“There’s something in the water that eats flesh! I said ‘eats flesh’! People!”
The 1980s were undeniably the glory days of gore in horror cinema, but they weren’t necessarily the root of extreme on-camera violence. George Romero is often credited as being the godfather of gore, ushering in the era of special effects that paid great detail to exposing the insides of horror’s actors/victims. Romero’s seminal work, The Night of The Living Dead, was released as early as 1968, well before onscreen gore reached its Reagan-era fever pitch. Before The Night of the Living Dead hit the theaters, however, it was originally titled The Night of the Flesh Eaters and subsequently changed its moniker to avoid confusion with a film simply titled The Flesh Eaters released just four years prior. The Flesh Eaters shares no resemblance with the zombie-centric plots of Romero’s Living Dead series in even the vaguest sense, but it does beat the director to the punch somewhat in terms of onscreen gore, so it’s somewhat appropriate that they almost shared a name.
The Flesh Eaters is horrifically violent for a mid-60s creature feature, paying great attention to the special effects of its blood & guts make-up. Many credit the film as being the very first example of gore horror & it’s difficult to argue otherwise. The anachronistic-feeling intrusion of extreme violence in what otherwise feels like a standard Corman-esque B-picture is beyond striking. Although I’ve seen far worse gore in films that followed in its wake, the out-of-place quality the violence has in The Flesh Eaters makes the film feel shocking & upsetting in a transgressive way. I don’t know for sure if Romero was at all inspired by The Flesh Eaters or if he even had seen it before making The Night of the Living Dead, but his work certainly wasn’t the first gore-soaked spectacle in town, not by a long shot.
A drunk movie starlet, her overworked assistant, and a cocky airplane pilot are temporarily marooned on a small, mysterious island. It’s there that they encounter a creepy scientist fella experimenting with a microscopic, weaponized life form that greedily eats human flesh clean off the bone. At first the only evidence of these tiny mutant bastards is the washed-up skeletons that arrive picked-clean on the shore. Soon they reveal themselves as tiny spots of nuclear glow that can only be described by their potential victims in the vaguest of terms: “that shiny stuff”, “that little silver stuff”, etc. Without revealing too much, I can promise that these tiny, evil, glimmering somethings eventually snowball into a much bigger, stranger problem that a small crew of shipwrecked amateurs stand very little chance of surviving.
Directed by the guy who voiced Papa Racer on the 60s Speed Racer cartoon (Jack Curtis) & partially funded by his winnings on a long-forgotten television game show, The Flesh Eaters is largely a labor of love. There are some details to what it delivers that relegates it to a camp cinema context: some nonsensical asides about Nazis, a beatnik caricature that would’ve made even the extras in Corman’s Bucket of Blood blush, some bathing suit oggling, a William Castle-style distribution gimmick in which audiences were armed with “instant blood” to feed the flesh eaters in case of attack, etc. As goofy as The Flesh Eaters can be in moments, however, what truly makes it unique is the ahead-of-its-time attention paid to its special effects. Holes are poked into film strips themselves to indicate the flesh eaters at work. Blood & gore ooze out of victims in a horrifically stark black & white. The scale of the third act mayhem far exceeds what you’d reasonably expect based on the budget. The Flesh Eaters suffered many setbacks, including years-delayed distribution & a hurricane disrupting production, but it was well worth the effort. It eventually stood as a must-see landmark of horror cinema that would in its own way predict where the genre was headed in the decades to come and it still plays remarkably fresh today because of that grotesque innovation.