It’s an outrage, a meretricious atrocity, a blaring, brazen bloodbath. It’s The Flesh Eaters, a cinematic Grand Guignol shot in ghastly black and white and produced with frightful thrift that just so happens to be the greatest B-grade horror flick ever made—and I do mean ever.
This movie has got the lot: a crazed naziphile scientist, a beefcake hero who doesn’t know the meaning of the word pain or emote, a whining, drunken trollop and her blonde good-girl assistant, a platitude-spouting beatnik imbecile, and a giant luminescent monster that looks like the spawn of Squiddly Diddly and a fried dim sim. If that’s not enough to whet your exploitation movie appetite, there are gouts and gouts of inky gore. In fact, such is this motion picture’s gruesomeness that when I first saw it almost 20 years after its 1964 release it had been given a short back and sides by a TV censor.
The Flesh Eaters was directed by Jack Curtis and scripted by Arnold Drake, a veteran comic book scribe who conceived DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the feature film version of which has just blasted onto cinema screens. Drake’s ability to fit a big story into a small comic book keeps the movie galloping along at a Kentucky Derby pace. There’s no time to be bored with this celluloid wonder.
Warning: Spoilers Galore!
Pilot Grant Murdoch is flying sloshed actress Laura Winters and her personal assistant, Jan Letterman, to Provincetown in his seaplane when engine trouble forces him to make an emergency landing on a deserted island. While looking for shelter from an approaching storm, they encounter Dr. Peter Bartel, a marine biologist with an almost impenetrable German accent, who lumbers out of the misty surf in a scuba diving wetsuit. Bartel claims that he’s conducting research on shellfish.
So drunk she can barely crawl, Winters stumbles across a human skeleton washed up on the shore. Bartel puts it down to sharks despite the fact that the skeleton is intact and has been picked cleaner than a box of chicken McNuggets at a stoners’ party.
Bartel invites the new arrivals to spend the night in his tent, where he introduces them to his pet parrot, Lewis. He says that Lewis keeps him company on long, lonely field trips. The bird’s confounded screeching has a miraculous healing effect on Winters, turning her sober instantaneously.
Murdoch takes Jan aside and tells her that he doesn’t buy Bartel’s explanation about the mysteriously well-preserved skeleton, and that he suspects the marine biologist is hiding something from them.
The next morning Bartel approaches Winters on the beach. Seeking the kind of companionship a parrot just can’t provide, he asks her why she’d want a virile hunk like Murdoch when she could have an aging marine biologist like him, who knows shellfish better than anybody. She laughs at his lame pick-up technique and bites him on the hand.
Hey, that’s not the doggy-dinner-bowl look. That pickup seminar was a gyp!
Winters hits the bottle hard. She then collapses on the beach as pickled as an onion. Meanwhile, Bartel casts the seaplane adrift, stranding her and the others on the island.
Alarmed by the number of fish skeletons littering the shore, Murdoch informs Jan that they have to leave the island and fast. He goes looking for Winters and finds her at the water’s edge, staring stupidly at the rope that had been anchoring his seaplane, which is nowhere to be seen. He blames her for casting it adrift. She storms off in urgent need of another drink.
Murdoch happens upon the titular flesh eaters, glowing carnivorous microbes that infest the ocean around the island. They attach themselves to his legs when he rescues Winters from a sea-locked boulder on which she has the alcoholic sense to get stuck. Bartel digs them out with a pocket knife. Not wanting to see Murdoch bleed to death, Jan doffs her blouse and tears it into strips that she uses to bandage his leg. He gallantly drapes his shirt over her.
They hear jazz music. It’s coming from a phonograph on a raft offshore. Omar, a goofy beatnik, is the raft’s sole passenger. They holler at him to stay away from the island, but he’s too busy shouting beatnik drivel to hear them. He comes ashore with his sandals caked in flesh eaters. Surprisingly helpful for a mad scientist, Bartel cuts off the sandals with his trusty pocket knife.
They all enjoy a spot of tea on the beach. Afterward, Jan and Murdoch are exploring some sand dunes when they come across a huge black box covered in white polka dots with a power cable attached to it. Murdoch surmises that it’s a solar battery. How Bartel managed to get it on the island without the help of a crane is left for the more mechanically-minded viewer to figure out.
