Trivia Actor Ian McCulloch now says that he found it hard to take Lucio Fulci seriously because he reminded him so much of Benny Hill.
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Zombie Flesh Eaters (Blu-Ray Steelbook) (1979)
10th Dec 12
After a mysteriously abandoned boat belonging to a missing doctor sails into Hudson Bay, NYC, a newspaper reporter teams up with the doctor’s daughter to investigate what happened to him on the island of Matul. Expect to witness a zombie fighting a shark and some eye gouging of the highest order.
If you are old enough to remember the big box VHS days of yore, then you may recall the Vipco Zombie Flesh Eaters VHS tape with that stunning artwork. It was such a beautiful thing. Then, it was gone. Taken away by the BBFC. Or the police. And when Vipco re-released the censored version in the 1992, we felt a mixture of relief at being reacquainted with an old friend, and anger because this old friend had changed. It was the misleadingly tagged “original theatrical version”, which meant that we could relive the dull dialogue scenes, then feel insulted when Fulci’s uniquely staged violence was merely suggested, with all the best bits left on the bloodstained floor of the BBFC. Not good.
So here we are in 2012 and a few versions later. We should really celebrate the fact that companies such as Blue Underground, Anchor Bay, Shriek Show and most recently Arrow have offered up slightly differing versions of the film in varying regions, but unfortunately it’s all gotten rather confusing which one to opt for. If you’ve got enough cash then you may as well have a Zombie Flesh Eaters row on your movie shelves, but chances are you just want a kick-ass ultimate version, with all the nastiness firmly in place, and with a shit load of juicy extras to munch your way through when there’s nothing better to do.
The reason we’re all here: Arrow release the “Strong Uncut Version” of Lucio Fulci’s maggoty masterpiece on DVD and Blu-Ray, with an additional limited edition encased in a rather smashing 'steelbook', with new artwork by Graham Humphreys. Thankfully the version that came through my door a few days ago is this steelbook Blu-Ray version, and like a hungry shuffler I ripped through the skin (padded envelope) to reveal the innards (steel box), then I smiled and proceeded to flick through a gorgeous 50 page booklet with colourful reproductions of stills and international promotional artwork, alongside informative essays and interviews by Stephen Thrower, Calum Waddell and BBFC man Craig Lapper. So far, so good.
The film itself is presented with three different opening credits choices (Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombi and Zombi 2), which in any version includes Fabio Frizzi’s musical theme – the stuff of legend. The New York scenes then follow, where Ian McCulloch’s newspaper reporter follows up on a story about a mysteriously abandoned boat just off Staten Island, which sees him join forces with Tia Farrow’s wispy gal, Anne, whose missing father owns said boat. Following as many NY scenes as the Italian crew could shoot permit-free without being arrested, the two jet off to the Antilles before setting sail for the island of Matul, with the help of salty sea dog Al Cliver and his model missus Auretta Gay. Thankfully, Ms. Gay decides to indulge in a spot of near-naked underwater photography which attracts the attention of a shark and the famous underwater zombie, who engage in some sort of silly aquatic battle with the finned predator, all to the beat of Frizzi’s pulsing music score. It’s all so delightfully daft (but cleverly shoehorned into the plot, as we learn from Dardano Sacchetti in the extras) but utterly compelling at the same time. On this newly restored Blu-Ray version, the underwater sequence looks incredible, with stunning colour depth and overall clarity.
Meanwhile, on Matul, Richard Johnson from The Haunting divides his time between getting drunk, trying to control his equally inebriated wife, played by the sultry Olga Karlatos, and performing nonsensical tests in order to understand why Matul’s dead walk. At the same time our boat crew arrives on Matul, Mrs. Menard becomes zombie nosh during a beautifully constructed scene that remains shocking – not to mention suspenseful – to this day. Trying to gain access to her room, the zombie utilizes a large splinter of wood pointing in her direction, by punching through the door, grabbing her hair, and forcing her eye towards the splinter which proceeds to gouge her eye right out of its socket. What a clever zombie. You wouldn’t think they had it in them, what with being so dead and everything. Still, quite excruciating to watch, even if it’s all a bit…rubbery.
Things go from bad to worse for McCulloch, Cliver and the gals as they soon realise they may not get off the island alive, and some don’t, not in the traditional sense anyway. Before you know it, they’re dealing with a seemingly never-ending zombie siege in the hospital/church before legging it to the nearest boat and heading for NYC, where a familiar apocalyptic terror awaits them.
What becomes apparent after a long break from seeing this film is that it’s basically a collection of show-stopping zombie sequences, tied together with rather mundane dialogue scenes which although necessary, slow the pace a little. However, from the halfway point, Fulci lifts the momentum as the dead begin to rise, en masse, in great style. These are not Romero’s blue faced shoppers, but horrid, putrefying specimens which, thanks to the ingenious make up effects of Gianetto De Rossi, appear to be quite dead. What’s more, in typical nonsensical Fulci style, they literally rise from their ancient graves, slowly but with purpose, in one of the film’s most impressive sequences. It is here, my friends, where the quality of this restoration really shines.
As Ian McCulloch quite rightly points out in an interview (from the extras on disc 2), the real star of Zombie Flesh Eaters is the special effects of Gianetto De Rossi, which, along with Fulci’s direction and excellent cinematography of Sergio Salvati, make these set pieces so uniquely special. Whether they make sense is beside the point; they don’t. You are watching a zombie film, after all, an Italian zombie film. George Romero may have rewritten the zombie rules with Night of the Living Dead but Fulci, along with his continental contemporaries, would take the shuffling masses into crazier territory with each subsequent film.
There is a healthy dose of extras spread over both discs, including two separate commentary tracks. However, if you’re not in the mood, like me, you can opt for From Romero to Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Zombie Film, easily the strongest of the special features, which combines talking heads Dardano Sacchetti, Luigi Cozzi, Russ Streiner and Kim Newman among others, with footage from all sorts of fabulous pasta-splatter mayhem, including those titles you have been trying to forget about. Yes, I am referring to Zombie Creeping Flesh. Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies: A Trilogy of Italian Terror is a decent Ian McCulloch interview recounting how he got involved with a genre that pretty much ended his acting career, and contains some interesting and amusing anecdotes. Did you know his wife’s uncle was on the board that banned this film, including so many other video nasties? ”Oh, Ian. How could you?”
The Meat Munching Moves of Gianetto De Rossi takes the F/X maestro around his workshop in Italy, where he shows Calum Waddell how he strung up Zora Kerova by the boobs in Cannibal Ferox, among other tidbits of behind-the-scenes trickery. Also included is a Q&A session with composer Fabio Frizzi with a Scottish theatre audience, so you can expect some communication problems here. It would be nice to see a more conventional interview with him (he is more than worthy), as I’ve never been a fan of the “stick a camera at the side of the stage and let it roll” technique; more often than not, it’s quite boring and in this case, wastes too much of your valuable time. Zombie Flesh Eaters: From Script to Screen is for completists only, as co-writer Dardano Sacchetti shows pages of the original Island of the Living Dead script as the camera lovingly lingers over key scenes – you know the ones.
Zombie Flesh Eaters may lack Romero’s sociopolitical awareness but more than makes up for it by being an atmosphere-oozing, ultra-stylish undead opera, packed with squirm inducing, decomposing mayhem which pushed the boundaries of the zombie subgenre. Even if the plot is average (it is), the acting efficient (at best) and the dialogue “banal”, it boasts scenes of extraordinary graphic content the likes of which had never been witnessed before and are not easily forgotten. This frame-by-frame restoration, overseen by James White, successfully brings out details that were hitherto absent in previous versions, helping us rejoice in every minute detail of all its intestine-munching majesty. Did I mention Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack? I’m running out of superlatives…