Film #66: Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

film 66 zombie flesh eaters
Rating: 3/5

“What’s this about the dead coming back to life again, and having to be killed a second time?”

From a family friendly Oscar winner to one of the most infamous video nasties – such is the joy of Movie Lottery. With its great, lurid title, Zombie Flesh Eaters (originally called Zombi) is, like so many of the video nasties, rather tame when viewed today – the caked on prosthetics are obvious and dated but, budget restrictions aside, it’s a fairly entertaining, if clichéd romp; not bad enough to be a bad movie, but definitely trashy.

I remember Zombie Flesh Eaters for precisely two reasons: one, it has an epic fight between a zombie and a shark; two, one of the women dies a rather horrible death involving a large shard of wood through the eye. The film itself is quite slow – there’s not much to the plot and little character development, so Fulci takes his time, offering little nuggets of zombie-gore rather than saturating the whole film with it – but when the blood, guts, and rotting flesh feature, it’s generally pretty effective. These two scenes are the highlight, and both come fairly early; the film’s final showdown, the hoards of zombies taking over the beautiful tropical island of Matul, is quite generic, but these scenes more than make up for any other lapses in originality.

Having seen this movie before, I remember the zombie-shark fight scene as being very impressive – violent, aggressive, shocking. Turns out my brain has somewhat exaggerated events; this is less a fight scene than a zombie holding onto a suspiciously toothless shark. Yet it is rather masterfully shot – shark trainer Ramon Bravo (the zombie) looks and acts the part (and appears to be able to hold his breath for an inhumanly long time), and manages to make what is clearly a docile, harmless shark look at least a little bit dangerous. For good measure there’s also an almost entirely naked woman scuba-diving (a g-string protects her modesty, but only barely) – what more could you ask for in a scene?!

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: Anne (Tisa Farrow, Mia Farrow’s sister, substituting blank stares for acting) and newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) head off to the island of Matul in the Antilles to search for her missing father, after his boat was found floating in New York harbour. Organising a lift with two strangers, Brian and Susan (the aforementioned mostly naked woman), they are forced to stop in Matul after the shark attack damaged their boat, and there they discover Dr Menard (Richard Johnson) who is desperately trying to find a cure for the strange disease plaguing the islanders (currently, it appears only a bullet to the brain does the trick). While the locals believe voodoo is the cause for the affliction, Menard, a man of science, is convinced there is a rational, medical explanation – the outcome is largely ambiguous, but I’d suggest that the rising of the Conquistadores towards the end of the film points more towards the supernatural.

Like many Italian films of the decade, half the cast didn’t speak English, so parts are (badly) dubbed. The men act better than the women, though they are given better roles – as soon as poor Susan strips off, it’s obvious her days are numbered. Menard’s wife, first introduced drunk and hysterical, is similarly doomed; it’s her that ends up optically impaled and subsequently devoured. The other women, Anne and Menard’s assistant, last longer because they’re less willing to show their nipples, but they’re both utterly hopeless and helpless; the men are apparently the only ones capable of any action whatsoever. So the poor women generally stand, like rabbits in the headlights, and wait for the zombies (the classic slow kind of undead) to shuffle over and bite them, unless a man can gallantly save the day. Yet it should be pointed out that there are few survivors, and really it’s quite fun to see which stereotype will be the next to meet their grisly end.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is wonderfully retro – Giannetto De Rossi’s prosthetics are obvious but effectively gruesome, while the film’s style (including frequent zooming from long shot to extreme close-ups) is distinctively 70s. There are no sudden shocks or jolts, no sudden cutaways or jumps. Fulci reveals all the gore slowly, and that’s where the horror originates. The music works well to signpost the key scenes and, while the film is slow, it’s peppered with just enough death and destruction (and a good, though not unexpected, conclusion) to remain interesting. Yet it is rather flat – there’s little tension, and at times the protracted scenes (particularly those involving the inert females) end up being more funny than horrific. I suppose when it was released in 1979 it was a shocking, gruesome film; today it manages to achieve a level of kitsch appeal. It should, however, be commended – not only for returning to the original zombie origins (voodoo), but for the moments of innovation, creation, and pure ridiculousness that have, surprisingly, never been repeated. Yes, I’m talking about the zombie-shark showdown again. Sure, in actuality it’s underwhelming, but it’s stupid and original enough to leave a lasting impression.