One of the main reasons we don’t tend to review well-known films here is there’s plenty of very smart people who’ve already written about them, and we can be compared unfavourably to at least some of those writers. No-one with half an ounce of sense would choose to watch, for instance, “Witchcraft” past part 1, so we’ve got a great deal less competition there. “Zombie Flesh Eaters” is pretty famous, and is no doubt in a bunch of “best zombie movies ever” books, so even though I hope my words entertain, you might have read something similar before. But I’m also a completist, so to get to the Mattei / Fragasso made, almost certainly terrible, later instalments in the “Zombi” series, we have to do this.
I did spend the first ten minutes absolutely convinced I’d seen this before, but it turns out it was just incredibly similar to the beginning of “Contamination”, with an abandoned ship full of badness drifting into New York harbour; as they were both released the same year, plagiarism is possible, but I think it’s just a very large coincidence. The small sailboat here has a zombie on board, having a nice sleep apparently, because he doesn’t move til a Harbour Patrol officer boards and starts looking round. So the officer gets bitten, the zombie falls into the harbour, but these people are just the zombie-filled cold open to ease us into a zombie-free act 1 (damn you, old Italian zombie movies, and your leisurely opening pace). Fun, though! Great zombie makeup, tons of crazily red blood, enthusiastic thumbs up so far.
The cast is a fine bunch. There’s ace investigative reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch), and daughter of the boat owner Anne Bowles (Tisa “sister of Mia” Farrow). They team up and go to the Caribbean to investigate, having found what amounts to a suicide note from her father; while there, they hire the boat of Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay), a couple who were just going on a holiday round the islands. Tracking her father to a clinic on the island, they meet the Doctor, David Menard (Richard Johnson) and his wife Paola (Olga Karlatos); Paola is desperate to get off the island and back to civilization, and drinks to escape the tedium of her life, and David is an angry zealot who’s convinced he can cure the mysterious illness that’s sweeping the island and…turning people into zombies!
First and foremost, and I can’t believe I’ve not just excitedly typed this out twenty times already, a ZOMBIE FIGHTS A SHARK! Unless it’s the world’s greatest model, it’s a real shark too (presumably one of the non-human-eating ones)! After being disturbed in his watery slumber by a nude diving Susan, the zombie gets up and, seeing a shark swimming by, decides to take a bite. Zombie vs shark! Thirty years later and it’d have been a meme, here it’s a surprisingly un-campy scene. That shark looks legit pissed off with the zombie too! The zombie was played by the shark’s trainer, so I guess there was some comfort level there, but it was an absolutely fantastic scene.
There’s another famous scene, which may have helped it on to the “video nasty” list in the UK (the ISCFC is gradually reviewing all those as well, so feel free to follow this link to the “VRA” homepage) – Paola is left at her home while David goes off to look sad at a bunch of dying people, and she eventually gets eaten, but not before she’s dragged eyeball-first onto a piece of broken wood. It still shocks now, so I can only imagine how amazing it must have looked in 1979.
One of the things that sets this apart from its zombie movie brethren is the location filming. As well as actually filming in New York (admittedly, probably only for a day or two), they went to the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo (part of the Dominican Republic) and found the filthiest, most run down locations possible. The broken, knackered hospital; the “main street” of a village; everything other than the doctor’s house has an authentic nature to it that no amount of set dressing could recreate. Although, according to the doctor, the zombie outbreak has only been happening for 3 months, it feels like society passed this place by a long time ago. Oh, apart from the cemetery, which is embarrassingly cheesy, but never mind that.
It’s not perfect. The women are absolutely useless, and it’s really quite frustrating to see them, time and again, stood still, screaming and waiting for their death rather than doing anything about it. I guess it’s a sign of the times more than anything, but it still irritates. And towards the end, despite the fact that David has been shooting the recently dead in the head since the beginning, when everyone meets up and they have to repel the zombie horde, they immediately forget what to do to put one down for good. Seriously, you guys, the chest is no good! Oh, and if I remember to take a screenshot, here’s the bit where zombies try to break down a door by doing a sort of weird pinball thing into it.
But there’s an enormous amount of really good stuff about “Zombie Flesh Eaters”, it’s a genuine horror classic (while not being quite as good as its fake-prequel). The sense of doom that hangs over everything is cleverly manipulated, with credit due to the cinematography. The Caribbean has never looked less idyllic than it does here. Dr David is clearly making no difference at all, but it’s the only thing he knows how to do, and the same can be said for his wife and the rest of the locals who work in the hospital. In fact, David’s character steals the movie for me, despite him being a scumbag to his wife. The music is absolutely perfect (and has almost had a longer life than the movie itself, the composer tours it regularly). The zombie effects are almost as good as they’ve ever been, just filthy and gory and wonderful.
So, absolutely no reservations about putting this right at the very top of the zombie movie pantheon, a shade below “Dawn Of The Dead” maybe (which isn’t just the best zombie movie ever, but probably the greatest horror movie, and one of the most essential movies of the 1970s) but streets ahead of pretty much every other zombie movie we’ve covered here. It’s a straight-ahead blast of horror, no messing, with a real depth to it that so many filmmakers forget.
Rating: enthusiastic thumbs up