Last year I took a look at the late, great Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, so this year we’ll take a look at another of his most famous films – Zombie Flesh Eaters.
As I mentioned in last year’s review, my sharehousing years were a personal golden era for watching horror films. It was an interesting time for film releases in Australia; DVDs had come down significantly in price, film piracy was not the issue it is today and digital movies weren’t really on the table yet. It made for a perfect set-up for distributors to ride wider market trends – and to top this off, a little film called Cannibal Holocaust was released on DVD.
Now if you’ve ever seen that film (NSFW), you’ll understand why it was banned in Australia for a looooong time. Its uncut release was quite a big deal at the time, and heavily promoted. To ride the wave of notoriety, tons of other grindhouse films suddenly found themselves re-released to Australian shelves, often in cheap ‘n’ cheerful packaging that highlighted their gory delights in garish fonts. And that’s how I first encountered Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Originally released as an Italian “sequel” to Dawn of the Dead in 1979 under the title of Zombi 2*, it promptly went on to be hailed as a cult classic and banned in equal measure around the world. The premise is a simple enough one; a group of people travel to a remote tropical island, seeking a missing father. But in a shocking twist, it turns out that the island is covered in zombies!
The exact origin of the undead is never made quite clear. It’s suggested some kind of voodoo is at work, though we never actually meet the perpetrator. Token “rational” character Doctor Menard (Richard Johnson) strives for a natural explanation – but as is often the case in these films, science simply can’t keep up with the need for a body count. One by one the primary characters (including the good Doctor himself) are picked off in gruesome fashion, leading to an inevitable showdown between the handful of survivors and the zombie horde.
Now, even in 1979 this was a pretty clichéd take on zombie films, but it’s carried off with such style and panache that you won’t really mind. In spite of the obviously low budget and poor dubbing, the film is very well-shot, and they didn’t skimp on the special effects. Though the zombies look much tamer in a post-Walking Dead world, they are streets ahead of the blue-faced creatures seen in Dawn of the Dead, released just a year before. Of particular note is the worm-eyed conquistador zombie, who in spite of his minimal screentime is still one of my favourite cinematic monsters.
A special mention must also go to the soundtrack by frequent Fulci collaborator, Fabio Frizzi. As soon as I first saw this movie and heard the opening notes of the main theme, I knew that I was in for something special. Recorded in an era before synth became synonymous with sterile, it has the capacity to unsettle me whenever I hear it to this day. Yet it’s an oddly fond sound too, conjuring up memories of past-midnight viewings of cult trash with friends.
Now there are always two scenes people talk about when they mention Zombie Flesh Eaters, and I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on both of them. The first is the “skewered eyeball” scene. Arguably the most iconic scene in the film, poor Paola (Olga Karlatos) seeks shelter from the zombies in her house, only to have them break in and impale her eye on a particularly vicious splinter. It’s shot in excruciatingly slow detail, with Fabio Frizzi’s score sounding particularly nightmarish as the whole event drags on. There is a certain ugly nihilism in the scene, which helps distinguish it from plenty of other zombie films. Not to mention that later on in the film, some of the other characters find her remains, and…well, it ain’t pretty.
The second is the “zombie vs shark” scene. What initially appears to be an elaborately staged underwater scene to showcase Auretta Gay nude rapidly takes a turn for the surreal, when a shark and zombie turn up on the floor of the ocean, and promptly do battle with one another. It’s totally ridiculous, but kudos must go to everyone involved for actually pulling it off. Even now it looks wild, and I can only imagine how many rules and regulations were ignored in order to get the shot.
These two scenes are worth the price of admission alone, though there’s plenty of other moments to enjoy throughout. While not as good as The Beyond, Zombie Flesh Eaters is well worth a watch for zombie aficionados, and is certainly the more accessible of the two films. There’s plenty of campy moments to laugh at if you’re in the mood, but the atmosphere, special effects and feeling of impending doom still manage to disconcert almost 40 years after it was first released. All in all, Zombie Flesh Eaters is an excellent introduction to the more grindhouse end of horror.
* It’s known by a ton of titles around the world, including: Sanguella, The Island of the Living Dead, Zombie The Dead Walk Among Us, Gli Ultimi Zombi, Woodoo, L’Enfer de Zombies, Zombie 2: The Dead Are Among Us and Nightmare Island. In the USA it seems to be known mostly as Zombie.