1980’s Zombie Creeping Flesh is surely one of the most infamous Italian zombie films to released following the success of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. It’s got everything: extreme gore, baffling nudity, bad dubbing, and a never ending stream of stock footage. But more importantly, it’s directed by none other than the late, great Bruno Mattei (or Vincent Dawn, as he went by for this particular case of zombiesploitation). The man behind a multitude of craptastic B movies, he was essentially Europe’s answer to Roger Corman. So when his name pops up in any opening credits, you’re guaranteed something special, even if it’s for ALL the wrong reasons.
In keeping with tradition, Creeping Flesh has more than a few alternate titles doing the rounds. Its original Italian title is Virus, while in the US, it’s known as Hell of the Living Dead. I’m also fairly sure it went by Zombi 4 at one point in time... and honestly, I’m undecided on whether this is better or worse than the official Zombi 4.
Regardless, they’re a lot better than what we got lumbered with, if you ask me. And what’s up the UK title, anyway? I mean, sure, I get the whole ‘zombie’ part of it; but I don’t remember any moments with ‘creeping flesh’. Unless it’s referring to the classically trained shambling zombies themselves, which I suppose would makes sense in a way, but all those words make me think of are the sentient internal organs from Peter Jackson’s Braindead. I haven’t felt this short-changed since I watched Zombie Holocaust... and that was a cannibal movie!
But I should really look for something positive about the production to comment on. Oh hey, it’s scored by Dario Argento’s favourite prog-rock group, Goblin! That’s pretty neat, right? Well, I bet their involvement would be under any other circumstances, as the soundtrack here is comprised entirely of Goblin music ripped straight from other horror films including Dawn of the Dead, and even Alien Contamination!
Guess I better talk about the actual film, then. The plot’s your standard ‘zombie outbreak in a third world country’ deal, with the majority of the running time being set in Papua New Guinea. The exact cause of the outbreak does mystify me, however. From what I can gather, a single rat manages to get into the secure area of a secret testing site, and this unleashes clouds of poisonous gas into the air. I don’t understand how it adds up either, but at least we get to see the zombified rodent get inside a guy’s ridiculously ineffective hazard suit and spray blood all over his visor.
It's the little things in life...
It doesn’t take long for the undead hordes to overwhelm the plant, and after a bit of graphic gut munching the film makes a radical shift in style to introduce our main protagonists. They’re a crack squad of commandos led by Lt. Mike London, who are tasked with saving hostages from some seemingly insane gunmen in a scene that makes me think I’ve accidently put in Italian A-Team. The Dawn of the Dead soundtrack gets to flex its muscles, and the terrorists are soon lying dead on the ground. But not before their leader parts with these famous last words:
You're all... doomed to a horrible death. Doomed to... be eaten up. First, they'll kill you... then afterwards... you'll be eaten... be eaten... devoured... by men like you... your brothers...
I’m clapping right now.
So after that ominous bit of foreshadowing, the squad are sent off to New Guinea on a top secret mission. It’s not long before they meet up with the movie’s heroin, Lisa, a journalist who’s there with a few friends of her own, including a not-so happy couple and a cameraman who looks EXACTLY like Inigo Montoya. Lisa’s there investigating the sudden outbreak of violence within the native population (the kind where everyone suddenly starts eating each other, apparently). The couple she’s with have also brought along a child who’s been bitten... which means this encounter can’t end well. And it doesn’t. While his mother is off being killed by the zombie priest from the cover art, the boy dies, comes back to life and promptly eats daddy’s lungs.
If there’s one thing these movies could arguably do better than their American counterparts, it was the zombies. Creeping Flesh is another example where the undead were really made to look that way. Many of them have rotted faces, smeared with gore and gouged out eyeballs, and in the case of the priest, half a face missing. Brilliantly, Inigo seems to think they could just “be drunk”.
So far, the only names I’ve bothered to take notice of are London and Lisa (dunno if I should count Inigo). Now would be a good time to mention another squad member, Zantoro. This guy might as well be called Italian “Howling Mad” Murdoch, as he steals the movie to the point where I look forward to what he’s going to do next more than I look forward to the comical gore effects. He approaches every situation with his eyes widened and his mouth spread into a crazy grin while giggling maniacally. He even lets himself get surrounded by zombies in a later scene just so he can blow their heads off at close range! I can’t decide who’s overacting more: the actor or the guy dubbing him.
> Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons.
I bring Zantoro up mainly because he’s the one who figures out that the undead need to be shot in the head. Too bad the other three squad members never cotton on to this. They’ll continue to unload dozens of rounds of ammo into everywhere but the skull throughout the film, no matter how many time Zantoro screams “IN THE HEAD!” at them.
I also bring Zantoro up because he’s the one who empties his machine gun into that zombie kid’s face without a moment’s hesitation. And this was only after London had repeatedly shot pistol rounds into the boy’s chest with absolutely no effect! Watching this snarling child get repeatedly riddled with gunfire is the kind of sight that’s at once hilarious and deeply disturbing. A bit like the defecating scene from The Human Centipede.
From then on, the rest of the film consists of this newly formed rag tag team travelling from location to location while admiring all the lovely stock footage. There’ll be a line of dialogue, and then the scene will instantly cut to footage of a monkey swinging from a tree that was probably taken a decade earlier. Most of the time, the environment shown in the stock footage doesn’t even match up with that which surrounds the characters, begging the question: WHY BOTHER?
On their travels, they stop off at a native village just in time for the film’s absolute nadir. I swear to Christ, this part makes me want to take a shower. No, two showers. In order to get through safely, Lisa (who is rather in touch with the natives, according to Inigo) takes it upon herself to strip off her clothes, cover herself with tribal markings and then go for a walk through the village, at which point the stock footage goes into overdrive. But here’s the thing: we see actual footage of tribal burial processions taking place (sourced from an older documentary), which means seeing real dead bodies that aren’t in the best of conditions being carried around. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and reaches the point where I’m not sure what’s stock footage and what isn’t, although the sudden swirling storm of grain is usually a giveaway.
We are then treated to such pleasant sights as a woman picking maggots out of a skull’s eye socket and then eating them, as well as... Oh no, are they disembowelling a dead crocodile? What are they filling its intestines with? I didn’t need to see that. But at least this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust, because if it was, I’d probably have to watch them butcher the poor thing to death first!
The scene goes on so long it actually causes one of the commandos to throw up. Thankfully, zombies show up and send the tribe into chaos, while the team are forced to make a break for it. They eventually end up by some kind of settlement and decide to investigate (not sure why, but I guess Bruno needed some padding). This leads to yet another bizarre scene. While searching a house, two things of note happen. Firstly, a cat bursts from the stomach of an old “dead” lady (was it there for the warmth, or what?); and secondly, the least interesting commando takes the time to discard his weapon, try on a little green tutu, a top hat, and grab a cane so he can dance around in private for a bit.
You... you gave up right around here didn’t you, Bruno?
Yeah, I don’t need to go into this. It only takes a minute before the idiot’s surrounded on all sides by abnormally stealthy zombies and reduced to a bloody corpse. But I shouldn’t be complaining in the first place. His death simply gives a rapidly deteriorating Zantoro the excuse to go completely bananas, assault a crowd of the shuffling corpses with a burning torch, and turn into a hysterical wreck for the rest of the film. Not that there’s much left of it, though, as they’ve just about reached the end of their journey.
That’s right, after an eternity of driving, stopping, shooting and more driving, our heroes do eventually arrive at the sinister facility where all this horror began. Sadly, that rat from the beginning isn’t waiting for them as a mutated final boss, and instead we watch them wander around this bland environment before getting killed one after the other. Makes the whole film look a tad pointless, right? Although I must say, Inigo the cameraman does deserve a round of applause for making it this far. Any other film would have killed him off an hour ago, so it’s a little sad to see him go. Plus, they do throw in a little twist to keep things interesting.
But in the end, as terrible as Zombie Creeping Flesh is, it’s never particularly boring. Aside from that gruelling detour in the native village, there’s enough blood, guts and overacting to keep you entertained for the whole 100 minutes. Unlike that other film, you’re not going to be waiting an hour before someone’s face finally explodes. And at the very least, it does answer the age-old question of whether or not it’s possible to stick your hand in someone’s mouth and pop out their eyeballs from the inside.
According to this, the answer is a resounding yes.