Trivia The film was written before Dawn of the Dead (1978) was released in Italy, as an action/adventure thriller with no link to George Romero's films. The opening and closing scenes (which take place in New York) were added to the script later when the producers wanted to cash-in on the success of Dawn.
The make-up effects were done by renowned Italian, Gianetto De Rossi. The make-up for the zombies was "caked" on in several stages and Fulci, the director, constantly referred to the extras as "walking flower pots".
The newspaper office scene was filmed in a busy office building, and at one point the cast and crew inadvertently interrupted a meeting held by Rupert Murdoch who angrily kicked them out shouting “Who the fuck are you? Fuck off!”.
Several of the actors playing the zombies were actually brothers. They look so similar that some people have speculated that all the zombies were played by one man.
As shown in trailers before the film was released, "Barf Bags", much similar to the ones used in airplane travel, where handed out to movie goers who saw the movie in theaters, due to the high amounts of blood-and-gore that most horror films before 1979 had never seen.
Enzo Castellari was asked to direct this film early in its development, but turned it down.
Like many Italian horror films of the time, the cast was half English-speaking and half Italian-speaking. Meaning that neither the English or Italian versions or dubbed 100% in sync. Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Olga Karlatos, and Stefania D'Amario were of the main English speaking cast, while Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, and Dakkar were of the main Italian-speaking cast.
Scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti chose to take his name off the credits because when he finished the script his father died and he felt uncomfortable about being connected with a movie about dead people getting back to life and being killed again.
Director Cameo: Lucio Fulci the news editor in the scene of the New York newspaper office.
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Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
8th Feb 05
A young woman and a British newspaper reporter travel to the Antilles Islands in order to locate the woman’s father. When they get there they find out that he has died of a mysterious disease. They also find an island cursed by voodoo, a nonsense-talking alcoholic doctor, and hoards of flesh-eating zombies. When the earth spits out the dead they will return to suck the blood from the living!
In 1979 Lucio Fulci, the self-proclaiming “terrorist of the genres”, unleashed the legend that is Zombie Flesh Eaters unto a world that was more than ready for blood, guts, dodgy dubbing and the undead. This is the one that kick-started the Italian horror cycle of the 1980’s. Many lesser films would follow, many with the same “maestro of maggot mayhem” at the helm, including City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House by the Cemetery, and The New York Ripper.
This was my first zombie film. I was eight years old and feeling very lucky and grateful to have a cool dad who would rent this for me regularly. Every 2-3 months, he’d hire it again because he knew I’d be skipping with excitement every time that big video box with the zombie hand on it appeared. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared from our video shelves in the UK, deemed a ‘video nasty’ as a result of the 1984 Video Recordings Act (see our nasties feature for more info). We lost many a good flick in the conflict, but mostly they were quite woeful. All of a sudden they were gone, but not forgotten. When Vipco re-released a heavily cut ZFE on video again in the late 1990’s I made an eager pilgrimage to a distant retailer where I knew I could find it, took it home, poured a drink, and settled myself. When that theme music started I felt amazing – the first time in over 10 years I had seen this film but I have to say that, by the time of the ending titles I wasn’t convinced. After all, in that dark period of UK video history, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was not banned. It was always available to us, thank God (and the BBFC!), we had access to Romero’s classic – the last word in zombie films. And when I saw ZFE again, it just wasn’t as good as I remembered.
That is, until the Zombie Flesh Eaters Special 25th Anniversary Edition found its way to my address. This is a whole different kettle of zombie fish, folks. This is the real thing. This is the version known as Zombi 2 - restored, remastered, completely uncut and cleaned to perfection with 5.1 digital surround sound. It’s probably the best DVD transfer of a B-movie from the 1970’s yours truly has ever seen. So much loving care has been taken over this that it should be used as an example of how it's done and, as a logical consequence, the actual film itself comes across better than ever.
Certain elements in ZFE clearly stand out as masterstrokes when it is viewed today, in a time when zombie films are once again selling and are being squeezed out from most corners of the globe. Fulci and his remarkable crew took Romero’s approach and, with respect, felt that they could cash in on it. While Romero was (perhaps a little too) fond of using library music in his films, Fulci had the benefit of working with adept composers Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci on ZFE, and this factor alone already makes the end result something truly special. Striking a perfect balance of upbeat Caribbean vibes, minor key reflection pieces, and that repeated synth melody crescendo of the lush main title music, these composers furnished Fulci’s visuals with synthesised magic. It’s difficult to argue why this is the best soundtrack a zombie film has ever had – it simply seems obvious that it is. This soundtrack belongs to the legions of Fulci’s shuffling walkers, and Peter West's mangled foot.
Zombies. Walkers. Every zombie film needs them. Some zombies are good. Some aren’t so good. Gianatto Di Rossi’s zombies in ZFE are simply unforgettable. Conceived in an effort to improve upon Savini’s undead work for Romero, Di Rossi came up with some incredibly effective results under a lot of pressure, on a tight budget, and in a very short space of time. His zombies are not grey/blue figures that populated the films of Romero, but this an f/x maestro’s over-the-top interpretation of the decomposition process. This small, resourceful f/x team worked on the assumption that no one had ever seen a zombie. Which is fair enough when you think about it. People had seen Night of the Living Dead (Dawn of the Dead was still to be released in Italy), but really, that’s all that the public had seen on a large scale. This was their weapon, their task, their mission – to create the zombie. And create the zombie they most certainly did. De Rossi wanted above all else to make the zombies in ZFE look frightening, unlike Savini’s creations of that era, which, while fantastic, looked like they came straight out of a comic book.
Fulci’s zombies don’t move very fast. In fact, they're even slower than Romero’s, but there’s an implicit gracefulness about their awkward shuffling which is hard to deny. Fulci would demonstrate to the zombies how to walk and how to move, doing his bit to help create a fantastic-looking and dynamic army of authentic, meat-hungry crumblies. De Rossi’s technique of using terracotta clay (instead of latex applications) on the zombies marked an acute jump in zombolution (zombie evolution - yes I just made that up, so what?) – they looked like no other zombie, or creature, from any other film. They were one-of-kind examples of pure craftsmanship and came complete with worms and maggots wriggling around eyes and falling off their faces. Nice.
There are some real highlights in this movie in terms of make-up effects. The eye-gouging scene has become legendary with genre fans throughout the last 25 years. The documentary that features on disc 2 of this special edition shows everyone involved in the process discussing the trade secrets concerning how this, and other effects in the film, were created. Whether he’s ripping Auretta Gay’s throat out with zombie teeth or gouging Olga Karlatos’ eye, De Rossi, wherever possible, would endeavour to use the real actor for his effects. Everything humanly possible would be done to the real person before bringing in a fake head, for example, and this is partly why he is the craftsman that he is. See also his more recent work on the fantastic Switchblade Romance (review) – he’s been in the business for over 40 years, still going strong and better than ever. He does however remain quite laid back about the use of blood and gore in ZFE, taking the perspective that the story simply required it and that it needed to be there in order for the picture to work. Little did he know he had a major role in creating some of the most iconoclastic imagery of 20th Century horror cinema, especially with regard to THE zombie, played by Ottaviano Dell’Acqua.
One wicked set-piece follows another in ZFE. The underwater zombie sequence has gone down in the annals of horror movie history as one of the wildest, most far-out zombie attacks ever filmed, and is made even more of a pleasure by the gratuitous breast display from Auretta Gay. This sub-aqua zombie looks so fantastic, even underwater, again down to De Rossi’s unique make-up approach. The music, again, only serves to give this sequence even more impact. The zombie, instead of attacking Auretta Gay, attacks the shark, which could possibly lunge at her at any given moment. This catches us off guard, because what one would expect is to either see the zombie attack the lovely Auretta Gay, or to see the shark attack the lovely Auretta Gay. Instead, the zombie hangs on to the shark, ripping off fins and biting deep as we see the red of the shark’s blood swirling around in the water. No one ever forgets this scene, and rightly so. For more underwater zombies in action, see House of the Dead (review).
The finale of ZFE depicts the awesome sight of zombies shuffling across Manhattan Bridge toward the city. I always found this terrifying as a kid. It somehow made the zombie phenomenon seem quite plausible, like perhaps it could happen today, tomorrow, very soon. Fulci subtly lets the audience forget about the first zombie attack in the harbour, as its natural for us to forget about the likelihood of a mass ‘epidemic’ in the city as a consequence of that opening scene. This ending, along with the far-out ending of The Beyond, and the slightly nonsensical (but still effective) ending of The House by the Cemetery, demonstrates Fulci’s gift for (sometimes unconventional) narrative closure.
Disc two of this Special Edition DVD features a 98 minute documentary about the making of ZFE called Build a Better Zombie. What we get here is interview after interview, from the talented people who helped create the film, mostly in Italian, with English subtitles. These days we are accustomed to ‘Making of…’ features on DVD extras that mostly comprise footage shot on location, but ZFE was made in 1978 on a limited budget, therefore the absence of any on-set footage is hardly surprising.
The interviews are punctuated by scenes from the film, sometimes in slow motion and the whole thing generally works really well and is totally absorbing if you’re already a fan of the picture. Most interesting is the way the Italian professionals lovingly discuss their “craft” and the range of contributors interviewed can’t fail to impress.
There’s even an interview with Ottaviano Dell’Acqua who plays the WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU zombie who rips Ms. Gay’s throat out, as well as ‘Captain Gallagher’ (real name!) - the fat zombie who appears on the abandoned boat in the first scene, ripping out the cop’s throat. Fulci’s zombies love a nice bit of throat.
Even the legendary director and Fulci contemporary Enzo Casterelli (Bronx Warriors I & II, The Big Racket, The New Barbarians) makes an appearance to comment on the proceedings. Some of the technicians involved offer up some lovely pearls of wisdom regarding the struggle of working on such a low budget, reiterating how ZFE was made with such “strength of will” and how “luck helps those who dare”.
Last but by no means least the legend that is Al Cliver (who plays Brian Hull) makes a brief but cheerful and most welcome appearance. This is a surprise considering that he hasn’t been featured in a film since 1990. According to the holy gospel of co-actor Ian McCulloch he is now a humble tradesman and using his real name, Pier Luigi Conti. Cliver has taken on a somewhat mythical status on our regular Zombie Club sessions, prompted by his impressive repertoire of great Italian B-movies, including The New Gladiators, The Black Cat, The Beyond, Endgame and The Devil Hunter. Director Joe D’Amato refers to Cliver as "a poor version of Nick Nolte" (maybe Cliver would call D'Amato a "poor version of Fulci"). It’s always great to see him appearing, like a very old friend who has always been there in the bowels of the crazy Italian B movie world.
Actor Ian McCulloch provides a commentary track on disc one of this Special Edition DVD. Amazingly, this is the first time he had ever seen the finished film in its entirety and one gets the impression that it wasn’t exactly a career highlight for him. He does however provide the viewer with a few decent anecdotes relating to aspects of the production.
When judged alongside other films in Fulci’s oeuvre, ZFE stands up incredibly well on every level, and could well be his finest piece of work. I’ve never considered him one of the great directors, but his place in the horror genre is both noteworthy and influential. The ageing director had covered a great many genres before the time of ZFE - his first real horror film, its’ success professionally caging him in genre purgatory for the rest of his life. That said, this purgatory saw the release of some gems of that period, not least with The Beyond, a classic zombie tale of gibberish inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. While any film “inspired by” H. P. Lovecraft is usually worth steering well clear of, The Beyond is executed with enough style, dream-like quality and gore to keep genre fans happy, even if they have no idea what the hell is going on. Just be content to bathe in the sheer atmosphere - something Fulci was clearly adept at creating.
Media Blasters have done a truly exhaustive job on this welcome addition to any serious fan’s DVD collection. The cover artwork is without question the best design done for the film and if that’s not enough, inside the case is a poster reproduction of the same artwork with a Lucio Fulci signature.
This is the way all DVDs should be released.
“I’ve just been informed that the zombies have entered the building. They’re at the door! They’re coming in! AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!”
DVD Details Available subtitles: English Available Audio Tracks: Italian (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 5.1), Italian (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), Italian (Dolby Digital 1.0), English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Commentary by actor Ian McCullough
Never-before-released, uncut version of the film, fully remastered
Exclusive 98-minute featurette including testimonials from SFX artist Giannetto De Rossi, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti
Cast and crew interviews
The Zombi Gallery: Production stills, posters, and lobby cards
Assorted zombie trailers
Number of discs: 2
Versions Island of the Flesh-Eaters
Island of the Living Dead
Ultimi zombi, Gli
Zombie 2: The Dead Are Among Us
Zombie Flesh-Eaters (UK)