Bartel zaps a fishbowl full of flesh eaters in his tent with 10,000 volts of electricity while the others look on. He says he’s going to kill the flesh eaters in the ocean the same way. They leave Bartel to continue his pioneering work. He grins fiendishly as he watches the flesh eaters fizz back to life.
A motorboat approaches the island. The speed-happy guy piloting it cops a spray of saltwater in the face, which flesh eaters promptly reduce to a very bad make-up effect. The boat does a U-turn and skips back the way it came. Murdoch and his companions, who’ve been watching from the beach, sorrow over what would’ve been their means off the island.
Bartel sends Murdoch and the ladies out to find a spot where he can jump-start the ocean. While they’re gone, he offers Omar a flesh-eater Micky Finn. The idiot sculls it. Black gloop pumps out of Omar’s stomach as Bartel holds a microphone to his mouth and records his agonized howls.
Sometime later, Murdoch and the ladies hear Omar screaming. They spot him sailing into the distance on his raft. Unbeknownst to them, the screams are coming from a reel-to-reel recorder next to his corpse, which is lashed to a mast. Flesh eaters have eaten his stomach clean through.
Okay, that settles it. Vindaloo is now off my menu, like, forever.
Winters is taking a nap in the tent when she’s awakened by a boiling sound coming from the fish bowl. She lifts a tarpaulin covering it and recoils at what she sees. Rather than flee, she does her makeup. And then she flees. The tarpaulin rises as a heaving mass beneath it grows bigger and bigger.
Winters comes on to Bartel. She explains that she wants to be on his team now because his team is the winning team. They pash. Then Bartel stabs her with a wooden stake. He buries her body atop a sand dune, which isn’t the ideal place to hide it, but he’s in a hurry. As he hastens away, her hand pushes up through the sand.
Murdoch has a heated argument with Bartel, who pulls a gun on him. Bartel reveals that the flesh eaters are the creation of Nazi biologists. (Who else!) He says that being a patriot he plans to sell the flesh-eater tech to the US military, but that if they don’t want it, he’ll sell it to the Russians.
Bartel orders Jan to fetch some equipment from the tent. She’s confronted there by a hideous glowing blob creature that’s scarfed poor Lewis. Realizing that the creature is the result of Bartel’s fish bowl experiment, she races back to the beach and warns him not to electrify the water. But does he listen? No, instead, he forces Murdoch to throw a saucepan-cum-electrode into the surf.
The blob creature bursts out of the tent, electricity arcing from its two tentacles. Bartel tells Jan and Murdoch that he has to shoot them so he can escape the island while the blob creature is busy chowing down on their corpses. Suddenly, Winters teeters toward him, clutching the wooden stake he stabbed her with. She snarls that she’s going to kill him. He shoots her in the face. Dead for real now, she rolls down a dune and collides with the blob creature, her lifeless hand plunging the stake into its beach ball-like eye. Blood drips off her hand into the eye, and then the creature explodes.
Bartel and Murdoch deduce, brilliantly, that human blood is deadly to the flesh eaters when they’ve become a blob creature. Their deduction comes right in the nick of time, for a second blob creature is forming in the ocean. They jury rig a giant hypodermic needle so they can inject it with blood.
Bartel holds Jan and Murdoch at gunpoint again. He says that killing them is the only way for him to avoid the electric chair. Murdoch knocks the gun out of his hand. They fight and Bartel ends up in the drink. Roaring in pain, he staggers out covered in flesh eaters, then grabs the gun with his flesh-stripped hand and shoots himself in the head.
A condo-sized blob creature bubbles up out of the ocean. Murdoch, wearing a wetsuit and armed with the hypodermic needle, trudges into the brine to kill it. The creature wraps one of its tentacles around him and lifts him high into the air. He falls, landing on its colossal eyeball. He empties the needle into the horrid orb, then leaps to safety just before the creature goes up in a cloud of smoke.
Murdoch and Jan embrace on the beach. They walk off together as the sun sets behind them.
No Home Should Be Without The Flesh Eaters
So there you have it, folks, the greatest B-grade horror movie of them all. Dark Sky Films released a sparkling transfer of The Flesh Eaters uncut and in its original widescreen format on DVD some time ago. It’s available at all good DVD stores and a few bad ones as well.