equivalent using Zombie. All versions are preceded by an introduction with the gentlemanly Ian McCulloch, who gives a thoughtful and surprisingly glowing assessment of the film, which certainly provides a tingle for those who hold the film with the requisite level of affection; if you want a more balanced opinion from the great man, fast forward to the extras, where his words are some of the most honest and balanced I've seen on such extras.
Those interested in such things may wish to note that the first 50Gb Blu-ray is almost full at 48Gb, which is barely surprising given the enormous volume of extras available here.
Subtitles are only available in English, but they are clear and well placed, and certainly don't interfere unduly with the grisly action on screen.
Overall, Arrow have done a splendid job in bringing Fulci's zombie classic to the high definition format, and whilst some may feel the colour distribution is a little on the conservative side, this is a clean, honest, and transparent transfer which addresses any issues with the source material without stifling it to any degree. It seems hard to imagine how any transfer could make Zombie Flesh Eaters look any better than this.
Arrow have supplied two versions of audio soundtrack here. Zombie Flesh Eaters is a multi-lingual collaboration, with some of the cast speaking in English, and some in Italian, and some in...er...zombie. Sorry. As a consequence, you will inevitably witness some sort of dubbing at some point, although Arrow have supplied both the English and Italian versions of audio here. Keeping in line with their honest approach to the visuals, the audio is presented using the original mono 2.0 format, rather than implementing a surround remix. As the focus is firmly on the fidelity and accuracy of the existing sound format, the result is a very pleasing one, with levels being allowed to breathe despite the challenging nature of the soundtrack (some of the sound is almost intentionally cranked up with Fabio Frizzi's score; think of Frizzi's marvelously wild crescendo of chords after the enormously fat zombie is shot into the water). Dialogue is always clear throughout the film, and I didn't detect any extraneous noise or unwanted hiss on this soundtrack.
Push the sound out through a decent set of speakers and you'll hear Frizzi's musical score through a new set of ears. Whilst Frizzi's synth-tastic score is admittedly somewhat crude in some respects, I didn't quite realise the number of layers constructed by the Tubular Bells fan (in one of the extras, Frizzi explains how he was heavily inspired by the Mike Oldfield album in his career) for this soundtrack. With a warm bass and some punch to the thumping voodoo drums, this audio track really breathes life into the undead trudge of Frizzi's wonderful zombie theme.
You may have to forgive your humble reviewer if these extras are reviewed in a different order to which they appear on the discs. I received a Blu-ray of the film itself to review, which is, as always, warmly appreciated, but many of the extras appeared on a separate DVD. My understanding is that the final package will contain two Blu-ray discs, so the extras you see will be delivered in the highest possible quality.
The most important point to note is that the extras stash delivers on both quality and quantity, and the collection provides an excellent accompaniment to Fulci's unlikely masterpiece.
To kick things off in suitable style, there are two superb commentary tracks. The first is an Audio Commentary with Elisa Briganti, and this commentary features Calum Waddell putting questions to the film's screenwriter (note that Elisa co-wrote the screenplay with husband Dardano Sacchetti, who is also well known for his work on some of Argento's works, amongst others). Briganti proves a charming presence indeed, and it's particularly fascinating to hear her views on Fulci's infamous misogyny. Whilst many claim Fulci not to be a misogynist, Briganti suggests otherwise, and whilst he certainly never treated Briganti badly, there appears to be plenty of evidence to suggest that Fulci reserved particular cruelty for some of his more vulnerable female actresses, with poor, inexperienced Auretta Gay bearing the brunt of his ill-restrained proclivities on this occasion.
The second commentary track is quite different, with Fulci Biographer Stephen Thrower and Horror Expert Alan Jones presenting a verbal accompaniment to this vision of zombie hell. The pair provide what is surely the most informed and detailed commentary to the film imaginable, and it's refreshing to hear such a balanced and unbiased conversation between two fans of the film who fully accept and acknowledge its limitations, whilst still demonstrating an enthusiasm and passion for the film which is infectious. Thrower and Jones are especially lucid in recounting their experiences with the Italian director, with both men sounding a little bitter about some unpleasant interview experiences with him later in his career, and during a time which Fulci was suffering more greatly with his diabetes.
