Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some horror releases need to scream that they're available, and the oddball shocker The Flesh Eaters is one of them. I mean, scream out as if nasty little microorganisms were gobbling you up like you were Steve McQueen trapped in a Jello mold. Savant mostly ignored horror films when he was a teenager, preferring the spy and science fiction movies. Horror offerings were never reviewed and it was impossible to tell what the good ones might be. The Baseline Drive-In showed every ghastly triple-bill that was available, but by the time I had a girlfriend willing to go out with me in a car, horror pictures were the last thing on my mind.
The Flesh Eaters came to San Bernardino in the summer of 1964 (it could have been 1965) . A theater had a display of stills and KMEN 129 radio bombarded us with creepy ads consisting of a scream, some horrible boiling noise and a voice with a German accent saying something like, "It only eats flesh!" Savant was too scared to even think of going ... I believe the crabby old theater manager restricted the movie to adults, anyway. 1
Bankrupt airplane pilot Grant Murdock (Byron Sanders) doesn't want to fly in a storm, but the triple fee waved in front of his nose by beautiful Jan Letterman (Barbara Wilkin) changes his mind. She's the secretary of famous actress Laura Winters (Rita Morley) an alcoholic too stoned to stand on her own two feet. The plane goes up but is soon stranded on an isolated island, where the three castaways meet Professor Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck), a sinister marine biologist waiting for a deadly tide of aquatic microbes that "EAT FLESH! ANY FLESH!" and will even burn their way through metal to get at it. Skeletons of various victims both human and fish wash ashore, while Bartell lets loose Murdock's tethered plane and prepares several beakers of electrically-activated microbes for testing ... on his new companions.
The first thing to do when watching The Flesh Eaters is to imagine it re-shot with the cast of Gilligan's Island. It instantly becomes even funnier. Competently filmed on an ultra-low budget, the independently produced movie is both funny and scary thanks to a tongue-in cheek screenplay that knows darn well what kind of exploitative trash is being peddled. The main actors are television soap opera people having a fun time; Martin Kosleck is the same actor who played Nazi villains almost exclusively for twenty years. Here he plays a -- guess -- Nazi villain reactivating an evil experiment left over from the waning days of the Third Reich.
The dialogue is of the strictly declarative comic-book kind, with the actors playing it straight and letting the absurdity of the situation say it all. It's a campy romp, the terrible movie that seems like a payoff for 1001 terrible movies about castaways running into mad scientists. Kosleck even gets to kiss the movie star, and gets rudely rebuffed, of course. This is before nudity and outright gore were allowed (the film apparently got a very wide release) but there's plenty of teasing on both fronts. The drunken actress Laura Winters is an over-the-top Sweet Bird of Youth type, and she's immediately jealous when her secretary Jan starts playing footsie with rugged, thick-eared pilot Murdock. When Murdock gets some of those nasty flesh eaters on his leg, Jan immediately strips off her blouse to provide a bandage.
The frisky fizzy flesh eaters consume a rescue boat captain while the foursome watches, horrified. They are soon joined by Omar (Ray Tudor), a ridiculously goofy beatnik type. He floats in on a raft and barely gets ashore before the flesh eaters gobble up his sandals: "Aw, it took me two days to make those!" Omar jive-talks in a bizarre theatrical argot unrecognizable as being beatnik, hippie or yippie, but he's certainly a lively addition. Too bad that the professor has such gruesome plans for him.
The Flesh Eaters edges toward the gore aesthetic, although it comes nowhere near the sadistic excesses of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The threat here is patently impossible and the nervous terror is fun in a goofy campfire-story way. It starts like a morbid take on a Beach Party flick. A girl on a pleasure boat loses her bikini top, followed by the rest of her body when the title critters attack. All we see are some screaming faces and water boiling with dry ice, and the main titles pop on with a visceral chill ... the movie has announced that it's going to deliver the goods.
The film is competently shot, but its oddball special effects must be seen to be believed. The deadly tide of Nazi microbes is represented by double-exposed white flares on the water. When Murdock gets some on his leg, the munching things are pictured in part by little animated pinpricks in the surface of the film. The highly artificial method is strangely effective -- it looks like little micro-explosions on Murdock's skin. This is coupled with an angle or two of Kosleck's knife literally carving off a slice of Murdock's shinbone -- just wrap it up in Jan's blouse, and it'll be fine.
The big shockeroo occurs when Bartell puts some flesh eaters into a drink and watches poor Omar gulp it down. We wait nervously until the expected occurs ... all of which is handled quite convincingly. In the context of this minimalist storyline, a ridiculous shot of Omar with a see-through hole in his stomach, tied dead to the mast of his little raft, is somehow disturbing instead of silly.
For its big finale, The Flesh Eaters transform into two monsters, one the size of a beach ball and the other about 200 feet across. The optical effects involved are transparently phony yet the stalwart seriousness of the actors and the brassy music sell the scenes fairly well. The spongy white tentacled flesh eater thingys have one eye and an obscene looking cavity that resembles, or might actually be a recycled Mars moon monster prop from Roger Corman's space re-edit Battle Beyond the Sun.
A few minutes more of gory deaths, and the show is over. There's something delightfully campy and unpretentious about The Flesh Eaters that makes it a great party picture. It's too well made to be shamefully disgusting, and the cast gives the silly show their best. Byron Sanders makes a truly cartoonish leap to kill one of the flesh-eating monsters and Kosleck is unrepentantly evil until the very end. What more can one ask?
The film's only sets are an open beach and a couple of tents, and the main prop is a silly giant box with silver discs applied to its side that we're told is a solar power generator. Nobody questions what the professor is doing with it, except to electrify the fast-munching microbes as part of his nefarious plan.
Director Jack Curtis was a New York editor with ambitions and this film is his one-shot at the big time. Perhaps he learned his lesson, or, more likely, he busted his bankroll making the picture and other entrepreneurs moved in to distribute it and cash in. Writer Arnold Drake also did the script for Who Killed Teddy Bear?. Songwriter Noel Regny is credited with extra music for Gremlins in 1984. Maybe Joe Dante knows a story behind that one!
Actress Barbara Wilkin apparently went to France and appeared in Claude Chabrol's Paris vu par... the very next year. That's the opposite of Marilyn Buferd, who had a big role in Jacques Becker's 1954 French
Touchez pas au grisbi! only to find herself floundering several years later in the American monster opus
The most notable credit on the film is editor Radley Metzger, who by this time was already established as a cult adult film maker and later made notable exotica like The Lickerish Quartet. His editing is good, too.
This beautiful new DVD of The Flesh Eaters presents a pristine enhanced B&W transfer with clear sound. I saw a Sinister Cinema tape once that was blurry and had bad audio; the dubbing job here sounds quite good and most tech credits, as Variety would say, are fine.
The uncut feature allows to see all kinds of little snippets that were missing from old television prints. The disc has two added film extras. The first is a short sequence that found its way into later non-theatrical prints and may or may not be from the original shoot. It's a sick flashback to augment Martin Kosleck's explanation of the old Nazi experiments. Three nude models (in a real low of tastelessness, they're meant to be concentration camp prisoners) are made to jump into a pool where they're instantly de-fleshed by the waiting microbes. The word on the web from Tim Lucas has all but established that this material was added after the original release, perhaps to make the film spicier for theaters indulging in rougher content. In my opinion ordinary theaters in 1964 wouldn't have shown it, even though it has no direct nudity. A minute or two of outtakes from the shoot (no tell-tale slates, darn it) are included that definitely do. 2
The disc also includes a pair of scary teaser trailers, obviously the audio source for the spooky radio spots Savant remembers from forty years ago. The Flesh Eaters is pure exploitation trash of a particularly refined vintage. It should be a must-see for horror film freaks tired of crummy public-domain quality DVDs - Savant enjoyed the high quality for its own sake. The picture feels like we're in a downtown Manhattan projection room watching the first answer print out of the soup.
One note of disappointment comes from the news that writer and ace commentator Tom Weaver, who did such a terrific job on Warners' new release of Bedlam, prepared a The Flesh Eaters commentary that didn't make the disc. Apparently it was done for another company before MPI determined that it owned DVD rights; it's too bad that an arrangement couldn't be made for its inclusion. Weaver is said to have tracked down a couple of the original filmmakers either for research or to join him on-microphone.
Correspondent Bill Shaffer reminds me that in some prints, the last scene was in color, from the moment that he-man Grant injects the monster's eye with blood. I believe this is true because the quality of the picture changes a bit at that point. I wonder if it's possible that a separate B&W negative was made later. If the show did finish in color, the color negative section would have to be printed separately and spliced into every print, of course. Was the DVD company aware of a possible color scene - would Tom Weaver's commentary have cleared up this question?
Now we can all go home and have sweet dreams about real life's flesh-eating bacteria!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Flesh Eaters rates:
Supplements: teaser trailers, extra 'Nazi experiment' scene, extra shoot outtakes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2005
1. This was the same manager that a few years later wouldn't let me into The Wild Bunch because I was 17, not 18. I argued with him that the "R" rating sign said "Under 17 Not Admitted without Parent or Guardian" and he said all tickets were sold at his discretion and I'd better run along or he'd call the police. &^%#& Fascist!
2. Contradictory information from "Chris D", 10/14/05: Hi, Glenn. Your recent review of The Flesh Eaters DVD release mentioned Tim Lucas' assertion that the flashback sequence where the nude concentration camp women (carefully blocked by protruding objects) were forced to jump into the swimming pool of flesh eaters was not in the original release.
I can tell you most certainly it DEFINITELY WAS in the original theatrical release. I saw it as a child at the Rubidoux Drive-In in west Riverside in the week it was released in southern California (I had harassed my parents into taking me). My mom loved horror movies but was a definite Catholic prude when it came to even a hint of sex in the cinema. This flashback sequence was definitely in the version we saw. I remember it very vividly, and it was something my parents were not happy about. My mom almost convinced my dad to start the car and haul our shocked asses out of there. But my obsessive film-o-philia, even then, was able to turn the tide and convince them to stay. When the movie later turned up on TV, that sequence was conspicuously missing. I was wondering for a while if maybe it was my imagination until I purchased Sinister's unauthorized release (where it's included.)
Hope this clears up the issue. Of course, there's a good chance that the sequence may have been omitted in theaters and drive-ins in the Bible Belt down South or more conservative areas of the USA.
An interesting footnote - writer Arnold Drake also scripted many stories for DC Comic's BLACKHAWK and DOOM PATROL comics in the 1960s. I was a huge fan of both. Drake had one of the more deranged imaginations at DC in the 1960s (as if he'd been schooled working at FOR MEN ONLY-type pulp rags). And he most certainly pushed the envelope as far as what was acceptable. He quite often would work in borderline sleaze/sadism elements (especially in BLACKHAWK) as well as villains that were either Nazi or Japanese war criminals (I remember thinking even as a kid that the Nazi experimental atrocities back story in The Flesh Eaters was Drake's doing. ----- Best, Chris D., American Cinematheque
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson