We still remember the scary AM radio ads from back in the 6th grade: THEY EAT HUMAN FLESH! Mainstream ‘nabe theaters that wouldn’t show Herschell Gordon Lewis movies played this proto-gore horror show, an ingeniously crafted thriller that captures the horror comic vibe with clever, gruesome special effects. The flesh eaters are glittering bits of organic matter that can skeletonize a human in fifteen seconds! Martin Kosleck’s mad doctor is happy to welcome tasty human morsels for his ravenous home-grown microbes. An alternate version slides into sleaze territory with a tasteless flashback to a Nazi ‘medical experiment.’ The best extra is a long-awaited audio commentary, recorded for an earlier disc that was never released.
The Flesh Eaters
1964 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date June 28, 2022
Starring: Martin Kosleck, Byron Sanders, Barbara Wilkin, Rita Morley, Ray Tudor, Barbara Wilson.
Cinematography: Jack Curtis
Film Editor: Radley Metzger
Special Effects: Roy Benson
Original Music: Julian Stein
Written by Arnold Drake
Produced by Bernard Cherin, Jack Curtis, Terry Curtis, Arnold Drake
Directed by Jack Curtis
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the most influential shocker of the 1960s, but four years earlier another little chiller made its own splash in neighborhood theaters across the country. There’s nothing quite like honest exploitation that spells out its intentions right in its title: The Flesh Eaters. It’s well-crafted, acceptably acted, and it delivers on its promises. We can now celebrate its graphic sensibility — the author had a strong background in DC Comics. Better yet, it’s not all a campy joke inviting audience derision: a couple of transgressive scenes are genuinely scary. Some 1964 audiences had to be thinking, ‘They can put a scene like that in a movie?’
The Flesh Eaters came to San Bernardino in the summer of 1964 (it could have been 1965). One downtown theater had a display of stills and a placard promising the ultimate in terror. Our local top ten AM radio station KMEN 129 bombarded us with creepy ads consisting of a scream, a horrible boiling noise and a voice with a German accent snarling something akin to, “IT ONLY EATS FLESH!” The whole enterprise had a ‘forbidden’ quality. We were too scared to even think of attending … I believe that crabby old theater manager restricted the movie to adults anyway.
The low-budget B&W show was given a quality finish, with expert post-dubbed dialogue. Bankrupt New York City airplane pilot Grant Murdock (Byron Sanders) doesn’t want to fly in a storm, but the triple fee offered by beautiful Jan Letterman (Barbara Wilkin) changes his mind. Jan is secretary to the famous actress Laura Winters (Rita Morley), an alcoholic presently too stoned to stand on her own two feet. The plane runs afoul of the weather and is soon forced down on an isolated island. The three castaways meet Professor Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck), a marine biologist who neglects to let them know about the sinister experiments he’s conducting. Bartell awaits a deadly tide of aquatic microbes that “EAT FLESH! ANY FLESH!” and will even burn their way through metal to get at it. As skeletons of various victims wash ashore, Bartell sees to it that Murdock’s plane is untethered and drifts away. Bartell also prepares several beakers of electrically-activated microbes for testing … on his new companions.
The independently produced The Flesh Eaters is both funny and scary thanks to a tongue-in cheek screenplay that knows exactly what it’s doing. The main actors are Broadway and TV soap opera regulars that seem to be having a grand time. Star Martin Kosleck is the same actor who played Nazi villains almost exclusively for twenty years. Here he’s a — guess — Nazi villain reactivating an evil experiment left over from the waning days of the Third Reich.
Influenced by revelations from concentration camps, mad scientists in post- WW2 horror movies engaged in increasingly sleazy activities. Audacious bad taste is the main ingredient of 1958’s trashy She Demons, in which an escaped Nazi doctor seeks to restore his wife’s beauty by mutilating native women. Critic Raymond Durgnat noted that a similar premise is used for Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, proving that artistic intent makes the difference between trash cinema and great art. Flesh Eaters can’t claim art status but can be proud of its energetic, committed comic-book approach to the material. The dialogue is of the strictly declarative kind, with the actors playing it straight and letting the absurdity of the situation say it all. One hunky pilot and two ‘interested’ women must deal with the creations of a perverted scientist.
A wicked sense of humor is behind every soap-operatic twist. Martin Kosleck’s prof even tries to kiss the movie star, and is of course rudely rebuffed. The drunken actress Laura Winters is an over-the-top diva, like Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth. She becomes nasty-jealous when her secretary Jan starts playing footsie with the rugged, thick-eared pilot Grant Murdock. When Grant gets some of those nasty flesh eaters on his leg, Jan immediately strips off her blouse to provide a bandage. This is before nudity and outright gore were allowed but there’s plenty of teasing on both fronts.
