The Flesh Eaters: Hittin’ the Lovin’ Spot for 50 Years

PosterAfter Cinema Catharsis mentioned The Flesh Eaters (1964) as an October 2013 quick pick, I knew I had to check it out.  It’s a nice early period gore flick that stands the test of time as a decent thriller.  Originally released in 1964, even though it was made in 1960-61, it was one of the follow-ups to box office smash The Blob (1958).  The behind-the-scenes lore of The Flesh Eaters also seems pretty well documented, and recapitulating some of that story seems like a nice way to celebrate its 50th anniversary: The Flesh Eaters’s premiere was 50 years ago yesterday.

First though, the film:

Arnold Drake wrote the screenplay for The Flesh Eaters

Arnold Drake wrote the screenplay for The Flesh Eaters

It would seem the most detailed, first-hand account of the making of this film comes from its screenwriter, Arnold Drake, who gave a lengthy interview in Tom Weaver’s book, Eye on Science Fiction: 20 Interviews with Classic SF and Horror Filmmakers, published in 2003.  Drake was most renowned as a comic book writer–as a dyed-in-the-wool DC guy I am most fond of his creating “Deadman.”  Arnold passed away in 2007 at the age of 83.

A couple fun stories from the interview are worth paraphrasing: first, the film was funded in part with $70,000 acquired from producer-director Jack Curtis’s wife won on a rigged game show, High Low, in 1957.  It would appear that this would have been Curtis’s first wife, whom Drake named as “Terry,” not his later wife, Paulette Rubinstein, whom Curtis married in 1964.  The fact that the show was rigged in advance was a tightly kept secret by the Curtises for a number of years, even from Drake.

On a side note: Rubinstein apparently did some of the voice dubbing for early Godzilla films, including Godzilla vs. The Thing, which IMDB fails to mention.  Also, Jack and Paulette’s daughter, Liane Curtis starred in 16 Candles, Critters, and more recently in a one-off in season one of Sons of Anarchy.  

Barbara Wilkin, was little more than a pretty face in The Flesh Eaters, according to Drake.

Barbara Wilkin was little more than a pretty face,  according to Drake.  She apparently called it a career in 1968, and left film and television after only a decade.

Anyway, the second interesting tidbit from this interview was the story about how Frank Sinatra almost got into the movie–or not.  After they had cast Barbara Wilkin the fimmakers found an unnamed woman whom Drake says was much more attractive than Wilkin who had no acting experience, but she said her boyfriend would put up whatever funds were necessary to finish the film.

Following the money, Drake and Curtis meet the boyfriend–someone named “Chester”–in Chicago, where he was putting them up in a swanky hotel right on Lake Michigan.  After pitching the film–and emphasizing and re-emphasizing that this was a low budget film–Chester was convinced and announced “Frankie owes me, from way back,” and said it was settled–he’d call Sinatra and convince him to be in this picture, and the two filmmakers would be hearing from Chester’s people. This caused, as one would imagine, a huge panic: Sinatra was obviously a huge star, and this was not the movie for him or his entourage.  A full union crew would be needed for an A-lister like him, coming at the cost of an extra half-million dollars or more.  A few days afterwards they heard from Chester’s accountant who said: “We’ve decided not to go with this venture.”  No kidding.  They never heard from the beautiful wannabe actress again.  In any case, Wilkin did a fine job, though Drake wasn’t terribly impressed with her.

This film also forced the hand of the great George Romero and the titling of his best known film, Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Originally, Romero wanted his film to be called Night of the Flesh Eaters, but a lawyer contacted him to change his film’s name, presumably on behalf of Vulcan Productions, Curtis and Drake’s production company that made The Flesh Eaters.  At any rate, to avoid a lawsuit, Romero changed the name of his classic to Night of the Living Dead, according to Joe Kane’s book on the making of Romero’s film.

The legacy of The Flesh Eaters tends to be overshadowed, mainly by Hershell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, which came out the year prior to Flesh Eaters–both experimented with being more gory depictions of violence, but Blood Feast was obviously more violent by an order of magnitude.  Also, Blood Feast was a color picture, which made the severed tongues and disembowlings all the more realistic.  Flesh Eaters seems to me to be among the last of the American “monster on the loose” pictures that were a staple of drive-ins of the previous decade, and it seems a fitting end as film straddles that mainly tame and harmless genre and the increasingly graphic horror of the 1960s and 1970s.

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