Monday, June 08, 2015

Zombie Career Eaters

Of all the obituaries of the actor Richard Johnson that I've read, or heard. over the past couple of days, only one - The Guardian's - saw fit to mention Zombie Flesh Eaters, even then, they referred to it by its less 'vulgar' original title of Zombi 2.  There seemed to be a marked reluctance on the part of critics and obituary writers to acknowledge the fact that respected actor Richard Johnson had once appeared a notorious Lucio Fulci horror flick.  So notorious, in fact, that like several other Italian horror films of the eighties, it got swept up in the whole moral panic over so-called 'video nasties' and ended up being banned in its original form, with an edited version eventually finding its way onto video in the UK.  So obviously, that's something the British cinema establishment would want swept under the carpet: a mainstream actor they are lauding after his death having appeared in a video nasty.  How vulgar!  There really is a terrible degree of snobbery in this country when it comes to popular culture, where 'name' actors who appear in genre movies are considered to have been 'slumming it'.  Zombie Flesh Eaters might not be the most sophisticated piece of film making, but it is entertaining.  Moreover, it certainly isn't any worse than many of the 'worthier' projects Johnson was involved in - the film version of Crucifer of Blood comes to mind - and is certainly better than some of his other genre excursions like The Monster Club or The Devil Within Her, for instance.

The fact is that, despite the fulsome praise heaped upon him now that he's dead, Johnson, like many actors of the 'second rank', earned a living between 'prestige' projects by appearing in TV series (I well remember his guest shot in Murder She Wrote) and medium to low budget genre movies.  Another role not mentioned in most of the obituaries was his appearance as a modernised Bulldog Drummond in a pair of late sixties British Bond knock offs which tried, with some success, to imitate the style of the Italian-made 'Eurospy' movies of the era.  Again, theses are the sort of films no 'serious' critic would bother with, despite them being fascinating artefacts of their era and the whole Bond phenomena of the late sixties. But there's nothing new in this snobbery - I've seen many other performers' histories effectively rewritten after their deaths to expunge anything which doesn't fit with the image the mainstream feels they should have.  Norman Wisdom was a much-loved and wholesome family entertainer - so the sex comedy he made, Sauce for the Goose, was written out of history as far as the obituaries and tributes went.  It's just like those TV retrospectives of the likes of Arthur Askey or John LeMesurier, say, that you see: they never mention the fact that by the mid-seventies they were appearing in sex comedies like Rosie Dixon, Night Nurse, or Confessions of a Window Cleaner, respectively.  In fact, the films themselves, despite being hugely popular and big commercial successes in their day, are now ignored by mainstream film historians.  Anyway, to return to the original point, I think my tribute to the late Richard Johnson will be another viewing of Zombie Flesh Eaters



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