Lucio Fulci’s classic masterpiece of splatter represents the ne plus ultra of a sometimes dubious but always inventively opportunistic collection of film production practices, which the Italian film industry of the 1970s and ‘80 specialised in like nobody else before or since. During that now vanished industry’s heyday, the Italians seemed somehow uniquely able to combine the brutal grindhouse-friendly aesthetics of the niche exploitation flick with mass audience appeal and huge box office returns -- and the work they produced back then largely paved the way for the current commercial climate, in which our multiplex screens have since become pretty much inured to the blood-soaked, flesh-rending carnage of the mainstream modern zombie movie, or the up-close and personal atrocities of the ‘torture porn’ thriller. Standing between that era and today is thirty years of worldwide controversy and mainstream critical opprobrium, during which, particularly in the UK, this film was shrilly vilified by the self-appointed custodians of public morality, and artistically derided by the critical establishment as the acme of irresponsible trash cinema. It was banned, butchered and buried until its broken corpse could be ignored and supressed no longer … its putrid remains rising up from their shallow grave to claim the film’s rightful inheritance as the roughly crafted magnum opus of popular exploitation horror it truly is (you see what I’ve done there?). Now “Zombie Flesh Eaters” (or “Zombie”, or “Zombie 2”, or “Island of the Living Dead” – or half-a-dozen other titles, take your pick) is finally able to claim its crown thanks to this immaculately restored, high definition testament from Arrow Video to the sheer cheek and chutzpah of those clever old Italian producers of yesteryear.
In August, 1979, when “Zombie 2” was first unveiled to unsuspecting Italian cinema-going audiences, there was no particular reason to expect that anyone would still be inclined to remember the film even a year after its initial release, let alone over three decades later; certainly not its director, Lucio Fulci -- who had only just completed filming that July -- a mere few weeks before its rush release. To outsiders, a lowly comic book splatter exploitation horror vehicle about zombies, such as this undoubtedly was, might have seemed rather a big come down from the previous genre work that had dominated most of Fulci’s output from the late-sixties and throughout the better half of the 1970s; work which had stood out for the unusual levels of sophistication, thoughtfulness and artfulness it brought to the gialli and Western genres. Fulci was a versatile and cultured filmmaking professional, but also an infamously bad tempered and often querulous man, plagued by personal demons; and, in fact, this film was a last ditch effort to resurrect a drifting career that, by the late-seventies, was beginning to find itself entrenched firmly in the doldrums. Although today a thriller such as “Murder to the Tune of Seven Notes in Black” is revered as an artistic high-point for the director, it had actually been a huge flop in Italy, and after a string of similar failures Fulci had found himself condemned to the purgatory of afternoon Italian TV, directing facile musical revue specials, when producer Fabrizio De Angelis offered him the chance to direct a film based on a script by husband and wife writing team Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti, called “Nightmare Island”.
The story Sacchetti and Briganti originally conceived bore little relation to what eventually ended up on the screen: in typical Italian fashion, a script which had originally been about a mad scientist on a tropical island controlling people with implant technology, mutated into a voodoo-drenched pretend sequel to (and flagrant cash-in on) George A. Romero’s recent “Dawn of the Dead”, which had already appeared in Italy to massive success in the form of co-producer Dario Argento’s cut before Romero’s delayed theatrical version had even come out in North America (in fact, so quick off the mark was De Angelis in getting “Zombie 2” onto US screens, the distributor was able to beat Romero to the punch and put it out under the title “Zombie”, without even needing to tout it as a sequel!). Italian action maestro Enzo G. Castellari had originally been mooted as a reliable pair of hands to take up the reins of the project but, in the event, Fulci was an inspired second choice: despite all their polished sophistication, many of his previous films had displayed an odd penchant for dwelling on images of great physical cruelty and torture, to the extent that the tendency might be considered a leitmotif that seems to symbolise a heartfelt concern with the pain of material existence that’s to be found running through many of his best works.
De Angelis had been impressed with “Seven Notes in Black”, particularly a sequence in which a character is shown falling down a cliff front, their face smashing into rocks again and again as they plummet in slow motion. Fulci himself must have been grateful at the time for this unexpected opportunity of escaping his unfortunate plight; even if the film isn’t exactly now renowned for its fulsome character development, scintillating dialogue or coherent narrative arc, it was nonetheless extremely well-made by some of Italy’s top filmmaking technicians, who provided Fulci with a handsomely mounted platform from which he could express his talents in a particularly compelling and memorable fashion and in a manner he was never really able convincingly to replicate again once he stopped working with producer Fabrizio De Angelis. The opening sequence alone is a tour de force of suspense that showcases the limpid cinematography of Sergio Salvati, the grungy zombie makeup effects of Gino De Rossi and Fulci’s consummate skill in crafting a taut, efficiently directed set-piece. It also demonstrates the Italian talent for brazenly snatching non-sanctioned footage of world famous American landmarks from under the noses of the US authorities without any sort of permit; in this case the Staten Island Ferry on the East River, the iconic Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge form the striking backdrop to one of the most memorable openings in modern horror cinema.
Despite “Zombie Flesh Eaters” (as it is still affectionately known in the UK) being one of the most well-remembered exhibits in the 1980s Video Nasty controversy, which saw the film banned in 1984 under the Thatcher government’s Video Recordings Act (after having previously been passed for distribution in British cinemas by the BBFC with an X certificate and nearly two minutes of cuts [indeed, it was only finally passed uncut as recently as 2005]), the opening of the film seems like a symbolic nod to one of the great classics of horror literature and its first filmed adaptation. The abandoned ‘plague’ ship that turns out to be the harbinger of an infection of supernatural provenance harks right back to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and is a keystone image of 19th century invasion literature, evocatively handled in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 production of “Nosferatu”. But Fulci’s uniquely characteristic way of dealing with the same scenario is indicative of the gross-out approach he was to take for the next few gore-splattered years of his career under De Angelis’ patronage: the Gothic setting is dispensed with and swapped for the bright, blazing sunlight and clear skies of the New York harbour. There’s no attempt to shroud what is about to emerge in any kind of mystery or darkness; instead what would become the key obsession of Fulci’s horror cinema makes itself visible early on: the interior of the ship is covered in squirming sea-worms that are caked in mud and grue along with stale, mouldering, unconsumed remains of food and a rotting, gnawed and half-eaten severed hand lying amid the debris. Images such as this, which represent the concept of (and frequently actually invoke) physical disgust, are dominant throughout Lucio Fulci’s cinema and when the first zombie to appear on-screen in a Fulci flick (the balding, oatmeal-covered support artist known to Fulci lore as ‘Captain Haggerty’) smashes its way into our consciousness, and takes a bloody bite from the neck of the cop who’s investigating the apparently empty vessel, it immediately demonstrates the difference in approach to the zombie concept that was to be taken by the Italians in comparison to the blue-faced, freshly dead cadavers dominating Romero’s visual vocabulary at the time: the rending of the flesh of the victim and the process of evisceration are lingered on in a way that seems to convey a cruel fascination with the experience of physical suffering; wounds suppurate, and bubble and drip bright scarlet in Fulci land -- while sickeningly squelchy and unnerving synth effects( courtesy of Fabio Frizzi) brood menacingly on the soundtrack. The zombies themselves are putrid and rotten all the way through: writhing with maggots -- they’re merely a calcified shell for the porridgy soup of putrid goo contained within.
