FleshEater (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-10-31 03:18

Written by: Bill Hinzman & Bill Randolph
Directed by: Bill Hinzman
Starring: Bill Hinzman, John Mowod, and Leslie Ann Wick

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"This evil which will take flesh and blood from thee and turn all ye into evil...

If Bill Hinzman’s career is any indication, portraying the world’s first modern zombie had its perks beyond a lifetime slot on the convention circuit. His famous appearance in Night of the Living Dead kept him tethered to Romero’s subsequent productions in bit roles on-screen and more substantial roles behind cameras in the early 70s, but he wasn’t able to parlay that sliver of fame into further notoriety until the late 80s, when he inexplicably helmed a pair of splatter movies. Arriving two decades after its director’s ghoulish debut, FleshEater seemingly piggybacks on Night co-writer John Russo’s success in establishing his own Living Dead legacy; however, if Return is like Romero’s film riotously thrashed around with an 80s punk aesthetic, then Flesheater is Night of the Living Dead by way of the era’s slasher flicks or Romero reimagined as a splattery funhouse attraction.

Appropriate, then, that it begins with an All Hallows’ Eve hayride for a group of kids looking to party at a nearby farm. When one of the local farmers stumbles upon an odd stump, he naturally assumes shenanigans; upon digging it up, he discovers a sealed coffin bearing both a warning and a pentagram. The ominous inscription goes unheeded and the farmer breaks the seal, allowing the coffin to spew forth an undead corpse (Hinzman) that promptly tears his throat out. Having been unleashed from the ground, this flesh-eater begins to roam the countryside, mauling any poor bastard unlucky enough to cross his path.

While Hinzman riffs on Night of the Living Dead throughout FleshEater, it’s hardly an uninspired retread. Rather than stay cooped up with horrified, bickering survivors, the film essentially roams right alongside its steadily growing undead horde. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to marry the zombie movie with the similarly growing brain-dead horde of slasher movies, Hinzman conjures up an impressive splatter reel spattered with both ample gore and clichés, such as dumb, oblivious teens making out in barns only to meet a gruesome demise. After tiring of that routine, the film wanders in and out of suburbia, following the undead as they devour the night’s festivities: in the end, both oversexed, drunken revelers are subject to the same gory fate as innocent trick-or-treaters. In many zombie movies, the undead highlight how awful humanity can be to each other; here, they’re the great white of gut-munchers, soulless, ravenous machines gorging on anything that walks before them--and it totally rules.

On paper, it’s a disastrous formula: here’s a film that feels like a bald-faced attempt to leech off the legacy of a masterpiece and with little or no respect for what inspired it. With the exception of Hinzman’s familiar ghoul and the obvious pilfering of a key Night of the Living Dead sequence, FleshEater couldn’t be further removed from Romero’s classic. And yet, the film is undeniably charming, landing in that sweet spot between homemade shot-on-video efforts and regional drive-in fare. Its grainy 16mm photography gives it the pseudo-legitimacy of the latter, while nearly everything captured on it puts it in the company of the former. To label Hinzman the most convincing actor of his troupe would be backhanded but honest, as some are barely able to make it through a scene without nearly cracking up. Of course, there’s still a sincerity to it all that works, especially once the film focuses on a pair of ill-fated lovebirds who find themselves warning anyone who will hear their story. Watching the film attempt to replicate the infamous climax of Night of the Living Dead with these two is almost pretty precious, which is an odd thing to say considering the film also features a scene where Hinzman’s zombie devours an entire family, including a young girl (played by his own daughter!).

It’s also tough to deny the film’s commitment to ridiculous amounts of bloodshed. Night is the obvious touchtone here, but the violence of Romero’s blood-soaked Dawn and Day inform the general aim for FleshEater (and this is not to mention the various Italian rip-offs). I mean, it’s right there in the title, and I doubt anyone felt like they were deceived by it, what with the assorted jugular gnashings and brain-bashing. Hinzman’s sparse effects crew proves to be impressive and prolific gag artists throughout, as there’s nary a stretch where someone isn’t having their guts consumed or their face blown off. If you’re going to basically eschew plot like FleshEater does, it’s wise to keep the blood flowing (and, some might say, the boobs flashing—there’s plenty of T&A here, thus satisfying the 80s slasher quotient, but with zombies to boot).

Perhaps unexpectedly, the gore works in concert with some atmospheric flourishes, with the Halloween setting evoking a certain Autumnal mood. Set in rural Pennsylvania (of course), FleshEater captures the chilly, rustic vibe associated with the holiday. As thoroughly unconvincing as the actors can be at times, the film is an otherwise effective reflection small-town Americana and its Halloween trimmings, from cheap paper decorations to elaborate costume parties. It’s almost like watching a local spook trail writ large, with Hinzman acting as a ghoulish guide, only instead of an overacting huckster, he’s got his mouth full with the patrons. By all accounts, FleshEater should not work, but it’s the sort of thing that must exist to remind us that films can defy the odds—even one that shamelessly exploits a classic and alters its seething howl into a complete hoot. Romero might have imagined zombies as blank slates to reflect a crumbling society, but Hinzman sees them as gore-soaked carnival attractions. Neither is wrong. Buy it!

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