Sometimes great little oddities will fly under the radar. And sometimes they barrel roll out of the sky and blast through the earth never to be seen again. The Flesh Eaters (1964) is a prime example of digging through the filmic wreckage and dredging up a low budget winner. Sure, it’s not Citizen Kane, but it’s probably the Citizen Kane of Killer Microbes Versus Buxom Blondes On An Island With A German Scientist movies.

The Flesh Eaters should be just more low budget fodder from an era when any flickering images were sacrificed to the Drive-In Gods (see the same years’ The Horror of Party Beach – or rather, don’t). The set up and pedigree sure don’t help the argument – five people stranded on an island battle a monster, it’s an independent production, and a first (and last) time director helms – but a convergence of actual talent beneath the Z grade veneer makes The Flesh Eaters a total gas.

Let’s fire up the propellers, yes? We start with a quick prologue of a young couple on a boat, who learn post haste that the water is more deadly than it is chilly. After the credits, we meet up with our main protagonists. Jan (Barbara Wilkin) hires pilot Grant (Byron Sanders) to transport herself and Laura (Rita Morely), a drunk ass famous actress, to Provincetown to make rehearsals for her latest play. Naturally the plane has issues and they are forced to land on a deserted island. Of course, once they moor the seaplane and head out on shore, they are met by Professor Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck), a scientist conducting research. In short order, human and fish skeletons wash upon the shore, and they discover what we already know – something is hungry, for flesh and flesh alone. It turns out to be silver microbes that attach to the skin and strip tissue off any living creature, big or small. The gang is eventually joined by shipwreck survivor Omar (Ray Tudor), a beatnik whose main phrase is “love is a weapon”. Neat – o. Soon enough our heroes are dealing not only with the aquatically inclined critters, but intrigue as well when they discover that Bartell is not as he seems, which really shouldn’t be too hard to figure out because: a) he has a German accent thicker than Colonel Klink’s, and b) he switches alliances more often than a Survivor cast mate. The gang tries to kill the dna diners with electricity, but it only pisses them off and they coalesce into a huge, tentacled, gelatinous blob. Will our heroes be able to stop the creature in time? Will Bartell escape and guest star on Hogan’s Heroes? (Actually, he will.)

This particular brand of ridiculousness should only work on one level – unintentional camp. From the truncated cast and one location setting, to the mad scientist and the giant monster, this would seem to be a distilled version of second (hell, third even) billed fare on outdoor screens. On the surface, anyway. Things change as soon as the film rolls.

First up is the creepy prologue, where we see two boating, horned up youngsters meet their comeuppance in bubbling pools of blood. A shocking and succinct way to kick things off and I can think of two ‘70s horror staples that used the same template to similar effect (hint: one rhymes with CLAWS and the other sounds sort of like PINATA).

Which isn’t to say that this film is a trailblazer - the shadow of the mushroom cloud (yes, I’m stealing Queen lyrics) still looms over this production, lending an air of atomic mayhem not unlike THEM! (1954) by the end. Our monsters go from micro to macro at the film’s conclusion, proving to be quite unnecessary as the carnivorous critters are truly insidious in tiny form. This effect of the silver menace that cling to the unsuspecting was achieved by poking holes in the film negative so that light would shine through. Incredibly effective, and it shows the ingenuity involved when the funds are nowhere to be found (jog on, CGI).

Actually, maybe it did blaze one trail. Whenever The Flesh Eaters is mentioned, the amount of gore is brought up, and specifically the amount for the time this was made. Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) is usually acknowledged as the Granddaddy of Gore, but this one was made in ’62 and not released until two years later. Feast’s candy coated gristle stands out due to an overwhelming colorblast, while Eaters’ black and white aesthetic makes the thrills all the more palpable (and sorry, HGL fans – it’s shot so much better). We see blood spew as our titular creatures burn through flesh, we’re shown an impressive eye cavity, and for me the most glorious sight, a basketball sized hole where an abdomen should be. Of course it seems quaint by today’s standards – but it was new grue for the screen then, and it still holds up surprisingly well now.

The Flesh Eaters is a rarity for horror, especially as it stumbles through the peripheral of a few niche genres – a touch of naughty girl exploitation (both of our flawed, shapely heroines model the finest bras and bikini tops of the day), a dash of Nazism (although Bartell is supposed to be an American who infiltrates the Nazis, apparently it’s harder than it seems to ditch a German accent), and the aforementioned atomic monster boogie. So while it wades through these seemingly disparate elements, it miraculously emerges whole due to a witty, winking script by Arnold Blake, a comic book writer well known for The Doom Patrol and Deadman. He storyboards the entire film, giving it the look and feel of a graphic novel (you can practically see the balloons when they speak),and he actually takes the time to flesh out the main characters, giving them little moments that help move the story along during any slow points. But those are few and far between, as Blake somehow manages a minor cinematic coup in keeping the viewer invested in a five character, one setting piece. Finally, a chamber film I can get behind.

Most of the cast, with the exception of Kosleck, come from either a soap opera background or no previous experience at all. And all the leads are given a chance to shine, which must be easier to pull off when you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting thanks to Blake’s sarcastic quips and rat-a-tat dialogue (I’m thinking Billy Wilder writing for Ray Dennis Steckler). Ironically, Kosleck was the go to ‘Nazi’ actor in Hollywood, when he was in fact very vocal in his hatred for, and had fled from, Nazi Germany. You can’t make this shit up. Or at least you shouldn’t – what are you, some kind of sympathizer? Huh?

Speaking of stranger than fiction, Jack Curtis started as an editor, but hadn’t directed before and he never did again after. He also acted as his own cinematographer under an alias. Oh, and he completed the film with his wife’s winnings from a game show she was on. Sounds like we’re heading into Ed Wood territory, yes? Wrong! Turns out he’s a great director, and an even better DP, using deep focus (!) in certain scenes and making the island setting way more interesting than it has any business being. He would go on to do voice work for cartoons, most famously as Pops Racer on Speed Racer, before dying of pneumonia in 1970. As a ‘one and done’ goes, this is a doozy.

Is The Flesh Hunters objectively a great film? Of course not. There are several moments of unintentional humor and not everything lands where it should. But within this very specific corner of the cinematic universe, it tries way harder than it needs to, and succeeds in surprising ways. One more thing. As Omar, stranded on his raft, makes his way towards the island, we notice one word written on his makeshift sail: Rosebud. See? I told you this was the Citizen Kane of something.

The Flesh Eaters is available on DVD from Dark Sky Films.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.