This introduction, which mixes a classic Gothic horror scenario with the modern body-conscious concept of horror as a form of physical disgust that came to define Fulci’s approach in the 1980s, soon takes a backseat to a rather weird and undeveloped scattershot mix of adventure mystery and mad scientist politics in the Caribbean, as the action switches to the Antilles and the Dominican Republic. The films offbeat combinations of international casting are another factor which mark out Italian horror cinema at this time, with some fairly renowned and respected thespians mixing freely with more genre-orientated performers and giving rise to an enjoyable mishmash of performance styles made even more perplexing by the inconsistencies and incongruities thrown up by the post-dubbing process, then ubiquitously employed by the Italian film industry. Scottish actor Ian McCulloch heads the cast here: known in the UK for his roles in 1970s TV series such as “Coldiz”, “Secret Army” and, most of all, Terry Nation’s “Survivors” where he played the lead for two series, McCulloch was unwittingly well on his way to developing a parallel mini-career in Italian exploitation, following up “Zombie Flesh Eaters” with parts in Luigi Cozzi’s “Contamination” and Marino Girolami’s “Zombie Holocaust”. His role as Peter West, the amiable newspaper reporter assigned by his editor and boss (a cameo for Fulci himself) the task of looking into the mysterious vessel sectioned off in New York’s harbour, is a typically thinly sketched part that the actor could clearly have played in his sleep and probably accepted merely for the chance it offered to spend a few months in the tropics; and Tisa -- sister of Mia -- Farrow’s doe-eyed turn as Anne Bowles, the daughter of the missing research scientist who owns the abandoned sailing boat and who joins forces with Peter to discover what happened to her father after he apparently contracted a mysterious disease on a remote island in the tropics called ‘Matool’ (cue much Beavis and Butt-Head-style sniggering and guffawing), is equally bland and under-developed. They join forces with a seafaring couple on a yachting trip: blonde and bearded Brian Hull (played by exploitation supremo Pierluigi Conti, aka Al Cliver) and his girlfriend Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay, an ‘actress’ who’s CV doesn’t extend very far beyond this one film but who makes more than enough of an impact in it, due to her character’s ridiculous taste for topless scuba diving, to earn herself some kind of screen immortality) – both characters also displaying zero personality beyond demonstrating that Brian harbours encyclopaedic knowledge relating to the syncretic cultural roots of ‘Voodoo-ism’ and Susan is a confirmed exhibitionist who thinks nothing of parading around naked in front of strangers. The island they’re heading for is also home to one of the sub-plots that feels left over from the original screenplay, and which offers frustrating hints of subtext that go largely undeveloped as Fulci’s (admittedly enjoyable) show-stopping absurdist/gross out concoction of zombie shark-wresting, eye-splintering and gut-feasting set-pieces begin to claim the lion’s share of the viewer’s attention instead.
Here we find an enigmatic research scientist and one-time colleague of Anne’s father, Dr David Menard (Richard Johnson) and his neurotic wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) negotiating the remains of their disintegrating marriage while a zombie plague begins to flourish all about them. The nearby native village is deserted yet still Menard clings on to the hope of discovering a cure for an affliction that’s by now well beyond the understanding of evidence-based western medicine. Stage actor Richard Johnson manages to bring a good deal of gravitas to a role that’s all over the place in terms of plotting and narrative development: he seems to start off as a vaguely sinister figure that might actually be directly responsible for instigating the zombie plague in the first place -- and during this stage, dressed in his white linen suit, Menard encourages associations with Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Dr Moreau in the 1931 MGM production “Island of Lost Souls”, and echoes the critique of western colonialism inherent to that film’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale. As the film progresses though, it transpires that Menard’s ‘crime’ is only to ignore the rapidly emptying island’s clear doom-laden portents that history’s oppressed and downtrodden are about to rise up, and that the one-time dominance of the invading western tradition he benignly represents is near its end. Fulci’s apocalyptic vision is much more generalised than the politically domestic forms of social commentary contained in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, and more grounded in the traditions of zombie cinema. One of the film’s most potent images sees Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan menaced by the maggot-infested, dirt-encrusted skeletal remains of three-hundred-year-old zombified Conquistadors that try and drag them down into the earth when the protagonists ill-advisedly take their rest in an ancient jungle graveyard -- a sequence which climaxes in the buried then rising up from the earth in eerie silence (apart from Frizzi’s marvellously melodic theme) that recalls both Amando de Ossorio “Tombs of the Blind Dead” and John Gilling’s “The Plague of the Zombies” but which outdoes them both for gory exuberance as throats are bloodily ripped out and gnarly zombie heads are sliced and diced with relish (using a wooden cruciform grave marker, no less!), to vent a foul-looking slurry of liquefied brain.
