Friday, 10 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Had to use the poster iconic to Brits like me

(Aka. Zombi 2)
Dir. Lucio Fulci

The "Godfather of Gore" tag that Lucio Fulci has had over him, which has yet stuck him in the back as Dario Argento or Mario Bava were acclaimed, has never been the thing that led me to view his films. Irritating circumstances mean that a huge amount of his filmography is not available or limited in availability - comedies, westerns, giallos and even a few of his horror films from after his famous period between 1979 and 1982. Three years in a career that started in 1959 is tiny in a filmography that, even if the consistency was variable, might have well been made available in some fashion so a fuller picture of the man was possible. The irony is that Fulci is viewed highly for his horror films, a genre he wasn't that fond of, much more proud of material like his giallos. Yet to scratch through their characters, I've yet seen how vast and more varying the careers of the Italian genre directors of the golden period between the sixties and eighties were. From Sergio Martino to Enzo G. Castellari, Umberto Lenzi to Fulci himself, most of them were proliferate, with the only real exception in Argento, working directors who jumped through genres like studio system directors-for-hire. Far from an insulting term, a director-for-hire as long as they gave the producers what they wanted could sneak or blatantly put in their obsessions and interests into their work. With the Italian cult directors too, they were as obsessed with the spectacle of shooting action sequences or being craftsmen. With Fulci, the gore is part of his trademarks, but not the drawing card contrary to his reputation for me like it would for teenagers and splatter fans. Instead it has always been the atmosphere and mood of his work which transferred over any genre from the movies I've seen of his. Even in a "special" film like A Cat In The Brain (1990).

Many people will know of Zombie Flesh Eaters. Originally called Zombi 2 to cash-in on George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) in Italy, called Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK where it would become a video nasty, with a prolonged history of just being able to get an uncut release. A woman looking for her father (Tisa Farrow) and a reporter (Ian McCulloch) follow the lead of her father's disappearance after a freak incident with an abandoned boat in the New York harbour. Their lead goes to a tropical island in the Caribbean, Matul Island, the potential zombie apocalypse about to take place, a doctor (Richard Johnson) trying to explain the cause scientifically but finding himself with a potentially supernatural phenomenon as the zombies spread on the island. Without spoiling the film for those who haven't seen it, there are many things from the film that have become part of cult cinema history. The music, especially the melancholic and languid main theme, from Giorgio Cascio and Fabio Frizzi. The infamous eye trauma sequence involving a door. A zombie fighting a shark, which really doesn't prepare you for actually seeing the sequence, which everyone should have on their cinematic bucket list to see. Even the gore, though I found it uninteresting on its own, because of how it's used in context with everything else. The film is one of the most well known of the Italian horror films, spawning a tiny boom of Italian zombie films for a year or so, and being financially successful internationally. It's a film that can reach so far in cult pop culture that, while most people in my town may not know of, there is a t-shirt based on the film in a music store there amongst those for bands and Adventure Times, managing to puncture into the mainstream if just through a few quotable images.

Zombies are everywhere. In films. Comic books and manga. Board games. TV. Maybe a breakfast cereal. Definitely zombie erotica, but I've yet to dare explore that area. They are the most peculiar of pop culture fads in that they involve a fandom over a type of monster of folklore, but unlike vampires became popular when the original folklore was abandoned in favour of that created in films. Fulci, who would kick-start his most known period of ultraviolent horror films by how well Zombie Flesh Eaters did, actually crosses the original folklore of Voodoo and almost somnambulist drones with the zombies brought through George Romero's films. The obsession with death, the decay and excessive headshots to zombies is here, but it's through Fulci's trademark of the fluctuation of the body common throughout his films. Even the obvious rubber prosthetic effects add to this mutability of the body he concerned himself over - from life to death, and how the flesh can be remade and moulded through destruction or rot. His take on zombies is vastly different from what zombie films are seen as: fast paced, ADD, getting a shotgun or chainsaw and carving up the living dead on mass to a heavy metal soundtrack. Fulci's film is deliberately paced, an eerie work that, for its gore, is as much about mood. Wide expansive shots of a deserted tropical village, of the New York harbour, images of rotten corpses of conquistadors slowly rising from the grave. It is a film that takes it's time, is not necessarily narrative driven and even the violence is depicted in a sombre mood.

Rather than the adrenaline many zombie based works now, of a genre for a young audience despite the violent content of much of the pop culture, Zombie Flesh Eaters comes from a director whose work is viewed through a nihilistic, misanthropic view of the world. An underrated director of composition and creating mood, it is a film I am becoming more admiring of not from the perspective of the violence, which many become interested in his work for, but for this atmosphere and the illogical tone of his films that caught my interest watching his films for the first time. There are films I hold up as superior to this - The Beyond (1981) which is also one of his most well regarded films, City of the Living Dead (1980) which is my personal favourite, even a film as maligned as Manhattan Baby (1982). But Zombie Flesh Eaters gets stronger as I view it more. Most of the film, once it gets to the island, is of the characters wandering it until they are trapped by the hordes of the dead, as minimalistic as you could get as a narrative, Fulci not someone, though he has made story heavy works, who is concerned with plot as he is with tone. Even in a weak film, his attitude to an unpredictable, free flowing style of narrative is compelling. Here, what eventually makes it a great film, when it reaches the survivors trapped in a church surrounded by zombies, or the final image, breathlessly memorable, back in New York, is that you have a great director taking the material seriously with a tone that lingers in the mind.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
There will be a Lucio Fulci film that will get on the list, maybe a few. This is one of the more conventional films in his filmography so it doesn't fit the requirements.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Personally it's a film that I'm appreciating far more when I see it repeatedly. As for the appropriate film from the director? There's City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, even A Cat In The Brain and plenty of others to cover. The lack of availability of the other genre related works is problematic, knowing full well they might not be as marketable, just for the fact that we miss out the chance to see how Fulci eventually got to the position of a cult horror director many see him as. The chance as well to see how he became as interested in the abstract that would make the films I have seen utterly memorable. 

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