Let us mull over the career of Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci for a second, shall we?
The undisputed king of trashy spaghetti splatter, the man has never really got the due credit for his work in the genre and it’s always been somewhat of a shame as for all the things he’s mostly famous for he’s usually regarded as second best. In his native country he’s never got the same plaudits as Dario Argento, a director who’s super-stylish Hitchcockian whodunits (aka Giallo) contain lashings of stunningly brutal slayings and in respect to the fact he did a lot of work with zombies he’s also seen as a distant second to George A. Romero, the man who invented the modern zombie movie as we know it.
No, Fulci has always had the tag of being “low rent” and yet despite coming to the horror genre relatively late in his career, his hyper gory grunge-fests techincally revitalized a flagging Italian film industry in the late-70’s even if his legacy was to spawn a devastating sub-culture of cheesy ripoffs.
You see, back in the day, the Dario Argento produced Dawn Of The Dead (renamed Zombi) was a huge hit in italy and Fulci was then hired to direct an unofficial sequel/prequel/whatever that had nothing to do with Romero’s classic under the title of Zombi 2, proving conclusively once and for all that copyright laws are a fucking joke to 70’s italian producers. From there on in it was released in America as Zombie and in the UK as the far less subtle and therefore far more fitting Zombie Flesh Eaters in which it gave the film more aliases than a Cuban scam artist. This opened up the floodgates to the Italian zombie boom of the eighties (what, you think we get a lot of zombie movies now?), a glorious time of a high volume output with very low standards of quality and in which every zombie gut cruncher would try to outdo each other with an extreme lack of taste.
But in the wake of this literal zombie holocaust Fulci’s movies mostly managed to withstand the test of time despite walking the line between laughable trash and high art with all the nimble grace of an reanimated scarecrow – but his movies prove to be stubbonly unforgettable experiences in lurid gore and inpenetrable dream logic despite how highly or not you choose to regard them.
A seemingly deserted boat drifts into New York and proceeds to give harbour patrol a literal pain in the neck when it’s revealed that an obese, mouldy creature has been locked down below. After going all Hungry Hungry Hippos on a poor dude’s jugular the zombified being is seemingly vanquished and no one is any the wiser as to what the hell happened and why. Enter walking comb-over and british journalist Peter West who teams up with Anne, the daughter of the man whom the boat belonged to, to get to the bottom of this mystery by figuring out that the boat came from a mysterious island called Matul in the Caribbean. Flying out there they shack up with Brian and Susan, a hip, young couple you agree to take them round the islands to search for the correct one and sure enough, the hapless buggers manage to reach their destination. That’s the good news… the bad news if that the island’s dead have the annoying habit of coming back as shuffling zombies and insist on trying to eat any and every living person that’s stupid enough to stand still long enough for them to sink their teeth into. Meeting up with Doctor Menard and briefly popping by to say hello to his recently eaten wife, the quartet soon find that a voodoo curse of unknown origin seems to have affected the island and the graves of the dead are rapidly emptying and heading in their direction and so a desperate last stand is to be fought as the sweaty survivors have to fend of this very slow onslaught of the living dead.
Zombie Flesh Eaters (or whatever you want to call it) is usually trumpeted as Fulci’s magnum opus but truth be told, out of the four or five films he’s most famous for, it barely ranks in the top three. Don’t get me wrong fellow gorehounds, I love the film, but to be honest it isn’t crazy as City Of The Living Dead, as unintentionally hilarious as House By The Cemetery or as straight up awesome as his legit masterpiece, The Beyond and therefore feels more like a precursor to the films that followed (we don’t mention the legitimately offensive New York Ripper around these parts…). That’s not to say that ZFE isn’t a uniquely brain blowing experience as the movie pulls out the stops to present some truly insane zombie antics that’s mostly chalked up to Giannetto De Rossi’s overly enthusiastic and utterly astounding gore effects. Say what you will about dear old Lucio (mostly like the fact that he distractingly resembles old school British comedian Benny Hill) but the man knows how to stage very memorable set pieces that climb into your brain and squat there rent free as the genuinely agonizing bamboo splinter in the eye sequence is a breathtaking and harrowing as any onscreen death you’ll see and got the movie temporarily black-balled during the insipid video nasties scare during the 80’s back in the UK .
However, this isn’t even the most mind boggling moment in Zombie Flesh Eaters, oh no; the scene where Susan goes topless scuba diving (as you do with two strangers on your boat) only to encounter first a hungry shark, and then a hungy underwater zombie, who then try to fucking EAT EACH OTHER is a true watershed moment in gonzo, WTF cinema and the fact this it was done for real is a legit tip of the crazy-hat to filmmakers who truly don’t give the slightest of fucks.
With all that said, there’s a lot here to enjoy that’s actually more than just tits, sharks and gore… The cinematography is legitimately gorgeous, Fabio Frizzi’s thudding score is memorable and atmospheric and the actors
are suitably serious throughout with Tisa Farrow (sister of Mia) constantly looking like she’s two minutes away from having a nervous breakdown even before the zombie shit starts.
However, despite looking unavoidably dated (part of it’s charm if you ask me…), any newbies are going to be openly confused as how on earth these zombies ever manage to catch anyone when migrating sponges on the ocean floor manage to move faster than these bastards. It’s a stylistic choice, of course; whereas Romero’s examples of those pesky walking corpses were spectacular Tom Savini creations who were grasping, flesh eating metaphors, Fulci’s zombies look legitimately dead; crusty, shambling ghouls that only catch their victims due to them being paralyzed with fright or… y’know… just being fucking stupid; and anyone weaned on the sprinting dead from 28 Days Later, the Dawn Of The Dead remake or Train To Busan are simply just going to be bewildered by these supposed objects of terror who move slower than most people’s great-grandparents in their slippers.
However, the mood and grue speak for themselves and while I personally have it ranked lower that some other of Fulci’s other, similarly gruesome eye poppers, it’s still a legitimate, grimy classic and a great doorway into a whole other world within the history of euro-horror.
Zombie Flesh Eaters doesn’t jump the shark… it fucking eats it.