I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. So, armed with a subscription to Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation TV, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE assistant editor Mike Vanderbilt is fond of referring to the space opera knockoffs that came out in the wake of the 1977 release of STAR WARS as “Lucasploitation.” I am nearly ready to refer to the insane glut of zombie movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games that have come along since George A. Romero unleashed the living dead on the rural areas around Pittsburgh as “Romerosploitation.”
I occasionally wonder what the current horror landscape would look like if Romero did not have the infamous copyright mistake with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Not only would Romero have most likely been an independently wealthy filmmaker able to branch out well beyond the horror genre he reinvented, but there also would not have been so many lackluster knockoffs of that groundbreaking classic. Alas, history played out as it did and every low-budget yahoo with a camera and friends willing to stiffly deliver canned dialogue before being eaten by zombies did their version of Romero’s tale.
Not surprisingly, most of the low to no budget filmmakers who threw their hat in the zombie genre ring took all the wrong lessons from the success of NIGHT. Perhaps the most disheartening of these knockoff filmmakers are the ones who worked with Romero on the original film, but quickly branched off to milk that Latent Image association for all it was worth. NIGHT co-writer John Russo not only has a story by credit on RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (which is a legitimately good flick), but also produced the abysmal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (that re-cut Romero’s film with new scenes written and directed by Russo) and the unwatchable CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD. While Romero’s last zombie film, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, was a damn mess that was often boring, he never pissed on his legacy the way that Russo or, as it turns out, Bill Hinzman did.
Hinzman is best known for portraying the very first zombie in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. As the cemetery zombie, he claimed the first victim in Romero’s original DEAD trilogy, becoming an iconic figure in the process. Like most of the group of collaborators that Romero worked with in the ’60s and ’70s, Hinzman was a Pittsburgh-area resident, so he had a hand as a featured bit player in front of the camera and in various crewmember capacities on many of Romero’s early productions (most notably, serving as cinematographer on THE CRAZIES). With FLESHEATER (a.k.a FLESHEATER: REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD, REVENGE OF THE LIVING ZOMBIES, and ZOMBIE NOSH), he operates as the co-writer/producer/director/star of what seems to have potential as a fun, regional horror cheapie that quickly turns into yet another ripoff of NIGHT on its way to a disheartening conclusion.
A group of obnoxious college kids with a heavy taste for denim fashion decide to spend Halloween hanging out in the woods, drinking beer and making out. Unbeknownst to them, not far away, a farmer pulls a tree stump out of the ground with his tractor and unearths a stone marker with a spell written on it. After foolishly removing the stone from the ground, the farmer finds a wooden coffin under it that contains a dead body (Hinzman) that comes to un-life and takes a big chunk of flesh out of his neck. You can probably guess what happens next.
I was honestly on board with FLESHEATER for the first thirty minutes. While it had the same amateurish acting, bad dialogue, and stilted direction of 99% of regionally produced ’80s horror films, once the zombie was released, it moved like a shot, throwing a major curveball in how quickly the college kids are wiped out. The rapid escalation from the release of the zombie to the kids barricading themselves in a farm house to the ultimate demise of the group takes maybe twenty minutes and plays almost like a subversion of the expected zombie movie beats. Whether that satirical, subversive feel is intentional or the accidental result of shoddy filmmaking does not matter because I was legitimately entertained for those moments. But then the rest of the film happened.
With its initial group of victims gone, FLESHEATER becomes a repetitive series of the same scenes: a new group of victims are introduced, they are given five to ten minutes of dull character work, zombies show up and kill them. This process is repeated at least three times before Hinzman reveals that the whole film was basically intended to be an unofficial prequel to NIGHT with a finale that features a redneck posse going through the countryside shooting zombies (some of the actors who portrayed the gunmen in NIGHT show up here in what I assume are supposed to be the same roles and Hinzman’s zombie—made up to look exactly as he did in NIGHT—is still on the loose, probably headed to a cemetery).
Even with some painful attempts at meta humor and some fairly well done, over-the-top gore effects, the final forty-five minutes of the film are almost unbearably dull. The number one sin of any exploitation film is to be boring. Not only is FLESHEATER guilty of that sin, but it goes one step beyond by positioning itself as an unauthorized prequel to one of the greatest American films of all time and winds up smelling as bad as a rotting, undead corpse for the effort.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
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Tags: Bill Hinzman, Exploitation.TV, FleshEater, FleshEater: Revenge of the Living Dead, George A. Romero, My Exploitation Education, night of the living dead, Regional Horror Films, Revenge of the Living Zombies, Romerosploitation, Vinegar Syndrome, Zombie Nosh