Following a mysterious attack on a police officer on a seemingly abandoned boat in New York’s Hudson Bay, journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and the boat owner’s daughter Ann Bowles (Mia Farrow’s sister Tisa), head off to the vessel’s place of origin, the Caribbean island of Matul.
Once there, they find Dr Menard (Richard Johnson), the island’s medic, who is struggling with a minor zombie problem, having run out of ideas over what the cause could be – radiation, virus or voodoo?
As more of the dead rise from the grave, the stage is set for the final showdown, but as the film closes, and a horde of zombies shuffle across the Brooklyn Bridge, it seems that New York is next on the flesh eaters’ menu…
Known as ‘Zombi 2’ in Italy – to cash in on that country’s renaming of George Romero’s Dawn of The Dead to ‘Zombi’ – comparisons the Romero’s movie and this one are inevitable, if a little unfair.
While Romero’s zombie films tend to contain overt political and social comment inspired by their production era – racism, consumerism and so on – with Zombie Flesh Eaters director Lucio Fulci seems to have no such wish to make us find depth below the surface.
Instead, we get what is an admittedly patchy script, that serves to bring us a range of very impressive set pieces, including that spooky opening sequence on the abandoned boat, the famous – and bonkers – topless diver-vs-shark-vs zombie sequence, and the infamous wood-through-the-eye shot, still startling and unexpected (it’ll cut away in a second… yep, any second now… aaaany second… JESUS! BLOODY HELL!) to this day.
While the low budget does show through regularly, I find this movie more visually interesting and inventive than Romero’s movies. Whereas his zombies – at least in the first two ‘Dead’ movies – were basically created with face paints, here FX maestro Gino Rossi creates genuinely rotten-looking creatures. Appearing crusty and brittle, you get the feeling they really are rotting away, and could fall apart at any moment.
Zombie Flesh Eaters undoubtedly brought director Lucio Fulci’s career back from the dead, and while it may not be his best zombie movie (you could take your pick from City of The Living Dead, The Beyond or The House by The Cemetary), it’s arguably his most recognisable and infamous, especially in the UK, due to its treatment at the hand of the censors.
Indeed, it’s difficult for me to review this movie purely on its own merits; it was one of many films unjustly caught up in the tabloid rag-led “video nasties” hysteria of the 80s, and 30 years ago no one in their right mind would have ever imagined we’d get to see the film in anything other than a severely cut version, let alone such a fantastic restoration and special edition (more on that later).
While the merits of censorship are beyond the scope of this review, it’s interesting to note that, as more previously banned or cut films have been released without cuts, society has not crumbled, and it’s nice to see so many of them getting releases like this. Arrow and their fellow labels are to be congratulated.
Having seen several releases of this movie, on various formats, over the years, and having always being disappointed in what I saw, I wasn’t expecting much this time round. After all, this was a low budget (under $500,000) Italian schlocker, released under different titles around the world, heavily censored and even banned in some countries; I couldn’t imagine that a decent enough print of the movie existed to justify an HD Blu-ray release.
I like being wrong sometimes.
Taken from a 2K scan of the original camera negative, restoration supervisor James White and his team have worked miracles here, bringing a clarity and depth to the image that hasn’t been seen on home video before.
Going through the movie frame by frame, thousands of instances of dirt and scratches have been removed, while damaged and missing frames were repaired. Thankfully, the digital spring clean avoids removing the original film grain, leaving an the image with an appropriate ‘grunginess’.
Black levels are solid and stable, while colours – especially the all-important reds – pop off the screen. Aside from a few unavoidable minor flaws that are down to the source materials, the film looks pristine, with Sergio Salvati’s slightly soft focus photographer given a new lease of life.
Of course it doesn’t match the clarity and perfection of a modern blockbuster release, but I think it’s fair to say that the movie hasn’t looked this good since the day it was filmed.
