Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960)

Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963)

Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Mario Bava's Kill Baby, Kill (1966)

Sergio Martino's The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971)

Luciano Ercoli's Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Duccio Tessari's The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)

Emilio Miraglia's The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)

Peter Newbrook's The Asphyx (1972)

Luciano Ercoli's Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Richard Friedman's Doom Asylum (1972)

Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972)

Emilio Miraglia's The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

Sergio Martino's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

Sergio Martino's Torso (1973)

Alfred Sole's Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Lucio Fulci's The Black Cat (1981)

Juan Piquer Simón's Pieces (1982)

Harry Bromley Davenport's Xtro (1982)

Wayne Berwick's Microwave Massacre (1983)

Joseph S. Cardone's The Slayer (1982)

Stephen King's Firestarter (1984)

Buddy Cooper's The Mutilator (1984)

Larry Stewart's The Initiation (1984)

Steve Miner's House (1985)

Tibor Takacs The Gate (1987)

Ethan Wiley's House II: The Second Story (1987)

Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage (1988)

Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Juan Piquer Simon's Slugs (1988)

James Isaac's The Horror Show (1989)

Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Lewis Abernathy's House IV The Repossession (1992)

Anders Jacobsson's Evil Ed (1995)

Wes Craven's Mind Ripper (1995)

Robert Kurtzman’s Wishmaster (1997)

Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) Retrospective

Zombie (1979) on IMDb

When George A. Romero released his nerve shredding Night of the Living Dead in 1968, little did he know that a slew of copycat “zombie” movies, most of which would originate from Italian shores, would eagerly follow, with an abundance of nightmarish titles, including Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974), all topped with a healthy amount of sexploitation and gore, however, it wouldn’t be until Romero himself, alongside Italy’s Giallo master, Dario Argento, released a follow-up to his 1968 classic, entitled Dawn of the Dead (1978) that perhaps the most well-established of these copycats, Zombie Flesh Eaters, was released upon an unsuspecting audience. Initially appearing in Italian cinemas in August 1979, under the title of Zombi 2, to capitalise on the release of Romero’s Zombi, the film was a financial success, taking $740,000, easily recouping its $490,000 budget. Upon its release in the United States and other territories, including a much maligned release in the United Kingdom, Zombie Flesh Eaters became something of a cult classic, due in part to its notorious battle with the British Board of Film Classification and its horrific scenes of violence, not to mention revitalise the flagging career of renowned director, Lucio Fulci and kick-started the Italian film industry, which up until this point was in fear of dropping into stagnation. It also saw a wealth of zombie movies reappear, with Fulci again at the forefront with his Gates of Hell Trilogy, notably City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House By the Cemetery (1981), as well as a whole host of equally violent “dead” movies from directors Umberto Lenzi, Bruno Mattei and Marino Girolami. But there is no doubt that Zombie Flesh Eaters stands tall, and continues to do so today, and is rightly regarded as a cult classic, and with that in mind, we’ll take a look at the origins of the movie, the outstanding special and make-up effects, and the instantly recognisable soundtrack. The boat can leave now, tell the crew…

Zombie Flesh Eaters begins in New York City, where an abandoned Clipper sails into the Harbour, narrowly avoiding a collision with a ferry. Soon after, the Harbour Patrol is dispatched to investigate this mysterious vessel and are somewhat pleased to discover that she is abandoned. Once aboard, they discover a scene of revulsion as the living quarters are saturated with a mixture of decaying food and clothes, complemented by the buzzing of flies. Upon further investigation, the patrolman discovers a severed hand and is horrified when a bloated creature (Captain Haggerty) bursts from the hold, grabs at his legs and proceeds to tear out his throat, which alerts the patrolman above, who is horrified to witness the creature climbing from the living quarters below, slowly shambling in his direction. In desperation, the patrolman readies his pistol, firing at the creature as it lurches towards him, propelling it overboard.

The Joys of Repulsion: An Appreciation of Zombie Flesh Eaters

News of the attack reaches the local newspaper and roving reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) is offered the assignment by the Editor-in-Chief (Lucio Fulci), who believes a story may be there. Meanwhile, aboard the Clipper, local police officers are investigating, and begin by questioning Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), whose father owned the mysterious boat. Anne states that she hasn’t heard from her father for over three months, since he set of for the Antilles; she appears desperate to learn of his whereabouts. The corpse of the deceased patrolman has been dispatched to the Medical Examiner, where the Coroner (Leslie Thomas) and his assistant, James (James Sampson) perform an autopsy. Their diagnosis, the “death of the poor bastard” was caused by a massive haemorrhage, due to a huge laceration of the jugular, the Coroner suggests that this was down to “one or more bites”, as the autopsy is prepared, the corpse slowly begins to stir.

Later that night, Anne, unconvinced by the police investigation, decides to sneak aboard the Clipper, attempting to uncover the answers of her father’s whereabouts; she quickly sets about searching the vessel for anything that will offer her a clue to his disappearance. However, Peter West, intrigued by the mysterious events, is already aboard, and clamps his hand around Anne’s mouth, to stop her from alerting the Police Officer on the dock. West suggests that the pair should work together and holds aloft a crumpled letter, but indivertibly alerts the officer above. A hastily put together plan gets them both out of a night in the cells. The following morning, West reveals the letter is from Anne’s father, who explains that he has contracted a strange disease and fears for his life; the letter was sent from Matul. West arranges for himself and Anne to fly out to the Dominican Republic to further investigate the disappearance.

Upon arriving in St. Thomas, the pair hires a cab and enquire about a trip of the islands, where they learn of an American couple, Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay), who plan on a cruise, “two months of bathing, fishing and sunshine.” West explains of their desire to find Matul, and despite Brian’s apprehension and warnings of suspicious natives and curses, he and Susan invite them aboard.

Meanwhile, on the Island of Matul, Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson) attempts to raise Guadeloupe One on the radio but with no luck, whilst his wife, Paola (Olga Karlatos) stands anxiously at the door, concern etched across her face. Tensions slowly begin to build between the pair, as Paola insinuates that she is terrified of the Island and wants to leave right away. However, her husband insists that she is tired, which only inflames an already volatile situation, resulting in Paola attempting to drink away her fears; she learns that another “specimen” has been discovered, albeit on the other side of the Island. Although this makes little difference to Mrs. Menard, who goads her husband and belittles his achievements as a scientist, insisting that he is no better than a witch doctor, fooling around with superstitions and voodoo rites. Dr. Menard feels that he is becoming ever closer to discovering a cure for the phenomenon, and explains that his work is very important. Paola doesn’t care about research and results; she just wants to leave the Island, fearing that she’ll meet one of her husband’s “zombies.” Menard attempts to reassure his wife but she isn’t convinced. Facing an uphill battle, the doctor sets off for the local Missionary, and asks his groundskeeper to look in his distraught wife from time to time and insists that nobody should be allowed to enter the property.

Out in the beautiful still waters of the Caribbean, Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan are having a hard time locating Matul, “like looking for a needle in a haystack.” The reporter attempts to allay Anne’s fears, boldly stating that they’ll find the Island, however, a concerned Brian warns that both he and Susan are on vacation. As the foursome decide on their next steps, Susan, an amateur underwater photographer, decides that now would be the perfect time to take some snaps, and after donning the relevant equipment, slips into the water, and begins to take photographs. However, she is menaced by a shark and quickly seeks safety, before swimming back to the boat and seeking the help of her shocked companions. Susan heads back down whilst Brain grabs a rifle and fires off several rounds at the shark, which rams into the side of the boat, sending its passengers sprawling. Back underneath the waves, Susan is again menaced by the shark and takes cover amongst the vegetation, but is horrified when she is attacked by a decaying and ragged ghoul, and after a brief struggle, she manages to swim back to the surface, leaving the strange creature to fight it out with the shark. Back onboard, Susan frantically tells of her experience to a captivated but equally surprised audience.

An Eye For An Eye: An Interview with Olga Karlatos

At the Missionary, Dr. Menard, and his Nurse, Clara (Stefania D'Amario) tends to a patient, who isn’t expected to last the night, and suggests that he should be moved and tied down. Lucas (Dakar), Menard’s terrified assistant rambles about the inhabitants of the village leaving, and heading inland, as they fear for their lives. Lucas thinks voodoo is to blame for the commotion, something Dr. Menard finds intolerable. Later that night, Paola, tired and exhausted, steps from the shower and takes pills to help her relax, but she is startled by a strange noise coming from outside the house followed by the slumber of footsteps. With trepidation, she investigates and is relieved to discover nothing untoward, but this is quickly replaced with terror as she realises that something is inside the house with her. She races to the bedroom and quickly throws the door shut but is horrified to find something on the other side is attempting to push through. With her heart racing, Paola holds firm and manages to lock the door, but it appears in vain as the door begins to crack and splinter under the pressure of the assailant. Now desperate, Paola slides a sideboard in front of the door, but a marauding hand quickly grabs her by the hair and slowly pulls her towards a hanging splinter, which impales her eye, leading to a horrific death. 

The next morning, Menard’s Nurse finds the doctor slumped on the beach, a bottle of alcohol at his side. She informs him that Father Matthias (Franco Fantasia) is “one of them”, something that Menard scoffs at, insisting that they have to help him. Back out on the ocean, Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan arrive at the Island of Matul, and discover that the driveshaft has been cracked, they decide to fire off a round of flares, in the hopes that someone will see them and help them in their hour of need, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Lucas, who informs Menard, pointing him in the direction of Catfish Bay.

Whilst the doctor investigates, Lucas and the Nurse prepare several corpses, including that of Father Matthias, for burial, insinuating that two more patients will lose their lives before the night is through. Inside the makeshift hospital, a woman, near death, explains how she buried her husband, but sees him shuffling around in the village. Meanwhile, Dr. Menard finds Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan and drives them to the hospital, explaining the events behind Anne’s father’s (Ugo Bologna) mysterious disappearance and how he became a victim of the disease that had transformed Matul into a “wasteland of terror”, and how he wanted to stay and be of assistance to the doctor. He tells of fantastical tales of voodoo curses, witchdoctors and zombies, something Brian finds ridiculous. Menard disagrees, insisting that he has witnessed the phenomena with his own eyes, “whatever it is, it makes the dead stand up and walk”, he rasps, but he still believes, despite the claims of the superstitious natives, that there is a natural explanation for the phenomena.

Arriving at the hospital, the group is met by a distressed Lucas who informs the doctor of the deterioration of his friend, Fritz (Leo Gavero), who has had an accident. Concerned for the welfare of his wife, Paola, Menard asks the group if they could look in on her, and offers them the Land Rover. Inside the hospital, the doctor tends to the needs of his friend, who insists that he was attacked in the village by one of the “living dead”, and that it is too late, they will all be destroyed. Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan arrive at the Menard’s idyllic cottage on the outskirts of the village and once inside, they are met with a horrific sight of horror and revulsion, as they discover the partially devoured remains of Paola, whist a group of zombies feast on her innards. Revolted and confused, the group quickly retreat but are accosted by two more blood-spattered ghouls, which they dispatch with relative ease and head back to the Land Rover. As they make their way back to the Hospital, a lone zombie wanders into the path of their vehicle, forcing Brian to take decisive action, which unfortunately renders the Land Rover out-of-action, as well as Peter’s ankle, which is shattered in the melee that ensues. With no mode of transport, the foursome must hike back to the hospital on foot, before darkness falls.

Back at the hospital, Menard asks Lucas about his thoughts on the phenomena, but he appears vague, he tells of an interesting premise, “When the earth spit out the dead, they will come back to suck the blood from the living.” Again, Menard scoffs at the very notion that voodoo is to blame; Lucas sarcastically agrees. As Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan make their way through the dense foliage, the reporter drops to the floor, exclaiming that he can go no further, and the group decides to rest amongst a small clearing. Susan suggests that she and Brian will look ahead, hoping that they are nearing the hospital, whilst Peter and Anne rest. As they move to a separate clearing, Brian discovers an old rusty helmet, and upon looking around at their new surroundings, suggests that the area must have been a cemetery for the old Spanish Conquistadores, which makes Susan decidedly unnerved.

