AKA ZOMBIE 2, ZOMBIE, ISLAND OF THE ZOMBIES
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 91 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
An abandoned sail boat containing a zombie drifts into New York Harbour. The boat owner’s daughter, Anne Bowles, hasn’t seen her father for months, so she and journalist Peter West follows his trail to the Caribbean island of Matul, en route befriending Brian Hull and Susan Barrett, who are sailing around the area and agree to take them to Matul. There, Dr. David Menard runs the hospital whilst researching voodoo rites. Patients are dying of a strange illness, and the islanders are frightened by reports of people rising from the dead….
So after two quite obscure Lucio Fulci films, I decided to watch and review the movie that, despite the high quality of some of his earlier works like Don’t Torture A Duckling and Seven Black Notes, made him a major name throughout the world, and which for a long time seemed to be his most popular movie until more recently when The Beyond began to supplant it in people’s affections. It was the first of the cycle of Italian zombie films kickstarted by the huge success of Dawn Of The Dead in that country, and is considered to be the first entry in Fulci’s zombie quadrilogy, though whereas the other three are quite surreal and dreamlike in nature with no attempt whatsoever to have a coherent plot, Zombie Flesh Eaters has a reasonably straight forward narrative, even if it’s vague in a few respects. I imagine that it may disappoint some first time viewers today as it takes its time and only becomes a fully fledged zombie movie when it’s over half way through, but it’s still a fun slice of pulpy horror adventure that, despite its graphic scenes of gore, is something of a throwback to the zombie films of the ‘30s and the ‘40s which tended to be set in the Caribbean and involve voodoo, which is of course where the idea largely originated anyway. Despite its Italian title and a line of dialogue very similar to the famous “when there’s no room in Hell” quote, it’s nothing much like Dawn Of The Dead at all, though it does kind of work as an alternate prequel.
Dardano Sacchetti’s script was originally entitled Nightmare Island and was set entirely en route to and in the Caribbean. Enzo G. Castellari was the first choice to direct, but he didn’t like horror films so turned the job down. When Fulci came on board, Dawn Of The Dead had just come out in Italy re-edited by Dario Argento and re-titled Zombie, so producer Fabrizio De Angelis ordered the title to be changed to Zombi 2 and new opening and closing scenes set in New York to be written into the script without Fulci’s permission while other things were cut out. Filming took place in Latina, Italy, as well as in New York City and Santo Domingo. Several of the cast members’ contracts had specified being provided with trailers but none were present when filming started and only Richard Johnson was able to convince the producers to provide one. The famous underwater shark vs. zombie scene was shot without Fulci’s approval by Giannetto De Rossi in Isla Mujeres, with the zombie portrayed by a local shark trainer. They used a tiger shark, which is one of the most dangerous shark species that exists, so the trainer fed the shark right before filming as well as doping it up with sedatives. The film bested George Romero’s film at the Italian box office but suffered much censorship trouble, especially in the UK, where the BBFC cut nearly two minutes for the cinemas which comprised most of the gore. Both this version and the uncut one came out on UK video in 1981, and both were banned as Video Nasties. The cut edit was released in 1991, then 1999 saw a less cut version, 23 seconds of cuts to an eye impalement and some body feasting. Only in 2005 was it released uncut in the UK.
The arresting first shot is of a gun pointed at the viewer, followed by a bullet entering the white sheet-covered head of somebody and the camera zooming into the viscera so we see it better, a Fulci trait. However, he shows himself quite good at creating some creepy atmosphere with the next scene of the seemingly deserted sail boat entering New York Harbour, perhaps deliberately recalling many of the versions of Dracula and especially the two Nosferatu’s. There’s no vampire, raving madman or person tied to the wheel here though. Instead, the two cops who come on board to investigate are confronted first by rotting food, buzzing flies, writhing worms and a severed hand, then by a huge, obese zombie rather resembling Plan 9 From Outer Space’s Tor Johnson who bloodily bites the neck of one before being shot by the other – though it’s not in the head and a still of him emerging from the water on to the land means that it’s possible that a later scene involving him was cut. Fulci then holds off from showing any more zombie antics for some time, perhaps too long for some. The zombie-bitten cop reawakening is limited to an arm obviously moving under a sheet. The story’s still structured quite well really. Fulci gets in his usual cameo, here as the Chief of the newspaper for whom our hero Peter works for. Tisa Farrow gets an effective introduction as Ann, standing there worried sick while the camera slowly zooms into her face, and Ann and Peter get a nice moment pretending to be lovers when discovered by police on the boat.
