There are some films which everyone, whether they’ve seen them or not, has an opinion on. Virtually everything which fell under the auspices of ‘Video Nasties’ – the notorious witch hunt against a grouping of violent, sadistic and gore soaked films mainly from the late 1970’s and 1980’s – was seen as being detrimental to the well-fare of the general populace, and hence banned in Britain by the country’s moral arbiters. However, even amongst these films a few stood out, one in particular being Italian director Lucio Fulci’s shlock masterpiece Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979).
An abandoned sailing boat discovered by the New York Harbour Patrol, is found to have a flesh eating zombie on board which, after killing one the coast guards, is shot and falls overboard. The boat belonged to the father of Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) who, along with journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch), sets off for the tropical island where her father was working in order to find out what has happened to him. Arriving on the island they discover it overrun by an army of flesh chewing, eyeball gouging, gut chomping zombies, finding themselves in a living nightmare from which there is no escape.
Can a film which elicits such strong and divisive opinion ever be viewed objectively? Seen now, more than thirty years after it was made, and in the light of current films which are equally as violent and, in many cases, more realistic, yet receive mainstream cinema releases, it may be hard to understand why Zombie Flesh Eaters was so ostracized. Though the film is without doubt disturbing (the infamous scene involving Greek actress Olga Karlatos and a broken door which gives a whole new meaning to the expression ‘a poke in the eye’ is admittedly hard to watch), the majority of the gore is so fake and the creature make-up so unrealistic, that for the most part the film is unlikely to do more than make the viewer feel mildly queasy. Where this is concerned you really are left asking whether the decision to watch such films should not be left up to individual choice, and that most viewers are mature enough to decide for themselves the ‘damage’ seeing this kind of material can do.
The banning of such films is often done to protect children who may inadvertently obtain access to them, however the fact that most of them are now available uncut beggars the question as to the difference between contemporary audiences and those from the 1980s? Just as disturbing, and a fact that is the same no matter what era you’re watching these films in, is that most people want to see them due to their notoriety rather than the actual violence – like the proverbial ‘forbidden fruit’ the more you’re told you can’t have something the more you want it. However, as with most things which are off limits, if and when you actually do get them, you’re often left wondering what all the fuss was about.
More effective is Zombie Flesh Eaters’ overall ambience. Shot on location, the outdoor scenes in New York Harbour and later those filmed in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, are wonderfully atmospheric adding a depth and richness seldom found in this type of film. For all Fulci’s shortcomings – his plots were hardly deep, existing basically to link each progressively gruesome set-piece death to the next, whilst this time around he also showed a penchant for getting his female cast members (Farrow aside) to unnecessarily strip off where possible – there is no denying his films had a distinct and otherworldly beauty about them, whether set amidst the sapphire seas and white beaches of South America as seen here, or evoking the recognizable security of American suburbia as he was to do later in The House by the Cemetery (1981).
Though the acting often verges on melodrama and is inexcusably over-the-top in places, there is no denying that the cast, particularly Farrow, McCulloch and Karlatos, put their heart and soul into the proceedings. Farrow, who made a name for herself in controversial horror thrillers (she went on to star in the infamous shocker Antropophagus ), may never have reached the giddy heights of her more famous sibling Mia, but here there is no escaping her talent for screaming once the zombie hoards descend.
Whatever the reason for you wanting to watch it, the truth remains that Zombie Flesh Eaters is a film that provokes passionate debate, a factor which will always forms an essential and healthy part of film study.
Released in the UK on the 3rd December, 2012, Arrow Video’s stunning restoration of Zombie Flesh Eaters, is as crystal sharp as when it was originally unleashed in 1979. The DVD and Blu-ray and Limited Edition Steelbook’s come with a virtual cornucopia of exclusive material including optional English / Italian opening titles, trailers and several brand new featurettes, as well as audio commentaries and a fact filled collector’s booklet.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.