Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) directed by Lucio Fulci
What’s it about?
An apparently abandoned sailing boat drifts into New York’s harbour. A police boat crew goes to investigate, with two officers boarding to find any signs of life. One of the pair goes down below deck and finds little but decomposing half-eaten food and insects. At that moment, a huge zombie jumps out from a closed door, wrestling the officer to the ground and biting a huge hole in his throat. The zombie comes up on deck and the other officer shoots it, causing it to fall into the water.
The police find that it is a boat belonging to a scientist working in the Antilles, and question his daughter Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), though she herself knows little about what has happened. Meanwhile, a New York journalist named Peter West (Ian McCulloch) is sent to investigate this mysterious occurrence. Both decide to sneak aboard the boat that night to find out more and end up pairing up and making a journey over to the Antilles.
They find out that Anne’s father is working on an island called Matool, and, although it is reputed to be cursed, they hire a boat skipper Brian (Al Cliver) and his crewmate Susan (Auretta Gay) who are willing to take them there.
Partway through the boat journey Susan dives underwater to take some photographs but is attacked not only by a shark but also by a zombie that she encounters on the ocean floor. She manages to escape when the shark and zombie start to fight.
Once on the island, they find that the dead are coming back to life in droves, and that scientist Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) is researching the phenomenon. Unfortunately, he seems powerless to stop it, so the group has to fight for their lives.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
Zombie Flesh Eaters was basically an Italian-made cash-in on the success of George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead a year earlier. Indeed, on its domestic turf it was marketed as a sequel to it (Dawn Of The Dead was named Zombi in Italy, while this one was Zombi 2). It was an even bigger success at the Italian box office than its “predecessor” was and spawned two further sequels which were released in 1988 and 1989 respectively. They were called, naturally, Zombi 3 and Zombi 4 (Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 and After Death in UK and US markets). The first of those two was partially directed by Fulci himself before he had to quit due to ill health. Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso completed the film.
Zombie Flesh Eaters is also notable to UK horror aficionados in that it was one of the films rounded up as part of the UK “video nasties” scare. It’s one of two Italian horror films to star Tisa “less famous sister of Mia” Farrow that were included on the DPP list, the other being Anthropophagous. It actually did get a UK cinema release, albeit with 1 minute and 46 seconds of graphic gore snipped at the behest of the BBFC. The issue was that the early video release of the film (before ratings certificates where enforced) was the uncut version.
After a number of years it returned to UK video shelves in an 18-rated version with the same cuts as the original cinema release. However, in 1999 the film’s UK video distributors Vipco decided to resubmit the uncut version to the BBFC (who had started to loosen up by that point). On that occasion they imposed just 23 seconds’ worth of cuts. Vipco released this new cut as the so-called “Extreme Version”. In 2005 Anchor Bay submitted the film once more and managed to get it through the board completely uncut. However, it was only available as part of their Box of the Banned collection. All of the Arrow DVD and Blu Ray releases (from 2012 onwards) are also uncut.
How does it hold up?
Yes, the script is pretty standard stuff - basically The Island Of Dr Moreau with zombies. Yes, there are cliched characters galore, from the bribe-happy developing country taxi driver to the superstitious natives, from the well-meaning but deluded scientist to the unflappably heroic reporter. Yes, too many of the characters just stand there rooted to the spot, giving plenty of opportunity for the slow-moving zombies to tear their flesh with their teeth. Yes, the social commentary George Romero brought to his entries is absent here.
Despite all of these shortcomings and more, as a straightforward horror film Zombie Flesh Eaters works incredibly well. Lucio Fulci has a genuine instinct and passion for the genre. This is seen partially in the film’s skilful deployment of visual references - the boat drifting crew-less into New York’s harbour is pure Nosferatu, and carries the same chill; the mist-swept village streets and churchyard in Matool evoke memories of the gothic horror era that the Italian film industry was such a large part of.
Moreover, Fulci knows how to construct setpieces so as to wrack maximum suspense and intensity from them - he slowly builds up tension in an ever-so-subtle fashion, with the zombies rising at a barely perceptible pace from the earth, or pushing in a villa door causing a streak of light to pour through slowly over the darkened wall, or pulling a woman’s head gradually but inexorably towards a jutting splinter of wood that is pointing straight at her eye. In many of these moments he then does something clever: he drags things out to the point when the viewer starts to lose focus on what is happening, and THEN hits them with a real jolt.
Practical effects and genuine danger
The other aspect that makes for great horror is that so much effort and personal risk is put into a number of the sequences. Even in these days when CGI trumps practical effects - no, strike that - especially in these days when CGI trumps practical effects there are many moments when the viewer can gasp and go “wow, did they really do that?” One of the most controversial gore scenes (the eye gouging via wood splinter) loses some of its impact today due to a cutaway to an obvious fake head being pierced. However, the scene featuring the zombie vs. shark confrontation, where we have a real stuntman in zombie makeup wrestling a real shark underwater, is riveting because it clearly involves genuine danger. The zombie makeup is incredibly detailed, even to the point where live worms were glued to the faces of some of the actors. The camera is unafraid to get right in close and pan around their heads, making their presence seem utterly menacing and real.
Sound is an effectively used commodity in the film. The soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi utilises plentiful synths (as were popular in this era) but also employs effective use of pulses, tribal beats and eerie moans to create a nerve-jangling accompaniment to the horror unfolding onscreen. The sound effects by Italian veteran Bruno Moreal are suitably hyper-real, with gushes of blood coming across like rushing streams.
As usual with Italian horror the acting is mainly so-so, veering from overdone to wooden. However, Richard Johnson stands out. This veteran British actor was on the cusp of major stardom during the 1960s but by the late 1970s his career was fading. Despite this, he resists the “take the money and run” attitude that an actor in his position would usually exhibit. In fact, he turns in a committed performance as a man who is clearly arrogant in his determination to crack the mystery behind why the dead are coming back to life, and yet has an underlying weight of sadness from his deteriorating relations with his cracked wife and his inability to find a solution to the unrelenting cycle of death and murderous rebirth.
Runtime: 91 mins
Dir: Lucio Fulci
Script: Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti
Starring: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Olga Karlatos, Dakar