This Arrow Blu-ray is £11 on amazon at the moment.
If Italian horror is famous for anything, it's for ripping off successful horror films from other countries. But the Italians always managed to put a unique spin on things, and certainly in a few cases (gialli, cannibal films) they created their own unique little sub-genres. In terms of zombie films, while they took their inspiration from George Romero's celebrated Dawn of the Dead, the Italian movies were sleazy in a way the American versions weren't, but had a certain vibrancy nevertheless. Zombie Flesh Eaters is the film that kicked off the Italian zombie boom of the 80s, and it is probably the best example.
It was already in production when Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978. Dawn was released in Italy under the name Zombi, so this film cheekily gave itself the name Zombi 2 and tried to pass itself off as a prequel to Romero's movie. It was released in the US as Zombie, where it did very well. And it was released in the UK as Zombie Flesh Eaters, a great name which matches the disreputable, exploitative nature of the film very well.
Inevitably, it was heavily edited by the BBFC. But an uncut version was released on video by Vipco in the early 80s. Zombie Flesh Eaters became one of the key films in the video nasty scare, thus ensuring its lasting notoriety in this country. It was only passed uncut relatively recently.
A deserted yacht drifts into New York. When the police investigate, they're attacked by a corpulent zombie. A journalist tries to investigate, tracking the boat back to the Caribbean island of Matoul. The daughter of the yacht's owner goes with him, and they find that all is not right on Matoul. The dead are rising from their graves to attack the living. Dr Menard, a local scientist, may hold the answers, but he might be too late to have any effect on the situation.
The main thing to note about this film is that it is incredibly, viscerally gruesome. While Romero's zombie movies are gory, they always have a large slice of social comment that make them easier to justify. Zombie Flesh Eaters has no social commentary to make at all. It simply wants to scare us, horrify us, and entertain us. While this makes it easier to write off as exploitation trash, it must be said that it achieves what it sets out to do with aplomb. The director was Lucio Fulci, one of the three great Italian horror directors, and while narrative logic was never his strong suit, he certainly knew how to craft a fascinating horror set piece.
This has two fantastic set pieces. The most famous has a topless woman scuba diving, being attacked by a shark, then being attacked by a zombie. The zombie and the shark proceed to have a fight. It's an absolutely staggering moment of exploitation excess, and definitely involves a man in zombie makeup fighting an actual, honest-to-goodness shark. Weirdly, the incident is never mentioned again after it happens, which makes it fairly typical of Fulci - it's the thing everyone remembers, but it has no plot relevance whatsoever.
The other set-piece is one of the most infamous video nasty money shots, as something very violent happens to a character's eye (Fulci's films feature a lot of eye trauma). It's remarkable because it keeps getting to a point where you think, 'well yes, all well and good, but he's going to have to cut away now, surely?' But he doesn't cut away at all, and we're treated to the most spectacular eye gouging ever seen. Even if the special effects let it down slightly, it's still one of the most fantastically unflinching gore moments ever filmed.
The whole thing has a wet, bloody, squishy feel that's missing from any previous zombie film. The boat that floats into New York is swarming with really nasty looking worms, and a lot of the zombies have worms wriggling out of their eye sockets. This zombie outbreak really emphasises the disease aspect of the condition, and the scuzzy hospital shack has an authentically queasy, horrible feel to it. It doesn't have the budget for Romero's action-packed zombie battles, but the climax is pretty good, even if the coda in New York descends into silliness.
A big part of the success is down to Fabio Frizzi's amazing incidental music. Italian horror by the late 70s was becoming associated with confrontational synthesiser scores, largely down to Goblin's work with Dario Argento. Frizzi's themes don't have the subtlety of Goblin, but they have a bludgeoning force that makes them arguably more effective. The deep squelchy synth fart that accompanies the shot of the worms on the piano in the boat is fantastic.
