Warning: this article contains scenes of a graphic nature…
Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters is in many ways an undisputed classic of the undead sub-genre. Exploitation at its most exploitative, this is likely the only film that contains a shark attack, a half naked woman and a zombie all in the same scene. If that sounds like a must-see, then this is your film. Otherwise consider that a warning. The shark vs. zombie scene is the deluded high point.
After an abandoned boat floats up the New York Harbour, it emerges that a deadly virus was aboard. The daughter of the doctor whose boat it was teams up with a journalist in order to investigate the tropical island where the virus appears to be making the dead rise from their graves.
Some extremely dodgy acting, dialogue and dubbing can be distracting but also adds to the distinct low-budget 70s charm of the film. The endangered women in the cast get some of the worst moments, having to display torment at the hands of the decaying zombies. Richard Johnson is the standout, his Dr. Menard being a convincingly depressed, hopeless survivor of the events on the cursed island, repeatedly having to shoot wrapped up bodies in the head to stop them from rising from the dead. His is the only really convincing performance in the entire film… except for the zombies.
The gore is dated but when it’s released, there is plenty of it. One infamous kill involves an eye piercing shard of wood that is incredibly graphic and detailed but still fails to shock as much as it should. However when the actual flesh eating finally hits the screen an hour in, it is a bloody delight as zombies feast on a previously dispatched victim. The zombies themselves are suitably grisly creations, from their exposed bones to their empty eye sockets and worm filled mouths, their shuffling determination to eat flesh makes them memorable horror monsters. The practical effects, while occasionally showing their age are still undoubtedly impressive in many scenes, particularly in the eye wateringly realistic eye skewering scene.
One scene displays some brief gorgeous underwater photography of a topless female character swimming with the fishes but this is nothing compared to the impressive sight of a giant shark swimming close by. However before this scene can be accused of being gratuitous or ridiculous, an underwater zombie appears to tackle the shark, providing one of the most silly sequences ever to slip into a zombie film.
Seedy Flesh Exposers might have been a better title with the swimming and showering scenes serving no real narrative purpose but giving the audience ample time to ogle the breasts of the female members of the cast. The women get utterly thankless roles, either quick victims or screaming survivors that play no part in their own survival. It’s as if the filmmakers sleep walked through the seventies and womens rights movement like mindless zombies.
The editing is odd with abrupt cuts managing to make the film feel disjointed and like many scenes are unfinished, despite this being a fully restored version with any previously BBFC excised cuts being reinstated. Perhaps this creates tension but it also feels sloppy, like a film that was rushed in its production. However the cinematography is much more composed and helps build some much needed suspense, particularly in the early scene in New York Harbour. The prowling point of view shots later in the film also add anticipation before the siege like climax adheres to convention.
The soundtrack is a mixture of inventive and wildly inappropriate. The repetitive drumbeat anchors the Caribbean location while the synthesisers are occasionally used to create tension but also sometimes work against the images.
The climax limits the action to the island hospital as the zombies pound at the doors and also rise from the dead within the hospital. There are plenty of opportunities for zombie killing with Molotov cocktails aplenty and all guns blazing. However the surviving characters are so forgettable that there is very little emotionally invested in the story. Characters run through the usual motions; attacked by their former lovers and not killing the inevitably bitten victims that pop up in so many other movies of the genre.
The gorgeous island location looks great in this restored version and the opening and closing shots of New York are distractingly dominated by the now destroyed World Trade Centre.
What Zombie Flesh Eaters does have is one of those fantastic endings that make it all worthwhile. The final shots accompanied by the brilliantly over the top radio broadcast are the sort of thing that zombie films are still emulating today from Resident Evil to 28 Weeks Later. A couple of standout scenes aside, Zombie Flesh Eaters is dated and distinctly average. However, if you want some inventive gore and the promise of a zombie fighting a shark, then feast your eyes on the iconic, if not original Zombie Flesh Eaters immediately.
On each of the three versions of the film, there is a brief introduction from actor Ian McCulloch who admits to having only seen the film for the first time ten years ago. He says the film ‘looks absolutely fantastic’ and ‘has a fantastic story’ but seems depressed. It makes you wonder if there is a bag of cash off screen making him talk or his family at the gun point of a madman.
There are a couple of good commentaries included on the two disc set. The first takes the form of an interview with writer Elisa Briganti who speaks amiably about writing her first horror film after previously wanting to be a child psychologist. She insists she was not influenced by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, despite the film being cynically marketed as a sequel. Interestingly she also confirms that director Fulci probably was a misogynist. Briganti also gives credit to her husband and writing partner for coming up with the shark vs. zombie scene.
On a second commentary, Frightfest co-director Alan Jones speaks with Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci author Stephen Thrower. They discuss the origins of the film’s title changes, the budgetary restrictions, the techniques Fulci used to create suspense and repulsion and the reasoning behind much of the casting. It is a fascinating and informative commentary from two experts on the film. It brings to light many amusing anecdotes about behind the scenes details of the film though some cannot be confirmed as true by either Jones or Thrower.
The highlight of the special features is an exhaustive hour long documentary called From Romero to Rome featuring the likes of critic Kim Newman and co-writer of Zombie Flesh Eaters Dardano Sacchetti discussing the zombie genre from Romero to Italian rip-offs. It details the differences between Dawn of the Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters despite their Italian renaming of Zombi 1 and 2 and the attempts to sell the latter as an unofficial sequel. It might cover some similar ground to the commentaries but is nonetheless highly informative and uses its talking heads to tell a fascinating history of the zombie sub-genre bringing it right up to date with some discussion of recent films like 28 Days Later, Zombieland and Romero’s later films. It focuses very much on how the Italian industry and particularly Fulci made ‘fun’ zombie films compared to the socially and politically relevant films of Romero.
In another documentary that is really just an extended interview with the actor titled Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies, Ian McCulloch discusses his acting career and how he got the job of starring in Zombie Flesh Eaters. He calls it a ‘silly script’ and a lower class version of the Hammer horrors. He is scathing about his participation in the film, saying that no acting was required and that he just had to say the lines as seriously as possible. He also reveals that Fulci could be a bully to actress Auretta Gay on set to get what he wanted from her. However he does call it iconic but seems to put this down mostly to it being labelled a video nasty. It also takes in his subsequent excursions into further horror films.
There is an uninspiring look at the original script that is literally just a glance at the shark attack and eye piercing scenes. Also included is a half hour Q&A with composer Fabio Frizzi and finally a half hour interview with Gino De Rossi covering his special effects work on numerous Italian splatter classics and James Cameron’s debut Piranha 2. It’s well worth a watch if you can handle all the stomach churning special effects montages of grisly gore.
Overall there are plenty of extras here to keep fans of the genre, the film and all gore hounds happy.