Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti, Chuck Smith
Stars: Tisa Farrow (Anne), Ian McCulloch (Peter), Al Cliver (Brian), Richard Johnson (Dr. Menard)
VIPCO Release: 1980
Also Known As: See below
VIPCO Plot Synopsis: In Hudson Bay a sailing boat that has a neglected appearance is drifting slowly out to sea. A coast guard boat draws up alongside and a policeman goes into the cabin. His colleagues do not see him come out again and one is about to go into the cabin when a terrifying sight appears out of the hatchway – a man, covered in blood, walks towards him menacingly. Only after being hit repeatedly by bullets from the policeman’s gun does he fall overboard and disappear amid the waves. This news causes a sensation and panic in the whole of America, also because the sailing boat belonged to a famous scientist who disappeared rather mysteriously in the Caribbean. The scientist’s daughter Ann together with Peter West, a famous American journalist, set out to look for him. The two of them set sail on a schooner belonging to Brian, a young American ethnologist, and Susan, a young underwater photographer. Far out at sea, Susan dives to take some photographs, but is attacked by a huge shark: however, she is saved by a Zombie who unexpectedly appears out of the depths of the ocean. In the meantime, on a Matul Island, in the Antilles, Professor Menard is carrying out strange experiments. What follows in the Caribbean and later in New York is terrifying – ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS are here!!
The synopsis on the original VHS box is so long and boring, it is a genuine wonder how potential punters in the early eighties did not simply put the video down, or fall asleep. Or both.
Those that managed to wake up and buy the thing made the right decision. Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Zombi 2 is one of the definitive movies of the Video Nasties era and considered one of the best (if not the best) work by Lucio Fulci.
Starting life as a script written by Dardano Sacchetti, in the summer of 1978, one of Fulci’s most famous gore epics was not intended to be directed by him at first. Other Italian directing legends, Enzo Castellari and Umberto Lenzi, had originally been rumoured to be in the director’s seat. Fulci came on board, later, following a couple of name changes that would see Sacchetti’s story being retitled Nightmare Island then Zombi 2 – based on the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in Italy under the title Zombi.
The movie itself begins with violence, and it continues throughout. With a shopping list of gore effects to tick off during proceedings, the viewer is treated to point-blank gunshot blasts to heads, throat ripping, blood spraying, eye gouging, and gut munching. The intensity with which they happen, and their cinematic qualities, proves gratuitous in nature and unflinching. Lucio gives this work an aesthetic that had been unseen in zombie cinema at this time. While Dawn of the Dead before it had bloodshed and a gritty nature, they were presented in a slightly subdued manner. Romero proffered a deeper meaning that cast a critical eye on consumerism.
Fulci, however, does not go as deep with the subject matter and context. Instead, he batters viewers over the head with sheer violence. In a way, proffering so much gore and so many grisly deaths, creates a zombie flick that threatens to be as mindless as the consumerism that Romero saw evident during the time of his masterpiece. The zombies have different appearances, too. Romero’s are mainly blank-eyed actors with pale make up, while Fulci’s are rotting, disgusting, and look as if they are genuinely the walking dead.
It would be this excessive (and rather realistic, at times) gore that irked the BBFC at the time. The movie had already been cut when it was first released in the United Kingdom back in 1980 but when it made its way to VHS – where anyone could rent or buy it – the blood and flesh eating that did remain became cause for concern, despite being deemed suitable years earlier. VIPCO would tout this on every Zombie Flesh Eaters release from the early nineties onwards. As well as this, VIPCO would slap big eye-catching banners on the boxes, proclaiming a release to be the ‘EXTREME VERSION’ or ‘STRONG UNCUT’ regardless of any actual cut.
When censorship laws in the United Kingdom began to mellow by the late nineties, and the moral panic over ‘video sadism’ had faded/become ignored, ZFE was reissued with fewer edits – although a full actual uncut edition did not see the light of day until 2005. Uncharacteristically of VIPCO, they slipped up when it came to this title being given a DVD release; Mike was ‘too busy’ (his words) to renew the rights on ZFE.
Zombi 2 benefits from the strength of its main actors. In other words, the feature holds its own away from the gory glory. Tisa Farrow, who was about to enter a series of well-known exploitation cinema roles that would mark the end of her career, earns herself praise in her performance as Anne. It is a shame Farrow would retire so shortly after this, although her post-cinema profession as a nurse is a career she no doubt found to be much more rewarding.
Fans are also treated to horror flick stalwarts Al Cliver and Ian McCulloch. Cliver had appeared in many a Fulci work and his presence in this film is welcomed. McCulloch, who was an established British television actor, with some film experience by this point in his career, is serious if a little hammy here, but gives a credible and memorable performance as Peter. He followed this role up with other, hammy-yet-serious turns in Zombi Holocaust aka Doctor Butcher, M.D. (1980) and Contamination (1980). Out of those three flicks, it is his talents in ZFE which are most superior. McCulloch would work in the realms of horror and exploitation cinema until he returned to the relatively normal world of British television, several years later.
Of course, ZFE is enhanced by the ever-capable skills of the Italian musician and composer Fabio Frizzi. The legendary Italian composer delivers the goods with his score for this feature, and has stated that he (strangely) found inspiration from The Beatles. He is also another long-time Fulci collaborator.
Zombi 2 would be followed by Zombi 3 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters II that was part-directed by Lucio Fulci. This, in turn, would then see various films related to each other (or not) being labelled as Zombi sequels.
ZFE is one of the titles that, alongside Cannibal Ferox (1981), Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Driller Killer (1979), would be most closely linked with the moral panic of the early- to mid-eighties in Britain which led to the Video Recordings Act 1984 and the BBFC excessively censoring films. The now iconic sleeve of the green mangy hand grasping from a grave is an image that is forever linked with everything that era of exploitation film means to British fans; for some, it is a strange, morbid reminder of their childhood (which is the case for me) or coming of age. The power ZFE had is not to be underestimated, certainly not in the case of VIPCO. Not the best movie to be featured within the company’s catalogue, but it is undoubtedly the title that provided the greatest momentum for the firm, helping them move towards forming their identity. It made Mike very rich indeed.
As can be seen at the beginning of this section, the VIPCO synopsis is tediously long and moribund. When re-released in the early nineties, it got worse as Mike decided more was needed to sell the tape. This starts off with a doubtful claim about it having never been available before, and the addition of widescreen. It reads (errors included): ‘For the first time ever on video you can enjoy the full atmosphere and excitement of Lucio Fulci’s Classic zombie movie, ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS – shot in super wide Cinemascope and presented here in its original screen ratio. There’s never been a fully ‘Widescreen’ version of a horror movie let alone one previously banned! Here for the first time is ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS in all its widescreen gory glory!’
No mention though that this was the personal favourite (out of all the titles VIPCO would release) of owner Mike. This fact could help explain the company’s fondness for ZFE and the money grab retitling of other zombie flicks that VIPCO would later do. Fulci’s zombie epic was the biggest-earning title VIPCO would have by quite some margin. The firm would reorder thousands of copies, every month, at one point.
Barrie Gold of S Gold & Sons, VIPCO’s distributor, nearly passed on handling the title for Mike. “When Mike asked if I would help with his first horror film – Zombie Flesh Eaters – I said I would do it, but only if he took back all the stock of those four other movies he got off Michael Myers that we were still stuck with!” Those four titles were the initial tapes VIPCO sold at launch and, thankfully, Mike agreed with Barrie’s demand and ZFE would be sold in the UK!
Producer and horror historian Marc Morris cites the sale of ZFE as the best thing VIPCO did for genre fans in this country. His sentiments are shared by this writer. If Mike and his now defunct company are to be remembered for one thing, it is for bringing Fulci’s epic to British shores. Everything else is a distant second.
The movie has since been released on DVD and Blu-ray several times in the UK and the world over. Its impact on horror cinema as a whole cannot be underestimated; the feature retains its power 40 years later.
Zombie Flesh Eaters was released in the UK by VIPCO. Learn all about this extraordinary company and its founder – Mike Lee – in the book Video Nasty Mayhem: The Inside Story of VIPCO from James Simpson.