Having watched it, the film seems very different to how people have described it. Rather than a gore-obsessed exploitation film, it's more like a straight-forward adventure/horror flick, with some nasty moments. The film doesn't actually feature the titular zombies for much of the film, as the plot and characters are set up. The acting is actually quite good, obviously not of a million dollar salary standard, but well up on the usual standard of this type of film. There are a couple of exceptions, notably the two police from the opening, and the doctor's wife, who is mercifully killed off before she has time to over-act for long.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with Romero's films (which are far superior), in particular Dawn of the Dead, as this film was made as an unofficial prequel to that film (despite it itself being a sequel to Night of the Living Dead). Lucio Fulci isn't as smart a director as George Romero, and there is none of the symbolism, social commentaries or dark humour Romero displays. However, Fulci is a better "horror" director, managing to create some tension and jumps, rather than Romero's air of constant disturbing feeling that never really rises. Fulci also manages some visual flair, particularly during the gore scenes, while Romero just let the camera linger on the scenes, Fulci plays them with tight editing to increase the effect.
Of course, a large percentage of the people reading this review aren't looking for shocks, but gore. The version of the film I have isn't the Vipco "extreme" one, but the version Amazon are now selling, which has no details of how cut it is, so it's quite possible my copy is edited by the BBFC. In either case, it really isn't as gory as has been hinted to by many sources. The famous scene here is the splinter/eyeball scene, and it isn't "gory", not in a blood splattering way. However, it is a supremely nasty sequence, and Fulci plays it out for maximum effect, making you cringe when it finally happens. The other gore moments vary- there are a fair few exploding heads, and a few zombie brains get punished by some blunt instruments. There is only one really gruesome scene in my copy, and you'll know which one when you see it. In terms of comparisons, the gore is roughly level with Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but nowhere near as frequent.
A couple of elements of this film really impressed me. The shark/zombie battle underwater is amazing, if only because you wonder how the hell they pulled it off. It's a real live shark, and a pretty big one too, and how the actor who played the zombie didn't drown is beyond me. The other aspect is the zombie SFX. They're quite simply incredible, far better than Romero's early zombies (some of the ones in Day of the Dead are on an equal level though). The zombies look very dead and decomposing, and extremely convincing. In particular, the zombie that wakes from the jungle grave is incredible, and genuinely scary.
On a closing note, this is quite a different film to the more famous zombie films. It's not the gore fest most people make it out to be, but a low budget action movie with a liberal dose of splatter. The zombies don't really get enough screen time, and you wish Fulci had followed on from the ending with a bigger budget. The music is extremely annoying 70s pre-MIDI synth nonsense, although the tribal drumming is quite atmospheric. If you can live with all this, then there's a good flick to be enjoyed here.
The film was made to cash in on the success of the Romero film Dawn of the Dead, although apart from the flesh eating Zombies it is a considerably different film. Whilst Dawn of the Dead takes place in the heart of a civilisation already at the mercy of the undead, ZFE starts off with a much more isolationist approach but concludes with sequences which could be seen to actually set up Romero's tale. And, unlike Romero, Fulci is interested in his tale only and not on any commentary on society.
For many, ZFE became known due to its run-ins with the UK censors (although the full uncut edition of Dawn of the Dead has some fairly graphic moments, these are never as convincing or quite as well staged as those in ZFE). Fulci certainly never lets himself be drawn away from the main theme and it is only for brief moments that the film drags. One sequence which always irritates me for "getting in the way" of the narrative is an underwater fight between a zombie and a shark. It is an original scene in conception and raises an interesting point (i.e. the movement of zombies underwater - they don't need manmade craft afterall - given that they have no need of air this is a not unreasonable idea), but I just find the sequence to be too drawn out to be of any great use - I just want to get to the mayhem on Matoole!
Views on the acting vary (I don't have a problem with it), but look beyond this and you will see good fx, good cinematography (the frame is always filled with good visuals, and can even be quite creative - just check out the sequences preceding the famous eyeball scene)and the soundtrack itself features a good score (suitably unnerving electronica, along with trade make Fulci jungle sounds - I could pick out a few good examples, but certainly one of the most effective is the sequence where Ian McCullogh and his team come accross scenes of dissembowlment and zombie feasting at the Doctor's home, the full horror of the close ups is accompanied by a wild funky tune that captures the charged and ridiculous nature of the situation).
One other reviewer mentioned that Zombie Holocaust fans would like ZFE; I saw the films the other way around and thought Zombie Holocaust was a very cheap and lame effort. However, it is worth noting that Zombie Holocaust came about as the producers were so pleased with Fulci's ZFE - Fulci did not direct Holocaust, but that didn't stop the use of some of the same locations, cast and fx crew; but if the truth were known I don't think anyone's heart was in this effort.
Anyway, back to ZFE - it is a film out of one of my favourity sub-genres, I find the idea of the undead rather frightening - whether they be slow and menacing, or running around (as I gather they do in the Dawn of the Dead remake) - and a film I would most definately recommend to gorehounds. This film does stand out with gore aplenty but also with a quality of interest not found in many other exploitation/splatter films. Just try to make sure you see it in as close to its original form as possible (and as a letterboxed edition, not pan and scanned). And then get ready to sit down and watch the other Fulci films mentioned ...
Three stars is perhaps a little generous to this movie, but if nothing else I know how many times I have watched and enjoyed it over the years, so that must mean its pretty good!
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