Our duo set out to solve the mystery of the boat, and find another couple who are willing to take them to their destination, but Matul seems to have a bad reputation, being regarded with suspicious by the natives of the area. The film then cuts back and forth between our foursome journeying to and arriving at Matul, and David trying to deal with a plague of death and then zombiedom on the island, as well as a wife who quite sensibly has a go at him for continuing with his seemingly futile work and not wanting to leave. She pays for doing this with the film’s most notorious scene, when a zombie’s hand forces her head closer and closer towards a splinter of wood and the eye is impaled in loving detail. It still looks horribly convincing, but the build-up is extremely well done too, Mrs Menard [she’s not given a first name] desperately trying to close the door to her room on one zombie in a bit which seems to take ages, then trying to stop another one coming in through the window. Of course the other famous scene is the earlier shark meets zombie scene. Susan goes for a topless dive [yeah I guess the boobs are gratuitous but so what, I doubt few viewers complained back in 1981] and is pestered by a zombie before its attention is diverted by a shark who proceeds to have a chunk of flesh torn out of it. Despite a couple of poor edits in the soundtrack, the sheer gall of the scene is such that one can forgive the absurdity of a zombie being down there in the first place, especially it being able to swim. After all, they barely seem able to even walk, these zombies being among the most slow moving ones in cinema. Something which struck me this time was when, after encountering a few of David’s patients up and about, our group finds itself in a Conquistador cemetery and its residents soon make an appearance. They look appropriately decayed and rotting – but shouldn’t they really be skeletons? I guess we’re supposed to assume that it’s down to the same kind of magic that’s caused the dead to rise in the first place, something that’s never really explained.
It all winds up with a Night Of The Living Dead-type siege and a tongue in cheek ending that seems to annoy some but which I’ve always liked.“I’ve just been informed that zombies have entered the building – they’re at the door – they’re coming in – arrrgh!!!” is heard on a broadcast from New York. After all, it’s pretty downbeat really, though were you really supposed to notice all those cars driving on the roads below while a long line of freshly dead zombies are seen slowly marching across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan? I just don’t know. Fulci was often very good, but he was also often careless, sometimes in the same scene which is quite something if you think about it. But then you also have the archetypal Italian zombie film scene where somebody turns round very slowly to see the zombie approaching them and then just stands there so he or she can be bitten into. I suppose you could say that she was paralysed with fear. At least the multiple blood-spurting wounds, smashed heads etc, courtesy of Giannetto Rossi, do all look very good, the gore highlight probably being when several zombies are feeding on poor Mrs. Meynard [though one of them is likely to get part of a splinter in their mouth!]. While ones in the background tend to be people just covered in clay, the grotesque appearance of the main zombies is exploited over and over again by slightly off centre close-ups that add to the EC Comics feel. Yet Fulci is still happy to give us some creepy rather than visceral stuff, notably a wonderfully atmospheric shot of a deserted Matul street except for some dogs and a crab [!] with a zombie in the distance slowly lurching towards the camera. We even get some zombie POV, replete with lots of heavy breathing, including one from the point of view of one as it comes out the grave! And there’s also a really sad moment when one of the patients is becoming increasingly zombie-like and she tells of how she saw her dead husband walking.
Acting tends to be workmanlike rather than especially good, but it just about gets the job done. Richard Johnson, who was once in line to play James Bond, does try to bring some dignity to the part of Meynard, though Olga Karlatos overacts as his wife even if you appreciate that she’s speaking Italian unlike the rest of the cast. Ian McCulloch and Tisa Farrow [Mia’s sister who was also in Anthropophagous] are likable enough that you do want them to survive, though it’s interesting how recent cultural changes make certain things in older movies seem a bit ‘off’. Peter putting his arm round Anne in only their second scene together and continuing to do so just wouldn’t happen if the film were made today, or if it did loads of people will moan about it. Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Cascio’s score has a wonderful disco-esque zombie theme which is rather over-used, as are some percussive tracks which often can’t seem to decide if they’re source music or score. Some of the cues don’t quite fit or are badly cut off. That strange, almost flatulent synthesiser sound you sometimes hear during gross moments in films like this gets perhaps its first airing here. Overall Zombie Flesh Eaters isn’t quite a classic, being in my opinion not really up to the standard of the three giallos that Fulci made just before, nor his classic City Of The Living Dead – The Beyond – House By The Cemetery trio that he made after, but it still offers a bloody good time, a simple, straightforward exploitationer with no pretensions to any artistry but containing some genuinely “WTF” moments, and which is certainly better than the increasingly lunatic gut munching epics made by other hands that followed from Italy – not that us fans don’t love watching those too.
Review of Fulci’s ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS 2 to follow shortly!