Contains mild spoilers.
I know, I know, this has been long overdue. To have a zombie blog and not have a review of the one of the zombie founding cult classics is a crime, but I'm happy to say I'm ready to put this right. It also makes it a Fulci review double bill having just finished The House by the Cemetery and with it the Gates of Hell trilogy which he went on to because of the success of this. They're not for everyone but over the three films I came to understand and respect his particular style of fanciful esoteric story telling and his use of shocking avant-garde gore and effects and expected Zombie Flesh Eaters, with its cult acclaim to be more of the same, but better.
This review is for Zombie Flesh Eaters, another sumptuous Blu-Ray remaster by Arrow Films with frame by frame touch ups, a second disc brimming with extras and its UK release name. In the US it was called Zombie but in Italy it's where the naming gets interesting. It's original working title was Gli Ultimi Zombi (The Last Zombie) but this was changed after the huge critical and commercial impact of Romero's Dawn of the Dead which was re-scored, re-edited and released there as Zombi. An obvious cash in, Zombi 2 has no real connection to its namesake predecessor though an attempt to create some direct connection was added after the film was first cut by adding the now iconic opening and closing scenes in New York.
Zombie Flesh Eaters was originally thought of as an action adventure and in many ways this is what it is. Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) is questioned by the police after an officer is killed on her fathers boat which was found drifting in New York harbour. With tale of shambling rotting murderers, reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) stumbles into Anne, they discover the boat last sailed from the Island of Matool in the Caribbean and they decide to team up on an adventure to discover the truth.
After a flight, a bit of sailing on Bryan Curt's schooner (Al Cliver aka Pier Luigi Conti), a bit of naked scuba diving from his companion Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay) and one of most ambitious and downright crazy brilliant zombie scenes of all time with a zombie and shark going at it, the gang arrive to find the island cursed and the dead risen and hungry.
It really is return to the pre-Romero zombie with a story full of magic and voodoo. On the island they find Richard Johnson who plays the physician Dr. David Menard fighting a losing battle trying to make sense of what is happening. The doctors makeshift hospital is a truly horrific place full of islanders at various stages of zombiefication and despite Menard ruling out virus or bacteria there are definite signs of infection before death and reanimation. A single bite definitely hastens the process but there is also the Romero zombie ambiguity that implies reanimation of the dead is just as likely to occur regardless. Also, while the recently deceased do share much in common with Romero's creation; a slow shambling gait, a subtle blue tinge and a primal drive to sink their teeth into the living, Fulci is far more at ease when it comes to upping the ante. Gone is the always relatively fresh look with Fulci quite prepared imagine just how wretched a cadaver would be if it had been left to decompose in the heat for quite some time before rising up. They are really some of the most gruesome deformed well made up monstrosities I've yet seen; full of foreboding, totally devoid of humanity and perfectly realised. Where-as there's a tendency to play with the ideas of a cure or redemption in many atheist, american zombie films, and indeed Romero plays with such ideas in his later films, here Fulci's mythology is full of southern Europe Catholicism and belief. Without the union of body and soul the reanimated are unholy, human-less, demonic and utterly unredeemable.
This eye for the disgusting and nasty is also brought to film with all the gruesome and excessively gratuitous gore scenes we've come to expect. One of the founding reasons there was a UK video nasty banned film list the film is full to the brim with over the top and highly scripted deaths and mutilations. On the surface it could all seem quite unnecessary but to get Fulci is to understand that to shock and disturb is a deliberate ploy and in keeping with the traditions of French surrealist Antonin Artaud whom Fulci deeply admired.
As said it's very much the action adventure horror story and not the horror mystery thriller that we had with the Gates of Hell trilogy. It's quite the contrast in narrative style; gone is the very European existential and surrealist tone, the esoteric dreamlike ambiguity or Je ne sais quoi. Zombie Flesh Eaters plays out in quite the linear Western fashion. Dialogue is dry and obvious, there's no real mystery and the story quite predictable and in many ways it feels like a backward step; like a return to an older adventure style of movie making without all the subtle nuance I'd come to expect and admire. After my first viewing I was left a little deflated by the linearity of it all, remarking how I preferred the bigger thinking and vision of say, The Beyond and it was only after watching it again, a day later I actually came to appreciate it for the tight action adventure it was; full of vision and all Fulci's subtlety and daft-brilliance, it's just you have to look a little harder for it.
I did like Zombie Flesh Eaters, but I can fully understand that it's a bit of an acquired taste. The pace is quite slow, the dialogue a bit trite and the acting on the whole wooden but it still has a charm and panache that make it a delight to watch. Also there could be quite a strong argument the film is quite exploitative of women with the female cast only in it to scream or take their clothes off but they do it all rather well, ahem. Zombie Flesh Eaters is possibly carried by a few truly iconic scenes but as an influence on what zombie culture was to become its place is priceless. A mesmerising piece of zombie cinema no doubt, but those who wax lyrical may be slightly more nostalgia fuelled than they'd care to admit, 8/10.