A range of Trailers and Radio Spots provide some bizarre amusement to proceedings, but the quality and quantity ratio returns again shortly afterwards with Aliens, Cannibals, and Zombies, a three quarters of an hour piece showcasing Ian McCulloch's career, glued together by a new interview with the great man himself. McCulloch notes how the BBC TV series he starred in, Survivors, was a huge hit in Italy, and this provided an easy segue for him into Zombie Flesh Eaters, with him clinching the role by meeting with Fulci at a hotel, having a meal with the director, and signing on the dotted line.
McCulloch demonstrates his respect for the considerable talents of fellow Brit, Richard Johnson, and it's insightful of McCulloch to note that de Rossi's make-up 'carries' the film due to its quality.
What's perhaps most noteworthy in the piece is McCulloch's sheer honesty, which is breathtakingly refreshing. The actor doesn't succumb to the temptation to lavish praise upon the film disingenuously, and fully admits that he thought (rather like Catriona MacColl in The House by the Cemetery) he would appear in the film and then never hear of it again. He proves himself to be a modest analyst of his own career and performances, relates some fascinating anecdotes and stories (including a tale of finding his hotel room in Colombia being ransacked before chasing the criminal out of the room and down into the hotel basement), and finally lends an overarching sense of quietly reticent sadness as he reflects upon his career, his CV, and the fact that after his short stint in low budget horror films, he was never invited to play a part in a film again. Ian McCulloch proves himself to be an absolute gentleman in this documentary, and I can't recommend it enough.
Zombie Flesh Eaters - From Script to Screen is a curious three minute piece where Dardano Sacchetti presents the Island of the Living Dead script to Callum Waddell, putting to bed any fallacy that Zombie Flesh Eaters was written as a direct rip-off of Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
From Romero to Rome is another substantial and nutritious documentary, studying the placement of Fulci's film in zombie film history. The 57 minute piece features a number of commentators, including expertise from figures such as Russ Steiner (Night of the Living Dead), and the ever informative and insightful Kim Newman, who discuss the film itself, and a number of other connected pictures. It's a high quality piece, and it's fascinating to see the filmic mythology of the zombie sketched out over the years, with the earlier zombie pictures presenting the zombie as almost a byproduct of the central plot themes, and Romero's genre-busting Night of the Living Dead transforming the zombie into a significant thematic component, and as such we see Romero's black and white shockfest providing a bridge for the zombie movie from what came before it, to what would come after.
The Meat Munching Movies of Gino de Rossi is the alluring alliterative title of our final piece, and the segment showcases six low budget wonders for which the special effects maestro provided his services. We are afforded a tour of de Rossi's treasure trove of a workshop, and this extra steps the viewer through a number of his films which include the main feature itself, Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox (a film which de Rossi is uncomfortable talking about, citing the inclusion of scenes which would now be illegal due to the animal cruelty, and it is indeed depressing to think of a man so gifted in fooling the human brain into thinking it is seeing 'real' horrors applying his talents to manufacturing genuine scenes of crude animal cruelty), and James Cameron's Piranha II, where de Rossi allows the viewer some insight into the relationships behinds the scenes, and the clear talent of the director at this early stage in his career.
As a note, there's also a Collector's Booklet featuring new text from Stephen Thrower (author of the Fulci book Beyond Terror), a new interview with the beautiful Olga Karlatos, and, intriguingly, an interview with Craig Lapper, one of the BBFC's senior examiners. There are also some extracts from the Nightmare Island script (1978), and a Lucio Fulci CV, although I don't have a copy to tell you about the quality. If the remainder of this release is anything to go by, I'm going to suggest that the quality will be of a high standard.
It's as simple as this; if you're a fan of Fulci's deliriously hedonistic Caribbean carnival of corpses, this Arrow release - stuffed to the rafters with new extras - is absolutely essential.