Zombie Flesh Eaters & Zombi Holocaust

21st century pop culture is saturated in tales of the living dead with the popularity of zombies as high as ever. TV series The Walking Dead is about to return in a couple of weeks for its ninth season and has proved a major ratings hit since it launched in 2010. Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide has retained its popularity ever since it first appeared on the New York Times Best Seller’s list fifteen years ago. Zombies are out there in websites, graphic novels and video games as well as movies like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Even a string of largely laugh-free duds like Zombies vs Strippers, Cockneys vs Zombies and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies has failed to dampen the public’s fascination with these nightmarish creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

Expect more of this kind of thing in the near future. There’s likely screenwriters out there as I type working on scripts along the lines of Rappers vs Zombies, Reality TV Stars vs Zombies (I know who I’d be cheering on in that one) and maybe even Weegees vs Zombies.

Ian_McCulloch

Glasgow stood in for Philadelphia for thr filming of World War Z but I would say that my hometown’s most valuable contribution to the whole living dead phenomenon were the two movies that Glasgow born actor Ian McCulloch starred in, Zombie Flesh Eaters from 1979 and Zombi Holocaust from 1980.

McCulloch is still likely best known for his role in Survivors, a much talked about BBC post-apocalyptic drama that ran for three seasons from 1975-77.

When the young actor was starting out his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and working with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench, or even at the height of his Survivors fame, I doubt he would have ever guessed that he’d end up playing lead roles in movies where he whacks the living dead on the head with shovels and where zombies fight sharks. Yes, zombies fight sharks!

His career took this very unexpected turn when Survivors proved to be a massive hit in Italy too. He was invited to star in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Zombi 2, supposedly an Italian sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released there under the title Zombi. As I’ve mentioned before on here, Italian copyright law at least around this time was, well, let’s just say a little lax.

In Fulci’s drama McCulloch plays Peter West; a New York based British investigative journalist who is tipped off about a news story involving a boat that’s been found stranded just off Staten Island, apparently abandoned. On this vessel one harbour officer has been devoured by a grotesque zombie, before a fellow officer shot him into the sea, an incident that the police want hushed up.

West teams up with the boat owner’s daughter, Anne Bowles (played by Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia) and the pair travel to the Caribbean where Anne’s father had been living to attempt to find out more. On their way they befriend some Americans, who are cruising the area on their boat. Despite reservations owing to local rumours, they agree to locate and take Peter and Anne to the uncharted island of Matoul. Cue several double entendres with McCulloch delivering lines like ‘We’ll find Matoul’. Think about it.

The movie then notches up several gears as one of the Americans Susan (Auretta Gay), decides to don some scuba gear and plunge underwater to take some snaps. How’s this for bad luck: first she encounters a shark – Jaws had been filmed five years before but its impact was still being felt onscreen – and then she is attacked by a zombie, who she fights off by slashing at his face with some coral.

Nope, I didn’t know that zombies could exist underwater either before I witnessed this.

In the moments after her escape, the recovered zombie then embarks on his legendary swedge with the still hungry shark. Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci has called this scene ‘a triumph of the ridiculous’ and I absolutely agree.

Zombie vs Shark

On Matoul, there are even more zombies and West and the others will battle them fiercely. There will be gore. Bucketloads of it.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is a schlocky treat. It’s one of Anne Billson’s favourite zombie movies and when the Arrow’s restored blu-ray came out, the Guardian‘s Phelim O’Neill speculated that it is ‘perhaps the ultimate undead movie.’

I do prefer 28 Day Later and the original Dawn of the Dead myself but this is more fun. Fulci’s zombies look repulsive, with worms and maggots dangling out from their eye sockets and frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi’s synthy score somehow conveys a sense that any attempt to take these zombies on will ultimately be futile.

intermission

Having just completed the shoot of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Ian McCulloch was soon at it again, starring in another Italian horror Zombi Holocaust, directed by Marino Girolami, who styled himself here as Frank Martin. Not the most inspired pseudonym it would have to be said

McCulloch plays Dr Peter Chandler, a character who obviously resembles Peter West. In fact, this film seldom strays from the template of Zombie Flesh Eaters – they even share a number of locations and, notably, both later made Britain’s infamous Video Nasties list.

Again this one opens in NYC, where some ghoul is carrying out a series of mutilations on cadavers stored in a hospital morgue. This, though, is being hushed up as any police involvement would give the hospital ‘a bad name’. And what about the consequences for the hospital authorities if it ever emerged that they had failed to disclose the fact that body parts were being regularly removed from the recently deceased on their premises?

Once again McCulloch teams up with an attractive female, in this case a New York based anthropology expert Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli).

The trail of mutilated corpses points to a connection with a remote and primitive island in the Pacific called Maluku, where it is said that cannibalism is still practised and where Lori lived as a child. Peter organises an expedition there with Lori, his assistant George and George’s pushy journo girlfriend Susan.

Our intrepid outsiders will soon discover that not only is the cannibal hersay true but that the island is also home to a substantial population of zombies.

And not only that, Dr. Obrero, the scientist who Chandler’s team liaise with on their arrival in Maluku is of the demented Dr. Frankenstein type, who hopes to carry out a groundbreaking experiment on Chandler!

There’s nothing as outlandish here as a zombie fighting a shark but again there is gore galore. Chandler obliterating a zombie’s head with a revving motorboat propeller being one of the more gruesome examples of this.

Zombi Holocaust still

Nowadays McCulloch seems to have retired from acting although, being a natural raconteur, he’s always a popular choice for the convention circuit even though the horror genre holds little interest for him. The appeal of taking on his genre work, he’s always been happy to admit, having been more to do with a series of filming locations like New York, Rome and the Lesser Antilles, together with some very generous pay packets and perks.

McCulloch doesn’t appear remotely proud of the three genre horror movies he made – he also appeared in Contamination, an Italian rip-off of Alien – and he believes his acting is awful in them. Saying that, he is even more scathing about some of the lines he was asked to deliver.

If you’re looking for dialogue with the precision of David Mamet, go elsewhere. If characters being obviously dubbed annoys you, go elsewhere. If you require characters always behaving logically then guess what?

If, though, you enjoy seeing zombies and cannibals being bludgeoned to death in ever more inventive ways, then you really should seek out these two movies.

Ian McCulloch, we salute you.

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