Catching their breath, Peter apologises to Anne, who admits she is terrified that they won’t make it off the Island alive, and the pair shares a romantic kiss. Without warning, Anne is grabbed by the hair by a rotting hand, whilst Peter’s already shattered ankle is also wrenched. Brian is alerted by the screams and quickly investigates, leaving a terrified Susan alone, who can only watch on in abject horror as a worm-sodden cadaver (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua) slowly rises from the soil and tears out her throat, leaving her blood-soaked corpse in its wake. Brian arrives, with Peter and Anne in tow, and fires of a couple of rounds with the rifle, which appears to have little effect, until it is forcibly dispatched by Peter, the ghoul’s head crushed underneath the blow of a wooden crucifix. With Susan dead, Peter, Anne and Brian are forced to leave her corpse behind and head back to the hospital, whilst the living dead begin to slowly emerge from their slumber.

As night falls, Peter, Anne and Brian, bloodied and battered from the humidity of the dense vegetation, arrive at the hospital, with several rotting zombies in close proximity, and begin hammering at the door, before a shocked Menard can open the door. Once inside, Peter explains that the dead are coming back to life. As the doctor begins to tend to Peter’s ankle, Brian begins to barricade the doors and windows, allowing for whatever sense of security they can find to keep the dead at bay. Menard enquires about his wife, but the look on the reporter’s face tells him all he needs to know about the situation. Menard remains calm and concise; instead, he tells of his possible reasoning behind the phenomena and gives a scientific explanation of what may have caused it.

With the living dead now attempting to find a way in, Brian desperately tries to rally the group into defending the hospital, using whatever mean necessary, including the use of Molotov cocktails, concocted from kerosene. Menard loads a series of shells into a Shotgun, but before he can use it, he is attacked by the reanimated Fritz, who is then dropped by Brian at the second time of asking. As Lucas and the Nurse are busily preparing the cocktails, another corpse begins to reanimate and immediately attacks a startled Lucas, ripping a chunk of flesh from his arm, who, in turn, attacks the Nurse. With the zombies crashing against the doors of the hospital, and the barricades looking susceptible, Peter and Brian prepare themselves for an undead onslaught whilst Anne fetches more bottles, but she is menaced by the freshly reanimated Lucas, who is eventually killed by Peter. With a final push, the zombies break through the door and advance towards the trio, shuffling and shambling, and a battle of wills begins, with Brian throwing Molotov cocktails in their direction, setting the cadavers on fire, and dropping them with a hail of bullets, finished off with headshots.

With the hospital in danger of becoming a rousing inferno, Peter, Anne and Brian are forced to flee through the rear entrance, dispatching several zombies as they exit the building; however Brian comes into contact with the re-animated corpse of his beloved Susan, who duly takes her pound of flesh out of his arm. Brian begs Peter to release Susan and he accommodates. With Brian seriously wounded, Peter and Anne watch as the makeshift hospital burns and then head for the boat.

The following morning, Peter, Anne and Brian drift away from the Island of Matul, with the driveshaft broken. Brian is clearly suffering with the effects of the attack and passes out unconscious, and dies soon after. With no evidence that this fantastical tale actually occurred at all, Brian is locked in the bilge, as Peter wants to take him back to the States, as he believes that someone may be able to help. The reporter turns on the radio, hoping to find something more cheerful, but both he and Anne are horrified to discover that the disease has spread to New York City, as a radio announcement declares a “State of National Emergency”, an epidemic is gripping the city, zombies are everywhere and the nightmare has only just started. Brian’s reanimated corpse desperately attempts to escape its hold, whilst a line of zombies enter the city, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Origins of Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters

In July 1978, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti penned a screenplay, entitled, “Nightmare Island: Island of the Living Dead”, which was intended to be an adventure movie, albeit featuring hordes of the living dead. Sacchetti was approached by Italian film producer, Gianfranco Couyoumdjian who asked if he would be interested in writing an adventure story based around an iconic Italian comic character, Tex Willer, as Sacchetti explains, “The producer was a dedicated fan of the series, which often involved adventures set within a fantastical environment. In many of these stories, the lead character must battle against a variety of enemies, including an evil scientist and a warlock. Couyoumdjian wanted to see an adventure movie based around these ideals. I had to explain that it wouldn’t be possible to create this kind of scenario; however, I showed my appreciation for the spirit of adventure that was inside these comics, and given my tendency to mix several genres together, by never making a pure police, horror, or adventure movie, but by taking the elements from one genre, and then adding them to another genre, I explained that the real suggestion that the Tex Willer series was making was to take the roots of an adventure movie, and then simply drop them into the setting of a horror movie, and actually, the speculative screenplay that I presented to Couyoumdjian represented the most classic adventure scenario; the open sea, mysterious islands, far and away places, much like Robinson Crusoe or The Island of Doctor Moreau, a faraway island with legends about monsters and voodoo.”

It was around this time that Italian horror director Dario Argento brought George Romero's Dawn of the Dead to the International market. Known in Italy as Zombi: L’alba dei Morti Viventi, Argento, who was a fan of Romero's previous incarnation, Night of the Living Dead (1968), helped to secure financial investment into the project, in exchange for the International Distribution Rights, with the exception of the United Kingdom and Japan. In September 1978, Zombi was released through Titanus Films of Rome, an Italian production company, and made an estimated $1,000,000 in its first six weeks, to this end, the movie was incredibly successful.

As Argento was bringing Dawn of the Dead to a wide-eyed Italian audience, Sacchetti and producer Couyoumdjian were putting the finishing touches to "Nightmare Island", inviting Italian Producer Ugo Tucci and renowned Producer and Distributor Fabrizio De Angelis to help finance the project, as Sacchetti explains, “Although Zombie was filmed in the May of 1979, Romero and Argento, at the time of writing the screenplay, had yet to release their film into theatres, and I had already completed the scenes that would be set in the Caribbean. However, in September, 1978, Argento released Zombi in Italy, and I decided to add two separate scenes; a contrasting beginning to the movie and an ending. I decided to set these scenes in the most hectic and chaotic City in the world, New York, as I wanted to give the impression that the Zombies had overtaken the city. It is important to say, although Zombie was initially conceived as an adventure movie, there are many elements of Giallo, and also the Supernatural. This was the direction that I wanted to take the project. Originally, I wanted to create a mixture of movies, I wanted to create a Giallo atmosphere, with a little murder mystery and an adventure intertwined; I would add the elements of the Supernatural later, with the legends of monsters and voodoo in the Caribbean, as the whole legend of Zombies is completely Caribbean, there are monsters, voodoo, and a certain magic, and this was our main goal.”

With the screenplay all but completed, Producers Couyoumdjian, Tucci, and De Angelis now needed to set about finding someone who could direct. Several names were initially put forward including prolific Italian filmmaker, Joe D'Amato, but it was believed that he wasn't right for the project, suggesting that the director would constantly be tied to erotic cinema. Next, Couyoumdjian suggested Enzo Castellari, famed for directing several spaghetti westerns throughout the 1960's, but he had little or no interest in the horror genre and refused the project, on the basis of a lack of financial funding, however the Italian suggested his fellow compatriot, Lucio Fulci, who, up until this point, had only had a couple of minor successes, most notably A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971), and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972).

In 1977, Fulci released The Psychic, in collaboration with Dardano Sacchetti, as he explains, “I first met Lucio Fulci in 1975, where he was working with Roberto Gianviti, who he had previously worked with on A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, and Don't Torture a Duckling. The project that they were working on was called The Psychic, but the producers felt that the project was stalling, and so, I was sent in, and we completely re-wrote the screenplay. I felt that it was an interesting collaboration between Fulci and me, and many interesting ideas were formed, as I had never worked in this way before. Normally, I would write alone, an idea would form and I would work on it, but with Fulci, it was completely different, as we would meet almost every day, talk about the screenplay, brainstorming new ideas, and discuss how we would use them, how we could build the story together, and I found the whole process very interesting.”

With the script complete and Fulci signed up to direct, actor Ian McCulloch was brought on board, portraying the role of reporter Peter West, and he remembers this period of his career fondly, as he explains, “I worked on a television series called The Survivors, which was such a huge hit in Italy, and Fabrizio De Angelis and Lucio Fulci arranged to bring me from Plymouth to a hotel in Knightsbridge, London, where I met with Fulci and the casting director; all they actually wanted me to do was say yes; it was short and sweet and I signed the contract. I never saw a script until later and once I had said yes, everything followed on very quickly. McCulloch admits that he didn’t quite know what to make of Sacchetti's script at first, stating that he thought it was all rather silly, “My agent called and told me that these weird Italians wanted to see me, that they were doing a film about zombies, and I couldn’t believe that I was being asked to be in it. Once I had received the script, other than Contamination (1980), I thought it was the silliest thing that I had ever read.”

Alongside McCulloch, Richard Johnson was brought in to play the role of Dr. David Menard, resident physician on the mysterious island of Matul, and he has a vastly different experience of the production, including fond memories of the director, “I think I was sitting at home when I received a call from my agent, who asked if I wanted to travel to Santo Dominica and do an Italian zombie film, and, of course, I said yes, because I loved being in Italian movies, and it didn’t matter to me that it was about zombies. I thought that it would be fun to do and it was, but I liked Fulci a lot, his attitude, his enthusiasm, his determination to get the best out of the situation, with the money that was available, the actors and their capabilities, he really wanted to get the best out of them and he was passionate about that, he had a real passion about him.”

Opposite Richard Johnson, Greek born Olga Karlatos was cast as Paola, the long suffering and equally tortured wife of Doctor David Menard, and the actress-turned-lawyer must surely go down in horror movie history, in what can only be described as an extremely painful scene, where she is slowly pulled towards a splinter by the hand of make-up artist extraordinaire, Giannetto De Rossi, her eyeball impaled in gut-inducing close-up nastiness, and then to be eaten by rotting zombies, it’s quite something to behold. Olga Karlatos remembers these scenes, as the casting process, taken from her face, was “an excruciating experience”, both before and after the splinter gag, as she explains, “Even more uncomfortable was the post-splinter days, when I had to live with an eye-patch and undergo hours of make-up and wait around for my scenes to be shot.” Whilst she remembers the extremely cramped conditions and enduring hours of make-up for the zombie disemboweling scene, “I had to lie down on the floor, with one leg drilled through a hole in the floor, hours of make-up for the cut leg and I couldn’t move for the whole day, there were no breaks as the make-up application was so lengthy, and the cramps were killing me.”

Karlatos also states that she has nothing but fond memories of working with director Lucio Fulci, describing him as, “always firm but respectful, demanding and kind, with a light sense of humour”, but it becomes apparent that not everyone saw the Italian “Godfather of Gore” in this way, as I’m sure poor Auretta Gay, who portrayed the role of Susan Barrett, would testify, as Ian McCulloch explains, “My experience with Lucio Fulci was that he was very respectful to both myself and Richard Johnson, but he shouted a lot and it seemed to me that he always had to pick on someone, and in this particular film, he picked on Auretta Gay in a nasty way. Although she was obviously not an actress, she appeared a little out of her depth and nervous, and in a way, Fulci bullied her in this way to try and get the very best out of her that he possibly could, but I thought she was very convincing in her performance.”

It would be almost impossible to talk about Zombie Flesh Eaters without mentioning the extraordinary make-up and special effects that were beautifully crafted by Giannetto De Rossi, Gino De Rossi, Mirella De Rossi and Maurizio Trani, and it is testament to their dedication and guile that these special effects are still extremely effective today. Giannetto De Rossi explains how a lack of funding led to building the perfect zombie, and to give them a look that had never been seen or done before, “I created the effects directly onto the actors using clay, raising the ear, lowering the nose and creating bumps above their eyebrows; I covered their hair with clay, with little clumps, and made them up every day.”

