Here we are, halfway through SHOCKtober and I'm at long last, I'm starting to feel in the spirit of the season. I finally got me some pumpkin spice coffee. Leaves are doing their Autumn thing. I'm playing the "no, don't turn the heat on yet" game with myself, as if there is some kind of prize for being A Staunch New Englander and enduring the cold longer than necessary. Most importantly, I've now seen theee perfect movie for any and all Halloween gatherings. Or non-Halloween gatherings. Or anytime solo "gatherings." But especially Halloween gatherings! I'm sure you've figured out by now that I'm talking about...
I'm tellin' ya, it's kismet that pushed FleshEater (1988) from languishing on my "I'll get to it one day maybe" list to flourishing in front of my eyeballs, and I'm eternally grateful to the two people who made that happen: the inimitable Alex West (of Faculty of Horror and the finest bookstores everywhere) who told me I should see it because she thought I'd enjoy it, and the single voter who called FleshEater a favorite film back in 2020. Heroes, both, because honestly?
I've been trying to figure out why I'd put off watching this movie for so long--I mean, besides the obvious reasons like "I'm watching Real Housewives" or "I'm playing Starfield" or "I forgot" or "I'm watching literally any other movie" or "I'm staring at a wall" or "I'm staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger me off." I think it's because I knew it would be bad, and I didn't want to see it be bad. I know that probably earned me an "Uhh, okay weirdo," but let me explain. FleshEater is truly the love child of Night of the Living Dead's Bill Hinzman, who wrote, edited, directed, produced, and stars in it. If it was unwatchable dreck, I wanted to remain in ignorant bliss, because I love NotLD and everyone in it, especially Bill Hinzman. When he died in 2012, I talked a bit about why:
[...]I was standing and talking with John Russo, the man who co-wrote Romero's Night of the Living Dead. He had some pictures--trading cards, maybe?--from Night of the Living Dead and they were in color. I couldn't get over it, seeing all those familiar faces, humans and ghouls alike, like I'd never seen them before. I know there's a colorized version of the film floating around out there, but it's never appealed to me. The behind the scenes stuff, though, I was eating it up.
Then someone came and stood next to me. I figured it was just another fan waiting his or her turn, but then the person leaned over a bit and quietly said, "You know, I was the first zombie." I turned, and it was Bill Hinzman...and let me tell you, it was not at all obnoxious. It sounds as if it might have been, like the equivalent of someone laughing so loudly in that way that lets you know he or she is an actor and they should have your attention, but it wasn't. When I turned, he was just beaming, an adorable old dude in glasses. I'm sure he loved the attention and the "Oh my God, you are the first zombie!" I gave him, but after a moment, when he and Russo and I were talking and then oh, Russ Streiner came over and across the way were Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman and I was suddenly kind of surrounded by horror movie royalty and they were a gang, it felt like, both then and nearly 40 years prior, and it was just the best.
Bill Hinzman's death has affected me more than I could have thought it would. Not that I ever sat around thinking about it much, mind you. But it's made me realize (or possibly just remember) how much Night of the Living Dead means to me as a horror fan. I wrote about it, and Barbra in particular, in this post (spurred on by Arbogast...damn you, man!), and I can't see a reason to try to say it any better than I did then:Let me say right upfront: I adore this film. [...] Night of the Living Dead is all shock and far gorier than you remember it being. It's all exquisite lighting and camera angles. It's all horror with a bit of rotting meat on its bones, terrifying in its simplicity. Somehow, this film is one of the very few that I can always manage to watch with the mindset of the era in which it was made, and perhaps that's why it's one of my favorites, why it never fails to work for me, why I still get scared.While Hinzman wasn't really the first zombie, he was totally the first zombie, and even if my adoration-colored glasses at that convention wouldn't let me see a plain old boast as a boast...well, he deserved to boast, dammit.
Hinzman and Russo both kept on with the zombie stuff in their own endeavors after the gang broke up, and while I say good on ya (mates), FleshEater is truly and famously a Great Value Night of the Living Dead. It's entirely silly, but I just...didn't want that to sort of sully any of my NotLD feelings. I'M SENSITIVE OKAY!!!
But even before I finally decided to give it a chance, I'd come to view FleshEater through the lens of that interaction I had with Hinzman forever ago. That is to say, the dude fucking loved being Cemetery Zombie, as well he should. Maybe I'm just coping here, but FleshEater feels more like a love letter to Night than it does some kind of cash-in or rip-off, or like Bill Hinzman made his own fanfiction dreams come true, maybe. I say this even though his film hits (or tries to hit, anyway) most of the same beats that Romero's film does, and Hinzman certainly doesn't shy away from aping--or, uh, paying homage to certain iconic shots.
Again, maybe I'm being generous, but it all felt...adorable?...to me. Night of the Living Dead was famously a local Pittsburgh production, and so is FleshEater. But while the former felt like it was made by people with some experience who would likely rise to even greater heights, the latter has a decidedly community theatre feeling to it. It's Friday the 13th vs Blood Lake, you know?
A group of people (I refuse to call them youths!) take a hay ride to the middle of the Pennsylvania woods to par-tay. A nearby farmer finds an unmarked grave, breaks the seal and lock keeping it closed, and out pops a zombie (Hinzman). Unfortunately for our partiers (and the world, assumedly), the zombie starts going "rarr" and biting everyone he can, which, as you might suspect, leads to more and more people going "rarr" and biting everyone they can.
Sure, it's derivative much of the time: we get survivors boarding up windows in a farmhouse; we get a posse going zombie hunting, led by a sheriff saying funny things; we get the living mistaken for the undead, and so on. But Hinzman also mixes up the formula from time to time so things might not always progress exactly as you, the discerning and experienced zombie film viewer, might expect.
But ultimately it does just go from set piece to set piece (barn, other barn, other other barn) as people get taken out by shamblers who do quite literally go "rarr" all the time. Sometimes, when we're very lucky, they couple the "rarr" with this pose:
While there is the occasional inventive kill, most of them are sort of slow-motion bites on the neck, complete with delayed reactions on the part of the victims and caution on the part of the zombies, as if they were worried about actually hurting their fellow actors. There is a surprising amount of gore in this, though; sometimes it's very silly, but the effects are pretty damn good considering the budget and, well, the quality of the rest of the production, particularly the acting. I'd call it "amateur," but that's a pretty lofty term to describe anyone's acting in FleshEater.
Shout-out, though, to anchorwoman queen...
...and police dispatcher queen, who has her feet up on the desk and could have prevented the zombie apocalypse if she put down her gossip rag for one second and took the threat more seriously!!!
There's also a downright shocking amount of nudity, and it's all...I don't know. Pedestrian? A kind of...workingman's nudity? I don't mean that as a slight on any of the women in the film. It's checklist nudity, that's all, like a woman will appear onscreen and just...get naked. I know that a sizable portion of horror audiences are "any tits in a storm" types, and that's fine, it's simply that the approach in FleshEater is weird and laughable.
That said, I mean, it's called FleshEater, it's not like I was expecting anything tasteful. But I also wasn't expecting this movie to be sleazy, and it sure is. That doesn't make it any less adorable, somehow.
I really really enjoyed my time with this. It's dumb, gory, and fast-paced. The score, such as it is, frequently sounds out of time with itself. (You'll know what I mean when you hear it.) You won't mind the terrible acting because the script is just as bad. But my goodness, FleshEater is charming and fun, and the perfect SHOCKtober treat. It's like you can feel the good time everyone had while making this emanating from the screen, and you feel it the most with Bill Hinzman, who, again, is really (un)living all of his zombie dreams here. He was the first zombie, you know. Rarr!