Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Video Nasty #39 - Zombie Flesh Eaters

Went to the cinema with Franco this evening... We saw Zombie II - science fiction horror film. Ghastly; repulsive trash
Andrei Tarkovsky, diary entry 5th September 1979, Rome
The best was saved for last…

It may not be as stylish as Tenebrae and lacks the virtuosity of Cannibal Holocaust, but Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film Zombie Flesh Eaters has long been my favourite title on the DPP’s list of outlawed films. I saw it on a hot afternoon in the summer of 1992, and after my first taste of Italian Horror, life would never be the same again. In many respects, Zombie Flesh Eaters is the archetypal Italian Horror film, with it’s assimilation of popular American Cinema (rip-off would be unkind), ludicrous plotting (the shark vs. zombie sequence), a distinguished star on vacation (Richard Johnson), a fabulously catchy score (by Fabio Frizzi), wacky dubbing (orchestrated by fan favourite Nick Alexander) and the astonishingly gory effects (courtesy of Giannetto De Rossi).

Interestingly Zombie Flesh Eaters could have ended up an entirely different beast. The film was rushed into production in the wake of Dawn of the Dead (which was doing considerable business in Italy) with Enzo Castellari set to direct, but according to screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, the production company went with Fulci when he offered to do the film for a lesser fee. In the light of Fulci’s subsequent zombie films which dabbled in metaphysics and surrealism, Zombie Flesh Eaters remains a remarkably coherent work. Dawn of the Dead looms large in the story of Italian Zombie Cinema, but Fulci’s film is arguably a more significant influence, setting the tone and flavour of the living dead films that would follow - Zombie Creeping Flesh (aka Hell of the Living Dead), Zombie Holocaust and Burial Ground. If the film trumps Dawn of the Dead in any way it’s Giannetto De Rossi’s utterly fantastic looking walking dead, the crumbling flesh piles far more impressive than Romero’s freshly dead (and regrettably goofy looking) ghouls.

Sacchetti's screenplay (which is credited to his wife, for tax reasons apparently) is a distinctly old fashioned affair and owes as much to the 1957 quickie Zombies of Mora Tau than Romero’s film. As well as giving the audience one scene to puzzle over (exactly what is the submariner zombie up to miles out to sea?), Sacchetti devised one of the most famous deaths in European Cult Cinema when a 12” splinter of wood torpedoes through an eyeball. The film was marketed as a pseudo sequel to Dawn of the Dead, but the film works best as a prequel – the premise being that the zombie plague which has invaded the shopping malls of America has its origins on the island of Matul. Sacchetti's screenplay never actually resolves the cause of the living dead phenomena – it could be the work of voodoo sorcery, hinted by the ceremonial drumming heard on the soundtrack, and the references to voodoo prophecy; or the mysterious medical experiments of Dr. Menard – at one point, some sort of culpability is implied when Menard’s frazzled wife declares to her husband “You won’t be happy until I meet one of your zombies”

Looking at the film as part of the Fulci cannon, Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of the director’s best looking films. Fulci may not be renowned as a Cinemascope director, but the film includes a number of striking widescreen compositions, like the memorable head shot of the zombie framed against the backdrop of Manhattan in the opening sequence, and later on in the film with the wide shots of the zombies shuffling out of the darkness (recalling a similar shot from Night of the Living Dead). Fulci doesn’t seem as possessed with the film as he was with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, but the director steals some wonderfully inspired moments, like the sudden camera jerk when Menard’s wife realizes a sinister presence has entered the house, and a fabulous camera arc around a wandering zombie. Heading up the cast is Richard Johnson as Dr. Menard, delivering a fine performance (a latter-day Sean Connory comes to mind), looking suitably grizzled, brow perpetually bathe in sweat. In the first of his 3-picture Italian sojourn, Ian McCulloch plays journo Peter West, hardly a classic leading man but McCulloch gives his character an amusing swagger that’s hard not to like. Tisa Farrow affects her usual thousand yard stare and funnily enough, eagled eyed Italian audiences would have spotted her as a party guest just over a month later in Woody Allen’s Manhattan – quite a career trajectory ! Rounding out the cast is a reliably wooden Al Cliver and the radiant Greek actress Olga Karlatos.

