So zombies are in again, and now even people who’ll spout with pride that they do not watch horror films are quite happy to settle in with a cup of tea and The Walking Dead on TV. Maybe a little World War Z on their Kindle. Unlike many of the classic horror ghouls, zombies have well and truly made the transition from the grubby pages of Deep Red and Killing Moon into the free weekend pull-out of the Guardian.
Nowadays, there are few things that will put me off watching, reading or doing something more than the Z word. Sure, I’m a little guilty of fan snobbery – it’s always there when something you love flies the comfy little genre nest and out into the big, bad world – but it’s more than just that. Somewhere along the way, zombie films completely lost everything that made them appealing to me. I don’t care about step-by-step detail on how some hardware spod will assemble his weaponry to ensure maximum protection against zombies. I am already fully aware that, as warmongering human bastards, we are the real monsters so you can save that one too.
I don’t care about the zom-com, a barren sub-genre where chainsaws are the new whoopee cushion and a body part falling off in your dinner plate is the height of wit. Don’t even get me started on the nitpicking about why zombies shouldn’t ever run, jump, talk, have glowing eyes, build battering rams or enter a decathlon… it’s just ridiculous. But of course, the absolute nadir of zombie culture is the idea of mashing up existing works – everything from Jane Austen to CSI – with flesh-eating ghouls.
Truly we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel full of zombie gas here. Most zombie films descend in one way or another from George Romero’s original trilogy but, while those films are inarguably seminal, I’ve reached the conclusion that my idea of what constitutes the apex of the genre is Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (also known as Zombie, Zombi 2, Woodoo Zombi 2, etc).
The plot is simple. A seemingly abandoned boat is found floating in a New York harbour. Two Harbour Patrol guys check it out and discover a zombie. It kills one of them before being shot and thrown into the water. Although the police try to make as little fuss about it as possible, plucky journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and Ann Bowles (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the boat’s missing owner, sense there’s more than meets the eye and start investigating.
This leads them to the Caribbean island of Matool, where Ann’s father had been working as a doctor. Dad’s long gone but his colleague, the shady Dr Menard (Richard Johnson), remains on the island; an alcoholic wreck who spends his time shooting corpses in the face(!), supposedly making sure that the dead stay dead because he believes that, on Matool, this doesn’t seem to be happening any more…
Perhaps the best place to start on why such minimal plotting works so well is to look at what it doesn’t do. First off, it doesn’t offer any explanation for the zombie outbreak, so no tedious science waffle. There’s heavy suggestion that it’s local voodoo priests, but it could just as easily be read as being the outbreak of a mysterious virus, not to mention an unintentional but terrifyingly prophetic AIDS allegory. No one knows, and their/our confusion makes it all the more scary.
Surely the greatest fear is that of the unknown, and once we understand zombification, its causes and its cures, we lose this. Flesh Eaters steers clear of social commentary. Although initially funded to be an intentional rip-off of Dawn Of The Dead (and indeed marketed as Zombi 2 in the territories where Dawn had been known as Zombi), Fulci’s film eschews politics. There’s a conscious choice here to not muddy the waters and to dwell on one fact and one fact alone: that it is seriously scary to consider that the dead can rise up from the earth and start walking.
It’s something that gradually got lost with zombies, to the point where we’re so over familiar that we watch these films and there’s nothing scary at all about them. They’ve become all metaphor. In Flesh Eaters however, the driving force is that these things look dead. In some cases, very dead indeed.
There’s something about Gianetto and Gino De Rossi’s effects work on this film that’s timelessly unnerving. The zombies are rough and nasty and rotting and covered in (real) worms and maggots. It’s hard to not get the creeps just looking at them come out of the ground, let alone when they start walking. Under Fulci’s obsessive direction, the zombies exhibit a far slower, more stiff and uncomfortable looking walk than usual. There are some scenes of zombies rising (and dying) that have been criticised for being too slow, but this only adds to the effect.
These things have been through rigor mortis, ferchrissakes. I don’t want to see them busting out the Thriller dance! The fact that every movement looks like agony, again, adds to the horror of the dead being up and walking. Let’s not forget, being a zombie is A bad thing. It’s something that these creatures are doing against their will. They are brainless – their brains have rotted – animated corpses that exist only to feed. There’s no emotion here. No morals. No comprehension even of what they’re doing. They’re just bits of dead flesh hanging off bones that can somehow function primitively in that they can move and feed. There’s no up-side, no glamour in being a zombie and, rest assured, Fulci’s zombies are having no fun at all (and neither are the actors who, in tropical temperatures, had live maggots sewn into patches over their eyes and the like).
The band of mismatched humans pitted against them don’t have time to argue amongst themselves or devise elaborate survival techniques. Of all the zombie films, Flesh Eaters’ protagonists are surely the most useless and flailing. In reality, we would all probably be the same. Sod your “I’m going to put together a super-chainsaw-rifle-car-combo using bottle tops, a pushbike and this rocket fuel I found” nonsense. Trapped on an island with an ever-increasing number of zombies, they run through the woods, scream a lot, bar themselves into the missionary church, occasionally manage to shoot or stab one of the things in the head, but everything that can go wrong for them does.
Even though the undead move at a snail’s pace, they are everywhere. This is the most terrifying aspect of the zombie as a horror villain and one that is lost when the zombies are capable of cognitive thought or fast movement. If hope for survival is what drives the heroes, the feeling of constantly decreasing hope can never work better than here. An initial “Yeah, this’ll be a pushover” feeling when you see one or two grubby slow-movers, an “Okay, maybe we can get out this way where there aren’t so many” when the mob grows, to a final realisation that it’s amassed to inescapable proportions and the mindless dead are all around.
This, done well, is terrifying and it’s taken to its logical extreme with the film’s ultra-bleak finalé; a complete obliteration of hope. Fabio Frizzi’s accompanying nerve-shredder of a score is a beautiful cacophony of synthesized madness that only enhances the terror.
Additionally, the story behind the shoot is as fascinating as the film itself. Like many Italian exploitation productions of the era, the idea was to get them out as cheaply and as nastily as possible. They had no permit to shoot in America at all so the New York scenes are entirely illegal. This in itself would be daring even if they were doing something subtle, but the fact that they had several dozen people in zombie make-up walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and only a matter of minutes to shoot it before the authorities came is just insane. Pure guerrilla filmmaking. (Arguably this is the first ever flesh mob, but we’ll forget that in the way we forget that, without Kurt Cobain, there’d be no Chad Kroeger.)
In the legendary scene where Auretta Gay goes diving and comes face-to-face with a shark and then a zombie (in itself, an exhilaratingly clever double-reveal that’s sorely underrated now most people know what to expect before they watch it), the crew went into real shark-infested waters, found a real shark, “tired it out” by making it swim around their boat a few times, and then chucked Auretta Gay into the water with it. This is guerrilla to the point of sheer senselessness. Fulci, renowned for being a psychotic director even at the best of times, was operating on the very edge of cinema here, and it comes through in the frenzied nature of his film.
Finally, the violence in Flesh Eaters (which got it banned in the UK for many years and made it a poster child for video nasties) is harrowing and realistic even now. When the corpse of Dr Menard’s wife (who’s already received a nine inch splinter through the eye) is discovered, being torn to pieces and eaten by the dead, it’s hard not to feel sheer revulsion. The rest of the gore is no less uncompromising. Faces are torn off, zombies are burned and bludgeoned, heads are smashed in, all sorts of innards are ripped out and eaten, but the more understated scenes of violence are the most disturbing, and it’s here where Fulci shines.
The beautifully shot opening sequence (a master class in Chiaroscuro) where Menard shoots a stirring human form, roped up and wrapped in a blanket, through the head, and says flatly to the camera, “The boat can leave now. Tell the crew” is a grisly statement of intent. You know this film is going to be bleak and nasty from the first few seconds and it rarely lets up.
It’s scenes like this that make me feel that, although some of Flesh Eaters‘ brilliance is unquestionably a fluke, Fulci was a director – at the time – more in control of his craft than people give him credit for. The endless shots of sheet-wrapped, shivering, sweating bodies in Menard’s “hospital” waiting to die and return as zombies only reinforce what drips from every frame. A cloying, pervasive atmosphere of death and of dying that burns like some kind of horrible fever dream.
Sure, the dubbing is bad, one or two scenes could be lost (including a hilariously inept autopsy sequence), and there are a few fallacies where even the film’s own internal logic is abandoned in favour of style. This isn’t a perfect film, I’ll admit. But it is a brilliant one and, to me, the truest, most terrifying, stylish, imaginative and indeed the greatest example of a now long-running subgenre of films.
If you only watch one film with zombies in it, this is my recommendation. It doesn’t fuck around. It goes full dark. It is the stark presentation of how inconceivably horrific it would be if the dead started walking; if it were possible to exist beyond death in a state of unimaginable, horrible decay; if all life on Earth was replaced by death. And, if you’re looking for zombies, you simply can’t get purer than that.
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