Zombie Creeping Flesh Review

Between roughly the mid-1950s and the late 1980s, the Italian commercial film industry was one of the glories of European culture, churning out a phenomenal number of films in every conceivable genre, mostly shamelessly ripped off from other films.

The process went something like this: a high-profile (usually) American film would have a major commercial and cultural impact in Italy, the Italians would rush a whole load of unofficial sequels-cum-remakes into production, and those who jumped on the bandwagon a bit too late would make up for it by ripping off the rip-offs as well as the original source. And two or three years into the cycle, there'd be so many warped hybrids in circulation that whole sub-genres would be created.

Zombie Creeping Flesh is an excellent example of the latter (and that's the only time you'll hear that adjective applied here!). It was released towards the tail end of the Italian zombie vogue (roughly 1978-1982), which was initially triggered off by the huge success of Zombi, a shorter, faster-paced version of George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead that had been re-edited by executive producer Dario Argento to appeal more to the Italian market (in a nutshell: more gore, louder music, less social comment).

This inevitably led to a huge number of homegrown zombie films (starting with Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters, aka Zombi 2 in Italy) - but what was intriguing was that most of them eschewed direct imitation of Romero's films, preferring to hark back to the likes of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With A Zombie with its island setting and explicit references to traditional voodoo superstition, none of which featured in any of Romero's films. These in turn fused with another genre: the cannibal film (whose chief practitioner was Umberto Lenzi, with Eaten Alive and the much-banned Cannibal Ferox), which was partly a logical development of the zombie film and partly a harking back to a rather earlier Italian exploitation form - the 'mondo' documentary pioneered by Gualtiero Jacopetti with Mondo cane in the early 1960s.

All of which preamble serves to explain the existence of Zombie Creeping Flesh (which also goes under half a dozen other titles: Night of the Zombies, Virus, Cannibal Virus, Zombie Inferno, Zombies of the Savannah and Hell of the Living Dead, the latter being the closest to the original Italian title, Inferno dei morti-viventi).

Made in 1981, it's a near-perfect example of the Italian exploitation film in that it cheerfully rips off almost every significant genre entry over the previous three or four years and does it so shamelessly that you at least have to admire its cheek, if nothing else (believe me, there is nothing else!).

Two particularly choice examples: a scene involving rats eating a corpse from within that's staged as a homage to John Hurt's demise in Alien, and the fact that the entire music score was lifted from two earlier opuses by the Italian band Goblin, a 1980 film called Contamination and of course our old friend Dawn of the Dead. In fact, I?m not at all sure that there isn't more of the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack in Zombie Creeping Flesh than there is in Romero's film itself!

Make no mistake about it, this is a stupefyingly bad film. I only bought it out of some kind of warped nostalgia, as a screening at the late lamented Scala cinema in the early 1980s was the first time I'd seen one of their legendary audiences in full-throated flow. Unsurprisingly, we lapped it up - we were already howling with laughter during the opening scenes, where the dubbers seemingly made no attempt to even try synchronising English dialogue with Italian lip movements, and when a dead rat found in a nuclear reactor came back to life, got inside its discoverer's radiation suit (the film is unclear about how precisely this was achieved) and blood started spurting everywhere, the cheers and applause almost brought the roof down.

Seldom has a film been more in tune with what its audience had paid money to see - we wanted cheesy gore effects by the bucketload, ludicrous dialogue ("You're beginning to bug me, kiddo - just don't break my balls!", "Look at that! Look at that! They're eating him like pigs!" - or, when seeing shuffling zombies for the first time, "They could be drunk, or drugged - or maybe it's a leper colony!"), totally gratuitous nudity (as buxom TV reporter Lia decides the only way to approach the tribesmen is to strip off her clothes and smother herself with warpaint, though I couldn't help noticing that her male colleagues keep their clothes on without any problems), constant confrontations between macho military goons and sensitive politically aware TV crews - and as a bonus we also got the most hilariously unconvincing possessed demon zombie child in cinema history, which is no mean achievement.

It's easy to see why director Bruno Mattei is using a pseudonym (the nudge-nudge 'Vincent Dawn', as though his primary debt wasn't clear enough) - if I'd made anything showing this little talent I'd want to keep quiet about it too. The somnolent pacing makes it hard to distinguish between zombies and humans, and suggests that the people behind the camera were none too quick on the uptake either.

Every single time something grotesque happens, the other characters all stand and stare for an unfeasibly long time considering their lives are supposedly in peril. They're also mind-bogglingly slow to grasp very basic principles - it's established very early on that the only certain way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the head, so why does this have to be explained three-quarters of the way through every single subsequent shootout? Why do people walk into darkened rooms backwards and then look surprised when they're attacked? Why, when scouting a house with a rotting corpse in the swimming pool, does one of the SWAT team feel the irresistible urge to don a green tutu and top hat and attempt a dreadful Fred Astaire impersonation? (Seldom has anyone more deserved to die more horribly).

