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.


Film #44: Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

film 44 tombs of the blind dead

Rating: 2.5/5

The first of a series of four films, Tombs of the Blind Dead has been described as Spain’s Night of the Living Dead, although its undead foes resemble resurrected, vengeful mummies more than zombies. It’s short on gore, concentrating more on creating a tense, slow-burning atmosphere and, while there are times when this is no doubt effective, overall – with the exception of some memorable sequences – it fails to make much of an impression.

It’s clear early on that it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that much of the simple plot relies on characters making illogical and daft decisions – most notably Virginia’s (Maria Elena Arpon) decision to abandon her friends Betty (Lone Flemming) and Roger (Cesar Burner) and spend the night alone in an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. With an ominous monastery dominating the ruins, and a ramshackle graveyard in the grounds, it’s inevitable that things will end badly for the stubborn brunette. Despite a lengthy portion of the film’s running time devoted to Virginia’s evening in the crumbling town, we learn next to nothing about the character; earlier conversations between her and her companions regularly slip into overwrought or stilted melodrama (although they also provide an opportunity for a gratuitous lesbian flashback, as the two girls remember their time at a convent school). Following Virginia’s petulant decision to leave her pals, due to their newfound interest in each other, she wanders around the ruins, dresses for bed and, in an impressive display of complete nonchalance regarding her surroundings, settles down to read a book. Unbeknownst to her, when night falls the Knights of the East (clearly Templars, though they are never explicitly referred to as such) rise from their graves, and soon she’s being terrorised by hooded, eyeless monsters.

The Knights themselves are, initially at least, unsettling and creepy – blind because several centuries ago their fearsome, ritualistic sect had their eyes pecked out by crows following their hanging. They hunt by listening for their prey, though poor Virginia never realises this and helpfully screams constantly. Although both their appearance and purpose differs from traditional zombies (they rise each night from their graves, and make deliberate, specific decisions), they share the former’s slow movements – director Amando de Ossorio has slowed down their scenes, creating a haunting delicacy to their motions. With the exception of the sound of their horses’ hooves pounding across the town’s stone streets, they glide silently across the landscape and, despite Virginia’s best efforts, the hunt is soon over.

Curiously, the film’s most effective aesthetic is also narratively one of the weakest points – like George A Romero’s zombies, the Knights could logically easily be bested because of their slowness. Their horses (draped in rags, but apparently still living and breathing) do increase their range and speed, but the undead men barely move, instead apparently relying on their prey’s similar lack of movement. It’s difficult to watch without wanting to shout at the screen, “just run, RUN AWAY!” and this irritation is an unfortunate distraction. Problematic too is the repetition of certain scenes, namely those involving the Knights’ resurrection – not because they are not reasonably impressive considering the film’s obviously low budget, but because they naturally are less effective once it becomes clear they are recycled. The film’s budget reveals itself a number of times, detracting from the more accomplished features (the score in particular works well) – day and night are interchangeable, while a flashback cannibalistic, ritualistic rape suffers from disappointing special effects, particularly the bizarre decision to use a fake female torso in close-ups.

Yet a film like Tombs of the Blind Dead is rarely watched by viewers expecting, or desiring, an in-depth character study, flawless narrative structure or impeccable effects. The pacing improves following Virginia’s death, and the decision to move beyond the isolated, abandoned monastery works in the film’s favour. Subsequent sequences, particularly those in the morgue and in a mannequin workshop, are by far the most memorable; the latter in particular is horribly creepy and tense, and visually creates a lasting impression.

The film’s final moments are frequently discussed (in vague terms) in other reviews and, while the events are fairly inevitable, they efficiently broaden the Knights’ opportunities for carnage and mayhem – although in this outing at least, said carnage predominantly occurs off camera. Although it is clear that de Ossorio deliberately chose to focus on atmosphere over blood and guts, and there is nothing wrong with this, in an era and genre that includes Zombie Flesh Eaters , The Beyond, and numerous others, this film makes considerably less of an impact. As I don’t have the sequels (Return of the Blind Dead, The Ghost Galleon, and Night of the Seagulls) in my collection, I cannot say whether the action is ramped up in the sequels or not; unfortunately, while Tombs of the Blind Dead was occasionally eerie and generally adequate, it failed to inspire me enough to find out.