ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS
Calum Waddell bites into the behind- the- scenes trauma of Italian horror’s most menacing monster movie…
Your jaw will fall off as you read what went on behind the scenes of this infamous video nasty.
Good old Lucio Fulci.
Once a byword for irredeemable, tabloid-troubling VHS- era sleaze, the grand old man of gore – who passed away in 1996 – has since garnered a late- in- the- day appreciation that has resulted in many of his movies being reevaluated as legitimate genre classics. Take
Zombie Flesh Eaters. Despite being conceived and marketed as a George Romero cash- in ( Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead was released in Italy as Zombi, so Fulci’s film slipped out as
Zombi 2), many critics and fans now argue that this distinctly Euro- splatter twist on walking- corpse terror has a unique identity of its own. Indeed, whereas Romero’s film is awash with metaphors of capitalism and consumerism, Fulci’s work is far more escapist and fantastical – rooted in old voodoo pulp with a comic book story of a Mediterranean island under siege from a number of meat- munching corpses. Heading the fight to stay alive under tropical duress, and the threat of being eaten alive, is a Scottish journalist ( Ian McCulloch), a woman searching for her scientist father ( Tisa Farrow), a marooned boat captain ( Al Cliver) and an English doctor ( the late, great Richard Johnson). Add to this heady mix a zombie fighting a shark – a sequence later used to advertise Windows 7 of all things – and the momentous, if misogynistic, moment in which a woman has her eyeball punctured by a large shard of wood and you have an unparalleled and ambitious gross- out epic.
“The cast and crew arrived on Santa Domingo without a penny,” Zombie Flesh Eaters star and B- movie veteran Al Cliver tells SFX. “Then the next morning everything was covered and the producers were rich with local currency. None of us knew how. They paid most of us with cash- inhand. It was crazy. I never questioned what was going on! As for me, I was just unsure of what I was even making. I did not even know there had been a Zombi part one!”
In Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cliver is one of three performers who manages to make it to the end credits in ( almost) one piece. Portraying the bearded sailor Brian Hull, who finds
Fulci was ugly and dirty, like a small child eating Nutella
himself drifting off to a hideout awash with intestinal- hungry hordes, Cliver would go on to act in such later Fulci flicks as The Black Cat ( 1980) and The Beyond ( 1981). Not that this should indicate that pair had any kind of pleasant rapport on the set...
“Shouting was the very minimum,” admits Cliver. “He offended people every single day. He had to have a stupid nickname for everyone – except for Richard Johnson, who was too important for him to upset, and Tisa Farrow who he fell in love with. Everyone else, however, was fair game. Fulci was ugly and dirty, like a small child eating Nutella. He was also a genius, exasperating and very difficult. He soon gave me the nickname ‘ Tufus’, and his reasoning was as follows: whilst Michelangelo had been given Carrara marble to create his masterpieces, the production team had only conceded him a bit of tufa rock from the outskirts of Rome, and from that he had to carve out the semblance of an actor.”
Naturally, no discussion of Zombie Flesh Eaters can possibly take place without some talk of the film’s centrepiece: the aforementioned and much- beloved moment in which a topless scuba diver ( played by Auretta Gay) comes across a peckish tiger shark and an underwater ghoul during the same sea- session. Luckily for her, though, the fearsome- fish and the aquatic living- dead entity have more interest in battling each other. What commences is one of the most amazing moments ever committed to genre celluloid. According to Cliver, though, the real fight was taking place above the water.
“Auretta Gay was an aspiring actress with very little experience and she disappeared soon after Zombie Flesh Eaters,” recalls the actor – who portrays her boyfriend in the film. “I cannot say I blame her for not chasing her film career after the way Lucio Fulci treated her. You see, Lucio had no time for anyone who was not a ‘ real’ performer and he was generally sadistic towards women anyway. Auretta had just been cast because she was pretty and she had a nice body for her nude scenes. They took this beautiful, but naive, young lady from Rome and flew her out to the Caribbean so she was awestruck. The first day she fell asleep under a tree wearing a tiny thong. It might have been her first time abroad and, of course, she got horribly sunburnt. So she turned up the next morning begging Lucio to do the shark sequence some other time. She was told no so she asked Fulci if she could cover herself with at least the top half of a scuba wet suit – rather than being topless. Fulci nixed that idea with relish: ‘ Miss, seeing as I have no proof of your acting ability, I would prefer at least to take advantage of your physical attributes, which yesterday you were so keen to show off.’ The other drawback was that Ms Gay couldn’t swim. Fulci could have shot the scene near the shore, pointing the camera towards
the horizon. Instead, he declared: ‘ Let’s go off shore!’ The production was in no way worried about the actress’s safety, of course, but she was pleading with him to give her a break.”
