Eye For Film >> Movies >> Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) Film Review
Prolific Italian director Lucio Fulci's chequered career gained an international breakthrough with this notorious 1979 shocker, conceived as a hasty cash-in on Romero's Dawn Of The Dead. Despite helming everything from popular comedies to successful westerns, including Four Of The Apocalypse and surreal giallo thrillers such as Lizard In A Woman's Skin, Fulci only really made a name for himself through his horror cycle, with City Of The Living Dead, The Beyond and House By The Cemetery all following in the two years after ZFE. Censorship woes and his reputation as a misogynistic hack saw these films languish in obscurity for years, but through loving restorations and reissues, Fulci's output is finally being reappraised, with Zombie Flesh Eaters probably the best place to start tucking in despite many fans' preference for the more esoteric and gothic-tinged chills of the aforementioned Gates Of Hell trilogy.
When an unmanned yacht floats into the New York harbour, a policeman is savaged by its sole inhabitant, creating a mystery as to who the flesh-eating monster was and where the boat hailed from. During his investigations, intrepid reporter Peter West stumbles upon the distraught daughter of the boat's owner Anne Bowles, and both make a pact to head to the Caribbean to solve the mystery of what might have happened to her father. Recruiting a young sight-seeing couple with their own luxury power-boat, the foursome head for the remote isle of Matool, against the warnings of superstitious locals. There they find a strung-out doctor who's trying to combat a terrible epidemic, which is rumoured to make the dead walk again. Against a backdrop of voodoo and disease, they are soon besieged by waves of shambling zombies, intent on devouring their flesh. As night falls, the hospital seems to be the only safe place, leading to a stand-off upon which the fate of the human race might just depend.
Fulci has long drawn criticism for his 'unique' storytelling sensibilities, but this script by uncredited long-term collaborator Dardano Sacchetti and his wife Elisa Briganti represents one of his least incoherent works and therefore an ideal point to dive into his oeuvre. Having more in common with HG Wells' The Island Of Dr Moreau and Val Lewton's 1940s zombie dramas than Romero's efforts, ZFE is actually quite a slow-burning adventure story, with many sombre moments punctuating the gore-soaked set-pieces. Opening with a dash of detective work before seguing into medical sci-fi, the bonkers plot takes in elements of supernatural and apocalyptic horror, the setting quickly shifting from Manhattan to the cursed island of Matool.
With several flashback sequences and the action jumping between characters in different locations, a significant amount of unwieldy exposition arises, but it's still never entirely clear what has happened to reanimate the dead (then again, that never stopped Romero). The dubbing here is better than in other Fulci flicks and a series of likable protagonists keep the audience engaged through the narrative's rough spots. Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson and Al Cliver make a varied clutch of worthy heroes, while Tisa Farrow, Auretta Gay and Olga Karlatos bring the eye candy if little else, the latter in particular sticking in the mind's eye due to her involvement in the film's most infamous scene.
Apart from that literally retina-scarring sequence and some incredible, death-defying stunt-work featuring a hungry-looking shark, the blood only really gets pumping during the second half, when our team of explorers reach the island and stumble upon its sinister secret. As Fulci races towards his customary siege climax, he really lets rip with throat-tearing, head-splitting abandon, the pace and frequency of the viscera raising excitement levels even if it does all seem a little quaint by today's standards. His undead feast and rising-from-the-grave tableaux are particularly memorable; Gino De Rossi's splatterific make-up FX give Tom Savini a run for his money while his zombies still reign as perhaps the ultimate cinematic example of the art-form. The creep-factor is increased by the fact most of them are blind or at least un-seeing, while their decrepitude is spectacularly revolting. You can almost smell the putrid skin rotting off their bones and writhing with worms (Savini probably stole this idea for the Father's Day revenant in Creepshow), while their particularly slow shuffle makes their attacks all the tenser and any damage they inflict all the more harrowing.
Fabio Frizzi's lush, mournful electronic score (recently reissued on the fantastic Death Waltz label) really adds to both the film's funereal beauty and atmosphere of unease; the themes drill into your ear like the zombies' groans and linger like the Caribbean sunset. There's also some brilliant cinematography to soak up, and although the editing sometimes jars, Fulci juggles smooth, elegant camera moves with nimble handheld work to get the balance of dramatic build-up and visceral action just right. His style lacks Argento's audacious money shots but there's no denying the thought and artistry he pours into every frame.
Although the liner notes give it a good bash, Zombie Flesh Eaters doesn't and was never meant to hold up to analytical scrutiny in anything other than technical terms, and it might not convert the CGI-weaned torture porn generation to its distinctly old-fashioned charms (it now seems closer in spirit to flicks like Hammer's The Plague Of The Zombies than some of its more vicious video nasty contemporaries). It is however an unmitigated pleasure to have it finally uncut and lovingly restored for this Blu Ray release from Arrow. Hardcore Fulci fans may get artier pleasure from Don't Torture A Duckling or sicker kicks from The New York Ripper, but most will agree this represents his best all-round work and a bona-fide horror classic in its own right.Reviewed on: 18 Dec 2012