Stop me if you heard this one: A group of people become stranded on a desert island . . . where they encounter a horde of monsters that viciously kill them one at a time!
Oh, you have heard of that? Well, what if the island monsters were the product of MAD SCIENCE! BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
So you've heard of that one too. OK, Mr. Smarty Pants--what if the mad science was NAZI mad science and the monsters were MICROSCOPIC FLESH EATERS!!!
That's the premise of The Flesh Eaters, a creature feature that was originally released back in 1964 and the only movie ever directed by Jack Curtis. The movie's plot follows a charter airplane pilot, an alcoholic actress and her comely assistant, a marine biologist and a shipwrecked beatnik as they struggle to find their way off of an uninhabited island that's surrounded by the titular flesh eaters, whose presence render the ocean water around the island acidic.
For as grim and gory as this premise sounds, don't be fooled--The Flesh Eaters is 87 minutes worth of low-budget camp, with hammy scripting, unconvincing effects, and dramatic performances that vary greatly in their quality. (Several reviews I've read of this movie have even speculated if it was the accidental inspiration for Gilligan's Island.) That said, The Flesh Eaters is not without its charms and it has enough interesting details to earn a footnote mention in American low-budget horror history. Read on for the full flesh feast, with a side order of jellyfish sushi.
I first heard about The Flesh Eaters when it arrived on the shelves of a local video store as a Monterey Home Video VHS release back in the mid-80s. The video stores in my town rarely carried any horror films that were released before 1970, so to see this cheapjack horror B-movie from 1964 placed alongside cheapjack horror movies from the 70s and 80s made it an oddity of sorts. Further helping it to stand out like a rotting, gangrenous thumb was its cover art: While many other horror B-movies had colorful, lurid art to help sell them to the indiscriminate renter, The Flesh Eaters just had a black and white drawing of a man screaming with a red spiral imposed over it.
The slightly truncated VHS cover of The Flesh Eaters,
courtesy of the Affection for OUR collection site.
From what I can recall of the film's description on the back of the VHS box, it hyped the film's gore and how some of the film's production crew members were also involved in the sexploitation film circuit. (Of particular titillating mention was that of Radley Metzger, the film's credited editor, who would go on to make a few adult movies during the 70s.) Obviously, Monterey Home Video designed the VHS cover to give you the impression that The Flesh Eaters was an early pioneer in low-budget girls 'n gore movies. While it doesn't quite live up to that promise, it nevertheless provides an interesting glimpse into the cheap creature features from the early 60s.
The most notorious feature of The Flesh Eaters is its level of gore, which was higher than most other horror films of its time. Yet in comparison to the horror films that were yet to come, as well as the movies made by then-contemporary Herschell Gordon Lewis (a.k.a. the "Godfather of Gore"), The Flesh Eaters is pretty tame. For example, a human skeleton washes ashore early in the movie, the remains of one of the flesh eaters' first victims. Yet the skeleton looks so clean and intact that the shot looks like someone stole a skeleton from a high school biology lab and left it on the beach for someone to find. Watching the actors trying to look shocked and horrified at this skeleton, something that is so far from shocking and horrifying, is one of the film's funnier moments.
Somewhere out there, a doctor's office is missing its skeleton.
Adding to The Flesh Eaters' infamy was its inclusion of brief, suggestive nudity in scenes that were inserted in one of the film’s later theatrical edits. These scenes were flashbacks to the Nazi experiments that were conducted to create the flesh eaters, and the experiments involved scientists forcing undressed women into a water tank where they were to be striped to the bone by the man-made micro monsters. The scenes were included as extras in the 2005 DVD release by Dark Sky Films, since they weren’t part of the Curtis’ original cut.
Nevertheless, the flashback scenes gave The Flesh Eaters the dubious distinction of being one of the early, brief examples of Nazi exploitation cinema (a.k.a. "Nazisploitation"). According to the definition provided on IMDB, Nazi exploitation is "a subgenre of exploitation film and sexploitation film that involves villainous Nazis committing criminal acts of a sexual nature often as camp or prison overseers in World War II settings. Most follow the standard women in prison formula, only relocated to a death camp or Nazi brothel, with an added emphasis on sadism, gore, and degradation." While these scenes hardly come close to the exploitative nature of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and SS Experiment Love Camp (both titles our local video stores carried, by the way), it did pre-date Love Camp 7 (1969), the first feature-length Nazisploitation film.
In spite of its seedier aspects, I found The Flesh Eaters to be a fun low-budget horror romp. Some of its appeal stems from the oddball lineup of characters that populate the story (particularly the drunk, bitter actress and the spaced-out proto-hippie), which gives The Flesh Eaters a certain flair that most other films of its type lack. The film is also rife with skilled deep focus cinematography and creative shot compositions that add an uneasy mood to its limited number of sets, which mostly consist of beaches and a tent. It should be noted that the "uninhabited island" in The Flesh Eaters was actually Long Island--the beaches of Montauk, to be exact--and director Jack Curtis makes the most of this scenic location. (This choice of location sort of reminds me of Shock Waves (1977), another film about forbidden Nazi science run amok, where the deserted island was in fact a location just outside of Miami.) With such a polished look, The Flesh Eaters never looks as quite as cheap as it really is. It even makes the film’s bargain-basement gore and creature effects look more interesting than they should be.
If you’re looking for a creature feature that isn’t a classic but an above-average example of a fun campy b-movie from the drive-in era, The Flesh Eaters is a must-see.