Original release: July 18th 1980
Running time: 91 minutes
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writer: Elisa Briganti
Composer: Fabio Frizzi
Cast: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCollough, Al Cliver, Richard Johnson, Auretta Gay, Olga Karlatos
What’s my favourite horror film? That’s like asking a parent to pick just one child they want to save from a house fire. I have 50. During my childhood there were only ever two films that my dad wouldn’t let me watch, I Spit on your Grave (1978) and the notorious 1979 video nasty classic, Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Directed by Lucio Fulci (1927-1996), “the godfather of Italian gore” who brought us other classics The Beyond (1981), The House by the Cemetery (1981), City of the Living Dead (1980) and The New York Ripper (1982), he followed the popular tradition of copying films thanks to a legal loophole, which meant that filmmakers were able to create sequels to popular films.
Zombie Flesh Eaters is like the devil – it has many different names. In Italy it was called Zombi 2, which was a clever marketing plan to cash in on the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of The Dead (1978), (renamed as Zombi in Italy) although neither film shared any comparison. In the UK it was re-named Zombie Flesh Eaters, and in my opinion is the best film he ever made.
Opening to the drums of the jungle, Dr Menard (Richard Johnson) blows out the brains of a rising dead body on a hospital bed, before telling the crew of a boat they can leave. In New York’s Hudson Bay, two police officers board an abandoned ship and are attacked by a blood-covered zombie, which after eating one of the officers walks up onto the deck and is shot “dead” by the other policeman.
The boat belonged to a scientist who went missing in the Caribbean months earlier. His daughter, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), decides to investigate what happened to her father amid fears of his actual cause of death. Aided by newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCullough) who believes he has a big story on his hands, she travels to the Caribbean hoping to find the remote island her father was heading for.
On arrival they team up with an American couple, Bryan Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barret (Auretta Gay), who are on a boating holiday. Once they reach the Island of Mutal, they discover it has been over run with the living dead. They also team up with Dr Menard, who is undertaking missionary work with his wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) and is convinced the plague ravaging the Island is responsible for the ever-growing zombie population.
Before he has a chance to prove his theories, the remaining explorers find themselves trapped in a local church where they are ambushed by the living dead and must fend off the hordes. But the survivors face another threat, much closer to home than they think. When the earth spits out the dead, they will return to suck the blood from the living!
There are two iconic scenes that really stood out for me. The first is an underwater zombie vs. Tiger shark fight. This was one of the craziest stunts ever carried out in a zombie film and was reportedly filmed in an underwater tank where the shark was drugged (as if this would be allowed nowadays) and the zombie was played by the shark trainer.
What made this scene so memorable is the possibility that the shark could have attacked any one of the cast. The second has become legendary in the world of horror over the past 32 years, the infamous eye-gouging scene. Everything from the screams of terror to the camera shots of Paola’s eye approaching the splinter adds to the tension before it stabs her eye and rips it apart. This is one of the most gruesome moments in horror history, even compared to modern day films. It still makes my eyes water to this day.
Giannetto De Rossi, the make up artist created something somewhat spectacular with his zombies. The combination of real maggots pouring out of their body parts and the amount of makeup, which is caked onto them, is brilliant. Composer Fabio Frizzi sets the perfect balance for the setting alternating from an upbeat Caribbean vibe to the haunting theme music, a synthesised style melody that is repeated and is one of the most memorable aspects of the film.
The dubbing in Zombie Flesh Eaters is terrible, Stuart Gordon in his book Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide notes that:
The awful dubbing really adds to the amusement of the film and one of the reasons why I love it so.
Zombie Flesh Eaters excessive gore didn’t go unnoticed by the BBFC. The film was heavily cut for theatrical release but fully uncut for the UK video release. This was soon to change when it was withdrawn from sale after being added to the ‘Video Nasty’ list and the distributors were prosecuted under the “Obscene Publications Act”. This meant that the eye sequence and most of the flesh eating was shortened. In 2005 the film was finally passed by UK censors it in its full-uncut glory on DVD. It’s a film you have to see uncut to fully appreciate the excellence of it.
Looking back I went to great lengths to watch Zombie Flesh Eaters, from misleading my Nan into buying a second hand video at the market, which my dad later confiscated from me, to hiding my TV under the bed covers when it was on Channel 4 (note to self: use headphones). When I eventually saw it, at the age of 15, it was well worth the wait.
It was the film that started the 1980’s Italian horror cycle and Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980), Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988) and The Zombie Dead (1980) shortly followed.
Almost ten years later, I personally still believe Zombie Flesh Eaters to be one of the greatest zombie films ever made. It offers terrible dubbing, extreme gore and some of the greatest maggot-infested zombies ever seen on screen – I’d recommend this film to everyone.
Jamie, editor for Cult Movies at Static Mass, is a 24 year old media studies graduate from Sheffield, who likes nothing better than watching films. If he was to star in a horror film he’d like to be the first one killed (think Drew Barrymore in Scream).
He has a keen interest in horror which started when he was a child. Due to his hyperactive behaviour his cousins made him watch films they thought would calm him down- They were wrong! It was watching Hellraiser and Killer Klowns from Outer Space that his passion for horror began. Over the years this developed into a passion for zombies, madmen, mutated animals and all things gore.
When he’s not working, in his dream world, worrying about zombie epidemics or watching films, he can be found on Twitter sharing his thoughts and bringing his dream world into reality.
You can follow Jamie on Twitter @JamieSuckley.