Those 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 theatrical argot unrecognizable as beatnik, hippie or yippie, but he’s certainly a lively addition, a gonzo exaggeration of Bob Denver’s Maynard G. Krebs. Thus we easily imagine a fantasy Gilligan’s Island TV Special in which Gilligan, The Skipper and the others become test subjects for Professor Bartell’s clever experiments.
Although The Flesh Eaters edges into gore territory 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. An arresting prologue is a morbid take on a Beach Party flick. A young woman on a pleasure boat (Barbara Wilson of Invasion of the Animal People) loses her bikini top, followed by the rest of her body when the title critters attack. All we see are bloody hands, a screaming face and water boiling with dry ice. The main title pops on with a hissing, electric shimmer … notice has been served that this movie is going to deliver the goods.
The prologue is so effective, we’re not likely to question its logic: if Professor Bartell is experimenting somewhere out in the ocean, what are Flesh Eaters doing eating people in a boat marina? One of the marina victims soon washes ashore on this supposedly ‘isolated, uninhabited’ island.
The oddball special effects succeed through sheer creative audacity. The deadly tide of Nazi microbes is represented by double-exposed white flares on the water. When Grant Murdock gets some of the munching things on his leg, they appear as little animated pinpricks on the surface of the film. The crude technique is strangely effective — micro-explosions appear to be mutilating Murdock’s knee. This is coupled with an angle or two of Kosleck’s knife carving off a slice of shinbone as if it were cheese. Jan wraps her blouse around Grant’s leg and he’s as good as new.
Our castaways are stuck on a beach, surrounded by ocean water ripe with the glittering, hungry microbes. Like any he-man (especially one given the name Grant Murdock) our hero is frequently shirtless as well, in his case without the excuse of first-aid necessity. Does the sight of Murdock’s manly-man chest encourage the ravenous flesh eaters to redouble their effort?
The big shockeroo occurs when Prof. Bartell puts some flesh eaters into a drink and watches poor Omar gulp it down. We wait nervously until the expected occurs. The grue effects are good but Ray Tudor’s horrified reaction really does the trick — we believe he’s being consumed from within. It’s a genuinely scary Horror Comic vibe: the narrative may be crude yet we feel for the characters and want them to survive. We like Omar.
The payoff to the episode is an unconvincing shot of Omar tied dead to the mast of his little raft, with a glaring see-through hole in his stomach. Instead of silly, it’s disturbing. Omar now looks like a Salvador Dali artwork, or one of the corpses half-buried in sand in Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or. Who ever accused Jack Curtis and Arnold Drake of being surrealists?
For the big finale, The Flesh Eaters changes gears to an even higher level of jeopardy. The microbes coalesce into two monsters, one the size of a beach ball and the other about 200 feet across. The optical effects involved aren’t sophisticated, but the stalwart seriousness of the actors and the brassy music sell the scenes fairly well. The spongy white flesh eater thingys have one eye, giant tentacles and a vaguely obscene cavity that resembles one of those Martian monster props from Roger Corman’s space re-edit Battle Beyond the Sun.
The standard cut of The Flesh Eaters is a great party picture. It’s campy and unpretentious, and the cast hypes the melodramatic script. Morley’s movie star is a hoot and Kosleck’s Professor Bartell truly nasty. The extreme material is exploitative fun, albeit with an extra dose of sadism. Action scenes emulate comic book panels: to kill one of the flesh-eating monsters Byron Sanders must make a cartoonish ‘Captain America’- style leap. What more can one ask?
Some of the gore shots — mainly cutaways to partly-dissolved corpses — are really ahead of their time. A sequence of a parrot being threatened hides a growing, trembling flesh-eater monster under a cloth. The setup recalls the suspenseful menace of Mario Bava’s Caltiki the Immortal Monster, growing inside a glass container.
The film’s only sets are an open beach and a couple of tents. The filmmakers make good use of a real airplane; the only other large prop is Bartell’s solar power generator, a big box with silly silver discs glued to its sides. Electricity brings about verrry innnteresting changes to the Professor’s fast-munching microbes. It’s yet another tragic case of science misused — Bartell’s incredible solar generator could have saved humanity from the looming climate crisis.
Director Jack Curtis was an energetic New York editor and The Flesh Eaters was his one shot at the big time. Writer Arnold Drake also co-scripted Who Killed Teddy Bear? and the caveman nudie 50,000 B.C. (Before Clothing). I like his work here. In 2005 correspondent Chris D. (Desjardins) filled me in on Mr. Drake’s background in comics. Chris wrote:
Hi, Glenn. Writer Arnold Drake also scripted many stories for DC’s Blackhawk and Doom Patrol in the 1960s. I was a huge fan of both. Drake had one of the more deranged imaginations at DC, as if he’d been schooled by working for For Men Only– type pulp rags. He most certainly pushed the envelope as far as what was acceptable. He would often manage to 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 Flesh Eaters’ Nazi atrocity back story was Drake’s doing. Best, Chris D., American Cinematheque.