Another scene that stands out for Zombie aficionados, although for far different reasons and often described as “breathtaking” is the notorious Shark vs. Zombie scene. Filming took place near Isla Mujeres in Mexico, and lasted for around three days. Initially, René Cardona Jr. was originally cast to play the Underwater Zombie, but pulled out at the last minute and was replaced by Ramón Bravo, who also happened to be the shark trainer, as De Rossi explains, “The hardest part was finding the shark and waiting for it to take the bait that we had scattered around the boat, but on the second or third night, it bit and we wore him out by making him circle the boat. Once they felt that he was tired enough, they jumped in the water, but they didn’t know when he would wake up and regain his strength. Since we created the zombies the way we did, we covered the clay with a layer of latex, which acted as a containing membrane, and dissolved the clay, which appeared as a halo around the zombie, and it looked great, it was shot very well.”

One of the greatest scenes in the movie has to be Susan’s death scene, incredibly memorable for a variety of reasons, although Al Cliver’s somewhat subdued reaction afterwards leaves a lot to be desired, and actor and stuntman Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, who played the “Worm Zombie” remembers his time with Lucio Fulci and the lengths that Giannetto De Rossi went to, in order to perfect the scene, “Fulci was very well prepared director, a strong character who demanded the maximum from his actors, he would certainly make his presence felt on set, but he was a beautiful person.”

Dell'Acqua admits that he found the make-up process for Zombie Flesh Eaters incredibly tiring, taking anything from one hour for the simple background zombies and almost four hours for the worm zombie, as he explains, “The make-up was applied in the morning and it was very hard, as I had to keep one eye closed for the entire day, the moment before the shoot, the special effects crew would come in with a needle and thread and take a worm at a time and sew it into the eye. Whenever I was underground, some of the worms would come off and try to get into my nostrils and ears, these little worms would fall everywhere, it really wasn’t pleasant.”

Make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi also remembers this particular scene with fondness, and admits that it was a lot of fun, stating, “We bought some maggots, myself and Maurizio Trani threaded these little worms together and attached them with bunches of clay, which was a regular part of the make-up, and these little worms were moving and wriggling all over the place, across the eye and near the nose. At one point, a maggot fell off and tried to crawl up Ottaviano’s nose, but thank goodness, I managed to pull it out in time, it was a fun shoot.”

To bring the vision of screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and director Lucio Fulci to life, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, who had previously worked with Sacchetti and Fulci on The Psychic, was brought on board to photograph the picture. Salvati, whose father, Aldofo, was a key grip in the early days of Italian cinema, would go on to work on several of Fulci’s pictures, including The Black Cat (1981) and The Gates of Hell Trilogy, but he remembers Zombie Flesh Eaters fondly, explaining, “The film was a really wonderful, interesting idea of Lucio Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis and I found out about it when they invited me to participate, I mean, we cinematographers never participate in these early meetings when the movie is getting on its feet, but they wanted me to take part. They saw how our previous collaboration had succeeded and they understood that the film would be a feather in their cap, as they say. When you wear it you say, “We’re doing the right thing, we’re making an Italian Dawn of the Dead, it has to be better than the one made by the Mexican director”, no offense intended toward Romero, and let’s not forget that everything in Zombie Flesh Eaters came straight from the camera, like in other Italian or foreign films of that time, there were no computers, none of the wonderful technology of the past ten or fifteen years existed then. So everything that we filmed came straight from the camera, you have to worry about dust, filters, playing with the lenses, rigging the lights in a certain way, as we couldn’t improve the lighting afterwards and that was true for everyone at the time, not just us. One of the great things about making a film is seeing every single frame that you shot up on the big screen, no one could manipulate them, no one. They could only make the colours warmer or cooler, standard stuff, even back in those days.”

“When I saw the first Zombie Flesh Eaters screen tests, with the characters wearing masks and in full zombie make-up, I started to think about the lighting. Generally, when you film a woman, unless it’s a horror film, which is what we did, you try to make her pleasing to look at, not ugly, both male and female actors. The big screen shouldn’t make you look ugly, but for Zombie Flesh Eaters, we had to light and film fake zombies, people standing around like this, with masks on and all of that wonderful make-up that Giannetto De Rossi did along with the other make-up artists. I tried to light them in the most brutal way possible, to make shadows from below. I lit them from below; we wanted to show they were zombies, born from nothing, from the beyond. I tried, I had a moment as Director of Photography, when I thought, “How can I light them to make them appear even uglier”, and so I used lots of shadows and light, I tried to make lots of shadows, strong shadows, using lighting effects, filters, and telephoto lenses. I advised Lucio to film from a distance and not close up at 10 or 12 feet, we filmed at a distance, zoomed right in onto the main action, so that the other characters in the background were out of focus, and the others approached slowly. You are focused on the primary action, but you glimpse the others out-of-focus, the blurriness lent a certain truth to their ugliness too.”

“The eye scene was, as Lucio explained it to us, in this instance, I asked Lucio, “Can we use three cameras”, because with all of the different cuts, we gave the editors lots of material, because you never know when some imperfection might end up on the film, and so we had one close-up shot, one from above, one with a light shining in the camera, one using a diffuser, we shot everything, and then talking with Giannetto, or with other make-up artists from other films, or with the grips and lighting technicians. We came up with the idea of shooting many, many shots to capture the eye being pierced from this direction, from the right, from above, and if you watch it and count how many shots there are, not even a music video has so many shots; the whole sequence lasts for about a minute. That’s the only way to avoid the imperfections, the things that you shouldn’t see, from the things that should go up on the big screen.”

Another key element of any film, not just a horror film, surely lies with the production designers, think of Hammer Film’s The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula without the opulent sets and stages of Bernard Robinson, they simply wouldn’t be the same picture. The same goes for Zombie Flesh Eaters, although the sets and stages are a world away from Robinson’s, the message remains the same. Production Designer Walter Patriarca, who describes Lucio Fulci as an “intelligent and insane” man, tells us, “With Fulci, you had to discuss everything, because he was very demanding, he was very creative, but open to suggestions. I don’t want to elaborate too much on Fulci here, but I must say he was a smart one, and as an intelligent man, he was in possession of these traits at all times. Someone who is not intelligent starts making stupid objections, and he wasn’t stupid, he didn’t make them. Every once in a while, he’d have crazy ideas, like we all do, but it would be an intelligent insanity.”

“I could talk more about Fulci, but the main subject here is zombies. Well, a zombie is a construction of a character that doesn’t exist; they are the living dead, dressed in rags, whatever is left of their clothes. The colours are grey, or dirty white in general, with some black that is not black anymore, white that is not white anymore. The graves burst open, it’s the witches’ night, the earth from the graves is scattered all around and they are moving, because if they are moving, they are living, but they move like the dead. How does a dead person move? Nobody can say, but it wasn’t like that, it couldn’t be like that, as zombies don’t exist, and so there are only those that are imagined, and so everyone imagines them whichever way they want, and this image has to be transmitted to that gentleman who is sitting in the audience there with his wife.”

“Inside the mission church, it’s rough, empty, with a rough set made with bamboo reeds holding the drapery, thus making kind of private rooms, to convey the idea of some privacy, because the curtains are supposed to protect the beds where the people infected by zombies are laid. Everything is made of wood, clearly, and I mean real wood, with beams supporting the roof to prevent rain from seeping in to keep the roof from falling down. The wooden floor was made of rough planks, because it’s a church, basically, the church of the poor locals where they come to pray, that’s all. As you can see, I think the basic idea behind the inside of the building is quite obvious, and can also be seen from outside, but the interior is more important than the exterior, because the church is just an image used to let the audience know what we are talking about, but it is inside that is the main set. You don’t have to draw the way the mission church would look in such a place, but you have to make a picture of what is happening inside, where you have the dialogue and everything else.”

Whenever we discuss films, whether they be horror, science fiction or fantasy, the score is just as important as the picture on the screen, we can see this example at work in George Lucas’s “Star Wars”, John Williams’s score is instantly recognisable all over the world. Although it’s not a favourable comparison with Zombie Flesh Eaters, Fabio Frizzi’s “iconic” soundtrack instantly brings to mind rotting zombies for thousands of horror aficionados around the world. Indeed, Zombie Flesh Eaters, with its Caribbean-esque woodwind instruments, haunting shrieks and drums, is perhaps just as iconic as the film itself. Frizzi, who also scored several Lucio Fulci pictures, with the exception of The House by the Cemetery, which was scored by Walter Rizzati, was new to the horror genre and admits, “Zombie Flesh Eaters was a weird movie, in the sense that it was the first time that I had entered into this fantasy, horror world, and I remember that the quality of the cast was very strong as well, there was an English actor, Richard Johnson, who played the physician on this island of sick people who seemed, and he was charming, he seemed to be a real character, he really seemed, I don’t know, some sort of Gregory Peck, so to speak. And there were beautiful women, a beautiful story, beautiful New York, it was all very beautiful, and Lucio was unique in this, in my opinion, in the sense that even with a very different budget from that of a big American movie, he still managed to give you a thrill, he managed to give you a real taste.”

“I really appreciate the big difference in the story, in the image, and Fulci always chose his collaborators with care, and so I was flattered when I noticed that he got along well with me. In Zombie Flesh Eaters, music has an important function, obviously, as in each and every movie that is based on suspense, films that develop towards a climax, and the thing that I noticed after watching it again after many years, now I am used to another method, which is the one used today of composing the music to the movie. I noticed Lucio’s extraordinary choices; note my use of the adjective, with regard to locations. The whole first part of the movie, for example, and we’re talking about the New York City Harbour, the river with this boat adrift, the police arrive, and then a zombie bites the first cop. Watching it again, I frankly would have expected some music already building, but that wasn’t the case, as the suspense is mainly provided by the effects, the sirens in the distance, this beautiful day in sunny New York, the skyscrapers in the background, but, the scene itself created the suspense, in the sense that Lucio could afford to tell something really scary.  For example, there is a zombie who jumps out of the closet in the sailboat, today we’d say, “Let’s go for it, let’s give him a big entrance”, but this wasn’t the case, yes, at some point the music comes, but I think it’s more of an effect, it’s not the theme, it’s not something, and so this goes to show how sometimes the greatness of a filmmaker is making brave choices too, he feels that a choice is right, and then maybe that feeling is confirmed in practice.”

It’s easy to see Fabio Frizzi is enthusiastic whenever he talks about Zombie Flesh Eaters or, for that matter, Lucio Fulci, as he continues, “What could be the limitation of these low budget movies? That the visual effects must somehow be captured with goodwill alone, in the sense that if you, for a scene like that of the eye, with Olga Karlatos, I refer to that one which is extraordinary, and this is a really raw scene even now. If you have ten days to shoot it and fifty people working on it, it is one thing, but if you have an hour and a half to shoot it and one really skilled man who produces the effect, you can only shoot the scene once, because then the first eye is gone, and you don’t have a second eye, and so you need to use all of your skills and a bit of luck, basically. Except for the lighting in Fulci’s movies, which I believe was all done by Sergio Salvati, but in the scene with the eye, which could only be shot once, and you see that the eye is unique as well. I have to say, this idea occurred to me, I discussed it with Lucio, and it was subsequently used, and in my opinion, it was very effective and was contrary to my nature, as I’m a romantic, I’m an affectionate person from a music point of view, in that case, I managed to put my foot down, since the scene required me to, and I created a strange overlapping of effects. I have to say that this was born from a “grandma’s recipe”, you put a bit of this and a bit of that, and you see what effect it has, and the effect, honestly, after watching it again, after a really long time, it is truly chilling, even the musical effect is definitely a big accomplice. I’d like to say a few words about the ending, these zombies walking on the streets and the bridge, which is a unique image, in my opinion, together with this musical theme which is familiar to us all by now, we’ve listened to it a few times and learned it, and in short, this makes me a bit proud. Lucio Fulci’s films were definitely, and perhaps even rightly so, treated badly at the beginning, probably because we came from a cinematic tradition of a higher level, meaning Fellini, and others, I mean, Italian movies had had a very noble and very beloved tradition, but Fulci, within this world of B movies, has been elected, has been set apart by real film fans, and there must be some reason for it, and I think it is because of his absolute passion, which comes out in these films. Someone can make, I mean, I’m a musician, and obviously I do it for a living too, I have a family, I have kids and schools are expensive, and even Robert De Niro said it recently, because he has many kids, however, beyond the fact that I’m obviously happy, if any director calls me and tells me, “I’d like to make a movie”, because I clearly live on the money that I earn, if you lose the passion, then it’s over, it’s over. I believe that Lucio Fulci was a tough man, a complicated man, a charming man in some aspects, but hateful in many others, but a great enthusiast of his work, which he was able to do like very few others, in my opinion, because he had this strong passion.”

As we sit down and prepare to watch Zombie Flesh Eaters, we have already looked at several aspects of the picture, from its initial construction to its design, special makeup effects and photography, but we still have lots more to cover, individual stories from the set, many of which you may not of heard before, and also, we’ll share our own thoughts on the film. As Zombie Flesh Eaters begins, we have Richard Johnson’s character, Dr. David Menard, insightfully telling us, “The boat can leave now, tell the crew”, sadly, Johnson died 5th June 2015, aged 87, at the Royal Marsden Hospital, in London. Depending on which version of the movie you have selected, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombi 2 or Zombie will flash up, followed by Fabio Frizzi’s instantly recognisable score, with its Caribbean-esque woodwind instruments and snares, which is abruptly silenced by the sight of a clipper, the “Morning Lady II” drifting into the New York City Harbour, with Gustave Eiffel’s “Statue of Liberty”, a universal symbol of freedom, making a stunning backdrop, it looks incredible.

In many ways, these opening scenes are comparable to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s breathtaking Nosferatu (1922), where Count Orlok, portrayed by Max Schreck, transfers several coffins to a schooner, containing a multitude of rats, which are released by a suspicious crewmember, resulting in several deaths, the desolate schooner then sails into Wisborg Harbour, with only the Count on board. In all honesty, it’s extremely doubtful that Dardano Sacchetti, Elisa Briganti or Lucio Fulci had Nosferatu in mind when first constructing Zombie Flesh Eaters but it’s a nice comparison. It’s also interesting to note, Elisa Briganti is credited with writing the screenplay, when it was actually her husband, Dardano Sacchetti that penned the script. It’s often been thought Sacchetti was going through a bereavement, with the loss of his father, and he didn’t want to be associated with a picture about “the living dead”, but that’s simply not the case, as he explains, “During that period, I was working with De Laurentiis, I had an exclusive contract with him and couldn’t work elsewhere, however, these projects never happened, and I hadn’t written anything for seven or eight months. When I was offered Zombie, I accepted but in order to not take any risks, I signed it under my wife, Elisa Briganti’s name, with whom I had written the story.”

As the “Morning Lady II” drifts through the harbour, almost colliding with a ferry, which in turn alerts the New York Harbour Patrol, Sergio Salvati’s stunning aerial photography captures the scene perfectly, as the cinematographer tells us, “I personally remember shooting the scene from above in a helicopter, I went alone and asked my friend and colleague, Franco Bruni, the camera operator, to film other things below. He was filming shots that Lucio wanted of the boat and I went up in the helicopter. You paid $25 for a ride at the time, and they put a strap around you, and the door was open. I went by myself, no assistant, and just shot the scene. I was so excited, as it was my first time in a helicopter. Later, I went several times for other films to shoot night and day scenes above Manhattan; it was a lot of fun. Franco was filming below with Lucio, they filmed below, and I was above in the helicopter. Fabrizio De Angelis took me to the helicopter pad in a taxi and all of that footage was stolen too.”

As with many Italian horror movies, permits and licenses were often seen as an unnecessary burden on the filmmakers and to that end, Zombie Flesh Eaters was no different. In fact, Ian McCulloch, who plays British reporter Peter West, went to the American Embassy to apply for a visa, he explains, “They asked what I was doing in New York and I said I was doing a film for Variety Films, but they said they have no record of Variety Films working in the City and that I should go back and check with the film company who said, “You shouldn’t have told them that you were working” and so, I went back the next day and said, “Actually I’m not working in New York, I’m going through New York on the way to the Caribbean” and the lady said, “Mr. McCulloch, we’re not fucking stupid” and she wrote in my passport, “Will not work in any shape or form.”

McCulloch’s “tale” brings us nicely to our next scene, the New York Harbour Patrolmen boarding the mysterious clipper, the aforementioned scenes have created a feeling of angst and suspense, Fulci has spent a great deal of time creating a foreboding atmosphere, a sense of unease in the viewer, if you will. As the Harbour Patrolmen prepare to board the clipper, it has often been stated that Variety Films hired several real Policemen, so to scale back on production costs. Although this may indeed be the case, it seems highly unlikely, given the fact Variety Films insistence on not applying for permits and licenses to actually film in the City of New York and so to shine a spotlight on themselves, with the hiring of real policemen seems a little far-fetched, but again, who knows, it wouldn’t surprise me, but it’s doubtful.  

Once the patrolman steps inside the clipper, we are immediately faced with a scene of revulsion and disgust, rotten food, flies buzzing around, entwined with Fabio Frizzi’s bubbling synthesizer. We share the patrolman’s horror as he searches the cabin; the removal of a sheet reveals a human hand. This scene leads us to the first set piece of Zombie Flesh Eaters, as a bloated creature bursts from the hold, grabs at the patrolman’s legs and tears out his throat. The “bloated creature” is portrayed by Captain Haggarty, an actor from New York who had a passion for dogs, setting up his own dog training facility in the City. There is a story attached to Captain Haggarty, who sadly passed away in 2006, in that the actor walked into CBGB’s (Country, Bluegrass and Blues) in Manhattan's East Village, in full Zombie makeup, where he was barely noticed due to the outrageous punk styles of the day.

As this scene unfolds, with the “bloated creature” slowly climbing to the upper echelons of the clipper, and menacing the second patrolman, who fires several shots into the antagonist, propelling it overboard, we are a world away from George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, in that Lucio Fulci’s Zombies, or “walking flowerpots” as he described them at the time, are physically repulsive, rotting and caked in blood, whereas Romero’s Zombies often looked dull in appearance, grey in colour, a tone chosen by special effects wizard Tom Savini, since Night of the Living Dead (1968) was in black and white and the skin tones for the Zombies wasn’t depicted. Savini later admitted this was a mistake as many of the Zombies in Dawn of the Dead appeared blue on film.

It is also important to note that the “bloated creature” depicted in the film was to make a final appearance shortly after being propelled overboard, as Dardano Sacchetti’s script reveals, “A turbulence on the water’s surface, followed by a sudden bubbling, a dark, slimy hulk slowly emerges, dripping water and mud, it is the gigantic negro who killed the Coast Guardian. The bullet holes in his body are still visible. He staggers onto the beach and starts across it, his dragging feet leaving a wet furrow in the sand, moving towards the City, which is outlined and twinkling in the distance ahead of him. The City’s skyline is gradually blocked out by the negro’s massive back as he trudges on, and the general sensation is that of some ghastly and imminent threat.”

Moving forwards, we find ourselves at a newspaper office in New York City, where the Editor-in-Chief, played by the film’s director, Lucio Fulci, asks Ian McCulloch’s character, Peter West, to investigate the mysterious events at the docks. These scenes took place in a real newspaper office, as McCulloch explains, “it’s typical in the way that they did some of this film, I don’t think they had permission from anyone other than the janitor to go into the building and you can see just how much space we were taking up, it’s almost like the whole floor. Actually, we went onto another floor and into an office, and there was this huge meeting going on, and although I may be wrong, I feel in my mind that this meeting was being chaired by Rupert Murdoch. The door opened and all of these Italian actors and crew pushed their way in, and Murdoch turned around and said, “Who the fuck are you? Fuck off!” I believe the janitor was sacked as a result of us doing this without permission.”

Whether this particular apocryphal tale is true or not, one can’t say, however, the fact that the scene takes place in a real newspaper office does actually give it some credence. Originally, McCulloch’s character was to be an American reporter, as stated in Dardano Sacchetti’s script, however, the actor wasn’t confident of pulling off an American accent and suggested to Lucio Fulci that he would be far more comfortable playing an Englishman, to which the director shrugged and agreed. It’s also interesting to note Lucio Fulci’s role in this picture, here we see him playing the Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper corporation, whereas in future films, such as City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and Aenigma (1986), he can be seen playing a pathologist, a doctor, a town clerk and a police inspector. What is also noteworthy, Fulci’s cameos were always characters of some importance, figures of authority, not to be looked down upon or sneered at. Some critics argue the fact that this figure of authority was how Lucio Fulci saw himself on the set of his films; I believe that there may be some truth in that.

Ian McCulloch recalls that he never received a proper script for the film until he arrived in Italy, and was offered the role of Peter West due to the international success of a BBC television series called Survivors, in which McCulloch featured as Greg Preston. At the time, Survivors was a smash hit in Europe and particularly in Italy, where he was noticed by producer Ugo Tucci, who immediately invited the actor to come to London for a meeting with director Lucio Fulci and Antonio Mazza, who oversaw the production and casting, McCulloch tells the story, “The first meeting that I had with them took place in a hotel in Knightsbridge, London, where I was doing this play. Variety Films then flew me up from Plymouth to London to meet with Lucio Fulci and Antonio Mazza. On the way up, my then girlfriend, who later became my wife arranged to meet me at the airport and she brought a dog with her which had been bitten by a wasp and was, to all extent and purposes, dead and so, at the airport, we had to go looking for a vet and it took us about two hours to find one, near Gatwick Airport. I then went off and had to go to my flat to change, and then I had to go to the hotel and so I was around two and a half hours late for the meeting in this hotel. The two of them were there, we had some supper and we talked. However, neither of them, it seemed to me, spoke the most fantastic English and so it was a fairly quiet evening and as far as I was aware, all they wanted me to do was to say yes. They just wanted to see me, see if I was tall enough and still young enough, as the series that had got me the part, The Survivors, was previous, and I had finished it. But I more or less looked the same, and I could speak and looked reasonable, and that was it, it was short and sweet, and I signed the contract, which eventually came through to me with the script, which I also hadn’t seen. And then the various directions as to where I was supposed to go, to New York and from then on, it was just like a roller coaster, once I had said yes, everything sort of followed on very quickly.”

At the docks, officers from the New York Police Department are aboard the Morning Lady II, where they are questioning Anne Bowles, whose father owned the vessel. Anne is portrayed by Tisa Farrow, who is, of course the sister of Mia Farrow, and it’s safe to say that Mia has had a more successful acting career than Tisa, featuring in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and, more recently, The Omen (2006) where she played housekeeper Mrs. Baylock, in a remake of Richard Donner’s film, which starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, whereas Tisa’s career practically tailed off after Anthropophagus the Beast (1980) where she played the character Julie. It has been suggested Tisa, who today sees herself as something of a political activist, only featured in Zombie Flesh Eaters because of her role in Alberto De Martino’s Shadows in an Empty Room (1976), playing a character called Julie Foster, as both were distributed by Ambassador Films, however, Ian McCulloch thinks this is highly unlikely, as he felt Tisa wasn’t entirely comfortable being in front of the camera.

We now head to the City of New York’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner, where the corpse of the patrolman has been delivered for analysis, with Leslie Thomas playing the lead Examiner and James Sampson, his assistant. Fulci aficionados will instantly recognise Sampson as a member of the Great Teresa’s séance in City of the Living Dead (1980), and as an uncredited cop in Joe D'Amato’s Halloween imitation, Absurd (1981), whilst Zombie Flesh Eaters was Leslie Thomas’ first cinematic appearance. What is interesting about this particular scene is a foreboding threat, and although this threat doesn’t materialise until the conclusion of the picture, it is still very real. The Coroner and his assistant determine the “death of the poor bastard” was caused by a massive haemorrhage, due to a huge laceration of the jugular, suggesting this was caused by “one or more bites.” We then witness the patrolman’s corpse slowly stirring, and this hints that New York City will soon be awash with the living dead. However, it simply doesn’t materialise and we cut to another scene, leaving the viewer to imagine the forthcoming invasion of the dead.

Following the scene with the Chief Medical Examiner, we return to the docks, where the Morning Lady II is being moored, a policeman stands watch. Whilst aboard the vessel, Anne Bowles and Peter West search for answers to the disappearance of Anne’s father. Although Lucio Fulci was renowned for being a screamer and a bully, Ian McCulloch admits he found the director to be a real craftsman, as he tells us, “I thought he was a school master type of director, a bully who shouted a lot, he wanted his own way. However, he wasn’t rude or unkind to me in any way but he was pretty hard sometimes on some of the girls, but he was a real craftsman. He could put together these films in a magical way and that is the magic of being a film director, taking all of these elements and putting them all together. Cutting from scene to scene, keeping the flow, the narrative going, the highs and lows, and the pace. You tend to find it all a little difficult to see how they are going to do it, but that is obviously what Fulci managed to do, everything is in his head. How is he going to marry one scene into another, what is he going to chop and change, only he knows and he did know what he was going to do, the success of the film just goes to prove that he was absolutely right, that he did know how to make films.”

Zombie Flesh Eaters was filmed in the middle of June and July, 1979, and was literally up on the big screen a month or so later, August 25th, where it premiered to Italian audiences. This is quite simply an astonishing achievement, especially for Editor Vincenzo Tomassi and composer Fabio Frizzi, both of whom were working on elements of the film, days before its release into cinemas. There were two reasons for this achievement, the first being producer Fabrizio De Angelis’ willingness to make a Zombie movie, although it would result in a court battle with Dario Argento, who was bringing George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to Italian screens. According to De Angelis, “a lawsuit was filed against us over the usage of the term, zombie, however, our lawyer, who specialised in cinema, established that the word zombie could be found in an eighteenth century text, and so it was not an original word.”

The second reason for the fast turnaround of Zombie Flesh Eaters would almost certainly have been the summer months, with Italy, in particular, releasing many movies in August or September. Whereas in America, the blockbusters would have a later release, around October, November or December, as the studios often felt the heat of summer would deter many of their customers from visiting the cinema. However, for the smaller studios, the likes of Variety Films, they would see an opportunity to book the larger cinema chains, which in turn would perhaps offer a better line of revenue. Fabrizio De Angelis would have known this to be the case, and being a shrewd exploitation producer; he would have wanted to get Zombie Flesh Eaters released as soon as it was practically possible. If this opportunity was missed, he would almost certainly have to wait until the following year, and in that respect, with the turnover of Italian films being so quick, his film would ultimately be a year out of date, which would have been devastating to not only those involved in the making of the picture, but also to the Italian film industry as a whole.

Moving forward, Peter West has discovered a letter, hidden aboard the clipper, from Anne’s father, in it, he explains how he has contracted a mysterious disease and fears for his life; the letter was sent from the Island of Matul, in the Dominican Republic. West arranges for both he and Anne to fly out to St. Thomas to further investigate the disappearance. Ian McCulloch recalls there was a rather big difference between himself and Tisa Farrow, as he states, “Tisa was very American and I am very British, she was very West Coast, very laid back and I suppose I am very conservative and set in my ways, and we found things particularly, when we eventually got to the Dominican Republic, where we did the majority of our filming; I mean Tisa never stopped talking from the time we got out of the airport to the place where we were staying whereas I preferred to just sit back and look at things as we went by.”

As we previously mentioned in the Analysis of the picture, Zombie Flesh Eaters was a film that practically saved the Italian film industry and kick-started the flagging career of its director, Lucio Fulci, whose last real project, The Psychic, had pretty much bombed, which ultimately left him working on terrible musical reviews for Italian television, and Silver Saddle (1978) aside, which was produced towards the end of the spaghetti western era, a film that also bombed, left Fulci’s fluctuating career floundering. During the early 1970’s, the director had minor hits with A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), both of these films would showcase the traits of Lucio Fulci, as both were renowned for their grisly scenes, and in the case of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, the film contained a scene that was so graphic and realistic, where Florinda Bolkan discovers a room filled with the corpses of several dogs, all of whom have been sliced open, revealing their beating hearts and innards, a scene which ultimately led all the way back to the Italian courts, where Fulci was threatened with a two year prison sentence for obscenity. Only when special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi presented the fake dog props to the court was the case dismissed, however, it remains on record that this was the first time in film history that an effects artist had to prove his work was not real in a court of law.

Lucio Fulci was only considered for “Nightmare Island: Island of the Living Dead” once Enzo Castellari, famed for directing several spaghetti westerns throughout the 1960's, had refused the project, due to a lack of interest in the horror genre, however the Italian suggested Fulci, who had worked with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti on The Psychic, and thus, producers Gianfranco Couyoumdjian, Fabrizio De Angelis and Ugo Tucci were happy to bring Fulci on board to direct. We should also point out that Edmondo Amati, the producer of “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” also recommended Fulci to Fabrizio De Angelis and the deal was done.

Ian McCulloch recalls his time spent in the Lesser Antilles fondly, describing the Island as “a lovely place to be”, however, for the Italian crewmembers, it wasn’t so “lovely”, as McCulloch explains, “Variety Films had booked us in to be staying at a place which was rather like Club Med, the one with lots of little cabins on the beach, an idyllic spot. It was really beautiful, there was no money, the currency was literally shells or bits of wood or something but what terrified all of the Italian crew was the fact that there were all of these little lizards, Geckos everywhere, and what made it worse for them was that every loo seemed to be full of these lizards. If you went to sit down on the loo, there was this funny little lizard running around the base and pan, the Italian crew were so upset about this that they refused to stay there and they moved us all into a hotel.”

On working with Al Cliver, whose real name is Pierluigi Conti, and Auretta Gay, McCulloch remembers the latter was “obviously not an actress,” describing her as a “beautiful girl” however, he recalls that she was very much out of her depth, adding, “She was rather nervous about being asked to do whatever Fulci wanted her to do, and I presumed that she knew that when she signed up, she was going to have to be sort of nude or almost nude, but she looked fantastic, and although she wasn’t an actress, I thought she was really convincing. There are lots of directors who have to have a whipping boy, when they are making films or working in the theatre and in this particular film it was Auretta Gay and metaphorically, this was how Fulci treated her, and in respect, I think he felt that he had to bully her to get the very best out of her.”

Opposite Auretta Gay, Al Cliver played Brian Hull, who McCulloch describes as a “big chap, very clued up to what was happening, very much on the ball.” Cliver, who was born Pierluigi Conti in Alexandria, Egypt, came into the acting business at a relatively young age, as he tells us, “I was discovered when I was 16 years old, where I started working on a few commercials. Afterwards, more offers of work would come in. At the start of my career, I was just interested in making money and working. In Rome, working in the movie industry was big business, but at that young age, it wasn’t something I aspired to do, but later, around the age of 22, I started to become more interested in that side of things.”

As projects began to roll in, Pierluigi Conti, like so many Italian actors before him, was encouraged to choose an American sounding name and in that respect, he chose the name “Al Cleaverland”, he tells us, “During the 1960’s, it wasn’t popular for Italian actors to use their own names, not in a professional manner, this was due to the fact that many Italian movies were made for foreign markets, and in 1974, the first real movie I worked on was The Profiteer, where I played a servant, and the producer Glenn Saxson asked me to find an American friendly name. I wanted something short, easily recognisable so we decided on “Al” like “Al Capone” or “Al Pacino.” For his surname, Pierluigi Conti found inspiration from a surreal source, as he explains, “I was impressed with a death row prisoner, whose name I believe was Grover Cleaverland, in Italian, the 'I' is pronounced “ea” and the name Cliver came from that.”

In all honesty, we couldn’t find any death row prisoner who went by the name Grover Cleaverland, however, we did find a Grover Cleveland who was a Buffalo Sheriff and a future United States President, and one of his duties as Sherriff was to carry out death sentences, a duty he declined to delegate to his assistants, wishing to “assume the weighty responsibility personally,” which ultimately earned him the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman.”

With the film moving to Santa Domingo, in the Lesser Antilles, the majority of the production time was spent on the Island, around a month of a two month shooting schedule, albeit with two or so days spent in New York City, filming the opening and closing scenes. In hindsight, it’s relatively easy to see and understand why Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Richard Johnson, Auretta Gay, Al Cliver and Olga Karlatos would sign up to feature in an Italian zombie film, after all, who wouldn’t want to spend the best part of a month soaking up the sun in the Dominican Republic, learning a few lines and hitting your marks. To that extent, the late Richard Johnson agrees, he told us, “I think I was sitting at home, minding my own business, when my agent called me and said, “Do you want to go to Santo Dominica and do an Italian zombie film”, and I said “Yes”, of course, because I loved being in Italian movies then, and now, and it didn’t matter to me that it was about zombies, I thought it would be fun and it was, that is how I got into it, but why they called me up, why they wanted me to go out and play this doctor, I don’t know.”

It is perhaps apt that we speak of the late Richard Johnson, as he appears in our next scene, attempting to raise contact with Guadeloupe One, without any luck, whilst his wife, Paola, stands anxiously at the door. It is fair to suggest neither Richard Johnson or Ian McCulloch thought Zombie Flesh Eaters would ever see the light of day, presuming the picture would sink without trace, however, both Johnson and McCulloch speak fondly of their time shooting the picture, as the latter tells us, “I suppose a lot of actors, especially the British actors, that were involved in the Italian film industry, and I include myself in this, a lot of us thought that nobody would actually see the film, even if our performances weren’t up to scratch, some people wouldn’t have been bothered as nobody would see it.”

Alongside Richard Johnson’s character, his long suffering on-screen wife, Paola, played by Olga Karlatos, and in a similar vein to both McCulloch and Johnson, the Greek born actress, who today is a lawyer extraordinaire in Bermuda, remembers Lucio Fulci with a fondness, stating “My encounters with Lucio Fulci were on a professional level, however, he was always firm but respectful, both demanding and kind and often had a light touch of humour, even during the most complex situations, this, I thought, was one of his best qualities whilst on the set, especially since many of the scenes in Zombie Flesh Eaters were meant to be really gory, I remember Lucio both as a person and as a director and have fond memories, but I mainly knew him as the man behind the camera, someone who was calling the shots, I didn’t spend time with Lucio outside of the set, but I remember him fondly.”

Olga Karlatos describes the late Richard Johnson as “a seasoned professional, a congenial person”, a description echoed by Ian McCulloch, as he tells us, “Richard was one of my heroes; he had a wonderful theatrical pedigree behind him and had gone from the Royal Shakespeare Company and classical theatre into films. He had done things like The Haunting (1963) and The Monster Club (1981) but he was a tremendous actor and had a tremendous passion, a great voice. He was a great physical force on stage and I thought the greatest thing that he had ever been in was a play he featured in, as Urbaine in John Whiting's The Devils, at London's Aldwych Theatre in February, 1961, with Dorothy Tutin. Richard was a tremendous actor, a wonderful raconteur and what he was exceptionally good at in this film was just ad-libbing, I mean, he could go on for hours, even after Fulci had shouted cut or whatever; Richard would still be going on, ad-libbing about this “wonderful Island of Matul.” I mean, he had an absolute knack for getting the right words out at the right time. Lucio Fulci treated Richard with great respect, he probably had more respect for Richard than he did for anyone else, because Richard knew exactly what to do. This was almost my first film, up until Zombie, I had done an English film called The Ghoul (1975) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) and so this was fairly new territory for me, and especially since I was playing such a prominent part as well, I was hoping for quite a lot of guidance and I was quite happy to stand back and watch Richard, to see what he was doing, which was in reality the absolute minimum, if you watch Richard in this film, he just doesn’t put a foot wrong, he’s neat and concise, he doesn’t waste anything.”

Richard Johnson’s performance as Dr. David Menard points both to his professionalism and his ability to ad-lib, and what makes this particular scene all the more remarkable, Richard Johnson is obviously speaking his lines in English, whilst Olga Karlatos is clearly speaking in Italian. Indeed, Susan Spafford’s dubbing of Mrs. Menard is outstanding. Spafford became something of an “Italian Horror Legend”, voicing several characters, including Sandra in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980), Lori Ridgeway in Marino Girolami’s Zombi Holocaust (1980) and as Margit Evelyn Newton in Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead (1980).

During the making of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Ian McCulloch recalls how many people attempted to speak in English, but found it extremely difficult and “quickly reverted back to their native Italian”, however, both he and Richard Johnson didn’t have any problems in this respect, he states “You just knew that they were going to stop at some time and you were going to say something; I didn’t know what they are saying, I would just wait until their lips stopped moving and then I would come in with my lines.” McCulloch admits to being a little naïve, in regards to the contract he had signed with Variety Films, since he was portraying such a prominent character in Peter West, as he explains, “When I signed up for this film, it stated in my contract that I was going to have a caravan all to myself and I thought that was absolutely wonderful, this had never happened to me before, this was a new world to me. I thought I was going to be spoilt, however, when we arrived in Rome, in a little town called Latina, there was only one caravan and that was for Richard Johnson. Later that night, the caravan was removed; mainly for “economic reasons” as Variety Films put it. Richard was none too pleased and said in an Italian accent, “No carovana di domani, difficile da lavorare”, which roughly translated meant, “No caravan tomorrow, difficult to work”, the caravan was there the very next morning.”

“Once Richard had finished and left the film, the caravan left as well and that was the only time really, that I got angry on set, I said, “Where is the caravan?” and they said that it had gone back to Rome and I said that I needed it, we needed it, what happens if it rains, we have to have somewhere we can all go to and they said, “No, it’s gone, it won’t come back”, I told them that I would be leaving if it didn’t come back and again, they told me that it’s not coming back and I said, “Right, I’m leaving, I’m walking to Rome”, which was around 50 miles away and I actually started walking down and away from the set and they called me back. The set director on this film, a man called Walter Patriarca, a very successful painter, in Italy, as well as doing films, he grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “calmati, calmati”, which means “Calm down”, he said, “You spend a long time in the morgue in Italy, you are a long time dead, it is not worth getting into a state about a caravan; fortunately, the caravan did turn up again.”

As the scene with Richard Johnson and Olga Karlatos unfolds, it becomes blatantly obvious that the matrimonial connection between man and wife is at breaking point, as accusations and mockery become the natural order of this communion. Dr. Menard attempts to calm his wife’s fears, whilst, practically in the same sentence, Mrs. Menard accuses her husband of being nothing more than a witchdoctor. One word that springs to mind during this scene is passion, and Richard Johnson noted the director had that in abundance, “I liked Lucio Fulci a lot, I liked his attitude, his enthusiasm, his determination to get out of the situation of the film, the money that was available, the actors, the capabilities of these actors, he really wanted to get the best that he could out of them and he was passionate about it, I liked his passion, his enthusiasm for the film was brilliant to see.”

As the film progresses, we find ourselves on the beautiful and tranquil still waters of the Caribbean, where Peter, Anne, Brian and Susan are searching for the Island of Matul, “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” Auretta Gay’s character, Susan, a keen underwater photographer, decides that now would be the perfect opportunity to take a dip and grab some snaps, what follows can only be described as astonishing and incredible as Susan is first menaced by a shark, before being attacked by a zombie, and as a terrified Susan escapes, shark and zombie square up, with the latter taking a chunk out of the former, astonishing is indeed the right word for a scene that remains just as formidable as it did when first viewed.

Firstly, we have to remember that Zombie Flesh Eaters is an Italian exploitation romp, and nobody stole scenes like the Italians, no matter what the subject, an Italian copy would be released almost within the year, and in that respect, Zombie Flesh Eaters is no different. This scene, which was included in Dardano Sacchetti’s screenplay, although not to the extent in which we see the finished product, was filmed near Isla Mujeres in Mexico, and Fulci sent his underwater cameraman, Paolo Curto, who was joined by Ramon Bravo, who was working as the shark trainer, and René Cardona Jr., who was cast to play the underwater zombie, however, he didn’t feel confident enough to be in the water with the shark, which isn’t surprising; Ramon Bravo was quickly drafted in. Also present in Mexico was makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi, who remembers the scene fondly, as he explains, “We decided to do this scene to enrich the film, Ramon Bravo was there, and he was an amazing guy, and he had discovered where the sharks sleep, near Isla Mujeres in Mexico. The hardest part was finding the shark. We stayed there for two or three days, waiting for the shark to take the bait that they had scattered around the boat, and on the second or third night, the shark bit, we wore him out by making him circle around the boat, and when they thought that he was tired enough, they got in the water, where Ramon Bravo and his team steered the shark around, they didn’t know when he would wake up and regain his strength.”

It is also worth noting that Steven Spielberg’s classic ocean adventure movie, Jaws (1975) and its subsequent follow up, Jaws 2 (1978) had been released in Italy, where it was titled, “Lo squalo”, and it is quite feasible to suggest these pictures would have been in the mind of Dardano Sacchetti when he penned the script for Zombie in 1978. Makeup artist Maurizio Trani also remembers the scene, albeit for different reasons, and he has an extremely comical tale to tell, as he explains to us, “The day of the scene, we’re in the open sea in Santo Domingo and Auretta Gay had to do her scene, and she doesn’t know how to swim. Fulci found out that she didn’t know how to swim, and consequently, didn’t even want to go in the water, much less with the tank and all of the equipment, she was almost crying, “Ho intenzione di annegare”, she would shout, “I’m going to drown, I’m going to drown”, and Fulci was infuriated. Romano Chessari, who was in charge of the props, was trusted with the task of giving Auretta swimming lessons, and Lucio gives her only two days to learn, “After that, I’ll drown you myself”, he told her, and so, Chessari gives her lessons in a swimming pool. Romano was an expert in the side-stroke, a style used in the Roman Rivers, although it was not much of a style at all, and so, basically, Chessari didn’t know how to swim either. Now the day of filming comes, and although Fulci had only given her two days, Auretta Gay became a fish, which we would never have imagined. They put all of the gear on her, the tank, the mask, and everything else, and began lowering her into the water. Franco Bruni, the camera operator, is holding her hand and telling her not to worry. Lucio Fulci is sitting on the boat watching all of this, and he tells Franco to “let her go”, Bruni lets her go, telling her that Chessari, who had given her the swimming lessons, would be next to her. Now we have Romano in the water with Auretta, but he couldn’t get too close to her or else he would be in the frame, so Bruni lets go of her, we’re in the middle of the ocean, and as soon as he lets her go, she goes down. Chessari, her swimming teacher, he immediately goes to her aid, he grabs hold of her, and she grabs hold of him, but Chessari doesn’t really know how to swim either, all he had done was that side stroke and nothing else, and so Chessari goes down as well, he panics and proceeds to push her away. At this point, the boat’s captain grabs a lifesaver and prepares to throw it out to this poor woman. Fulci is still watching this unfold, he says, “What are these people doing? What is all this?” As the captain is preparing to throw the lifesaver, which, as you know, they are very hard, Al Cliver suddenly dives in to help, since it was all getting serious, and he tries to save Auretta Gay, he leaps into the ocean and grabs her, and whilst he is holding her, the captain throws the lifesaver, which hits Al Cliver on the back of the head, it hit him incredibly hard, to the point where he is on the verge of passing out. So now, we have Chessari, Al Cliver and Auretta Gay in the water, Ian McCulloch is on the upper levels of the boat, he is also watching what is happening and like any good Scotsman, to the sounds of “God Save the Queen”, he leaps into the water, attempting to save everyone, but he ends up smashing face first into Auretta’s oxygen tank, and later needs stitches, he takes the tank square in the face, and now he is bleeding and with all of the others still in the water. After all of this has happened, Fulci turns to me, and I am dying with laughter, I just couldn’t take it anymore, it was a dramatic moment, but I couldn’t stop laughing, Lucio turns to me and says, “This team Cousteau is a piece of crap.”

Whether this “tale” happened the way in which Maurizio Trani tells it remains to be seen, however, Ian McCulloch recalls the situation well, stating “Auretta Gay was a stunningly beautiful girl, and when they were doing the scene, they put all of the kit on her back and I don’t think they quite realised how heavy it was, I don’t think she was a very good swimmer, she may have been beautiful but she wasn’t the world’s greatest swimmer, the equipment that she had on her, I don’t think it was full, and so, instead of keeping her afloat it actually kept her down and so when she went around in the water, there were suddenly cries of “aiutami, aiutami”, which means, “help me, help me”, and I, amongst several other people, had to dive into the water and rescue Auretta, bring her back to the surface and bring her back onto the boat.”

Following the shark attack, the action moves back to the Island of Matul, where we find an exasperated Doctor Menard, alongside Nurse Clara, played by Stefania D'Amario, who also appears in Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) as Jessica Murchison. The Doctor’s superstitious assistant, Lucas, played by the wonderfully enigmatic Dakar, who you should recognise from Marino Girolami’s Zombi Holocaust a.k.a Doctor Butcher, where he plays Donald O'Brien’s henchman Molotto, tells Menard he fears the villagers have fallen under the spell of a witchdoctor, through the practice of Voodoo; he fears “all the devils in hell” have been released onto the Island. If we take a brief look at various voodoo rights and beliefs, and in particular, those that originate from the Greater Antilles Islands, such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, scholars tell us how those that have recently died, from whatever causes, are often physically brought back to life by a bokor, a sorcerer or witchdoctor, an act frowned upon by the houngan, a male priest in Haitian “Vodou”, and equally suppressed by the female equivalent, the mambo. The bokor would keep the soul of the recently deceased under his control, either as a personal slave or a worker, with no will or control of its own, appearing in a state of zombification.   

In all honesty, the definition of the term “zombie” has its roots and traditions firmly placed in Haiti, where Africans were often enslaved and tirelessly worked to the bone in plantation sugar fields. Once they had died, they believed that the voodoo deity Baron Samedi, a Loa of Haitian Vodou and also Louisiana Voodoo, whose appearance would be depicted as a “tall figure, dressed in a top hat, a long black tail coat, dark glasses and cotton plugs in his nostrils. He would resemble a corpse prepared for a burial, whilst he has a skull for a face” would scoop them from their resting place and take their soul back to Africa, where a heavenly afterlife would await them. However, if they happened to offend Baron Samedi, they would forever remain enslaved, even after death had occurred, their plight would be zombification, where their souls would walk the earth for all time, a fate, in many ways, far worse than death for those of a deeply religious nature, however, their souls could ultimately be freed by the use of salt. Many prominent scholars of the day regularly point out how the “zombie” can also be used as a metaphor for Haitian slavery, a practice that originally began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the Island in 1492. 

Although the term “zombie” is a word that we all know and recognise today, the English word “zombi” first appeared in Robert Southy’s A History of Brazil, in 1819, whilst William Buehler Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) and Jungle Ways (1930) were the first books to incorporate both the practices of Satanism and Haitian Vodou, although the author would later suggest that nothing that he had witnessed and participated in could not have a “rational scientific explanation.”

Zombie Flesh Eaters has a notorious cinematic history and this is especially notable with the British Board of Film Classification, who would describe the picture as an “Old fashioned skeletal plot, souped up with spectacularly gory special effects which outdo even Romero’s Zombies.” Upon its release in the United Kingdom on January 2nd 1980, the film almost immediately came under attack by the BBFC’s examiners who recommended Zombie Flesh Eaters be released with an X Certificate and only once several scenes had been trimmed or removed in their entirety. We have already viewed one of these scenes, where the Harbour Patrolman’s throat was ripped out at the beginning of the film, examiners recommended “Reel One: Remove the aftermath of the zombie’s bite to the policeman’s neck on the boat, gaping wound and blood spurts.” And this brings us nicely to our next set piece, the horrific death of Mrs. Menard, which means we are almost half way through the movie. And if you are like me, of a certain age, then this is almost certainly a scene that would have haunted your childhood. In my case, Zombie Flesh Eaters was one of the first “Video Nasties” that I managed to watch, at around six years of age, alongside Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980), I had absolutely no idea what I was watching but I knew right there and then, horror movies would play an important role in shaping my life. 

Zombie Flesh Eaters and the Battle with the BBFC

With Doctor Menard tending to his withering patients at the makeshift hospital, we find his long suffering wife, Paola, played by the wonderfully talented Olga Karlatos at the family home on the Island of Matul, where, after showering, she is menaced by a zombie, “She realises something is inside the house with her and quickly races to the bedroom, barricading the door behind her with a sideboard. Paola manages to lock the door but it appears in vain as it begins to crack and splinter under the pressure of the assailant. A marauding hand breaks through the door and quickly grabs her by the hair, slowly pulling her towards a hanging splinter, which ultimately impales her eye, leading to a horrific death.”

Actress turned lawyer Olga Karlatos recalls this particular scene with a wince, describing it as an “excruciating and uncomfortable experience”, especially when it came to the casting of her face, however, she tells us this pales into comparison when compared with the post splinter days, “I had to live with an eye-patch and underwent hours and hours of make-up, and waiting around for my scenes to be shot.” Gino De Rossi, who worked tirelessly alongside fellow make-up artists Maurizio Trani and Giannetto De Rossi to provide Lucio Fulci with the perfect setup, he tells us how this scene was constructed, “I said to Lucio, look, I’m going to create this head and we’ll switch it out at the last minute, I’ll hold it and slide it onto the splinter. I’ll turn it towards the camera and hopefully something will happen. However, when we came to shoot the scene, Olga Karlatos’s prop head wasn’t finished, we had a lot of work left to do, as these things take time, they have to dry and such. Luckily I had made the actual eye separately with a material that was amazing but it took a long time to dry and of course, on top of that, the head wasn’t ready. We only had one particular section ready and so we had to improvise, we really had to improvise and had to seek things out because we simply didn’t have the materials or the equipment, you have to remember, this was 1978. I then handed this section of the head to Giannetto De Rossi, telling him that I had no idea whether this was going to work or not, but hopefully colour will save us. With Giannetto’s artistic talents, he made this section of the face very well, however, when we arrived on the set and Lucio Fulci saw us carrying this face, and Lucio never forgot anything, but he asked us, “What is this? What is this section? Where is the head?” Giannetto looked totally surprised, and had to tell Lucio that this was a close-up.”    

Gino De Rossi continues, “I created the eye out of Plasticine, Mortician’s wax, as the Americans say, as it’s used for facial reconstruction on dead people; I made the eye and painted the iris on it. Obviously I made the head from a cast of Olga Karlatos and then put some tubes inside; one was filled with egg white and another had blood as the eye doesn’t really produce a lot of blood, and then we pretty much shot it, it went very well and I think it made quite an impression at the time. Giannetto De Rossi, whose hand is pulling Olga Karlatos’s head towards the door, he saw that the splinter was puncturing the eye nicely, and he gave it an extra push with his hand and the eye held nicely, giving the impression that it was really happening.”

One thing is certain in regards to this particular scene, Sergio Salvati’s cinematography is very well executed, under the direction of Lucio Fulci, from the lighting and framing to the terrifying finale, its beautifully crafted but since we are talking about an Italian horror film, this isn’t really that unusual. In the golden era of Italian horror, from 1979 until 1981, directors such as Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Dario Argento often went that extra mile in the gruesomeness seen onscreen. They ultimately knew that this was something their audiences would demand of them and they often delivered with a sickening punch.

As we mentioned earlier, Zombie Flesh Eaters had something of an uncomfortable relationship with the British Board of Film Classification and the scene with Olga Karlatos and in particular, an approaching scene fell foul of the Board’s examiners, with James Ferman, Secretary of the Board, finding the film to be “One of disgust and despair.” The BBFC recommended the removal of the “Splinter of wood pushed into Mrs. Maynard’s eye as the zombie drags her head towards the broken door.” These recommendations were sent to the distributor of the movie in the United Kingdom, Miracle Films with the BBFC adding “It is the shock effects which are the raison d’etre of this type of picture. We have left a considerable amount although the rider is attached that other examiners should see the whole of the cut version and hopefully, they won’t take too many more bites out of it.” In December 1979, Miracle Films duly made these cuts and resubmitted the film, under the title “Zombie Flesh Eaters” to the BBFC, who again made recommendations, most notably that the “Retention of the final aftermath shot of the splinter-in-eye scene spoilt the sequence now that the actual splintering of the eye had been removed; this scene should be removed for continuity aspects.”

Once Brian, Susan, Peter and Anne arrive on the Island of Matul, we have a wonderful speech from Richard Johnson, “Destroying our Island, transforming it into a wasteland of terror”, Menard tells of fantastical tales of witchdoctors, voodoo and zombies, insisting that he has witnessed the phenomena, “Whatever it is, it makes the dead stand up and walk.” You’ll notice that the windscreen of the Landrover has been removed so Cinematographer Sergio Salvati was able to film inside. The scene with the Landrover bumpily driving through the village also appears in Marino Girolami’s Zombi Holocaust as Zombie Flesh Eaters producers Gianfranco Couyoumdjian and Fabrizio De Angelis worked on both films, although “Holocaust” is seen by many to be a far weaker film.

Once our group arrives at the makeshift hospital, Dr. Menard almost immediately dispatches them to the family cottage, where his wife, Paola is alone with only the groundsman for company. Before we reach that particular scene, we have a beautiful shot of one of Lucio Fulci’s “flowerpots”, wandering aimlessly through the village. Giannetto De Rossi’s delivery of red and white clay, although simple and yet very effective, this was a look that hadn’t been achieved before. If we look at Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, in which Giannetto De Rossi also provided the make-up and visual effects, the zombies here are mostly the recently deceased. In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Tom Savini’s corpses are also fresh kills, albeit blue in colour, but Lucio Fulci’s zombies actually look the part, they come from the grave, rotting and decaying and we can see an example of this as we approach the next scene. 

Arriving at the Menard cottage, we have a startling comparison, outside, beautiful greenery, flowers and a blue sky are quickly replaced by a scene of absolute gruesomeness. Inside the cottage, a group of zombies are picking the flesh from the remains of the Doctor’s wife; revulsion and disgust are words that instantly spring to mind. Before the group venture inside, Ian McCulloch’s character, Peter West mentions there is something “fishy” about Menard. This line is completely ad-libbed by the actor, as Richard Johnson had previously worked on Sergio Martino’s Island of the Fishmen (1979) a.k.a Screamers, in which he played Edmond Rackham, alongside Barbara Bach and Claudio Cassinelli.   

As we slowly move inside the cottage, this revulsion and disgust immediately becomes apparent as Brian, Susan, Peter and Anne are faced with a horrific sight, as four zombies feast on the flesh of Paola Menard, all in loving detail. Gino De Rossi recalls this particular scene for numerous reasons, as he tells us, “Lucio always asked me for entrails, brains, intestines, those kinds of things, and fortunately, my wife is a chef. I would ask her to cook these things that would later be inserted into the body, and the zombies would then eat these things. All were completely edible, that was how we made them. The blood and such were also made of edible materials, created with a variety of powders, we managed to get it done and it looks good. However, I have a very delicate stomach; we prepared all of these insides, livers, hearts, animal parts and dressed them with blood. We didn’t use oil or vinegar as we normally would as finances were tight, so we used blood powders. Once the scene was ready for filming, I left the set because I thought I was going to throw up, but this was also the scene where Lucio Fulci would be shouting at the actors, “Eat, Eat”, he would cry, it was gross. As a matter of fact, Lucio would continuously get mad at the extras, because he wanted these things to look real when they were being eaten. Once the scene was finished, they would quickly spit everything out. Lucio filmed these scenes for real as that was how he actually saw it. He would suddenly become very mad, shouting “No people, you have to actually eat these things”, I mean, Lucio was a fantastic character, he would get mad at the smallest thing, maybe because the zombies didn’t walk properly, this was especially true in Santo Domingo, the extras didn’t know how to walk, they weren’t cinema people. And so Lucio would show them how a zombie should walk, he was perfect with his pipe, a zombie with a pipe, all was fantastic but then he would get mad again, he would always get mad at these poor people who were just picked for the scene but had no experience.”

As with Olga Karlatos’s excruciating eye splinter scene, this was also a scene that faced the wrath of James Ferman and the British Board of Film Classification, who suggested the removal of the “zombies chewing on Mrs. Maynard’s limbs and all sight of entrails when others arrive at her house.” After crashing their Land Rover into foliage, Brian, Susan, Peter and Anne struggle onwards, towards the hospital. We have quite a strange scene where Auretta Gay quite literally throws herself at Al Cliver, as the voodoo drums become clearer. It’s probably fair to say that Cliver looks almost nonchalant and uninterested, “Playing a little voodoo on us”, he mutters, we’ll expand on this further in the movie. Back at the makeshift hospital, Richard Johnson and Dakar share a conversation that is straight out of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), “When the earth spit out the dead, they will come back to suck the blood of the living.” Whenever screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti talks about Zombie Flesh Eaters, he often points out that he wasn’t influenced by Romero’s film whilst working on the screenplay; however, we can clearly see that this isn’t entirely true. Ken Foree’s character, Peter Washington utters a similar line, although far more memorable, “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” We can also point to the opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead, where Scott Reiniger and Ken Foree enter the tenement building to find the basement awash with corpses wrapped in white sheets, which they of course begin to systematically clear out.

Back to Zombie Flesh Eaters, Brian and Susan decide to search the clearing and discover they are actually in a Spanish graveyard, “This must have been a cemetery for the old Spanish Conquistadores”, Al Cliver mumbles, again rather nonchalantly, whilst poor Auretta Gay genuinely looks terrified. We have a terrific scene approaching, featuring Ottaviano Dell'Acqua as the aptly named “Worm Zombie”, who would appear alongside his brothers and circus athletes and performers Alberto, Arnaldo and Roberto in the picture as zombies. As Ian McCulloch and Tisa Farrow share a romantic moment, Fabio Frizzi’s wonderful percussional and woodwind instruments tell us something horrific is afoot, and he ain’t wrong. First we have a hand slowly emerging from the soil near Tisa Farrow’s head which then latches on with great strength to her hair, and then another rotting hand takes hold of Ian McCulloch’s twisted ankle, leaving the pair screaming in terror. Of course, Al Cliver quickly runs in the direction of the screams leaving Auretta Gay all by herself, but not for long. Ottaviano Dell'Acqua’s Worm Zombie slowly rises from the earth, in a scene that is very reminiscent of John Gilling’s 1966 Hammer Horror The Plague of the Zombies, although that was in a dream-like state, and Susan’s throat is ripped out, all in loving detail.

Ottaviano Dell'Acqua recalls this particular scene with fondness, as does make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi, Dell'Acqua tells us “My first impression of Lucio Fulci was that he was a very well prepared director, but above all else, he had a very strong character, working with him was not at all easy. He wanted the maximum from an actor; he demanded this from all of the people working on this film. He would never be content with half measures and on set, he would make his presence felt, he had tremendous power as a director, but he was also a beautiful person. Whenever we were doing simple zombies, those for the background, it was usually an hour or so for make-up but when I did the one with the worms in the eye, that was longer, around three or four hours of make-up, usually done in the morning. It was very difficult as I had to keep one eye closed for the entire day, and when there were worms, the eye was closed and when they would take off the make-up in the evening and remove the tissue paper, it would take a little time before my eye would be ok again. When they were preparing the make-up for me and it was time to shoot the scene, the special effects crew would come with a needle and thread and take a worm at a time and sew it into the eye. Sometimes I was underground and sometimes while we were shooting, some of the worms would come off, come down and try to get into my nostrils or my ears and so these little worms would fall off and go everywhere. Some of them would end up in my mouth, and as I remember, it wasn’t pleasant with these worms.”

