The late Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci has been a legend to fans of hardcore international horror for more than three decades, and with good reason. His movies are dripping with creepy atmosphere and overflowing with brutal violence and copious amounts of unrestrained blood and gore. Sometimes they can even be terrifying as hell.
Long before he made his name as a master of over-the-top fright flicks Fulci had made many features in various genres, from erotica to spaghetti westerns and crime dramas. When he started branching out into darker tales of psychological torment and relentless carnage like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling the director believed he had discovered a new niche in his cinematic output and stuck with it for the rest of his career. Horror ultimately became the enduring legacy of Lucio Fulci, and many of us doubt he regretted that outcome.
Fulci is beloved by the horror devoted to this day primarily for his beautifully graphic tales of the dead returning to life and bringing an apocalypse of lurching death upon the human race, three in particular: City of the Living Dead (released in the U.S. as Gates of Hell), the phantasmagorical The Beyond (released in a truncated form in the U.S. as Seven Doors of Death and not seen in its uncut form until Quentin Tarantino and Grindhouse Releasing (the latter partly owned by the late Sage Stallone) teamed up to re-release it to theaters and on home video in the late ’90s), and the one that started it all, 1979’s Zombie – released globally under several titles including Zombi 2 (George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead had been released in Italy as Zombi and Fulci’s film was being positioned as an unofficial sequel) and Zombie Flesh Eaters, the title given to this new Blu-ray from Arrow Films.
So how does this new Blu-ray compare to Blue Underground’s fantastic release from late last year in terms of a/v quality and bonus features? More importantly, does Fulci’s most popular horror film still retain the power to frighten and shock after all these years? Let’s cut this sucker open and see if it was worth me having to buy a region free Blu-ray player just so I could watch it.
On a beautiful day in New York Day a boat comes drifting down the East River. Two policemen board the vessel to investigate and find not a single living soul aboard, except for a bloated, ravenous creature that takes a meaty chomp of one of the cops’ throats before being blasted into the ocean by the other. The boat is revealed to have belonged to a scientist who had been doing undisclosed work on the tropical island of Matool. His daughter Anne (Tisa Farrow) discovers a note he left for her that describes how had become infected with a mysterious local disease not long after his arrival on the island. She teams up with investigative reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to travel to Matool and find out what exactly happened to her father. They rent the boat and assistance of vacationing couple Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay) to aid in their journey.
Upon reaching Matool the foursome is greeted by Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), a scientist and friend to Anne’s father. He reveals that they had long been working to uncover the reason why the island’s deceased inhabitants have been returning to life and attacking and eating the living, and in some cases turning their victims into the shambling dead just like them. The villagers attribute the phenomenon to voodoo rituals but Menard, being a man of science, refuses to accept that conclusion. Peter, Anne, Brian, and Susan have little reason to either, but as night falls on Matool the graves of Spanish conquistadors who came to the island and died centuries ago open up and their rotted tenants arise to satisfy their hunger for live flesh and blood.
In this day and age zombie movies are by large a dime a dozen thanks to the success of the television series The Walking Dead, movies like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, and Max Brooks’ novel World War Z. But there was a time when tales of the decayed deceased returning to life to devour the flesh of the living were not as in vogue. George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead helped establish the template early on though the actual movie was not initially a success with critics and audiences. It took several years for Night to truly receive its due and by that time Romero had amassed enough clout in the film industry to handily secure the funding for his much-anticipated follow-up to Night, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Part of Dawn‘s budget had come from Italian investors thanks to the intervention of Dario Argento, one of that nation’s finest horror filmmakers, thus Argento was permitted to oversee a shorter, action-packed edit of Dawn that was released in Italy as Zombi and became a huge success. Romero’s preferred cut of Dawn did smashing business in theaters the world over but it was the Italian studios who were first to eagerly piggyback on the film’s blockbuster business by initiating a veritable slew of shameless imitators. One of these grimy rip-offs, Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead, even had the gall to utilize a huge chunk of the brooding electronic score composed for Dawn by the Italian progressive rock band Goblin, a household name to fans of Eurotrash horror and exploitation.
Although the 1974 feature The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (released in the U.S. as Don’t Open the Window) was an Italian co-production and revolved around an outbreak of cannibalistic zombies the country’s film industry did not fully embrace zombies as a bonafide ticket-selling bonanza until Zombie Flesh Eaters lurched its way onto theater screens beginning in 1979. Despite having inspired its own onslaught of soulless cash-ins, rip-offs, and unrelated sequels Zombie has held up remarkably well over the years. Fulci prevented his film from dating heavily by setting it in a variety of isolated locations and eschewing a scientific explanation for the dead rising from the grave, choosing instead to rely on the practice of voodoo rituals and witchcraft, a more tradition reasoning that has its roots in African and Haitian folklore of centuries past. Before you start to wonder if this movie is a thought-provoking anthropological study let me just say that Zombie Flesh Eaters did not become an international box office hit and a beloved cult classic among horror fans through maturity and restraint in its storytelling.
Lucio Fulci was never renowned for his subtlety and dramatic nuance. He made films overstuffed with gruesome set pieces, bold sexuality, and religious and psychological themes that often make them stand apart from the typical gore-drenched schlock that emerged from Italy throughout the 1980’s. The best Italian films were like grand operas of ideas, emotions, and imagery that warranted repeat viewings and astute critical analysis. Much of Fulci’s filmography could easily be written as senseless gore fests with little redeeming merit made solely to give cheapjack movie distribution companies product that could be sold to the masses. That could be true if you were going only by the movies he made during the final years of his life, especially Murder Rock and The Sweet House of Horrors. In his prime Lucio was a true master of cinematic terror and he was never more at home than when he was assembling armies of zombies to invade the comfortable suburban homes of his characters and the nightmares of his fans. Zombie Flesh Eaters may not be regarded as the late director’s masterpiece (his most ardent agree that would be The Beyond) but of all the chronicles of the living dead he made in his lifetime it is by far the most linear in terms of its plot structure. I would also go as far as to say that it is the most entertaining film Fulci ever made.
From the moment a fresh zombie wrapped in a sheet begins to rise from a hospital bed only to be greeted with a chunky bullet hit to its skull Zombie is off and running and makes no apologies for who it sickens and offends along the way. Fulci was not a sensitive filmmaker who made warm-hearted character studies, he was a trailblazing artist and celluloid was his canvas. His best movies were the purest expressions of his cinematic id, and though Zombie started out as a work-for-hire job that had originally been developed with another director in mind, Fulci set out to make the project his own in every ounce of its being, from its music and set design to its unabashed embrace of meaty gore effects and the director’s insistence on getting every bloody bit of it on film in excruciating detail whereas most directors would have cut away and fast for fear of censorship reprisals – which would still hit Fulci’s film soon after its release when it became one of the notorious “Video Nasties” during the conservative British government’s attempts to criminalize the sale and distribution of violent action and horror films in the ’80s. Zombie is a movie that may lack in smaller moments but more than makes up for those shortcomings with an array of some of the most memorable moments in all of horror cinema.
Few zombies movies could successfully visualize the stark, stomach-churning horrors of the grave like Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters did with gory gusto. His shuffling corpses are not mere extras slathered in blue or gray pancake make-up, they look exactly what the reanimated rotting dead should be: missing eyes, dried-up moldy flesh peeling away from the skin like wallpaper, limbs that look to be hanging by mere threads of tendon, teeth that look like broken planks of wood, and so on. This is what the zombies who haunted the pages of EC Comics titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror during their heyday in the 1950’s looked like. They were walking nightmares come to gloriously gruesome life and you could not escape their cold, dead grasp no matter how fast you ran and how well you hid.
Zombie‘s zombies were created through the special effects mastery of Giannetto De Rossi, the man whose gifts for giving life to some of the most terrifying images to ever grace the silver screen would be effectively employed in many of Fulci’s best films as well as the David Lynch-directed adaptation of Dune and more recently the French cult favorite slasher flick High Tension. In addition to his iconic zombies De Rossi also cooked up some genuine marvels of cinematic gore in Zombie‘s multiple set pieces, his most notable is the infamous scene where one of the characters has a shard of jagged wood forced into one of their eyes. Like every violent moment in Zombie the effect is seen in all of its gory glory with no cutaways, and though the limitations of De Rossi’s craft can be easily glimpsed at times (particularly in the wonders of 1080p high-definition) it is Fulci’s direction, the skillful editing of Vincenzo Tomassi, the tightly-framed cinematography of Sergio Salvati, and the performances by the cast that make us believe it is real and therefore works beautifully.
Romero used his zombies not just as a means to frighten his audiences but also as a vehicle for socio-political satire. Fulci has no such illusions about what he does; his vision of a zombie apocalypse is infinitely more terrifying than Romero’s not just because his ghouls look scarier, but because unlike their pale-faced brethren you can barely see a trace of humanity in De Rossi’s creations. It has all been stripped away by years of decay in cold, insect-infested earth and cheap coffins. It would be far more unnerving to become one of those zombies, the kind you absolutely can not reason with.
De Rossi’s stellar effects work is on full display throughout Zombie with lots of bloody flesh munching, zombies dispatched with extreme prejudice, and a finale that has our heroes taking on every walking dead ghoul on Matool in an all-out assault. Next to the ocular violation Zombie‘s shining moment is the sequence where one of the corpses somehow ends up in the waters off the island and in a wrestling match with an equally hungry shark. The scene is one of the touchstones in Fulci’s filmmaking career and was even briefly glimpsed in a commercial for Windows 7 in early 2010. Fabio Frizzi, another longtime collaborator of the director, contributes a brooding and brilliant music score that combines the synthesizer sounds that were becoming popular in genre films around that time with drum-heavy tropical and tribal motifs that reflect the film’s island setting and the mystery and terror that lurks within its lush veneer.
The acting is serviceable because movies like this rarely demand high-caliber work from its cast, but if there is a standout among the cast of Zombie Flesh Eaters it is without a doubt Richard Johnson, a British veteran of stage and screen, as the besieged Dr. Menard. Johnson gives the role more dimension than it warrants by playing the good director as an intelligent and reasonable man confronting a horror beyond the scope of his extensive medical and scientific knowledge and refusing to cave in to madness. His struggle to understand and stop the spread of the zombies wears heavily on his soul and reflects in his sweaty, stubbly face. As I wrote this paragraph it only began to dawn on me that at times it looked as if Dr. Menard was becoming a zombie himself during the course of the story. That is the benefit from repeat viewings of the movie: you start to notice things that had escaped your observation before. I suppose Lucio Fulci was a lot more subtle than I had originally suspected.
If there is a flaw I can not ignore, and it is a minor and forgivable one, it is the near-complete absence of humor in this movie. I am not expecting a Fulci movie to be a laugh riot (especially one of his horror movies) nor would it make much sense for the director to satirize his story given its patented absurdity. Then again maybe I am failing to see the nuanced humor in the film. After all, how can you not help but laugh a little at the zombie vs. shark scene?
For this release Arrow Video has sprang for a brand new 2K restoration of Zombie Flesh Eaters presented in 1080p high definition in a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1 from an original 35mm Technicolor negative of the film rather than reuse another company’s restored print for source material. The results are staggering to say the least. Stacked up against Blue Underground’s laudable 2011 release Arrow’s restoration work stands as the best home video presentation of Fulci’s movie to date and it will doubtlessly ever get any better. There is very minimal print damage and while most of the grain has been removed enough is left over to maintain the integrity of the atmospheric visuals in Salvati’s sweeping cinematography that makes great use of the widescreen picture. The colors are very strong and bright in the daytime scenes and the night scenes have been boosted a bit in the brightness department but not too much so the darkness can still feel like a creeping menace.
English and Italian two-channel LPCM tracks have been provided with optional English SDH subtitles for the dubbed version and a new English subtitles translation to complement the Italian audio. Both tracks are fantastic and pleasing to the ears with almost no detectable distortion. Volume levels for the dialogue scenes and Frizzi’s score are nicely balanced and one never cancels the other out. Ambient sounds and Foley effects are given additional sonic boost as well.
If you already own the 2011 Blue Underground Blu-ray of Zombie you might be pleased to know that none of the extras on that release were ported over for the Arrow edition. Instead we are served up a bloody buffet of all-new supplementary features, enough to pack two Blu-ray discs as a matter of fact. Starting things off is a 90-second introduction to the film by lead actor McCulloch exclusive to this release that was recorded at the same time as his career retrospective interview on the second disc, but more on that in a moment. Arrow has also given us the option of watching the film with either its U.S., U.K., or Italian opening and ending credits through a special branching feature.