Zombie Flesh Eaters has had up to 10 different DVD releases in various territories since the Anchor Bay edition first came on the scene in 1998. The best of the editions are the US Blue Underground and Shriek Show editions. In terms of the image, the Blue Underground just inches ahead of the Shriek Show DVD, and features a nice sharp 2.35 anamorphic transfer with good strong colors. However, in terms of extras, the Shriek Show edition is miles ahead of the BU disc with a feature length 98-min documentary on the film Building a Better Zombie, which gathers together a staggering amount of cast and crew to discuss the film. The Blue Underground disc does have one significant extra, but it’s hidden away in the Posters and Stills Gallery - by jigging around with your remote you can activate a 30-min Lucio Fulci trailer reel. If you have yet to add the film to your collection, hold off until Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition arrives next month, when you can savor Fulci’s masterpiece in all its HD glory.


  1. Great review Wes, Zombie flesh eaters was my first taste of the nasties, a local video store kept a copy of the "Strong uncut version" as it was labelled. If they knew you well enough they would rent it out. Needless to say it was very popular! This was in probably 86 or 87. Eventually the tape literally wore out. It's always been a favourite of mine and I'm counting the days to the blu ray!

  2. Thanks Mart... I didn't have the uncut version myself, so when I finally got my hands on the Dragon disc a few years ago, I was astonished to see the pre-credits sequence where Menard dispatches Anne's father with a bullet and sends the boat away. This sequence is totally missing from the VIPCO versions !

  3. Great review as always Wes! This is definetely one of my favourit zombie movies of all time and together with The Beyond, the reason I went and still do go through the italian cinema as often as I can!

  4. Many thanks Jesper, yeah, I love this one and The Beyond - if I had to introduce someone to the films of Lucio Fulci these would be the ones I would show them...

  5. I love the thought that Tarkovsky went to see the film in the first place, and then called it trash. What did he expect?!!!
    Excellent review, Wes. Like you, this was one of the first films I ever saw on video - in the STRONG UNCUT VERSION circa 1982. I couldn't get enough of it. I used to hold film screenings for my mates on a double bill with Dawn of the Dead (always showing it first of course, as you say it is a prequel)
    Funnily enough I watched The Beyond again only last night but didn't think it held up so well.
    Is this really the last Nasty review, Wes? The end of an era?

  6. Yep, it's the last Nasty... I had originally planned to do the 72, but I knew I wouldn't locate all the films. It was relatively easy to do the 39. I'll be sad to see 'em go, doing the series, I always knew what I was gonna be posting next, now that I'm left to my own devices I'll be in a hell of indicision about what to review, what people would like to read about etc... I'll admit I do like people reading along.

  7. I consider Zombie Fulci's finest film overall, one of the better zombie movies ever made. It's extremely eerie and gory, with fewer unintentional laughs than is common in most overdubbed Italian horror flicks of the late '70s and '80s.

  8. I completely agree Ray, it's a far more accomplished work that say Zombie Creeping Flesh and so on... I think the only other European zombie film that has the same quality is Living Dead At Manchester Morgue...

  9. Saw this one on VHS in the 60 day period I lived with my parents in Florida and watched 125 movies. I literally crawled from one end of the couch to the other during the eyeball scene. I have added the Blu-Ray to the video vault - think this one will turn up next October in my Horrorfest weekend.

  10. Yep, the eyeball scene still makes me cringe ! It's interestingly... for years my copy of Zombie Flesh Eaters, the UK VHS, had this scene shortened - the censors removed the shot of the splinter penetrating the eyeball, but whoever re-cut the scene (originally for UK theatrical run prints back in the day) cut the scene down to the very last microsecond before the eyeball is punctured - so the viewer was left to imagine the terrible damage done after the scene cuts away - which in it's own way was strangely effective. I'm not advocating for a cut Zombie Flesh Eaters of course but it's an example of the power of editing and how less can sometimes feel like more...