What better way to celebrate my week in Italy than to review a few italian horror classics. And let’s start with one of the greats: Zombie Flesh Eaters. Okay, great might be pushing it, but it certainly special in its own surreal and nightmarish way.
When I was quite a bit younger my friend Chris bought me Lucio Fulci’s crazy zombie yarn on newly rereleased VHS for my birthday. For some reason I thought this perfect to show to my family during my celebratory meal. Chris and I called and yelled as the most notoriously grizzly moment in the film approached: a girl has her eye skewered on a large wooden splinter. The scene is incredibly slow building and long winded as she is dragged, inevitably towards the shattered door, the splinter of wood, in extreme close up getting nearer and nearer to her eyeball… until then… Nothing! You didn’t see it, the BBFC had cut it and pretty much all the other gore out of the former Video Nasty. Chris and I were gutted, my family relieved.
Well here we are in 2014 and you can download the entire film uncut in twenty minutes, or fourteen hours if you are in the middle of nowhere in the Italian countryside. All the gore is present and correct, the splinter in the eye scene still has a hellish reality to it, even if it doesn’t actually look very real. The rest of the gore is so luridly bright and colourful it seems to be a joke that anyone could have ever found it offensive. It’s hard to see how it was ever banned, or even taken seriously at all: a zombie has a fight with a shark underwater for god’s sake.
No one can deny that Zombie Flesh Eaters is a grotesque (in the best sense of the word) and trashy b-movie, it has none of the intelligence or well written characters of Dawn of the Dead. In much of Europe it was released as Zombi 2 (Dawn of the Dead was called Zombi) but really it doesn’t have much in common with Romero’s masterpiece. For one thing the film starts with the western world in fine shape so if anything it’s a prequel. Also these zombies aren’t reanimated by spaceships or experiments but good old fashioned voodoo. Also most of the zombies look like extras in dried clay rather than actual make up, although I still kind of like their look. It’s as if they’re animated lumps of dirt stumbling around looking for flesh. They are even less self aware than Romero’s zombies. His might not be able to navigate an escalator but these guys can’t even open their eyes. They bang and crash into each other as much as they do doorways. They only really come to life, so to speak, when they are suddenly presented with human flesh, then they tuck in with all the enthusiasm of a fat bloke locked in a KFC over night.
What Lucio Fulci’s feature does show, as was so often the case during this period, is just how damned well the Italians could shoot a film. We begin with a mysteriously abandoned yacht floating up the Hudson in front of the Manhatten skyline, and it looks beautiful in amazingly crisp widescreen. The old fashioned yacht compared to the modern sky scapers, including the nearly new at the time twin towers of the Wold Trade Centre, looks startlingly cinematic. The rest of the film rarely drops below this quality, from close ups of fingers squeezing through doorways to the beautiful, but deserted village streets of the Dominican Republic, it all is shot with the eye of an artist.
On the flip side, the entire film sounds just awful. It was a practice at the time, that in order to sell movies such as this to multiple regions they would shoot them without any audio at all. So the English actors would speak in their own tongue, the Italians in theirs, and then everyone, or at least some of them would get together afterwards and record the whole soundtrack in a studio in Rome, presumably in about half a day, with no time for retakes. Almost no one is in sync, some of the voice acting, even from the professionals like Ian McCulloch, seems completely at odds with what is going on on screen, and the music varies so wildly that you’re not sure whether this is a horror film or a comedy.
There are a few moments when the soundtrack all works okay. The aforementioned scene where the woman has her eye stabbed with a wooden splinter has no music and almost no dialogue. It relies solely on shuffling feet, wood cracking and her screams, and it’s as horrifying as it sounds.
I got to talk about the women in general in this film though. I’ve done a straw poll round these here parts and generally everyone agrees that if you are suddenly confronted with a zombie what you don’t do is start to whimper and cover your face with your hands. All the women, apart from the splinter girl seem to do this when they could have easily at least ran away. In fact the zombies shuffle so slowly, they could casually walk away. Instead they stay where they are and usually get eaten. Splinter girl is the exception. She slams the door shut, pushes a cupboard in front of it and THEN stands there whimpering until the inevitable happens. The men are always too busy doing other things to have time to whimper, however they are usually so distracted by the job at hand they don’t notice the undead coming up behind them until it is too late.
The film’s star is Ian McCulloch, who popped up in a number of these films at the time. If it wasn’t for the dreadful dubbing you suspect he was probably giving a perfectly decent performance. He’s kind of like a low rent Roger Moore if you can image such a thing. When he first meets the heroine (who I thought was a cheap Mia Farrow look a like until I found out it was in fact her sister Tisa Farrow, so she really was a look a like) he manages to avoid the police by climbing on top of her and pretending they are getting it on. An old rouse certainly, but when the police discover them he’s undone her top and got his hand under bra. I mean come on, it’s one thing to pretend you guys are lovers to avoid arrest, but he is clearly just taking advantage of her. Later on when they are escaping from the zombies into the jungle they collapse onto the forest floor and the first thing he does is try and get a snog out of Farrow again. McCulloch you old dog, theres a time and a place, and this ain’t either of them.
Anyway, for all you Zombie Flesh Eater virgins, I’m sure what you really want to know is what the hell do you mean a zombie fights a shark!?! Yes it’s true, and typical 1970s low budget and pre cgi Film making fashion they did it the old fashioned way: got a bloke in zombie make up to wrestle a shark under water. The zombie actor in question was also the shark wrangler but still, a shark is a shark, it’s not exactly a performing sea lion. It’s as ludicrous and yet strangely brilliant a scene (even with the goofy music on the soundtrack) in this or indeed any movie thats ever been made.
And that’s zombie flesh eaters all over: ludicrous but brilliant. As often as it looks like a treat it also sounds stupid and amatuer. The special make up effects are genius and genuinely horrific, and at the same time daft and simplistic. And the atmosphere can be nastily unsettling but occasionally quite lifeless, bordering on dull. And maybe this isn’t a film for the casual viewer. You have to be forgiving of the bad bits, because there are a lot of them, so you can appreciate the good stuff, of which there are equally as many.
and ultimately you have to remember the one really good thing: a zombie fights a shark, underwater, for real.