Originally conceived to leech off the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Lucio Fulci’s bloodthirsty Zombie Flesh Eaters (also known as Zombie or Zombi 2) has often been considered the apex of the Zombie genre. Released in 1979, this gory and grotesque Italian video nasty pushed the limits with iconic scenes of violence of unrestrained horror. Often found at the right hand of Fulci, composer Fabio Frizzi’s carefully constructed Caribbean nightmare score is a decomposing mixture of synth soundscapes and voodoo drums that attack the ears with the same menace as one of Fulci’s undead. As the debut release for their founding label, Death Waltz Recording Co shrewdly enlisted one of horror’s most respected graphic artists, Graham Humphreys, to flesh out a cover design for the 2012 vinyl reissue and help bring Frizzi’s frightening soundtrack back to life.
Explaining how he got involved with the project, Humphreys notes “[I was commissioned] through Spencer Hickman, founder of Death Waltz. We were originally introduced by Paul MvEvoy, one of the four London Frightfest organisers – with whom I’d had a longstanding working relationship. They had already discussed the Death Waltz releases prior to the company launch and Spencer had mentioned an extensive list of Hammer Films soundtracks that he planned to release, Paul knew I was a Hammer fan and decided to introduce us – with the idea I could produce artwork for those specific releases. As it was, Spencer was familiar with some of my work and after the meeting chose to offer me the first release of the new label.”
Knowing the importance of first impressions that catalog number DW001 would bring to the labels longevity – Death Waltz needed an artist who already had a legacy within the horror genre. Having produced publicity material for countless cult classics including both the Evil Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, it is of little wonder why Humphreys was contracted to visualize Frizzi’s magnum opus. “I was a late convert [to Zombie Flesh Eaters], not having seen the full movie until about 15 years ago – and even then it would have been a heavily cut version” reflects Humphreys. “Subsequent screening events introduced me to it’s full flesh eating fury and I found the soundtrack an integral part of it’s power. For me, this soundtrack defines the zombie genre!”
With creative control and full support of the establishing label, Humphreys was able to dig deep within his plethora of refined abilities and techniques for the Zombie Flesh Eaters cover art. “I wanted to capture smells, temperatures, humidity and a sense of that which cannot be seen” explains Humphreys. “In addition I also recall wanting to give [the artwork] the look of a spaghetti western poster, the sweat and oppressive heat. The only input [from Death Waltz] was to offer me all the freedom I could want!”
“I provided a number of sketches, each offering a location specific reference. Some reflected the tropical setting, others the New York skyline” notes Humphreys. “Death Waltz found themselves torn between two options and so decided to commission both. One to provide the album cover, the other to be a fold out print. I had watched the film about three times within a couple of days and worked only with the images that stayed with me, particularly in my waking moments – when I find ideas and compositions at their most unexpected and fresh – caught in between a sleeping nightmare and the waking awareness!”
Blending the iconic zombie from the “we are going to eat you” poster with the infamous zombie vs shark scene – through immaculate use of space, contrast and avant-garde techniques, Humphreys was able to showcase the film’s seminal scenes within the confines of 12 inch piece. While the focal points differ between the artworks he created, both are steeped in evil prosperity – teeming with proliferating figures receding off into the distance, each crazily preoccupied with some infernal business of their own.“All of my work is painted in gouache ( a watercolour pigment with an opaque base) on watercolour paper” explains Humphreys. “Great for creating both fluid washes and course textured brush marks. Each piece took about two days, I can work fast if I’m only engaged on one project at a time – not always possible luxury! Over a period of time I’ve had to adapt to squeezed budgets and demanding schedules, I would not survive if I couldn’t work fast, so all my techniques are evolved to deliver maximum effect in a hostile economic environment.”
Apart from capturing the exotic temperatures and decaying aromas of the film’s backdrop, Humphreys was also able to capture detailed dimension with his pallet. Highlighted in the rotted face of the zombies, Humphreys pigment choice is nothing short of superb with a sublime mixture of warm and cold colors. The warm colors (yellow, orange, and red) are used to create depth and space, making areas of the faces appear closer to the viewer by contrasting them with his choice of cold colors (blue, purple, and some green) to make other facial elements (the eyes for example) recede into the shadows.
As the debut release from the label that birthed the growing trend of retro vinyl soundtracks, Humphreys reflects on the Death Waltz release fondly, stating almost introspectively “I am always deeply humbled by any commission and rarely displeased with the final product. As an artist I am always critical of my work, necessary in order to progress – but I like to see printed material – and fascinated by the way my images can take on a whole different quality when reproduced. Also, once given a practical context, in this instance an LP cover, then it has a reason to exist beyond ego. I’d hope that the viewer would see the same resonances that I see in the film, in the colors, choice of imagery and textures. Perhaps even give some new perspective or dimension.”
As grotty as it is grand in both sights and sounds, Zombie Flesh Eaters is a movie that takes its place among the highest echelons of not only undead cinema – but the entire horror genre itself. Graham Humphreys’ graphic portrayal of the Frizzi’s score is a grim and fascinating visual. His art captures the hopeless, rancid fervor aroused when journeying into Fulci’s threatening, hellish world.
Peace to Graham Humphreys for helping out with the piece. The Zombie Flesh Eaters illustration will appear in a special gallery edition book called ‘Drawing Blood’, limited to 500 signed and numbered copies, encased in a clamshell box with a limited edition print, exclusive to the publication – available only from the gallery at Proud Online and officially launched at a London exhibition of Humpreys horror themed works for Halloween 2015. You can pick up a copy of the vinyl at Death Waltz and stay in touch with Humphreys and see his other work at his official site.