Whereas previous releases of Zombie Flesh Eaters have only included one audio commentary with McCulloch carried over from the Roan Group laserdisc released in the mid-90’s Arrow’s set has two, both newly recorded for this release. The first is with screenwriter Elisa Briganti, moderated by British film writer and producer Calum Waddell. Briganti shares her extensive memories of working with Fulci and her husband Dardano Sacchetti on the script, the production, and her impressions of the director and the movie after more than three decades. She makes for a warm and funny commentator and Waddell’s knowledge of the film and Italian exploitation makes for an interesting track that at times resembles a casual conversation.
The second commentary pairs up Alan Jones, British film writer, and Stephen Thrower, former member of the experimental music group Coil and the author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, for another conversational track spilling over with production trivia and observations about Zombie and its place in contemporary horror film history. Jones and Thrower are hardcore devoted fans of Fulci and his filmography at heart and their enthusiasm for the movie they are watching is infectious, making for a terrific commentary the late director would certainly appreciate.
Next to the commentaries the major bonus feature on the first disc is the great new hour-long documentary “From Romero to Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Zombie Film”. Featuring interviews with critics and the creative talent behind the finest gut-munching extravaganzas to burp forth from “the Boot”, “From Romero to Rome” takes an comprehensive look at the origins of the zombie film, how George Romero’s Dead movies influenced countless Italian pretenders and potential usurpers, and the impact those films had on contemporary horror filmmakers. This well-produced documentary is so damn good that my only complain is that it just is not long enough.
The first disc closes out with a U.S. theatrical trailer, a vintage U.K. video trailer, two television spots, and five U.S. radio spots.
The bulk of Arrow’s new supplements are housed on the second disc and start off strong with “Aliens, Cannibals, & Zombies”, a 46-minute career retrospective interview with Zombie Flesh Eaters leading man Ian McCulloch. The interview mostly touches on the disconnected trilogy of Italian genre films he did: the aforementioned Zombie; Contamination, the sci-fi splatter flick directed by Luigi Cozzi (Star Crash) that was released Stateside as Alien Contamination; and Zombie Holocaust, an utterly bonkers combination of zombie, cannibal, and mad scientist horrors that was released in the U.S. as Dr. Butcher, M.D., a title that would endear it for all time to aficionados of grindhouse exploitation flicks. McCulloch has pretty fond memories of making these movies and shares plenty of them with us. He reveals that he always thought the script for Zombie Flesh Eaters was the silliest he had ever read and how one of the actresses became traumatized while making it due to the borderline abusive, hands-on direction of Lucio Fulci (whom McCulloch said strongly resembled British comedian Benny Hill). You may also find interesting McCulloch’s surprising revelation that he had more fun making Zombie Holocaust than the Fulci and cringe when he talks about a tense confrontation with a thief while in Colombia making Contamination.
Screenwriter Sacchetti shares pages from his original draft of the Zombie screenplay, when it was titled Island of the Living Dead, in the featurette “Zombie Flesh Eaters: From Script to Screen” (3 minutes). I wish we had gotten a longer, more detailed breakdown of the script’s evolution into what was ultimately filmed but as a fan of the movie and Lucio Fulci’s movies in general it is pretty nice to watch.
Next up is a 27-minute documentary devoted to the make-up effects work of Giannetto De Rossi, “The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi”. De Rossi makes for a lively and candid host as he guides us through his storied career in Italian splatter horror via on-set stories and a series of props he created for most of his best-known features from Zombie Flesh Eaters to James Cameron’s directorial debut Piranha II: The Spawning. This is essential viewing for all fans of De Rossi’s amazing effects work.
Wrapping up the final disc of extras is “Music for a Flesh Feast” (29 minutes), a Q&A with composer Frizzi that was moderated by Callum Waddell and Nick Frame and took place at the Glasgow Film Festival last August. Frizzi discusses his work with Lucio Fulci, the creation of his score for Zombie, and his music career in general, among other topics. Another wonderful feature that pays tribute to one of the more indispensable members of Fulci’s filmmaking team who helped make Zombie the classic it is.
Zombie Flesh Eaters, or whatever you want to call it, is my favorite Italian horror film, the finest film ever made by Lucio Fulci, and one of the best horror flicks of all time if you ask me. It is a four-course buffet of shock and schlock that will never lose its power to frighten you. Thirty-three years since it made its theatrical debut Zombie endures. Arrow Video’s fantastic new Blu-ray features the best audio and video quality Fulci’s masterpiece has ever seen along with a fantastic array of newly-produced bonus features. This double-disc set makes getting a region-free Blu-ray player worth the purchase. I can not recommend it enough.