“Uwe Boll Presents”: three words guaranteed to send most self-respecting film fans scurrying for the off switch on their remote (or diving under the sofa if he offers to fight them in a boxing match!). The name of the man most often cited as the worst director of modern times seems rather a poor choice to plaster all over the opening titles of your film if you’re a young aspiring horror film-maker looking for a break; it’s not exactly likely to encourage much sympathy from the constituency you’ll likely want to most interest in your fledgling efforts. And if the film you’ve made also happens to be yet another bloomin’ low budget zombie post-apocalypse flick shot on digital video, the slamming of doors might well be a sound you’ll quickly have to adjust to hearing often, as it’ll be resounding in your ears for some time to come. I’m going to attempt the impossible here, though, and try to convince you that it is actually worth sticking with this effort by Italian first-time directing duo Luca Boni and Marco Ristori, who do at least show a large measure of competence, determination and talent in getting this micro-budgeted effort to the screen in a form that, unlike most digital video straight-to-DVD fare, looks neither despairingly amateurish or poorly thought out. To his credit, Boll became involved in distributing this Italian language film as a result of previously seeing some shorts the two had sent him and promising on the spot that he would distribute a full length feature by them if they should ever get one made. Boll-haters can rest assured: the great man has had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual content of the film itself!
Of course, that content is mind-sappingly derivative -- I’ll have to concede that straight up. Boni and Ristori really like zombies. They’ve always wanted to make their own zombie flick, and they’ve gone ahead and done just that with knobs on. The film starts with scene-setting, jump-cut flash images of news reports that detail the gradual world-wide spread of an epidemic that appears to have come about because of the manufacture of a virus by a religious terrorist called the Plague Spreader. Boni and Ristori (who are also the film’s writers and producers) have at least in this one respect, taken time out to come up with a reasonably original scenario before we get to the generic shuffling of the undead and their usual gut-munching proclivities. Another twist to the directors’ version of the apocalypse is aimed squarely at the everyday concerns of the adolescent teenage market most likely to be loading this flick into their DVD players and computers: the plague wipes out the women first! Yep, men are left initially untouched as the virus makes females infertile but then turns them into flesh-hungry walking cadavers all over the globe, their victims then also becoming zombies whether they are female or male. We’re given some insight into the kind of world this would have initially resulted in (before the plague eventually spread and everyone succumbed) when we see the two protagonists at one point leafing disconsolately through a porn magazine entitled ‘Girls and Corpses’! The filmmakers aren’t above the occasional wry joke such as this, which crop up at various points throughout the film.
The main action takes place in the landscape that is the devastated aftermath of that initial spread of zombie infection. The Pope has shot himself in the head so as not to ‘come back’; the streets of the cities have become razed, smoking ruins; and only small groups of male survivors remain, dotted around the deserted countryside and crumbling urban locations. As most people know, leave a group of males together for any extended period of time without civilising influences, and before long things start to get pretty unpleasant. Here, society comes to consist exclusively of either insane loners, such as a mad secluded painter who hoards zombie flesh to use for his art -- or an even crazier Nazi militia who make use of the zombies in gladiatorial contests which they hold in a vacant warehouse lot. Our main protagonists are a likeable duo, a pair of ordinary soldiers -- Igor (Alex Lucchesi) and Alen (Guglielmo Favilla), who are holed up in a medical research facility, alone apart from the obsessed scientist Gyno (Claudio Marmugi) and two other military colleagues. The only other person in this confined environment is Alen’s girlfriend Alex (Rosella Elmi), a former researcher and colleague of Gyno’s at the institute, who seems to be caught in a mysterious in-between state -- neither fully alive but not yet an undead zombie ghoul either. Gyno believes she is the key to a cure and persuades Alen and Igor to set out on a dangerous trek through the devastated countryside on the outskirts of the deserted city, in search of live zombie specimens on which he can test his latest theories on the matter.
