Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Richard Johnson
Release date: Out now
When a ship floats into New York Harbor carrying an undead passenger, journalist Peter (McCulloch) and Anne (Farrow), a woman searching for her father, head out to the remote Caribbean island where the boat originated from. They find themselves in the middle of a horrific zombie epidemic. Who will survive and what will be left of them?
In some ways the recent trend for lavish, remastered editions of exploitation classics seems jarring: after all, most of us first saw these films on grainy VHS (either before they were banned as Nasties, or on later pirate versions) –a format which always seemed to suit their gloriously ugly pleasures.
Yet, as Kim Newman points out in From Romero to Rome, one of a slew of new documentaries included here, many Italian exploitation filmmakers were ill-served by video. They shot in widescreen, they shared their talented crew with the likes of Visconti and Rossellini, and they often had a painterly eye for visuals. Fulci wasn’t quite Argento or Bava, but his best films were bold and arresting exercises in excess, and this new Blu-ray edition of Zombie Flesh Eaters offers the best way to appreciate the film’s rich visuals and lush Caribbean setting.
ZFE remains Fulci’s best known work and one of the best known Nasties. Two iconic sequences cemented the film’s legacy: the zombie vs shark showdown (preceded by an extended bout of topless diving), and the scene where Olga Karlatos gets her eyeball skewered by a door-splinter in glorious close-up. Both sequences still astonish: the former for its technical bravado and barmy plotting, the latter for the tense build-up and uncompromising, if not entirely realistic-looking, pay-off.
Elsewhere, Fulci and husband-and-wife writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti serve up a fun mix of classic voodoo-zombie pics (particularly I Walked With a Zombie and White Zombie ), new-wave zombie pics (Romero was a big inspiration – indeed, the picture was released as Zombi 2 in Italy, with Dawn of the Dead released as Zombi a year earlier) and jungle adventure.
Following the terrific New York-set opening, the story takes a little time to get going, though the persistent drum beats, whistling wind and dreamy score (by Fabio Frizzi) whip up a nicely uneasy atmosphere. But Fulci eventually rewards us with an orgy of crash-zoom entrails-munching, elaborate decaying zombie effects (the sight of former Conquistadors – complete with maggots crawling from their eyeballs – is particularly effective) and an action-filled final showdown.
Terrible cornball dialogue is earnestly delivered by decent actors like Ian McCulloch and Richard Jenkins, but that’s always part of the fun with exploitation pictures: if you prefer your films to come equipped with well-rounded characters and logical plotting, then Fulci’s never going to make your list of favourite filmmakers. Saying that, ZFE is a little more straightforward than Fulci’s insane Gates of Hell trilogy or his earlier giallos and not quite as interesting.
This new edition comes weighed down with extras. In the first of two commentaries, co-writer Elisa Briganti offers some interesting recollections about the origin of the story (for which she received sole on-screen credit) and her time working with Fulci, Bava and Lenzi (she only has good memories of the ZFE director, despite his reputation). The second commentary is by engaging horror critics Alan Jones and Stephen Thrower; they provide a terrific gore-geek history of everything on screen, while heaping praise on the film’s successful moments and chuckling at the terrible moments.
The hour-long documentary From Romero to Rome explores the evolution of the Italian zombie film following the success of Argento’s Italian cut of Dawn of the Dead. There’s a good line-up of talking heads (everyone from to Severance writer James Moran to Cannibal Holocaust’s Ruggero Deodato), and a thoughtful analysis of the differences between American and Italian zombie films.
Other extras include interviews with special effects whizz Gino De Rossi, composer Fabio Frizzi and Ian McCulloch (he remembers Fulci as a shouty Benny Hill lookalike who bulled Auretta Gay); a rather odd mini-extra in which Dardano Sacchetti flicks through the original script; original trailers (the Vipco one serves as a reminder of what ZFE looked like on VHS!); and a booklet with four excellent mini-essays on the film, including one by the BBFC’s Craig Lapper which explores the history behind the film’s cuts.
VERDICT: The Italian gore classic is unlikely to provoke nightmares these days, but it’s great fun and this new remastered edition looks terrific. 8/10