Voodoo’s mixed origins in religious rites imported by the African slave trade and the Catholicism brought to the region by the invading Conquistadors makes plain the idea that this is all about the crimes of a forgotten past being excavated and paid back in the guise of some sort of irrational, supernaturally based karma; and an imported western civilisation that’s now under threat from the forgotten dead of those it once slew in order to maintain its privileges, now returning to life. The fact that the film ends with the ‘plague’ having spread to contemporary New York in the main characters’ absence, and shuffling, shroud-covered hordes of zombies drifting slowly along the Brooklyn Suspension Bridge while daytime traffic continues to flow in and out of the city obliviously un-heeding of the danger, indicates the idea that all civilisations come to an end, eventually to be replaced by an amalgamation of influences that they may unwittingly even have helped to foster. Briganti and Sacchetti set Menard’s efforts to combat the un-combatable (a toxic cloud of fatalism hangs heavy over the entire film, as it does across all of Fulci’s supernaturally motivated horrors from this period) in a context that demonstrates the present catastrophe’s roots in an imperialist past, having him and his two helpers (Stefania D’Amario as the field nurse and Franco Fantasia as native helper Matthias) treating their remaining few patients in a makeshift field hospital that’s been hurriedly converted from a crucifix festooned Catholic missionaries’ chapel which itself has at some point been constructed from an flimsy barn already present on the site. But Fulci’s aesthetics of disgust dominate the entire mise-en-scène of this movie, regardless of whether the film might occasionally indulge the remaining possibilities for a sketchy kind of subtext that was somehow retained from the endlessly re-drafted screenplay. The interior of the hospital reveals a festering heap of sweat-soaked patients, coated in their own dried vomit and spittle and waiting to die in order to become members of the living dead; Menard and his beleaguered colleagues are forced to dig what amounts to a medieval plague pit outside, in which to bury their executed patients (dispatched with a squelchy shot to the head) en masse.
As the native village of Matool, once deserted, begins to fill again with the ghostly revenants brought back from the earth, the church-cum-hospital is the only place of refuge for the surviving characters – but an intrinsically compromised one seeing as it’s already crammed full of dying plague carriers. Fulci’s zombies are a pretty bedraggled and pathetic-looking bunch -- so somnambulatory they make even Romero’s slow-moving living dead look positively perky. Although there are a few curious exceptions to the norm, such as the shark-wrestling, sea-dwelling zombie (who not only easily defeats his fishy foe in underwater combat, but strikes up some pretty nifty defensive poses along the way for a brain-dead ghoul) and the flamboyantly executed exploitation-suspense scene in which a freshly showered Olga Karlatos meets her eye-watering demise at the decaying hands of an unusually dynamic and persistent zombie heavy-breather who drags her by the hair through a splintering door frame, most of the extras employed to don Gino De Rossi’s slap-on clay-rot makeup don’t even look all that enthusiastic about chowing down on the gooey melting slop that later passes for Karlatos’ innards in the film’s infamous ‘zombie feast’ scene. These zombies really are more like ghostly spirits, silently drifting into the widescreen frame in increasing numbers as Farrow, McCulloch, Cliver and Gay flee in search of refuge.
Sergio Salvati’s deep focus photography and Fulci’s artful widescreen compositions make this one of the most handsome-looking films in the director’s zombie film catalogue and now that it’s been beautifully restored from the original camera negative for this Arrow Blu-ray high definition release, and supervised throughout the entire process by James White -- a freelance expert renowned for his exemplary work on many of the BFI’s superb Blu-ray releases, and recently some of the Masters of Cinema series as well – it becomes the best looking Fulci film ever released onto any home-viewing format. This is a completely different transfer from that which was used for the recent (equally lauded) Blue Underground release, and as Arrow have splashed out for a full ‘celluloid-to-encode’ restoration without relying on already-completed Italian masters plastered in DNR as they almost always are, they’ve been able to ensure a quality release this time out that bears no comparison with their previous efforts (no matter what you think of them). This is a crisp, colourful, natural-looking transfer that’s sure to satisfy the film’s legion of fans for the clarity and detail it brings to the table and the respectful way it accommodates the natural grain of the source.
Available in three formats -- double-disc Blu-ray, double-disc DVD and special double-disc Steelbook edition -- this release comes rammed with all-new extras plus the usual Arrow Video goodies. The Steelbook will also feature exclusive art cards while the standard Blu-ray and DVD editions come with reversible sleeve featuring a choice of original poster artwork or an all new cover by Graham Humphreys. There will also be an exclusive collectors’ booklet featuring all-new writing on the film by Fulci biographer Stephen Thrower, a new interview with star Olga Karlatos by Calum Waddell, a history of “Zombie Flesh Eaters” and the BBFC by Craig Lapper (one of the board’s senior examiners) and extracts of the original 1978 “Nightmare Island” script including unfilmed, alternate and gorier sequences, as well as a Lucio Fulci CV compiled by Jay Slater.
The two discs themselves feature hours of new extras created for this release by High Rising Productions. Disc one gives us a new introduction to the film by star Ian McCulloch followed by the choice of three opening title sequences, either the one bearing its UK title “Zombie Flesh Eaters”, the US title “Zombie” or the Italian title “Zombie 2”. The film is available to view in either mono 2.0 English or mono 2.0 Italian with English subtitles, and is accompanied by two brand new commentaries recorded especially for this release. First up, Callum Waddell talks to screenwriter Elisa Briganti, the wife and writing partner of Dardano Sacchetti, who bears sole on-screen writing credit (for tax reasons!) for the film and who actually had a lot of input into other Fulci films from this period like “The House by the Cemetery” and “Manhattan Baby”. Briganti now works as a child psychologist and relates here how she tried to incorporate ‘archetypes of fear’ into her work and how she believes there is more artistic merit in Fulci’s horror films than the critics of the time were willing to see. The film initially had nothing to do with Romero’s film but was conceived as an adventure movie incorporating horror in the form of the undead. Most of the subsequently famous or graphic sequences (such as the ‘shark scene’ or the ‘eye scene’) were Sacchetti’s doing, and Briganti relates how it was initially quite embarrassing to be thought the originator of such material (thanks to her sole screenwriter’s credit) because the film had such a low reputation among Italian film critics in those days, despite its huge success.
The second commentary is a delightful look back at this era of Italian film production and exploitation in the company of genre experts Alan Jones and Stephen Thrower. They fill in lots of production detail and info on the supporting actors’ careers etc., but also pause to discuss their own memories of seeing the film for the first time and their personal memories of dealing with Lucio Fulci himself for magazine interviews (in Jones’ case) or when talking to him as background research for a book (in Thrower’s case). Neither had very good experiences with the man it turns out – the ailing director mucked them both about and Jones even goes so far as to relate that, as a result of his experiences, he considered Fulci for a long time to be ‘a sleazy bum’! In addition to the commentaries, disc One also includes a selection of trailers and TV spots, and also an hour-long documentary called “From Romero to Rome” in which a number of participants discuss the development of the zombie apocalypse film, identifying it as a discrete genre in isolation from the first zombie films such as “White Zombie” and “I Walked with a Zombie” and even “The Plague of the Zombies”. Kim Newman talks about how Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is closer to films such as “The Last Man on Earth” and Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend” than it is to the classical zombie picture, pointing out that the word zombie was never used in the first Romero film. Newman is, of course, always good value and makes numerous insightful observations as the documentary unfolds, moving from Romero’s films to the advent of the Italian zombie flick. Also found participating here is screenwriter David McGillivray, who also supplies sometimes caustic but always considered and interesting opinions on the era in which the Italians reigned supreme in the world of zombie pictures. Dardano Sacchetti and “Cat in the Brain” screenwriter Antonio Tentori talk about the specifics of Lucio Fulci’s films and relate how “Zombie Flesh Eaters” had its origins in a fumetti called Tex Willer in the Valley of the Undead. Newman comes in again to discuss how Fulci’s spin on Romero’s flesh-eating ghouls goes back to the original pre-Romero zombie pictures to incorporate elements of voodoo, and how later Fulci zombie films brought in more and more elements of the supernatural and the abstract. As the years went by the quality of these films got worse and worse, resulting in films such as “Zombies Creeping Flesh”, “Burial Ground” and “Zombie 3” … and even “The Erotic Nights of the Living Dead”! Other contributors seen here, who discuss all of this and more, are Luigi Cozzi, Ruggero Deodato, Russ Streiner, Darren Ward, Alex Chandon, James Moran and Shelagh M Rowan-Legg. The discussion ends with Kim Newman noting how zombies have become the film and video game equivalent of cannon fodder in the modern age -- the lethal enemy it’s all right to mow down in large numbers because they don’t have any human feeling.