Thankfully, the restoration efforts continue for the movie’s audio, with both the original English and Italian soundtracks getting a full nip and tuck via the removal or of unwanted clicks and dropouts.
Some audio remains slightly out of sync, though this is a reflection of the original film’s copious post-production ADR dubbing, rather than a fault with the disc.
Again, don’t give this disc a spin if you are looking for room-shaking bass or directional effects from all corners of the room, but if you want an accurate, clean restoration then you won’t be disappointed.
Fans of the movie – and Italian horror in general – are in for a real treat, with a load of extras spread across two Blu-ray discs, as well as some nice pieces included in the packaging itself.
Open the case and you’ll find a double-sided poster, with reproductions of UK and US posters. Also here is a 39 page booklet with a selection of articles by Calum Waddell, Stephen Thrower, Craig Lapper and Jay Slater.
The highlight of the booklet for me is the piece by Craig Lapper, a former BBFC examiner, which details the film’s long road to finally getting an uncut home video release, but you’ll also find and interview with actress Olgo Karlatos, pages from the original ‘Nightmare Island’, a Lucio Fulci CV and more.
Onto the discs themselves, and first we have a pair of audio commentaries. The best is from Fulci biographer Stephen Thrower and film critic and horror expert Alan Jones. This track is great fun, as the pair take the viewer on a light-hearted but info-packed journey through the film, with lots of historical context.
The second commentary is a little drier, as Calum Wadell prompts screenwriter Elisa Briganti to recall her memories of the film’s production. There’s some interesting stuff here to be sure, but it does lack the chemistry of the Thrower and Jones commentary.
Next up is a selection of documentaries and featurettes:
From Romero to Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Zombie Film is fantastic. As the title suggests, this documentary starts by looking at the legacy of Romero’s original Living Dead movie, before moving on to the huge Italian horror industry that it inspired. A mix of film clips and talking head interviews with experts like Kim Newman and makers of films both old and new, like Ruggero Deodata (the infamous Cannibal Holocaust), Russ Streiner (producer of Night of The Living Dead) and James Moran (writer of Severance and Cockneys vs Zombies), take us through some of highlights of the zombie genre.
The Meat Munching Movies of Gino Rossi speaks to Zombie Flesh Eaters effects man Rossi, as he talks us through his work on movies including Cannibal Ferox, City of The Loving Dead and Piranha II, and shows of some of his original props. Fans of old-school latex and goo FX (like me) will enjoy this one.
Music For A Flesh Feast is a Q&A with composer Fabio Frizzo, recorded at the Glasgow Film Theatre. This is pretty interesting, though it can be difficult at times to hear the audience asking their questions.
Zombie Flesh Eaters: From Script to Screen is a short piece with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti showing a few pages of his original Island of The Living Dead script to a VERY excited Calum Waddell.
Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies: A Trilogy of Italian Horror is a chat with actor Ian McCulloch (who also provides an introduction to the main film). Already an established actor, with a number of high profile UK TV appearances, McCulloch was courted by Fulci to appear in Zombie Flesh Eaters at the beginning of what would prove to be a whirlwind year staring in that movie as well as Contamination and Zombi Holocaust. We get to hear lots of little anecdotes here, a highlight of which comes during the discussion of the film’s problems during the video nasties scare in the UK during the early 80s. The uncle of McCulloch’s wife was one of the judges tasked with deciding whether a list of films should be banned. His response upon hearing that the actor was in three of those films? “Oh, Ian… how could you?”!
The features are finished off with a selection of trailers and TV spots.
Just as James Wight and his team are to be congratulated on the restoration of the film, so too do Calum Waddell and his crew deserve recognition for their work putting together these great featurettes.
This release is highly recommended, and really does have something for everyong – whether your interest is in Italian horror, zombie movies, Lucio Fulci, gore or censorship, you will find lots to enjoy.
The restoration and presentation really is first class, with a depth of extras that few would have ever thought possible just a few years ago.