Received wisdom has it that George Romero‘s 1978 shocker Dawn Of The Dead got the story, and Lucio Fulci’s career defining 1979 gore hit Zombie Flesh Eaters (cynically marketed as a sequel in Italy under the name Zombi 2, but then it got series of increasingly tenuous knock-offs all of its own, like Zombie 5: Killing Birds, which features the greatest sentence ever written on Wikipedia: “Despite this title, zombies only feature in the last few minutes of the movie, and only one character is attacked by birds”) got the style.
Its zombies were certainly grubbier and more earthen, it’s locations – New York harbour, a tropical island of deserted streets and scuttling crabs, and feverish, putrescent triage stations – certainly more evocative, and its cinematography endlessly ahead of its time – claustrophobic fishbowl close-ups, intense, creeping POVs, lurid use of light and colour, and even its action scenes more intimate and visceral in a way that few have matched, let alone bettered.
If a story is simply a device that moves the plot seamlessly along the film’s various waypoints, and not shorthand for allegory or subtext, then Fulci triumphs in those stakes too. The bare bones of the plot, a bubbling gumbo of 19th Century colonial romp, HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, and, of course, Night Of The Living Dead, is neat enough. When a boat belonging to Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow)’ scientist father washes up in New York, filled with rotting food and a cop-killing corpse, she and reporter Peter West (Survivors‘ and Zombie Holocaust‘s Ian McCulloch) set off for the island of Matool – his last known whereabouts, enlisting the help and boat of Bryan Curt (The Black Cat and The Beyond‘s Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay). On Matool they discover an island in the grip of a mysterious infection, and the supremely shifty Doctor David Menard (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider‘s Richard Johnson ) running a clinic in a mission – the dead rise, and zombie flesh-eating ensues.
It’s easy to see contrivances around every corner, if you’re so inclined – the crew pulling over so Susan can enjoy a gratuitously topless scuba dive and witness that iconic zombie/shark title bout doesn’t exactly add anything to the plot, but it doesn’t take away from it, and it looks absolutely stunning to boot. Similarly, we’re introduced to Menard’s highly strung wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) purely so we can rub our trousers Vic Reeves-style as she showers away the unease of her husband’s misdeeds, and then endure a cadaverous home invasion culminating in that other headline set-piece – the agonisingly slow eye gouging, the whole shot framed discomfortingly close to her face, complete with POV as the wood splinter closes in. It doesn’t give us anything meaningful about consumerism to chew over – although you’re welcome to project your own post-colonial creed onto this tale of a white doctor experimenting on hapless islanders, who in turn rise from the grave to exact their revenge – but is fantastic fun.
The HD transfer and restoration is so crisp and cinematic that it makes the previous DVD edition look like your mate’s wobbly smartphone clip of a lairy night out. There’s a barrage of extras and commentary, but the trinity of highlights are the documentary devoted to the unlikely exploitation career of Ian McCulloch, a tour around the workshop of FX guro Gino de Rossi and an extensive overview of Italian zombie and cannibal movies. That they use Graham Humphreys’ art from the recent Death Waltz Records vinyl soundtrack is the kitemark of quality that tops the whole package off.
Sure, Dawn Of The Dead might be the one you wrote your easy thesis on, but Zombie Flesh Eaters is the one you watch – thanks to this high-end HD release – over again.