Originating as it does from 1980, Charles McCrann’s cost-conscious living dead curio Toxic Zombies (or Bloodeaters to those viewers who managed to see it theatrically) is one of the few post-Dawn of the Dead (1978) zombie films that didn’t hail from Italy. While there are certainly more memorable films of this type, it’s always enjoyable to sit through such low-budget homegrown horrors, plus the film’s Pennsylvania setting (Romero’s home turf) and inclusion of Romero regular John Amplas in its cast may endear this to hardcore GA fans. Released to U.K. VHS as Forest of Fear (it was under this title that the film had its biggest claim to fame when it was successfully prosecuted and banned in the early eighties during the Video Nasties furor), Toxic Zombies has been difficult to see during the digital era outside of a few unauthorised—and very poor—DVD re-issues, so it goes without saying that Massacre Video’s latest limited-edition Blu-ray is the optimal way to finally see this formulaic if entertaining programmer.
In their attempts to infiltrate a vast marijuana grow-op, a pair of lowly undercover FBI agents are brutally murdered after they mistakenly kill one of the backwoods dope-growers. While watching over “two million bucks of dope sittin’ in the ground”, this constantly bickering group of enterprising hippie agronomists decide to harvest as much as they can and get the hell outta Dodge before the feds come looking for their missing agents and start crawling all over the area. Pressed for time by their superiors, Agent Briggs (Bill Haskin) and his subordinate Agent Philips (Amplas) propose to use Dromax, a new, still-experimental herbicide to eradicate the crop, even at the risk of spraying the dope-growers themselves. To this end, a local crop-duster pilot is hired for the job. Although he “burns more fuel than the plane”, this cantankerous old flying boozehound (Bob Larson) successfully sprays the illicit crop, albeit not before contaminating both himself and the hippies, which in turn unleashes a small-scale regional ‘zombie’ outbreak…
Considering its relative obscurity and exceedingly low-budget, Toxic Zombies offers something a little different within the by then already well-established zombie horror film stakes. To compensate for the mostly lacklustre direction here, director McCrann injects some rather weak if well-intended social commentary about the “war on drugs”, which former U.S. president Richard M. Nixon had declared to be “Public Enemy Number One” a decade earlier. This take-no-prisoners approach is firmly established early on as Briggs makes his intentions abundantly clear when he smugly proclaims, “How upset would you really be if a few of those people became ill?” Although advised to stay out of the northwest sector, one of the bureau’s field men, Tom Cole (‘Charles Austin’ / director McCrann) gets caught-up in the ensuing mess while on a fishing trip with his wife (Beverly Shapiro) and younger brother Jay (Phillip Garfinkel), which is further complicated by a couple of stray teenagers (July Brown and Kevin Hanlon) whose parents were killed by the marauding hippie ghouls.
As expected, a number of the film’s gore scenes are depicted with some zeal, but much of the film ultimately falls flat, as most of the amateurish cast run from one incident to the next. In furtherance of their sly schemes, the feds eventually attempt to cover up the mess they’ve caused, leading to additional bursts of spirited gore in the film’s quite exciting climax. While the ‘zombies’ themselves are nothing new, their putrid, bloodied faces and low-key gurgling tonalities are particularly gruesome in an ‘EC Comics’ sort of way. In one of the film’s most effective sequences, they lay siege to an isolated woodland cabin in the dead of night armed only with torches as Ted Shapiro’s piano and synth-driven score provides plenty of ambiance.
First released to U.S. VHS in 1984 on the hard-to-find Videatrics label, Toxic Zombies was later reissued in 1987 by Queasy Art and Atom Video, the latter of which also featured the film’s alternate title Bloodeaters. Anyone even remotely familiar with any of these analog releases will be more than happy with Massacre Video’s new 4K restoration, which was created from “multiple rare 35mm theatrical prints.” Retaining the film’s original Bloodeaters title card, many of the film prints utilised in this new transfer include deteriorations such as speckling, vertical scratches and the usual dirt and debris, but despite these imperfections, the clarity of this new transfer is a vast improvement in every way. Contrast and colours are strong, and the film’s natural grain textures look excellent, whereas many of the darker scenes reveal far more detail than ever before. Despite the inherent audio pops, the LPCM 2.0 mono audio also sounds very good, giving further prominence to Ted Shapiro’s very welcome music score.
Extras begin with Bloodshooters (27m10s), an enjoyable on-camera interview with the film’s DoP David Sperling, who discusses his start in the business and the benefits of shooting projects with no budget, which allows for “a lot of creativity.” Despite not being ready for the elements while shooting outdoors, he praises the resourcefulness of McCrann, who even managed to secure camera rentals for a mere $300.00 for the entire shoot! He goes on to discuss the film’s tight shooting range, working with the Arriflex 16BL and the challenges of shooting night scenes with “one battery-powered light”, and plenty of other recollections in this appealing and detailed interview. In Farming the Forest (17m51s), actor and fellow law associate Claude Scales talks warmly about his friendship with McCrann and how they got the film off the ground while balancing their day jobs. Concluding on a sad note however, Scales also talks about his friend’s sudden death in the September 11th terrorist attacks during his tenure at Marsh & McLennan, one of the largest insurance brokers in the U.S. whose offices were located at One World Trade Center. In the final significant extra, Cinematic Void Post Screening Q&A (39m13s), Sperling and Scales return for a talk (conducted via Zoom) following a special online screening on February 26th, 2021, where they cover much of the same material from the previous interviews, but also chat about a controversial U.S.-sponsored initiative to spray a toxic herbicide called Paraquat on Mexican marijuana fields in the seventies, which served as the inspiration for the film. Other extras include a generous still gallery (2m32s) featuring much of the film’s promotional material, plus an extended version of the film, which includes a 4m10s epilogue (sourced from video) tacked-on at the end of the picture. Numerous trailers for other and upcoming Massacre Video titles are also included, and the first 1000 copies also include a nice slipcase replicating the film’s Toxic Zombies poster art, which is still available via Massacre Video’s website.
While nowhere near the classic promised by the copywriter’s hyperbole, Toxic Zombies is still palatable enough as a diverting no-mind regional horror movie, and if you’re feeling so inclined, is also perfectly complimented by a six-pack of beer or some of your very own wacky tabacky.
Purchase from Massacre Video: https://massacrevideo.com/site/?product=toxic-zombies-limited-edition-blu-ray