This material on its own would have constituted an acceptable amount of extra features but in addition we also have another Blu-ray disc-full, with a whole bunch more. “Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies” is a forty-five minute interview with actor Ian McCulloch, who begins with a brief description of how his boyhood ambition to become an actor after being cast in a school play led him to getting a place in the Royal Shakespeare Company under Sir Peter Hall (he tested with Vanessa Redgrave!). His early career is briefly discussed, such as his appearance alongside John Hurt and Peter Cushing in the 1975 film “The Ghoul”, but, naturally, McCulloch’s career in Italian exploitation is the main focus of the feature and the actor doesn’t disappoint, relating how he flew to London from Plymouth, where he was appearing in a play, for what he thought was an audition with Lucio Fulci and the producers of “Zombie Flesh Eaters” to be held in a hotel, but found (despite being over two hours late for the appointment) that they merely wanted to meet him to make sure that he still looked the same as he had done in “Survivors” -- the Terry Nation BBC series he’d starred in a few years earlier which had become a huge success in Italy. McCulloch is honest about his feelings at the time – that the whole film was one big joke and the script almost unutterable it was so poorly written; he also says that he found it hard to take Fulci seriously because of his resemblance to British comedian Benny Hill! McCulloch describes the film as being a ‘NAR job’: No Acting Required! He’s very complimentary about his co-stars though, even the non-acting ones like Auretta Gay, who, it turns out, was this film’s whipping post outlet for Fulci’s notorious temper. He mentions how impressed he was with Richard Johnson and how he was able to deliver his ludicrous lines in a way that made his character still sound authoritative. He also mentions how he considers Gino De Rossi to be the most brilliant makeup man he’s ever encountered during his career. The featurette then moves on to consider McCulloch’s involvement with “Zombie Holocaust” and “Contamination” in some detail, making this excellent and essential viewing for all fans of Italian exploitation.
”The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi” sees Calum Waddell and Nick Frame touring the Italian makeup maestro’s workshop and discussing the gory legacy of his greatest hits while the man himself demonstrates some of the props that made some of Italian horror’s most memorable moments work, such as the prop hooks used to hang actress Zora Kerova from her breasts in “Cannibal Ferox” or the pop-out blade used on Daniela Doria at the start of “The House by the Cemetery” to make it look as though a knife that had apparently been plunged into the back of her head had come out through her mouth. He demonstrates how the head drilling scene in “The City of the Living Dead” was worked out and is reluctantly honest about the animal killing that went on for “Cannibal Ferox”. His memory seems to fail him when it comes to recalling his involvement in Andrea Bianchi’s “Burial Ground” though! Throughout this twenty-four minute featurette, De Rossi also talks about his experiences in the industry, including his on-the-fly method of working with Fulci in the early eighties and about his work on “Piranha 2: The Spawning” with the young James Cameron directing … until that is, Cameron was removed from the project by producer Ovidio Assonitis.
“Zombie Flesh Eaters – From Script to Screen” is just a short one minute piece in which Dardano Sacchetti displays the original shooting script, which turns out to have all the directions that Fulci eventually followed already written in.
“Music for a Flesh Feast” is a Q&A with composer Fabio Frizzi which was held at the Glasgow Film Theatre in August 2012 with Calum Waddell and Nick Frame, after a screening of “Zombie Flesh Eaters”. Frizzi comes across as an enthusiastic and friendly man who provides a fascinating insight into this era in music production, when he and his contemporaries were influenced by progressive rock bands such as Van der Graaf Generator and brought the style to Italian horror. This lasts for thirty minutes and although Frizzi has a little trouble with his English and needs help from co-moderator Nick Frame, he is able to provide some interesting perspective on his working relationship with Fulci and explain why he scored some of Fulci’s classic horror films but not others.
“Zombie Flesh Eaters” stands as one of the greats of modern horror cinema and still feels fresh even in this age of zombie over-saturation. This Blu-ray offers an un-bettered presentation and is an absolute must-buy for anyone interested in Italian zombie and exploitation movies in general. Highly recommended.