Zombie Flesh Eaters, or ‘the one with the eyeball splinter’, as it was referred to at school. My family having arrived late to the VHS revolution, my main exposure to the video nasty boom of the early 80s was the playground descriptions of various unwholesome sequences relayed to me with relish by various classmates. By the time a VCR actually arrived in our house the hammer had come down and all those exotic goodies had disappeared from the shelves. It was the James Ferman era at the BBFC, and so it took me until well into my twenties to catch up with, say, ‘the one where the girl throws up all her guts’ (City of the Living Dead) and put it together that a good deal of the more outrageous moments of playground lore emerged from the oeuvre of one director, Lucio Fulci. Oddly enough, given the usual reliability of schoolyard chatter, the films that I finally saw were every bit as horrible as described, and a whole lot stranger.
Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of his more straightforward, pacier efforts. An unmanned ship drifts into New York harbour, bringing with it unpleasant surprises for the harbour patrol, and a mystery for Tisa Farrow. The boat belongs to her father, and the search for him leads her, a journalist (Ian McCulloch) and a couple of wary locals to a Caribbean island where Richard Johnson is the doctor understandably turning to the bottle as the night is filled with jungle drums and the dead are feeling restless. Much mayhem ensues.
ZFE was released in 1979 a couple of months after Dawn of the Dead (aka Zombi) as Zombi 2 and, while clearly indebted to the Romero film, it also harks back to the likes of White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, in its island setting and its use of a voodoo curse as an undead motivator rather than any cod scientific explanations. Romero rules still apply, however, in the ‘shoot ’em in the head’ policy and the infectious nature of zombie bites. Anyone wondering if this makes much sense clearly hasn’t been exposed to enough Italian cinema.
Indeed, Fulci’s best horror films gain greatly from a feeling that they don’t quite make sense, that nobody on screen is acting like a human being would. As with City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery, his people just seem to hang around waiting for the worst to happen, blind to the mounting evidence that they should flee. He has a tendency towards stately pacing, a contemptuous disregard for narrative cohesion and an eye for weird images. The net result of this is to give his films an authentic nightmare undertow, but at the cost of any human character or motivation. It remains an enigma to me how much of this oneiric freakiness is deliberate, and how much a result of the filmmaker’s shortcomings. Fulci in his pomp is several rungs above hacks like Umberto Lenzi or Astride/Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato): he can frame an arresting shot, create a memorable sequence and has a definite style, but seems to be indifferent to the pleasures of dialogue and performance, and often mixes effective set pieces with moments of alarming judgement, letting his camera linger endlessly over shoddy effects that any sane director would cut away from.* Zombi 2 was also known around my school as ‘the one where a zombie fights a shark’ and, indeed, that’s what happens here, witnessed by a topless Auretta Gay wearing a scuba tank. It’s a scene that seems to exemplify Fulci: it’s slow, exploitative, absolutely ridiculous and genuinely surreal. It’s also typical in that the ramifications of the moment are left murkily unexplored as the plot trundles on.**
Viewed from the 21st century, Zombie Flesh Eaters seems to come from an age before irony: there is no self-conscious playfulness here, and very little humour. Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci‘s score is perfect in its epic, cheesy, doom-laden portentousness. This is the 1970s. Nobody is ‘empowered’ by violence here, and it’s all going to end rather badly. I think I love this terrible film.
*The rubber spiders in the library in The Beyond, I’m looking at you.
**Are the oceans of the world now crawling with waterlogged ghouls and infected sealife? Buggered if I know, and Lucio’s not telling.
Watch the trailer: