Plot: mad scientist is making zombies out of natives on Caribbean island.
What is I Eat Your Skin if not gloriously lunkheaded and outrageously hilarious Florida drive-in hokum from the Sunshine State’s foremost specialist of such things, Del Tenney? Arriving too late to be of any importance in shaping the zombie mythology and harkening back to the halcyon days of Coleman Francis, Harold P. Warren, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Ed Wood I Eat Your Skin was a relic of a bygone era even back in 1964. Surpassed only in sheer incompetence by William Girdler and J.G. Patterson Jr., Del Tenney had made a name for himself with The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964) and The Horror of Party Beach (1964). I Eat Your Skin was his first feature before his acting as an associate producer on the epic Terence Young ensemble disasterpiece Poppies Are Also Flowers (1966), only for it to be released some five years later. I Eat Your Skin is a relic remembered for all the wrong reasons and loved for all the right ones. Even Mortician seems to acknowledge as much. Not that that is a good barometer for anything, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.
I Eat Your Skin was filmed in and around Florida (South Beach, Miami and Key Biscayne, to name the most prominent) over a three-week period in 1964 on an estimated budget of $120,000 under the working title of Caribbean Adventure to hide from investors that it was a horror feature. Tenney had brokered a distribution deal with Twentieth Century Fox who stipulated that he use a union production crew or otherwise the deal would not be honoured. Tenney was none too happy with the elongated production schedule (a week longer than his usual two) and he would end up describing the union crew as, "slow and uncooperative." Second unit direction was handled by that other veteran of Florida exploitation bilge, William Grefé. That Tenney insisted on black-and-white all but ensured that the deal with Fox would not go through. Endearing in its naivité but brazen enough to be exploitative I Eat Your Skin never lives up to the promise of its premise. By 1964 filmmakers across genres were boldly charging forward and pushing the envelope on any number of fronts. I Eat Your Skin does or has none of that. As for more recently, a drive-in theater sign for it can be briefly seen in the long-delayed Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind (which began production in 1970 but wouldn’t see release until 2018) advertizing it alongside I Drink Your Blood (1970). As is age-old tradition, it’s our solemn duty to report that there is no, and will not be any, skin-eating whatsoever in I Eat Your Skin.
At the Fontainebleau resort in South Beach, Miami pulp novelist Tom Harris (William Joyce) is about to engage in his umpteenth poolside affair with a willing bikinied socialite (George-Ann Williamson). Just before Harris can put the moves on her and her irate husband can put hands on him Tom’s escorted away by his publicist Duncan Fairchild (Dan Stapleton) and his golddigger wife Coral (Betty Hyatt Linton). He's to embark on what’s to be an expedition to Voodoo Island in the Caribbean. There Harris is to research the native customs for his next best seller on the estate of European nobleman Lord Carrington. Having landed on the island Tom is attacked by a bug-eyed zombie but manages to escape intact thanks to an intervention by Charles Bentley (Walter Coy), the man in charge of overseeing the estate of the absent heir, and his armed posse. That evening Harris makes his acquaintance with Jeannie Biladeau (Heather Hewitt), the virginal daughter of scientist Dr. Auguste Biladeau (Robert Stanton). Biladeau informs him that the locals partake in rituals involving a plant-based narcotic that puts them in a zombie-like state. Plus, they descend from an earlier tribe who engaged in human sacrifice to appease their god, Papa Neybo. Apropos of nothing, Biladeau has been working in the jungle on a possible cure for cancer based upon snake venom. When Jeannie is kidnapped by the natives for a blood sacrifice to their god the question arises of who’s the graver threat: the superstitious savages and their tribal customs or the god-fearing man of science?
Make no mistake, this is the umpteenth 50s safari adventure enlivened slightly by golem-like zombies and mod-fabulous curvaceous bikini babes. Sporting a breezy soundtrack that is equal parts calypso as it is jazz I Eat Your Skin is about as schizophrenic as its score. Alternately obnoxious and exploitative it never quite manages to settle on a tone. While the suave playboy shtick was timely with the ascension of James Bond in popular culture the Fontainebleau opening feels like one of those bikini comedies with John Agar from a decade earlier. Not that it gets any better once the action moves to the Caribbean. Once there it becomes evident just how much of a relic of a bygone time I Eat Your Skin truly is. The Voodoo Island second half oozes Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) from its every colonialist imperialist pore. Square-jawed males, mad science, racial stereotypes, and damsels-in-distress abound in cheapo fifties horror tradition. The zombie make-up is schintzy at best but not any worse than, say, Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966). I Eat Your Skin is not well remembered, and to the extent that it’s remembered at all is that it probably went on to inspire the much crazier Filipino, Spanish, and Italian variations of the form. For one, it’s a shlocky drive-in precursor to The Mad Doctor Of Blood Island (1968). The voodoo aspect would be further explored in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), and most of the plot would be kindly recycled in Zombie Holocaust (1980) and Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter (1980).
By the time it was finally released theatrically in 1971 I Eat Your Skin had been outdone in every respect by George A. Romero’s gritty Night of the Living Dead (1968) on the horror side of things. On the other hand by the time the Sexual Revolution of 1968 and the Summer Of Love rolled around it was a completely different time. A year later Top Sensation (1969) and Zeta One (1969) both capitalized on said newfound freedoms. The dawning of the seventies heralded the decade of free love and German, French, and Italian sex comedies were racier than I Eat Your Skin could ever hope to be. It was hopelessly chaste and charmingly old-fashioned by the de facto standard of the day - or even by the standards of 1964. That it was filmed in economic black-and-white probably didn’t help its case either. That it was paired with I Drink Your Blood (1970) (one of the most violent drive-in hits prior to the marquee year of 1972) by Jerry Gross (who paid Tenney $40,000 for the rights) for his Cinemation Industries’ infamous “Two Great Blood-Horrors to Rip-Out Your Guts!” drive-in double feature must have led to some interesting reactions. In the end I Eat Your Skin is barely remembered for anything other than its larger-than-life publicity campaign. Or that it was sampled by Mortician. You decide what’s more important…