The shadow of George A. Romero’s “Day of the Dead” hangs heavier over this Italian zombie film than anything Lucio Fulci might have cooked up in his run of post-Dawn of the Dead zombie splatter flicks. The interaction between the ‘might is right’ sensibility of the military and a scientist whose research has in some respects driven him insane, with the whole world now becoming just a playground for his cloistered experiments, obviously reminds us of a similar scenario in Romero’s third film in the original trilogy; but in this case there is no military command structure and the two soldiers are the most grounded characters in the film. Igor in particular is a no-nonsense, wise-cracking, gun-toting delight to watch and Lucchesi plays him as a cross between a slightly insane, ranting Travis Bickle type character and a leather-clad Mad Max. The edge is slightly taken off his aggressive nature by the fact that his favourite group is Wham! “Mad Max” isn’t a bad reference point come to think of it: there’s a lot of the road movie subgenre of post-apocalypse films in “Eaters”. The interplay between Igor and Alen as they journey across the ruined country allows the film its lighter moments of character-based humour.
The film develops into a series of mini episodes in which Igor and Alen encounter a series of dangers on the road as they drive through the scattered countryside (there seems to be no shortage of fuel in this version of the apocalypse), which consists of boarded up storage lockups, empty factory spaces and derelict ruins. The oppressive atmosphere is aided in no small measure by an atmospheric industrial/techno score by Justin Bennett of Skinny Puppy and Stefano Rossello. Zombies tend to appear dramatically whenever the protagonist’s backs are turned and their attentions focused on something else, and a particularly nasty Nazi gang are just as dangerous a threat as the starving undead hordes. The zombies are another pleasingly nostalgic throwback to the rubber latex make-up and animatronic puppetry seen in Romero’s “Day of the Dead”. Low budget the film may be, but the two directors have utilised the best of both worlds – the traditional and the modern -- to produce some striking, and extremely gruesome zombie make-up effects (with putrefying, mangled facial wounds galore), and subtly utilised CGI, which is mainly used to help grade the harsh Digital Video look with a consistently filmic-looking and doom-laden grey wash, as well as to paint in suitably grim background scenery. It’s a good mix which allows the film to appear a great deal more expensive -- and certainly far more cinematic -- than it actually was at the shooting stage.
The last half-hour attempts something of a b-movie genre tour with, it has to be said, unclear results. The protagonists team up with a fifteen year old girl (who is the only female they’ve seen who isn’t affected by the plague) but then get captured by the Nazis, who turn out to be led by a midget Hitler wannabe (yes, you read that right!). This part of the film kind of gives off a trashy Troma Movie sensibility, somewhat at odds with the rest of the film. The two directors attempt to take things into the realm of bad taste splatter exploitation in a sequence involving a midget Führer being given a blowjob by a fifteen year-old girl, who then castrates him and batters him to death with a statue of Mussolini. This might sound like a good idea written down, but in fact the directors botch the job and don’t make clear what is actually meant to be happening in the scene. In the ‘making of’ documentary, we learn that the young actress's mother made them tone the imagery down. This being an Italian film, and given the country’s spotted history especially pertaining to reunification, it’s unavoidably noticeable how frequently themes which reference both Catholicism and fascist politics crop up in the narrative. The pointed inclusion of a news report at the start of the film which reveals the Pope’s suicide leads into a zombie plague that specifically targets the fertility of women; a mad Catholic priest who may or may not be responsible for the whole epidemic is introduced near the end; and the uncomfortable climax of the film brings together story beats involving the true aim of Gyno’s experiments, the persistent Nazi theme and its relation to lawlessness, and the prospect of artificially induced pregnancy giving rise to zombie babies in a mash-up of nightmare scenarios that seems to get resolved a mite too tidily as the end credits role, but which manages to hold our attention longer than most zombie flicks are apt to do in this over-saturated environment. Luca Boni and Marco Ristori have to be congratulated on putting together a very well-crafted little film on very little money, without it being boring – even though we’ve pretty much seen it all before.
The UK DVD from Chelsea Films provides a fine transfer in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. We have a choice of 5.1 surround and 2.0 Stereo and both sound excellent, foregrounding the relentless industrial beats of the music score in a nicely balanced mix. The disc also includes a fine all-round Making Of documentary, which includes extensive interviews with cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage, lasting for 35 minutes. There is also a trailer and a three minute montage called VFX Breakdown, which gives us a side-by-side comparison of the original un-graded video image and how it looks once digital grading, green screen elements and CGI FX have been added. The results are very illuminating indeed.
“Eaters: Rise of the Dead” is just another zombie film then, but it’s one of the best we’ve seen -- for what that’s worth -- in a long time. It inevitably repeats a lot of old ground but at least does so with vitality and skill. It’s a pity that it’s been saddled with such a dreadful piece of DVD cover art that makes it look like a third rate video game and which does absolutely nothing for its prospects at all.