Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Eat Your Skin: or, Gilligan's Island Meets Hell of the Living Dead

Every b-movie fan or trash flick afficianado worth his salt knows the story behind the drive-in pairing of the low-budget 1970 exploitation effort Phobia and the much less lurid jungle adventure Zombies, aka Voodoo Island. Poor little Zombies, though produced in 1964, sat on the shelf gathering dust for six years until distributor Jerry Gross picked it up to fill out a double-feature package with the aforementioned exploitation effort, which Gross (living up to his name) had imaginatively and profitably retitled I Drink Your Blood. Taking a cue from the success of the American and Italian flesh-eating zombie craze kickstarted by George Romero's now classic Night of the Living Dead, Gross slapped Zombies with the much less accurate but more alluring title I Eat Your Skin and shipped the enticing double feature out to drive-ins across the country.

As we all know, I Drink Your Blood went on to become the stuff of exploitation legend, the first movie rated X by the MPAA for its violent content alone. And I Eat Your Skin?

Well, it went down in history as "that movie that they paired with I Drink Your Blood."

It's perhaps understandable that IEYS was delegated to obscurity while its billmate continues to garner most of the attention. Filling out the bottom of the double bill, the flick had an almost impossible act to follow. Add to that its black and white photography, its 50s sit-com dialogue and its almost quaint attempts at shocking makeup and gore effects (not to mention the apalling and complete lack of actual skin-eating in the movie), and you've got a recipe for disappointment for all the moviegoers too drunk, stoned, or not otherwise engaged who might still be watching.

Still, it's a fate that's perhaps not entirely deserved. While no masterpiece, taken on its own merits I Eat Your Skin is a reasonably enjoyable little slice of Americana, with some fun quotable dialogue, outrageous cultural sterotypes, and enough action in its 80-some-odd minute run time to keep a b-movie fan entertained.

The film opens with a bang, with a very creepy-looking Baron Samedi-type figure overseeing a frantic voodoo ritual. While the natives convulse in their trance-state in the background, a bikini-clad light-skinned girl performs a seductive dance around the campfire. It's actually enthralling to watch even now, and would have been downright kinky by 1964 standards. Also of note is the fact that the crowd attending the ritual seem to be markedly multi-racial--Voodoo Without Borders, if you will. After a few moments of dancing and tribal music, the girl and a goat are sacrificed to the gods of Vodoun via a machete-swing jump cut. A very strong opening.

From there we jet through the art-deco credits (featuring music by Don Strawn's Calypso Band! that sounds like the theme for I Dream of Jeannie Goes to Africa) to a luxurious hotel somewhere in the Bahamas, maybe, where novelist Tom Harris (no, not THAT Tom Harris!) has a bevy of bathing beauties in his thrall as he recites a scene of what's basically softcore literary porn, an excerpt from his latest book, Hot Lips. When a jealous husband threatens Harris for driving his wife to distraction, we get a hilarious scene of the adultress and hubby going fully clothed into the hotel pool--always comedy GOLD in the 60s! A few minutes later Harris and his agent Duncan are in the car on the way to the airport, as Duncan wants his meal ticket to go to Voodoo Island with him (subtle, no?) to research his next book. When Tom demurs, Duncan wins him over with this bit of convincing argument: "Girls! Virgin natives, just waiting for some sophisticated swinger like you to come along and pluck them off the vine!" Sign me up! So they pick up the agent's wife, Coral (with twin toy poodles all packed) and off they fly in a little prop job to the uncharted island where Lord Carrington, their host, awaits.

Here Tom starts to come into his own and we begin to realize what an amazing man's man he really is. When the plane runs out of gas before reaching Voodoo Island (nice flight plan, guys), Tom--the novelist and playboy--shoves the trained pilot out of his seat and takes over to bring them down safely on the beach! Take that, FAA! Then, while Coral, Duncan, and the pilot wait on the sand, Tom goes into the jungle to explore. Before you can say Maynard G. Krebs he's being stalked by one of the living dead, whose horrifying makeup job consists mainly of dried mud and cotton balls. Still, this zombie means business, as he shockingly decapitates a villager with Mr. Machete to prove it! Tom's pistol does nothing, and he's forced to flee. Soon he finds Lord Carrington, who in full safari gear is out hunting "the homicidal maniac from the village." They go back for the rest of the crew, then it's time to swing at Carrington's pad.

Lord Carrington hosts a dinner for our protagonists, whereat we're introduced to Dr. Biladeu, a cancer researcher using irradiated snake venom to treat tumors (could he be...MAD?) and the doctor's lovely daughter Jeannie, who makes up in cuteness and spunk what she lacks in acting ability. When Tom discovers Jeannie playing piano we get another look at his impeccable suavity, as he lights a cig and asks, "What part of heaven did you fly down from?" That's right, a professional writer there, folks. It works, though, as soon Jeannie and Tom are necking in the jungle, only to be attacked by the undead again.

Undead, or having a spa day? You decide!

After shuffling the hysterical girl off to bed in the care of the completely sloshed Coral and Duncan, Lord Carrington tells Tom he fears the natives might want to sacrifice "a blonde virgin" to their Voodoo gods. Just like those savages to want to do that, what? Tom vows not to let it happen, but apparently by that he means he won't let Jeannie stay a virgin long--soon he's in her room, "protecting" her like a mad jackrabbit.

From there it's a short trip through a couple more voodoo rituals, some mondo science, and some 007-style voodoo espionage to discover that yes, Dr. Biladeu is a mad scientist, he's bringing the dead to life with his irradiated snake venom, and Lord Carrington plans to use the army of zombies to TAKE OVER THE WORLD! Dream big, kids, that's what I say! Of course Tom throws a monkey wrench in all that, the lab explodes taking a good chunk of the coastal shelf with it, and he, Coral, Duncan, Jeannie, and the mortally wounded and fully repentant Dr. Biladeu boat back to the Bahamas, where we get a humorous epilogue of Tom reprising his storytelling hijinx and Jeannie dumping him in the pool for it. Tragedy, followed by COMEDY! Roll credits! G'night, folks!

This is a fun flick, with more quotable dialogue than I can transcribe, some smirk-worthy sit-com acting (Coral, the drunken, shopping-obsessed, over-sexed, innuendo-spouting housewife is a hoot from word go), and enough old-style stereotypes to keep you laughing or cringing, depending on your mood. (The natives want white women, for instance, they're referred to as simple and childlike, and they're used as experimental subjects with no more thought than if they'd been mice; the women are weak and in constant need of protection, the men are the only competent creatures..white men, that is...I could go on.) The voodoo dance numbers are actually really well staged and shot, and a lot of fun if you can get into the groove. And the explanation of zombism, as a side effect from the use of a poisonous narcotic, even presages The Serpent and the Rainbow! Del Tenney, call your lawyers already! There's continuity flubs, dumb plot points, nonsensical set designs (why does the lab's secret door have a bar-lock on BOTH sides?) and out-of-nowhere developments aplenty, so sit back and enjoy.

Though in today's age of diversity it's hard to get behind the "fear of the Other" and the "civilization vs. savagery" tropes that movies like this buttered their bread with, this is still a groovy, fun little time capsule with enough entertainment packed in to keep a b-movie fan happy. I give it a solid 2 thumbs. Worth a look. Just view it as a lost Gilligan's Island episode, where the Castaways meet the Living Dead, and you'll be fine.

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