Zombie Flesh Eaters

Year: 1979
Production Co: Variety Film Production
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writer: Elisa Briganti
Cast: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Richard Johnson, Stafania D'Amario, Olga Karlatos, Dakar, Lucio Fulci

Of all the movies in the video nasty era, this one still has the most impact on me. I wasn't a particular fan of this sort of thing when I was a kid like a lot of other film obsessives were so I didn't have a lot of experience with them – being an avowed horror movie wimp I had no desire to see most of them, however familiar I was with the lurid artwork on the video store covers.

And although plenty of fans of this genre and period find this about a lot of the video nasties, the thing I mostly respond to in it is the menacing, grimy mood – and it's not necessarily because of the extreme gore.

I don't think most exploitation filmmakers at the time like Romero or Fulci intended to capture an aesthetic that was perfectly augmented by watching their movies on second (or third, or beyond) generation VHS copies where the poor picture and sound quality became part of the milieu. I think they set out to make serious horror movies.

But the likes of Mary Whitehouse, VHS technology and the cultural landscape of kids in their early teens excitedly swapping stories of forbidden fruit conspired to give the whole movement an appeal nobody could have engineered but which elevated it to become one of the primary creative influences on the entertainment tastes of generation X today.

And Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi in its original Italian form) encapsulates that more than any other. It's probably because of the impressionable age I was when I watched it, but it no doubt had as much to do with the morbid fascination about the mythological hallmarks of zombiedom – the blood and guts, the mindless shuffling, the taste for human flesh, etc.

But this isn't an essay on the whole movement. The elements that capture the mood I'm talking about (even prior to the illicit, roughed-up allure added by the video nasty era delivery infrastructure) are the scenes of the empty village, detritus everywhere and with the wind howling through, the drums in the background as if just out of frame. The paradox of such an idyllic tropical paradise in such lonely disarray, rendered haunting instead of inviting, only adds an air of effective horror movie mystique.

There are several references in the script to the villagers fleeing because of the ravages of the zombie virus and of them being savages who believe in voodoo instead of medicine, the drums being a way of trying to cast the evil spirits out.

But whether it was budgetary or creative, Fulci never shows the villagers or their instruments – and they're diegetic, not just on the soundtrack, because one of the female characters makes reference to them driving her mad. They're always hinted at but never seen, and it gives the film when the lead quartet arrive on the island an atmosphere of encroaching dread.

Of course, the gateway drug sequences that drew us all in was the wooden spike in Dr Menard's wife's eyeball when a zombie drags her head forward onto it, the bloody climatic shootout, the rotted corpses of long-dead conquistadors crawling out of their graves in the jungle, etc. That stuff was the USP, but there's a lot more on offer and Fulci shows talent in staging and design that belies how cheap and tatty the actual filming is.

As the film opens the grizzled, exhausted Dr Menard (Richard Johnson) is dispatching yet another victim of the undead virus ravaging a Caribbean island community – by shooting a body, tied up and wrapped in a sheet, in the head as it slowly starts to rise up.

We cut to a seemingly abandoned yacht drifting into New York harbour, and when two luckless cops climb aboard to investigate, the sole occupant reveals himself, a bloated, putrid man in rotted clothes and with skin sloughing off who ignores their repeated warnings as if he doesn't even understand, ripping one of their throats out with his teeth and being toppled overboard in the ensuing scuffle.

The boat belongs to the now-missing father of young woman Anne (Tisa Farrow), who's investigating why her father cut off contact from the Caribbean island where he was working and why his boat has reappeared, unmanned, in the US. A local reporter, Peter (Ian McCulloch) is assigned to the story and when they catch each other sneaking around the crime scene after hours they decide to team up, trying to find the island where Anne's father worked to figure out what's gone on.

They catch a flight to a capital nearby, but there aren't many ways to reach the remote island Anne's father was living even if they did know where it was, so they convince a young holidaying couple, Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay) to let them hitch a ride on their small pleasure craft to try and find the place.

In amongst all this, we get hints of what Dr Menard has been facing at his makeshift hospital in an old church building, he's assisted by a dedicated nurse and a native caretaker. He has an argument with his terrified wife, promising her 'it' is on the other side of the island and won't affect her in their lush tropical cabin where he mostly leaves her alone, working constantly.

We also see the nurse and caretaker carrying bodies out to the beach – tied and wrapped and with bullet wounds in their heads – to bury, obviously failures from Menard's work.

But as they draw close, Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan have their own baptism of zombie fire when Susan, a keen underwater photographer, decides to go for a scuba dive and is stalked not just by a prowling tiger shark but the waterlogged corpse of a man on the ocean floor who attacks her. She only just gets away and then we're treated to one of the coolest scenes in movie history as the zombie fights the shark (in reality, the zombie was the trainer and the shark was both recently fed and sedated).

Horrified but determined to know the truth, the foursome press on, finding the island and meeting Dr Menard, who outlines his mission. The dead are rising from the grave to feast on the living because of some infection and all the islanders can tell him about it is mumbo jumbo about spirits and voodoo, but he's a man of science, determined to figure out what's causing something so terrible despite being so ill-equipped.

He asks them to check on his wife, who's been not at all safe on the other side of the island after the infamous spike in the eye, and they're horrified to find a group of the living dead sitting around on the kitchen floor feasting on her body.

The rest of the film deals with the group trying to return to Menard and the hospital while the shuffling dead multiply and come after them. One obstacle and mishap after another conspires against them, from crashing Menard's jeep in the jungle and having to walk to suddenly discovering they've come to rest in the middle of an overgrown cemetery – the worst possible place in a zombie uprising.

But after the situation at the hospital has gone from bad to worse, the surviving members of the gang make it back as the zombie hordes descend on the final fateful night, leaving them no choice but to defend themselves with rifles and Molotov cocktails, hoping their ammo holds out.

The story behind my watching it is a viewing at the house of family friends when I was no more than about 12, only a couple of years after it came out. I barely remembered it but almost 20 years later I found myself working in a video store not far from where they lived.

This was long before the Tarantino era made such cinematic fare cool, so when I realised it was in the horror section of the store I wondered if anyone at all had rented it in the decades since my brother, myself and the son of the other family watched it in their dark downstairs lounge room.

It was a fascinating enough idea to make me want to watch it again, and when I did (and with a lot more film appreciation experience under my belt) I saw everything I'd been too young to appreciate the first time around.

A few more trivia items – the back of the Australian video cover blew the final scene reveal completely in the blurb about the plot. I won't spoil it it here because Zombie Flesh Eaters isn't exactly Titanic and not everybody's seen it, but take note of the filming constraint in the last scene as the credits roll. Even though it's a zombie apocalypse and society's completely broken down, they didn't have the budget to shut nearby traffic that's clearly visible in the frame.

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