Interview: Ian McCulloch on ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979)

Ian McCulloch is best known to horror fans for his appearance in a trio of Italian pictures made in the very late 1970s and into the early 1980s. When Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters was released on Blu-ray in early December 2012, I got the chance to interview McCulloch (for a now-defunct blog that I ran, Cinemart). I've decided to repost it here at Horror Flickers. 

In ZFE McCulloch plays Peter West, a British New York-based reporter, who travels to the island of Matool, somewhere in the Caribbean, and discovers that the dead walk and feast upon the living!

MC: The film is thirty-three years old now and considered a cult classic. Is it a work you’re proud of, or are you bemused by its popularity and cult status?

McCulloch: Well, in all honesty, I can’t say that I’m proud of it. I don’t think my contribution to it is much to be proud of. As for the film itself, I don’t know whether proud is the right word. It’s a remarkable film and [was] absolutely astonished when asked to do a commentary for the twenty-fifth anniversary because I thought it had died its death. I am astonished a film like that has had such a long life and will go on having such a long life. It’s remarkable.

What do you think it is about Zombie Flesh Eaters that captures the imagination?

Well, it was one of the first two. There was Romero’s and then there was this one and both set their own stall as zombie films. You either go down his [Romero's] route or the Fulci route. I dunno … it’s a very Italian style and I suspect – well,[I] know – that a lot of it was to do with its notoriety. It built up a fanbase from that. Also, because I saw it on a big cinema screen about three years ago, it’s a beautifully put together and photographed work. It does look like an awful lot of money had been spent on it and it wasn’t made for a huge amount. I don’t know why … if I did know I’d put some money together and make another one!

I’ve read that when you saw the movie for the first time, a few years ago, you were quite shocked by the violence. Is that true?

Yes. I did the commentary and was watching it in a dubbing room where I’d watch something and go back to the microphone and rabbit on for five minutes and that was the first time I’d seen it – ever. I just winced at some bits. From my point of view, I wasn’t used to it and thought it way over the top. I then saw it for the first time in Dumfries, on a proper screen, and I was ready for it.

Had you seen any Lucio Fulci films before signing up to appear in Zombie Flesh Eaters?

I didn’t know know who Fulci was, and I’d certainly never seen his work. I’d seen some Antonioni films and the stuff you see in arthouses but never films in the genre Fulci was famous for.

Lucio once said that ‘Violence is an Italian art.’

In England, we’re frightened to do things like that. In Italy, it’s no-holds-barred whether it comes to violence or sex. I don’t know enough about the Italian film world but I assume they go at it the whole hog.

How did you bag the role of Peter West?

Out of the blue. I’d been in a very successful television series called Survivors and the first series was a very big hit all over the world, especially, in Italy. It was a massive, massive hit. It was on the strength of that. I was in Plymouth performing a play and I got a call saying there’s a part and they didn’t want to screen test or meet me, they just wanted me to say ‘Yes’. They told me where the locations were, how much money I’d get and all the nice things that would happen to me and please could I agree to do it. That was the beginning of my three-film Italian career.

Were you handed a script?

No. Somebody else asked me that. I didn’t see a script until I arrived in New York.

The film uses a lot of exterior locations. Was it shot largely abroad with interiors in Rome?

They told me to get a visa and turn up for the first day of shooting in New York. I went to get my visa and of course they hadn’t got permission to film in New York, so we had to get around that. I arrived in New York and was on set the next day. We did a week there and went to the Caribbean – to the Dominican Republic – then we went to Latina just outside Rome. We finished the film off there.

What was the production itself like? Did you ever wonder what you’d gotten yourself into?

I had a wonderful experience. I’d never been to New York before or the Caribbean or Italy. There were worst things than being treated so well, both financially and by the crew. It was really like a big holiday. There wasn’t much acting required throughout the film. You said the lines with some kind of authority and be presentable then go and get sloshed every night. It was fun.

What was your relationship like with the other actors? Tisa Farrow (sister of Mia) appears in the movie and British actor Richard Johnson, who made a few Italian horror films in that period.

Well, they probably thought I was bit … reserved. I was unsure how I should or could behave, and they tended to be old hands at it and have party after party. They probably thought I was a little stand-offish. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to join in. On set, they were wonderful. Richard was great. Tisa was nice. Al (Cliver) I got on with.

And what about Fulci? There’s lots of talk down the years of him being antagonistic towards people.

I don’t know whether antagonistic is the right word. I got on well with him and he treated me with respect because I was a stage and television actor. He tended to get bullying with people he thought weren’t doing the job they’d been hired to do. He mainly did with it Auretta Gay, who wasn’t an actress. I’ve often said he bullied her. She was beautiful and he got a good performance out of her. He used the carrot or stick method, and when the carrot didn’t work…

Fulci talked a lot about himself, he was very boastful. He’d talk about his horses a lot. I found it somehow hard to take him seriously because he really did look like Benny Hill. He’d say a serious thing I wouldn’t know how to take it.

I’ve read that he could be quite the bully towards those he took a disliking to. 

I was at a roundtable with other people that worked with him and one after the other couldn’t have been more complimentary about him. He was courteous, kind. I was the only one who said anything unkind whereas everybody else was full of compliments. They could have said what they wanted to say, you know.

I think Fulci, as a film-maker, is greatly under-appreciated. He makes genuinely unsettling horror movies, and that’s not easy to do. I suggest if you can see more of his work, do so.

It was only really after he’d died that I saw what his backdrop of work was – and he trained with the very best people. The film [Zombie Flesh Eaters] is beautifully put together.

Thanks for chatting, Ian. 

You’re very welcome.

Update: Zombie Flesh Eaters is screening on 31st October at Cigarette Burns All Hallow's Eve All-Nighter at Regent Street Cinema, Central London. Book tickets here