Blu-ray Review: Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Zombie Flesh Eaters BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 18

Director: Lucio Fulci

Starring: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay

A seemingly abandoned boat in New York Harbour sees the investigating cops get attacked by a huge zombie that emerges from below deck. The boat belongs to the father of Ann Bolt (Tisa Farrow), who had left mainland America to do research on the island of Matool in the US Virgin Islands. Reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) is assigned to investigate the mysterious boat and meets up with Ann, where they discover a note from her father saying he is suffering from a strange disease.

The pair travel to the Virgin Islands where they meet up with Brian Curt (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay) who help them find their way to Matool. Once there they find that the island is in the grip of an epidemic of dead bodies coming back to life, with local doctor Menard (Richard Johnson) desperately trying to find the cause of the problem. As the island’s numbers dwindle the group must try to find a way to escape the growing hoards of rising undead.

Initially arriving amidst a wave of controversy when it was first released, Zombie Flesh Eaters has been around in various forms since the dark days of the video nasties panic and only received an uncut release in the UK as recently as 2005, but never before has it looked quite so tidy and almost… sparkling! Alright, that may be a slight exaggeration but for a film so notoriously gritty and grim it sure catches the eye; the colours, especially the blood reds and the blues in the sea, are rich and vibrant whilst the image itself offers up a crispness that belies the fact the film came from the era it did. The audio is the original Mono 2.0 soundtrack and the zombie moans and instantly recognisable musical cue that signifies their attacks all sound deliciously creepy and effective.

So it all looks and sounds great but what about the film itself? Lacking the social commentary and character-driven plots of George A. Romero’s original … Dead trilogy, Zombie Flesh Eaters follows Italian horror tradition and basically gives you zombies attacking humans, munching on entrails and getting their heads mashed in full-on, glorious close-ups that don’t leave anything out. Amongst all the head-shots and neck-biting there are a few key scenes that are notorious in zombie folklore, namely a zombie-versus-shark underwater (obviously!) fight that looks amazing with its new colour polish and the infamous eye-gouging scene that was the main bone of contention with the censors for many years, but the one that sticks out more on this release is the scene where Ian McCulloch bashes in the top of a zombie’s skull with a crucifix, revealing a lurid palette of gooey colours and textures that spill out like an abattoir at slopping out time.

The zombies themselves are a different beast to Romero’s ghouls. Whereas Romero’s blue/green-faced creations are recently deceased cadavers that have gotten straight up from where they fell, Fulci’s undead are rotten, gangrenous corpses that crawl up from their earthy graves with nondescript features, except for the clumps of earthworms that live in their eye sockets.

The acting overall is nothing to write home about. The dubbing isn’t as distracting as it normally is in many Italian horror/giallo films, and Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson give the film enough weight with their presence. Al Cliver is also fun in the way that a regular exploitation actor popping up in a film always is but Tisa Farrow obviously missed out on the family acting gene that her sister Mia inherited, and Auretta Gay, despite being stunning and providing much of the nudity, also doesn’t do much in the way of a performance.

Jam-packed with some superb extras, this edition of Zombie Flesh Eaters is about as definitive as you can get without remaking the film, and even then it still wouldn’t look as good as it does here. The film itself isn’t as strong narratively as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or as stupidly fun as something like Demons but the grisly look of the special effects and morbid tone all help play a part and give the film an identity of its own. Fans of slicker, modern zombie films such as 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake (which actually follows Zombie Flesh Eaters’ example and drops all the social commentary stuff, sticking to the gore and violence) may not appreciate the low-budget aesthetics and nasty edge the film has but this is a zombie gut-cruncher in the proper sense and is certainly one of the best examples of the genre that Italy has produced, and just as influential as any of those other titles; check out the scene where the corpses rise out of the ground and compare it to a parallel scene in 1985’s Return of the Living Dead – even the score is similar. Arrow Films’ thorough make-over means that this is as good as this film is ever likely to look, and although there are a few glitches on the film that they haven’t managed to remove completely – the yellow flickering that was present in the underwater scenes on all the previous versions is still there – it only adds to the films overall charm. So if you don’t already own this zombie classic – or even if you do but in one of its previous incarnations – then you need to do something about pretty darn quick and pick up this definitive edition.

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Special Features: Audio commentary with screenwriter Elisa Briganti moderated by Calum Waddell, audio commentary with Fulci biographer Stephen Thrower and horror expert Alan Jones, UK exclusive introduction to the film from star Ian McCulloch, Aliens, Cannibals & Zombies: A Trilogy of Italian Terror featurette with actor Ian McCulloch, From Romero To Rome: The Rise & Fall of the Italian Zombie Film featurette, The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi featurette with the special effects maestro, Zombie Flesh Eaters – From Script to Screen featurette, trailers and TV spots, collector’s booklet featuring contributions from Calum Waddell, Stephen Thrower, Craig Lapper and Jay Slater, reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

UK Release Date: 3rd December 2012

Arrow Films – Website

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