The acting is perhaps the least impressive aspect of the film, although it's also probably the least important. Italian horror would usually try to import at least one foreign actor. This imports three. Richard Johnson was a heavyweight Shakespearean stage actor, but managed to appear in a lot of pretty cheap horror movies in the 70s and early 80s. He brings some good presence to the role of Dr Menard, even though he's visibly coasting. Another British actor is Ian McCulloch, who adds a dash of bemused Englishman abroad, even though I don't think that's what he intends. He made another two Italian horrors the same year.
The heroine is played by Tisa Farrow, Mia's less talented sister. She's also in another video nasty, Anthropophagus the Beast, but although she isn't too bad, she doesn't have a great deal of onscreen presence. There are a few other faces familiar from Italian horror, including Al Cliver, who's in a couple of appalling Jess Franco cannibal movies.
Fulci directed a trilogy of good zombie movies in the next couple of years, but although they're artier and arguably more suspenseful, they lack the gut-punch nastiness of this one. The flood of subsequent Italian zombie flicks never matched it in any respect. While the first two Romero zombie movies are still the best the sub-genre has offered, Zombie Flesh Eaters is probably a respectable third, just nosing ahead of Hammer's Plague of the Zombies. If you're a horror fan you've probably already seen it; if you haven't, you jolly well should.
The Blu-ray is a very pleasant surprise. Arrow Blu-rays are usually re-releases of American editions, mostly licensed from Blue Underground. When Arrow produce their own Blu-rays the results are often controversial (as in Bird With The Crystal Plumage). So I expected this to be the same as the recently released US Blue Underground version (which I also bought before I knew this one was coming out).
It turns out Arrow have produced their own Blu-ray version, and that it is a sharp improvement over Blue Underground's version. This isn't the kind of film that's ever going to look pristine, so don't expect an upgrade in the style of, say, Jaws or Star Wars. But what we get is remarkably good, with an amazing increase in the level of detail visible. Some shots look better than others, and the colours are perhaps a tad muted, but this is as good as you'll see it.
It's also backed up with an impressive array of extras - it's a two-disk release (disk one is region locked, the second disk isn't), and as usual with Arrow has a nice booklet and a rather pointless reversible sleeve.
There are two commentaries, one with the guy who wrote the film, and one with critics Steve Thrower and Alan Jones. Film critic commentaries often annoy me, but these two know their stuff and are generally fun to listen to. They both have horror stories about trying to interview the notoriously difficult Fulci.
There's a rather good hour-long documentary about zombie films from Night of the Living Dead until the end of the Italian horror cycle (around about 1990, although the last couple of zombie films - Zombie 4 and Zombie 5 - are more or less unwatchable). This has contributions from people like Kim Newman, and various surviving Italian directors and writers. George Romero is notable by his absence, but we don't really need to hear about his zombie films again. It's more interesting to see people talk about the Italian movies, and it feels like it could have done with being longer, as they don't really do justice to some of the more obscure films. Also, I don't see how you can talk about Erotic Nights of the Living Dead without mentioning the leading man's hideous genital warts.
Disk two has four extended interviews. My favourite was with the guy who did the special effects in Zombie Flesh Eaters and a number of other horror movies. He still has most of the old props, and even shows us how the notorious 'meat hooks through boobs' scene in Cannibal Ferox was done. There's also an interview with the composer (filmed at a convention); he seems like quite a nice guy. A lengthy bit about the script is less interesting. Finally there's an interview with Ian McCulloch about the three Italian horror movies he made. He's quite a charming character (he reminds me a bit of my uncle), and he refreshingly doesn't make any bones about thinking the films he made are rubbish (although he admits Zombie Flesh Eaters works because of its special effects).
This is a tremendous release of a splatter classic. It's had immense love and care lavished on it, both in terms of getting the film looking right, and in the extras. It sets the bar very high for future releases of cult horror titles, but hopefully we'll see plenty more. It's certainly restored my faith in Arrow, who haven't put out a really top notch horror Blu-ray since Dawn of the Dead.
Definitely one to get for fans of Fulci or zombies.