Not that Fulci, who was then 52 years old and largely struggling to cement himself as a filmmaker of any commercial standing, would have any of it…
“She cried and she was shaking,” continues Cliver. “She said, ‘ I am really not capable of doing this,’ and Fulci exploded and said, ‘ I do not know what producer you had sex with in order to be on this film but if you do not get in the water I am firing you from this movie and getting any good- looking local lady to take your spot because even they will be able to act better than you! You are nothing! You are useless! You can even find your own flight home!’ So she agreed, finally, and they got the scene done – but when she dove into the water, she asked that I was there to catch her along with some of the crew. Fulci was relishing her tears so much, though, he made her dive into the ocean six times in a row – despite the fact the first take was fine. She was also hurting because when she put on her oxygen tank it cut at her skin which was already torn with the sun. To make matters worse she had to be in the water with a shark. It was a nightmare for her. She was terrified of Lucio; she just wanted to go home after that.”
Curiously, though, Fulci had nothing but respect for the film’s other female star – Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia.
“The only woman that Fulci loved was Tisa Farrow,” maintains Cliver. “He adored her. I do not know why he worshipped her – sure, she was pretty, but so was Auretta. I guess maybe it was because she was a bit of a hippy; she didn’t want for anything and just had an easy- going charm. Every time it was our lunch break she had her food brought to her by the crew – on Lucio’s demand. He would get the workers to perch a hammock up for her and give her a fan. Fulci was crazy about making sure she was comfortable and she never had any complaints about him.”
Ultimately, as Cliver confirms, no one who worked on
Zombie Flesh Eaters thought that they were in the midst of crafting a controversial classic. While the cast was attempting to deal with their hot- tempered director, the man in charge was also unaware that he was making the sort of gore- drenched gem that would scandalise entire countries and also stand the test of time.
“Lucio also did not want to be there,” maintains Cliver. “He thought that this was some low budget horror film that everyone in Italy would laugh at him for making. He was an intellectual and well- read man who wanted to be appreciated for making some kind of critical masterwork. People often ask me, ‘ Al, why do the zombies move so slow in that movie?’ I tell them, ‘ It’s because it meant they could be on the screen for longer because Fulci hardly had a dime to make this film with!’ When we shot the ending, where Ian and Tisa and I are firing at the zombies in the barn, it was done in one evening and with very little resources. Then Fulci called ‘ cut’ and I think he was as relieved as anyone that it was all done. Not one of us believed it was going to be a blockbuster or anything.’
Yet, a “blockbuster” it most certainly was. Released in the USA as Zombie ( with the evocative tagline “We Are Going to Eat You”), the film not only ended up splashed on the front cover of Fangoria magazine but it also introduced a new generation to the thrills of Italian horror. Perhaps even more than Dario Argento, Fulci would become one of the first fright- film icons of the VHS age – especially when Zombie Flesh Eaters was banned in the UK and demonised by the likes of Mary Whitehouse. Years later, however, it’s cemented itself as one of cinema’s most malevolent, and stylish, splatter sickies…
“Lucio died just as his work was beginning to be understood,” laments Cliver. “He would call me towards the end of his life and he would say, ‘ Tufus, how are you?’ and he would be depressed. He would say, ‘ Do you know that in the UK and the USA they call me a legend? But here in Rome I am nobody.’ I would say, ‘ Try not to worry about it, Lucio. No great artist is appreciated in their lifetime.’ And I guess I was correct…”
The dead walked especially slowly to pad the film out!
And for starters they’d had prawn cocktails. Protecting Mia Farrow’s sister… Clearly not advocates of a vegan diet.
The eye has it: ocular horror that helped get the film on the nasties list.
Zombie vs shark – you wouldn’t get this in Coronation Street.
You’d think swimming would have kept him in better shape!