Blu-ray Review: ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979)

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Review:  Zombie Flesh Eaters / Cert: 18 / Director: Lucio Fulci / Screenplay: Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sarchetti / Starring: Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver / Release Date: December 3rd 

There’s a danger with Zombie Flesh Eaters that the film’s troubled history and its near-mythical status as one of the legendary obscene UK ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s can detract from proper appreciation of the film itself. Directed by Italian ‘Godfather of Gore’ Lucio Fulci at the tail end of the 1970s under the title Zombi 2 (and sold as a direct sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which had laboured under the Mediterranean title Zombi), Zombie Flesh Eaters is actually a very different film from Romero’s ground-breaking efforts. Gore and viscera aside, Zombie Flesh Eaters takes us right back to the origins of the zombie legend and Fulci’s undead are proper zombies, resurrected by voodoo ritual and characterised as repulsive, shambling, decayed, long-dead cadavers which force their way out of the earth with their rotting flesh and empty eye-sockets squirming with worms and maggots. None of Romero’s ‘the recently-deceased are returning to life’ stuff for Fulci; these zombies are grotesque monsters and history (and the censor’s scissors) record how they do some very gruesome things in the course of the movie’s pacey ninety-minute running time.

We kick off in New York where an apparently-abandoned yacht is drifting lazily along the Hudson. River Police board the vessel and disturb a decomposing corpse, which springs to life and quickly tears out the throat of one of the officers. Ann Bolt (Farrow), daughter of the boat’s missing owner, is questioned by the Police; and when she meets up with reporter Peter West (McCulloch), the pair discover a note from Ann’s father explaining that he’s on a remote Caribbean island and suffering from a strange disease. Peter and Ann set off to investigate and enlist the help of Bryan Curt (Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Gay) to find both the mysterious island and Ann’s father. When they locate the island they discover that the dead are rising to attack and feast on the living and that Dr Menard (Johnson) is researching a cure for this ‘sickness’. But with Peter and the others on the island it seems that the undead are rising in greater numbers than ever before…

Historically, Fulci was no great shakes in weaving a coherent story into his films and Zombie Flesh Eaters isn’t really much of an exception. There are huge leaps of logic in character behaviour - zombie victims just stand and wait to be bitten or else decide that a quick ration of passion is the order of the day in the middle of a zombie attack. But the ambitious location filming gives the film a real sense of scale and the omnipresent voodoo trappings provide a welcome and eerie supernatural backdrop now missing from today’s conveyor belt zombie apocalypse flicks. But it’s the gore and violence that Zombie Flesh Eaters is best remembered for, and it’s all here in glorious, hi-def Blu-ray glory, with a special mention for the notorious eye-impaling sequence which Fulci lingers on with relish and which is still gross enough to make a grown man look away for a moment or so (we’re told). But Zombie Flesh Eaters has other delights, not least cinema’s first underwater-zombie-versus-shark face-off (we sense a Syfy original movie in the making) – which is a wonderfully barking idea, but the presence of zombies casually strolling about the sea bed is never referenced again. Zombie carnage over, our survivors head back to New York but pick up a random radio broadcast warning that the city is being overrun by a plague of zombies and the movie’s memorable last image sees a crowd of the undead shuffling across Brooklyn Bridge (to the apparent disinterest of all the motorists in shot going about their business quite normally just below).

Zombie Flesh Eaters is clearly a classic of its type. No one’s really pretending it’s a brilliantly made movie - the script is a thing of indifference and the acting just gets the job done - and its legend has probably done it no real favours. But it remains a startling and bold film, years ahead of its time, and its legion of fans will be thrilled to finally get hold of the film in this sumptuous 2-disc package (also available on DVD and a fancy ‘Steelbook’ limited edition), which does it justice at last and brings it as close to the mainstream as it’s ever likely to get.

Extras: Two commentaries; film introduction by Ian McCulloch; ‘From Romero to Rome’, an engrossing sixty-minute documentary exploring the history of Italian zombie cinema,; ‘Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies’ is thirty-minute McCulloch interview; special effects documentary; script to screen comparison; trailers and TV spots; Q&A with the film’s music composer, production booklet. Way beyond generous.

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