Giannetto De Rossi remembers this scene for the same reasons as Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, as it was great fun, “Ottaviano was an amazing stuntman and stunt coordinator, he was one of us, from the golden age of Italian cinema and I have to confess, Maurizio Trani and I suggested that we add worms coming out of his eyes and nose. We bought these little maggots, which are used as fishing bait and Maurizio threaded hundreds of little worms together and we then attached them in bunches of clay, this was a regular part of the zombie make-up. We threaded and attached them right over the clay; these little worms were all moving individually, over each eye and near the nose. At one point, a maggot fell off and tried to crawl up Ottaviano’s nose because they liked the humidity but thank goodness I noticed it in time and grabbed it from his nose. Ottaviano couldn’t see anything at all and asked what was going on, I said, “Nothing, you had a fly on you.”

This tremendous scene ends with the decapitation of Worm Zombie at the hands of Ian McCulloch, whose weapon of choice happens to be a wooden cross, very meaty indeed, and as with previous scenes of violence and gore we have talked about, it won’t surprise you to discover that this entire scene also held a particular interest for the British Board of Film Classification who asked Miracle Films to “Remove the close shots of blood pumping from Susan’s neck after the zombie attack in the graveyard”, as well as “Reduce the bashing and decapitation of the zombie with a shovel.” We really can’t leave this scene without looking at Al Cliver’s character Brian Hull and his rather subdued reaction to Susan’s violent death. Here we have a man who, by his own admission is looking forward to a vacation, “Two months of bathing, fishing and sunshine” onboard his boat. He and his fair maiden then discover a couple searching for a mysterious Island; all are then attacked by a shark and marooned on the Island of Matul, where his female companion is attacked and killed by one of the living dead. Brian’s reactions are practically nonexistent, he only manages to mutter “Susan, Susan”, you would have expected some sort of outburst, possibly aimed at Peter or Anne, but there’s nothing at all. And why on earth doesn’t Susan stand up and run? Instead, she is literally frozen to the spot whilst Worm Zombie slowly climbs from the soil, but this is an Italian horror film after all, these kind of things are completely normal. I would actually say that this is not the fault of either Al Cliver or Auretta Gay; it’s simply down to Dardano Sacchetti’s lack of thought when writing the screenplay and Lucio Fulci’s lack of understanding when directing the scene.   

As Brian, Peter and Anne quickly leave Susan and the Spanish graveyard behind, we have another beautifully constructed scene with the zombies coming from the ground. Lucio Fulci’s directive narrative here speaks volumes, as does Sergio Salvati’s cinematography. Again, we have seen this throughout the movie, with Paola Menard’s horrific death and the subsequent discovery of her remains being feasted upon, but it’s this scene that we are watching now that deserves the biggest praise as up until this point, aside from John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies, there hasn’t been a film where the dead climb from their tombs, so in that respect Zombie Flesh Eaters was a trailblazer.

Arriving at the makeshift hospital, Ian McCulloch utters the immortal words, “Outside, their coming back to life, they’re everywhere.” We then have another wonderful montage of the living dead, including Omero Capanna, Patricia Smith and members of the Romanokids, a circus troupe who were performing in the Lesser Antilles at the time of filming. As with any good zombie film, our survivors begin to barricade themselves inside the hospital whilst Richard Johnson attempts to explain the phenomena to Al Cliver, “It all started three months ago when a fisherman said he had seen his wife walking in the village at night. Only she had died two days earlier but nobody believed him, of course. In these Islands, fantastic legends, voodooism, zombies, been rife for centuries. As a man of science, I don’t believe in voodooism but the phenomenon defies a logical explanation. I have attempted to apply the disciplines of bacteriology, virology, even of radiology. We have performed tests, epilepsy and for catalepsy but nothing fits.” Outside, the zombies are banging against the door, attempting to find a way inside. Several scenes here were targeted by the British Board of Film Classification, whose recommendations included the “removal of a zombie being battered with a shovel, remove any sight of the zombie returning for a second chew of Maynard’s face, remove any sight of a zombie biting an arm and the resultant blood spurt, remove close shot of the zombie’s head being blown off through the skylight, remove the sight of a head blown off the burning zombie, remove the close head shots of zombies being battered with rifle butts and reduce to establish only zombie Susan’s cannibalistic attack on Brian.”

Once again, distributors Miracle Films agreed to make the suggested cuts and in December 1979, the film was resubmitted to the BBFC and Zombie Flesh Eaters was awarded the dreaded X certificate. In all, almost two minutes had been trimmed from the final picture. With the film proving to be extremely popular following its release into theatres, despite the previously aforementioned cuts and the home video market beginning to find its feet, the British distribution company, Video Instant Picture Company a.k.a VIPCO, released Zombie Flesh Eaters on VHS Video in the November of 1981.  At this time, there were no legal requirements for distributers to submit home videos to the BBFC for any such classification and to this end, VIPCO did not submit their X rated version of the film, however for whatever reason, they released Zombie Flesh Eaters in its cinematic cut format, complete with its X certificate. In 1982, VIPCO responded to the demand of fans of the film and released a “Strong Uncut” version. Several home video distributors including the likes of Go Video would saturate the market with VHS tapes, many with lurid and colourful sleeves, such as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave a.k.a Day of the Woman (1978). Many of these distributors would ultimately take out full page advertisements in several specialist VHS magazines, where a film would be depicted, often explicitly and in full colour, however these advertisements would backfire spectacularly as numerous complaints fell at the door of the Advertising Standards Agency. Indeed, Go Video, in an effort to boost publicity and generate sales of their products, wrote anonymously to social activist Mary Whitehouse, where they complained about the release of their own film, Cannibal Holocaust. However, this was a move that again backfired on the distributors, as Whitehouse went to war, sparking a public campaign which in turn led to British newspapers such as The Sunday Times and The Daily Mail bringing the issue to a far wider audience with headlines such as “How High Street Horror is Invading the Home” and “Ban Video Sadism Now.” This ultimately coined the phrase “Video Nasty” and often described how children as young as ten years of age were having their “minds raped by something evil from the television set.” One such newspaper described how a young boy had quite literally been possessed by one of these “evil” films. With the horror film industry being attacked from all quarters, Mary Whitehouse, alongside the Daily Mail eventually made their case to the Conservative Government of the day, led by the fearsome Margaret Thatcher and this led to Conservative MP Graham Bright, whose opinion of Video Nasties was the “mutilation of bodies, cannibalism and gang rape” to introduce a Private Members Bill to the House of Commons in 1983. This Bill was ultimately passed as the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which would come into effect on September 1st, 1985.  

With the Video Recordings Act now firmly in place, it would be down to the Obscene Publications Squad, working under the guidance of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 which in itself had only recently been amended in 1977. This Act defined obscenity as that which may “tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances to read, see or hear the material contained or embodied within it.” During the first few months of the Obscene Publications Act, there was absolute chaos, as video stores across the United Kingdom were raided by the Police, under the instruction of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Enforcement officers quite literally grabbed any title that they deemed to be obscene which led to films such as Dolly Parton’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and The Big Red One (1980) featuring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine being removed from the shelves, alongside the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer, much to the annoyance of the distributors and the Video Retailers Association, who were alarmed by these random seizures. The VRA wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions seeking guidance, as to provide clarity for their members, who would be aware of which titles were likely to be withdrawn. In turn, the governing body realised the current system was inconsistent and published a list of titles which contained the names of films that had already been successfully prosecuted or were likely to have charges of obscenity filed against them. This list, containing a total of seventy two titles quickly became known as the Director of Public Prosecutions List of Video Nasties.      

Initially, the Director of Public Prosecutions were wary of releasing the list to the public, but in June 1983, they did so, albeit in a modified format which would see titles added and removed on a month by month basis, depending on the outcome of prosecutions, which rather bizarrely varied from County to County. Films such as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) were dragged through the courts and prosecuted in one County and found not guilty in another which again caused uproar among the members of the Video Retailers Association. In total, seventy two titles appeared on the Director of Public Prosecutions list at one time or another, with thirty nine titles being successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. However, many of these films were then submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, subsequently trimmed and then approved for release. Zombie Flesh Eaters, which was released with almost two minutes of cuts in 1992, was finally released uncut in 2005.  

Zombie Flesh Eaters: The Origins of the Zombie Movie

Ian McCulloch recalls the fallout from the era of the video nasty, as he explains, “My wife’s father is a real life peer, he sits in the House of Lords, as does my wife’s uncle and when this film first came out, it was almost immediately listed as a video nasty and banned in the United Kingdom, you quite literally couldn’t find it anywhere and when I met my wife’s uncle in London, he didn’t look particularly pleased  and when I asked him what he was planning for the day ahead, he replied “I have to do something rather horrid, I have to see a pile of video nasties.” These video nasties had been put together by the Metropolitan Police with a view to banning them outright and the peers were going to have to vote. I said to my wife’s uncle, “You’ll be seeing three of my films, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombi Holocaust and Contamination.” His face dropped and he was looking even sadder then when the conversation first began and he looked straight at me and said, “Oh Ian how could you”, I obviously could and these films have gone on and made millions and millions of dollars."  

As we reach the final scenes of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Brian, Peter and Anne have battled against hordes of the living dead at the makeshift hospital, Richard Johnson’s character, Doctor Menard has succumbed to the phenomena whilst Susan reanimates and takes a chunk of flesh from Brian’s arm, again, we have a rather subdued reaction from Al Cliver’s character, who literally stands there and allows himself to be attacked. Sergio Salvati’s lighting of Auretta Gay in this scene is beautiful and we’ll see similar conditions in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) with Janet Agren’s character, Sandra. The following morning, Peter, Anne and Brian return to the stricken boat where they lock their fatally wounded companion in the hold, as he is literally the only evidence this “nightmare actually took place.” However, after turning on the radio, it quickly becomes obvious that New York City has been taken over by legions of the living dead and Giannetto De Rossi remembers this particular scene well, telling us “The zombies from the Brooklyn Bridge scene, that was a stolen scene, because we could have been arrested. I don’t really know how they managed to do it, as we didn’t have any permits to film in New York and especially on the Brooklyn Bridge. I may be wrong about this as I don’t really remember whether there was a big traffic jam when we were filming this scene and I don’t want to exaggerate but I do remember something happened, because when these drivers saw the zombies on the bridge, they stopped and stared which caused a traffic jam, but whatever, we went there with several buckets of clay, and in around ten or so minutes, we had made up seventy zombies, and of course, you can imagine how they all looked, but it worked because it was a stolen scene. The sunset and these zombies crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, this was the only way we could do it. How else could we have done it, we couldn’t have brought them in already in full make-up because we would have been arrested beforehand. I do know that we got up really early to prepare for this scene, and I can recall whilst we were shooting this scene, some drivers below us were honking their horns and making so much noise. We couldn’t even shoot the scene with any sound, but in the end, we got our shot, and I repeat, always without permits, unfortunately though, that was just how things were done in those days.”   

Overall Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters is a film of timeless proportions, both in terms of its production values, groundbreaking make-up and visual effects and its beautiful locations. Yes there are problems with the film, as there are with any picture, and it’s far from perfect, but what it does do and what it is supposed to do is scare the hell out of the viewer, to leave the viewer feeling extremely satisfied and in that respect, Zombie Flesh Eaters is an incredibly rewarding film, a film that in all honesty probably saved the Italian horror movie industry from stagnation and also set a template for future zombie films from across the wider world, not to mention inspiring several directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro to name but a few, all of whom list Zombie Flesh Eaters among their favourite movies of all time.

©PaoloDeRossi/bloodyhorrific.com

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