Thursday, 31 October 2013

Intro to Horror: Sam on Zombie Flesh Eaters

In this series our writers will be exploring what got them into the horror genre and which films (or books) they would recommend as a grounding in the genre for those who are just beginning their exploration.  First to confess all is AOTD's Film Editor Sam Inglis.

I grew up as a big movie fan from the age of ten or eleven, but came to the horror genre late.  My first interest in horror arose not through movies but through the news.  When the James Bulger case made the headlines it appalled me both because of the crime itself and because the perpetrators turned out to be just a year younger than me, but even aged eleven I could see that blaming a film (Child's Play 3) for the crime was stupid.  This led, over the next few years, to an increasing interest in censorship and the banning of films, which obviously meant horror films.

My parents, however, were pretty strict and though I must have seen a few over the years their ban on my watching unsuitable films was remarkably effective for a long time (and when I did finally begin to secretly overturn it I went to Showgirls first, because that came out on tape when I was 15 and promised a lot of boobs).  I only really began to discover horror films properly when I left home, which also happened to coincide with the beginnings of the biggest liberalisation in BBFC history and the first time release of some of the 'video nasties' that I had heard so much about.

My Intro to Horror

I'm sure I had seen horror films before this one, but Zombie Flesh Eaters (which I initially saw on a slightly cut VHS I got from a second hand shop where I was living in Whitstable) was the first to really make me sit up and take notice of the genre and particularly of its more extreme end which is what I, to some degree, now specialise in.  My interest was piqued by the cover (see left) but also by the fact that the film had been banned and was not, in 1999, yet available in its uncut form in the UK.  Censorship was the initial catalyst for my interest in horror and that interest in censorship and this entry point continue to power my love of the genre to a great degree.

Being able to buy the film was no sure thing.  At 18 I still looked annoyingly young and could easily have passed for about 14 (I mind this less now that I'm 32), so going up to the counter with something with an adult certificate was always a gamble, but the guy at this shop didn't, I suspect, much care how old I was, so getting the film was relatively simple.  I think I had seen a couple of zombie films before, including the original Dawn of the Dead, but I had never warmed to them. This time, however, I was grabbed immediately thanks to the style of Lucio Fulci's filmmaking.

Zombie Flesh Eaters (which also goes by the names Zombie and Zombi 2) opens with a striking image of a corpse being shot in the head, before cutting to a deserted ship floating on the Hudson River.  The scene that unfolds on this ghost ship shows off many of Fulci's strengths.  There is a sense of foreboding as the cops explore the boat, looking for signs of life, along with some nice gross out images, and then a well realised and brutal zombie attack, complete with great effects courtesy of Gianetto DiRossi, one of the great masters of effects make up.

On this first viewing and subsequent watches up to when the Blu Ray came out and revealed for the first time what an incredible looking film Zombie Flesh Eaters really is, I essentially viewed it as a fun piece of gory hokum.  It works brilliantly on this level, and is an ideal gateway drug for someone looking to get into extreme horror (which is something I'll explore further in the second part of this article).  I found it hard to see what people would find all that offensive about the film, what with its ludicrous plot about voodoo zombies eating the inhabitants of a Caribbean island and the tongue in cheek performances of British actors Richard Johnson and Ian McCulloch in the leads it seemed hard to take the gore all that seriously.

Fulci is also, I suspect, winking at the camera at certain points.  In these terms one scene sticks out, in which Auretta Gay goes swimming and encounters a shark, which is then attacked by a zombie.  This scene has no bearing on the plot, seeming instead to exist simply because somebody thought that a scene of a zombie ripping a chunk out of a shark would be cool.  They were right.  It is cool.  All of the effects scenes were cool and if anything the fact that they were sometimes frustratingly incomplete on this VHS meant that I was even more sucked in, even more determined to see the complete versions and dig deeper into this kind of movie.  The most annoying moment came with the famous splinter in the eye gag, which cut away JUST as Olga Karlatos' eye was about to be speared.  In fact this scene works just as well in its censored or its uncensored version.  In the former the horror of that image is left off screen and unimaginable, in the latter it is fully and brilliantly realised in one of the most memorably disgusting images in the video nasties.

My first viewing of Zombie Flesh Eaters was conducted through the fog of the three curses of the VHS era; pan and scan, censorship and poor image quality, but still I could see a real filmmaker at work, someone with technical chops and a real identity and inventiveness behind the camera.  Sure, it's a silly film, but it's executed with verve and style and even when it's a bit rubbish (the dialogue scenes) it's never less than fun and engaging.  I've seen better films – several of them Fulci's  – in the extreme horror genre since, but Zombie Flesh Eaters will always have a special place in my twisted little heart, because it's the movie that started it all for me.

In the next Intro to Horror I'll be recommending 10 essential extreme horror films that can serve as a jumping off point for people who haven't explored it before.

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