Even better, this contains the most blatant use of stock footage since the heyday of Edward D Wood, Jr - in an attempt to convince us that this was really shot on location in Papua New Guinea, there are points where every other shot is of some exotic creature or other loping through the undergrowth or diving into a lake in slow motion. I didn't check to see if all these species were indigenous to a single country and if that country was anywhere near where the film is supposed to be set, probably because I think I knew the answer already!

The footage fetishism reaches a glorious climax during what's supposed to be a UN meeting - which, as far as I can see, is made up of genuine UN footage with only a few cutaways, the dubbing supposedly gluing it all together. Besides being hilarious, this scene highlights just about the only really striking aspect of the film - its surprisingly apposite pre-Live Aid premise that if we don't feed the Third World properly, its inhabitants will turn into ravening zombies and come after us. Unfortunately, this laudable theme is somewhat undercut by patronising and borderline racist treatment of the zombiefied natives that's straight out of nineteenth-century British Empire propaganda, but you can't have everything.

What you can have, though, is a rather longer version of the film than has been available over here before. I usually take words like 'uncut' with a very large pinch of salt, especially when it comes to Italian exploitation films, where there could easily have been loads of different versions in circulation - but I'm happy to confirm that this DVD is indeed longer and gorier than the version that played in Britain cinemas, which in turn was the source print for the original 'video nasty' version.

That was gruesome enough to end up on the DPP's list, but this version noticeably ups the onscreen flesh-chewing, and there's a truly spectacular moment towards the end where a zombie pushes its fist into one of the lead character's mouths, forcing its fingers up through the cranium to poke out the eyeballs from behind. I always wondered why that scene tailed off so lamely in the version I'd been familiar with before - but now I know! You also get a previously excised scene at the beginning involving a terrorist stakeout, but since the lead terrorist bears a marked facial resemblance to Steve Coogan that's a mixed blessing.

Incidentally, on proofreading the above I notice I've said virtually nothing about the film's plot - but if I had I'd have put rather more effort into describing it than the scriptwriters (it took two people to come up with this?) did in devising it.

I wasn?t expecting much from the DVD, and it's certainly not going to rival a Criterion or a Fox Five Star release - but given Vipco's reputation for sloppiness in the past this is not at all bad. Indeed, it's arguably better than the film deserves - the source print is in excellent condition (you really have to look hard for spots and scratches) and although there are quite a few colour shifts and some shots are grainier than others, they're squarely down to the original materials, especially the interpolated wildlife footage. In fact, the differences between Mattei's own footage and the documentary material aren't as jarring on this DVD as they were in the 35mm version.

The transfer is perfectly adequate up to a point - artefacting is kept to a minimum, the picture is agreeably sharp, and shadow detail is reasonable (where the lighting of the original film permits it). The major quibbles are that it's non-anamorphic and that it appears to have been cropped from 2.35:1 to 16:9. Normally, I'd be extremely critical of this kind of treatment - but I have to say that in this case it really doesn't make a great deal of difference: Mattei has rather more in common with Herschell Gordon Lewis's approach to visual composition than he does to his fellow countrymen Sergio Leone, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci, and I couldn't see any obvious differences between anything on this DVD and what I saw in the cinema - it certainly doesn't affect enjoyment.

The sound is basic mono, and nothing to write home about - indeed, there are a couple of crackly dropouts at the 57- and 65-minute marks that I had to check on my laptop to make sure that it wasn't just my equipment at fault. Those aside, it does a reasonable job - it certainly comes across as well as one can realistically expect given the technical limitations of an entirely post-synched track put together very quickly on a low budget. Trust me on this - a Suspiria-style DTS EX remix really wouldn't add anything!

There's a small selection of extras, the most interesting of which are trailers for some of Vipco's other DVDs - most notably Cannibal Holocaust and Shogun Assassin.

A stills gallery contains 22 mostly gory images from the film, and a set of filmographies for director Bruno Mattei and his lead actors. It's well worth perusing these, incidentally, if only to get an insight into trends in Italian exploitation - the titles alone reveal what was popular at any given time: Nazi concentration camp atrocity films and Emmanuelle knockoffs in the 1970s, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Mad Max tributes in the 1980s and there's even something called Terminator 2 that seems to have beaten James Cameron's effort to the screen by a good couple of years, though as it was directed by Bruno Mattei I'm not surprised we haven't heard much about it!

All in all, I really can't recommend a film like Zombie Creeping Flesh to anyone sane - there's little question the Scala audience reaction contributed much of its lasting entertainment value for me, and while a few moments are truly priceless, the vast majority of the film is ponderous and predictable in the extreme. Similarly, while the sheer ineptitude of the treatment is certainly good for a few laughs, it also gets brain-numbingly wearying well before the end. That said, if you want a crappy post-pub zombie film with plenty of gory flesh-chewing action, while this is a notch below Zombie Flesh Eaters (and far inferior to The Beyond), it's a distinct cut above the really bargain-basement likes of Zombie Holocaust, even if most of its pleasures are clearly unintentional.

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