Chris saw to it that his well known punk rock band was named The Flesh Eaters.
Actress Barbara Wilkin apparently went to France the very next year, and appeared in Claude Chabrol’s Paris vu par…. That’s the opposite of actress Marilyn Buferd’s career trajectory. She had a big role in Jacques Becker’s 1954 French Touchez pas au grisbi! only to wind up several years later in the American monster opus The Unearthly.
The most notable name in the film’s credits is editor Radley Metzger, who was already established as an adult filmmaker and later made notable exotica like The Lickerish Quartet. His editing is good; he appears to also have had a hand in the show’s polished audio finish. At one point star Laura Winters finishes a drunken line reading by saying “Cut!”, as if directing herself in an imaginary movie. Was that in the script, or an ad lib, or was actress Rita Morley actually stopping the camera take?
The Blu-ray of The Flesh Eaters is a solid transfer that looks very good but is not an enormous improvement on the old Dark Sky DVD from 2005. What we all wish for in these circumstances is a scan taken from a source close to the original negative, and audio from pre-print material. It’s instead defensively described as a “new 2K scan from the best available film elements.” That disclaimer prompts us to expect anything, but in this case the overall quality should more than satisfy buyers. The image is clean and we see little if any film damage.
The extras will fulfill a wish frustrated back in 2005: a second Standard-Def encoding is the alternate Flesh Eaters cut that includes (at 65 minutes in) the lurid flashback depicting the initial Nazi experiments. It’s not very imaginatively filmed — three nude models are forced into a pool loaded with fearsome microbes. They re-emerge as gruesome skeletons. In a real low of tastelessness, they’re meant to be concentration camp prisoners. There was once some doubt about whether the flashback was included in original prints, to which Chris D. responded right away, back in 2005:
I saw it as a child at the Rubidoux Drive-In in West Riverside in its first week in Southern California. I can tell you most certainly that the flashback definitely was in the original 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 the drive-in. 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.
The alternate cut carries an audio commentary recorded in 2005. Back then a competing DVD was announced by Retromedia and then cancelled; only a few review copies circulated. Its commentary has until now been only a bootleg item. The main speaker is Arnold Drake, who was 81 in 2005 and would pass away two years later. Drake has a great memory and some good stories to tell his host Fred Olen Ray. Extra guest Tom Weaver offers hard-info asides about the cast, suggests a few questions for Drake and occasionally snipes at the film: “How did the flesh eaters wire those skeletons together?” Fred Olen Ray loses no opportunity to talk up anything in the movie related to nudity. He reacts enthusiastically when Jan strips off to provide a bandage for Grant’s knee, and makes an offensive Nazi joke during the exploitative flashback — it’s all about weight reducing.
Arnold Drake has a lot more to say. The movie was made by a small consortium of investors. The filming (at Montauk, Long Island) was delayed over two summers, after a storm wiped out the first shoot. Jack Curtis filmed the entire movie uncredited. The credited Carson Davidson had filmed an Oscar-nominated short subject, but none of his footage was used in the movie. Drake says he definitely wanted Flesh Eaters to be shot Union, which may have aided its wide distribution in 1964.
Production began in 1960, the copyright is ’62 and the first release came in ’64, after a specialist in nude inserts added the fake Nazi atrocity footage for the flashback. Original prints had a short color insert of blood being injected into a giant monster eye; it was filmed in the first shoot. The shot is B&W in both disc encodings here, but is said to have appeared on an old Sinister Cinema disc, in very faded color. When asked to explain what the credited process ‘Supramotion’ might be, Mr. Drake gives the gimmick a pass: “Uh-huh.”
The disc repeats the good extras from the 2005 release. Liane Curtis speaks about her father for a few minutes, and we’re given some galleries of stills and ad materials. The new disc’s drab cover looks like clip art from a pressbook. We’ve seen a full-color poster for a release with Death Curse of Tartu but maybe the disc company was just going cheap. The best older extras are a trio of original teaser trailers that hype the horror and tease the gore and nudity. The radio spots were enough for me — at age 12, this trailer would have given me nightmares.
A few years ago we might have jokingly assured readers that nothing like The Flesh Eaters exists in reality. Nope, today’s awareness allows us to dream sweet dreams about real life’s flesh-eating bacteria. Have no fear, I picked a link without alarming images.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Flesh Eaters
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good +
Sound: Good +
Alternate Cut (SD))Standard Definition)
Audio Commentary with Arnold Drake, Fred Olen Ray and Tom Weaver
Flesh Eater’s Daughter — Interview with Liane Curtis
Storyboard, image, poster and lobby card galleries
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (HD feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 2, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson