Judge Paul Corupe likes his flesh in ribeye form, medium rare, with a nice bleu cheese compound butter.
"Love is the weapon, man!"—Omar (Ray Tudor)
A fascinating shoestring sci-fi/horror hybrid from the wild exploitation heyday of the early 1960s, The Flesh Eaters has been unfairly robbed of its much deserved cult following over the years. Not only was director Jack Curtis's microbe massacre just narrowly beat out by H.G. Lewis's Blood Feast to the title of "first gore classic" by a few scant months, the film has been plagued by spotty distribution, from the competitive realities of the 60s drive-in circuit down through to modern home video. Hopefully, with Dark Sky Films's beautiful new restoration of this highly underrated bacterial treat, The Flesh Eaters will finally digest some long overdue respect.
Facts of the Case
Against his better judgment, embittered charter pilot Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders, Trick Baby) agrees to fly alcoholic screen diva Laura Winters (Rita Morley, The Edge of Night) and her comely assistant Jan (Barbara Walken, Stagecoach) down to Provincetown in spite of an approaching storm. They don't make it—engine trouble and bad weather forces Grant to land on an uncharted island, where they are forced to seek shelter for the night with the only inhabitant, marine biologist Professor Bartell (Martin Kosleck, 36 Hours). The next morning, Grant notices that the beach is littered with fish skeletons -and a few human bones—and after some investigating, discovers that Bartell is experimenting with an ocean full of bacteria—"flesh eaters" that are able to strip living tissue off of any warm body. When Laura's late night attempt to rescue her booze from the plane accidentally sets their only means of escape adrift, Grant and the others find themselves stranded along with a newly arrived castaway, Omar the beatnik (Ray Tudor, The Sidehackers). Bartell eventually devises a method to kill the hungry microbes by electrifying the water around the island, but can Grant trust him?
The sole feature film made by voice actor Jack Curtis (best known as the voice of Pops on the English-dubbed version of Speed Racer), The Flesh Eaters is an aggressively low budget piece of sci-fi weirdness that turns a simple, juvenile horror story into a remarkably "adult" feature. Assisted by comic book scribe Arnold Drake's acerbic script, Curtis creates a thick dramatic gumbo out of scarce ingredients, and serves up a moist monster flick soaked in a Russ Meyer-esque atmosphere of hard-boiled despair and liquor-fuelled conflict.
While a commonplace "mad scientist" plot keeps The Flesh Eaters from truly standing beside breakthrough '60s cult hits like Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, it definitely ranks a close second. What's most startling about The Flesh Eaters, even in comparison to those undisputed classics, is the special effects work—highly effective, and brilliant in its thrifty simplicity. The flesh-eating bacteria itself, represented by flickering lights on the film, was actually created in post-production by physically sticking a pin through the celluloid, creating an eerie sparkling effect that really is unlike anything you've seen before. Likewise, the level of gore in the film is quite amazing—it's strange to see gushing blood, eyeless corpses and a dead body floating away on a raft in a black and white film that is in many ways not much different from typical '50s giant monster fare.
While the film is laced with some eye-popping visceral thrills, The Flesh Eaters is primarily a character piece, and the actors do a crackerjack job in elevating the material into an epic of mean-spirited, sexploitation-like melodrama. Mostly cast from a pool of local New York talent, the relative unknowns are quite good in their roles, slinging screenwriter Drake's arrows at each other with far more sinister motivations apparent just beneath the surface. Kostler, the only cast member with some substantial credits to back up his name, was a character actor who specialized in Nazi portrayals, so it's little surprise when he turns out to be the attention-grabbing evil foreign scientist, but the real scene-stealer is Ray Tudor's heptalk-spouting beatnik Omar, who rows his way ashore because he has his radio turned up so loud that he mistakes the Grant's warnings for a welcome. Riffing off non-sequiturs like "Love is the weapon!" while wondering if the "kooky" bacteria are spurned to consume living tissue because of an underlying guilt complex, Omar is completely over the top, but brings the film to a whole new level of pop surrealism. Even without Omar's wild ravings, there are just too many wonderful little moments here—Bartell trying to trick the sandal-wearing beatnik into downing a drink contaminated with the flesh eaters, Laura carrying on a drunken conversation with herself alone in the plane, and Grant's deadpan machismo as he tries to find out what Bartell is really up to, all the while ogling the bikini-clad Jan.
Long promised on DVD, Dark Sky's digital presentation of The Flesh Eaters was definitely worth the wait. The transfer comes from a crisp, generally pristine negative that is nothing short of a joy to watch. The mono soundtrack is also surprisingly solid, with all dialogue and effects coming through nice and clear. It looks far better than most low budget film of this vintage on DVD, and that's a testament to Dark Sky's fine work on this release. As far as extras, there are a couple of trailers, a deleted Nazi flashback sequence that traces the origin of the flesh eaters back to Third Reich scientists, and some very brief outtakes of Nazis tossing nude girls in a supposedly infected swimming pool. Not a bad selection at all, but a little more background information on this barely-known cult oddity could have been the frosting on the cake.
Kooky, spooky, and more than just a little ooky, The Flesh Eaters is a great discovery-in-waiting just waiting to infect adventurous sci-fi and horror fans. Sure, it ain't Shakespeare, but it was never meant to even come close—The Flesh Eaters is quite simply a testament to what a reasonably skilled director can do with an admittedly tacky story idea, a handful of willing participants and a few thousand bucks.
Not guilty—another fine cult discovery gets a top-notch treatment from Dark Sky.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
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