Skip to content

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…

Plot: ballerinas are stalked by vampire in an old opera house.

The Monster Of the Opera is the last in a very loose ballerina trilogy and was preceded by the kitschy The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960). It was initially conceived as a sequel to the latter with filming beginning in 1961. However as filming progressed and the production ran into budget problems it was made into a stand-alone feature, and only completed several years later. While just as kitschy as the prior two episodes The Monster Of the Opera does occasionally manage to line up an artful shot or two and the Aldo Piga score is sufficiently creaky and brooding when it needs to be. The only real difference (if it can be called that) is that The Monster Of the Opera is a pretty straightforward recombination of both The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) but is enlivened with a light sprinkling of surface elements borrowed from the 1909 Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera. It’s not exactly the second coming of The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962), but there’s something resembling a pulse, at least.

Renato Polselli was a psychology graduate who filmed the usual melodramas and comedies in the fifties before veering towards gothic horror. As someone with his background Polselli’s aim was to constantly push the envelope as far as he could. Horror was his genre of choice, even if that meant having to deal with smaller budgets and casts of secondary players. Polselli sought to confront taboos and to be as transgressive as the medium would allow. He first did so with The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), an erotically-charged potboiler that positioned María Luisa Rolando as a skid row alternative to Barbara Steele. Gothic horror wouldn’t explode into an orgy of blood and boobs until Emilio Vieyra's The Blood Of the Virgins (1967) and the early fantastiques of Jean Rollin. Like several others Polselli brazenly charged forwards during the gothic horror revival of the early 1970s. The Truth According to Satan (1970), Delirium (1972), and Black Magic Rites (1973) all followed on the groundwork that The Monster Of the Opera had lain. Just like Lady Frankenstein (1971) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) they too pushed the erotica and psychotronic excesses as far as they could. No longer restricted by crippling regulations from the censors Polselli found a handful of actresses, and reveled in shooting them from every angle he could. After Mania (1974) he made a few thrillers and a poliziottesco before inevitably descending into the world of hardcore pornography at the dawn of the 1980s.

Centuries ago the vampire Stefano (Giuseppe Addobbati, as John McDouglas) was betrayed by a mortal woman he loved, the medium Laura (Barbara Hawards, as Barbara Howard). Condemned to an eternity of darkness he sought refuge in the underground, and on top of his lair a grand theater was constructed. As the years pass women mysteriously disappear within the whispering walls of the Aquarius Theater. As the theater falls into disrepair and becomes affordable it attracts the attention of young director Sandro (Marco Mariani, as Marc Marian) who chooses it as a rehearsal space for his dance troupe as they prepare for the new show he’s working on. The old caretaker Achille (Alberto Archetti, as Albert Archet) tries to warn him not to go through with his plans as the Aquarius Theater is cursed, but Sandro brushes it off as mere superstition. Giulia (Barbara Hawards, as Barbara Howard), leading lady and Sandro’s fiancée, can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her and that she’s somehow been there before. When Stefano lays eyes upon Giulia he believes her to be the Laura reincarnated, and vows to kill her.

With rehearsals progressing Carlotta (Milena Vukotic) grows envious of the preferential treatment that Giulia gets, and wants nothing more than to replace her in the show. Aldo (Aldo Nicodemi, as Boris Notarenko) is in love with Rossana (Vittoria Prada) but she’s in no hurry to return his affections. Yvette (Jody Excell) has a love unspoken for Aurora (Carla Cavalli) who wants nothing but to return it, but neither of them seem in any haste to act on their romantic impulses. Lightman Tony (Renato Montalbano), actor Filippo (Fidel Gonzáles, as Fidelio Gonzales), and soundman Giorgio (Walter Brandi) are just happy to be working with a bunch of nubile women. It is learned that Achille is not just a caretaker, but very much Stefano’s prisoner. When Giulia is drawn to Stefano’s cavernous lair she finds not only the vampire, but also a dungeon full of chained earlier victims. As paralyzing hysterics quickly seize the ballerinas, it’s up to brave Sandro to vanquish the evil Stefano once and for all.

As can be surmised from the above synopsis The Monster Of the Opera combines half of The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) with half of The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) with some superficial Gaston Leroux touches for good measure. The Stefano-Lauro opening gambit echoes The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) more than anything else. More importantly, however, on more than a few occasions similarities with Pete Walker’s knickers and knockers classic The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) can be drawn. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that Walker borrowed, nay stole, all his ideas from this litte Italian gothic, but the similarities between the two are too striking to be mere coincidence. First, there are the characters and setting: there’s the abandoned theater that holds a terrifying secret, the ambitious young director, and the senior citizen that issues a grave warning. Second, the various romantic couplings (same sex and otherwise) are nearly identical and third, both push farther in terms of eroticism following earlier examples. The Monster Of the Opera leans in hard on the implied lesbian histrionics following Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) adhered to the giallo template of omnivorous hyper-sexuality very much as in Top Sensation (1969) and perfected by Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, and Luciano Ercoli. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Ernesto Gastaldi would become one of the more prolific screenwriters in the giallo boom of the early 1970s. Here he understandably plays second fiddle to Polselli whose vision and voice dominates.

On a more interesting note it has several earlier iterations of character types that Polselli would explore in his eclectic 70s oeuvre with Rita Calderoni. This wouldn’t be a Polselli joint if old Renato didn’t push the envelope as far as he possibly could. In The Monster Of the Opera that manifests itself mostly in one scene of very strong implied lesbianism. First there’s the way Yvette is initially introduced (“born in the city of Lesbo, province of Sappho”) and later Aurora talks about the bonds of friendship between women before sharing a few longing looks with Manuela on a staircase. Then Carlotta descends the stairs and the three fall in a suggestive embrace while breaking out in laughter. Finally, Yvette enters the staircase, sternly sending the two other packing, claims Aurora for her own and the two almost share a kiss. However since it was only 1964 said kiss never materializes, and suggestion is as far as things go. What really drives most dialogues between the couples is the play with consent. Early on Rosanna tells Aldo, “you may kiss me, but don’t take advantage!”. Then later, a dance montage apart from the earlier Rosanna-Aldo exchange, Giulia reverses what Rosanna said and asks Sandro “why don’t you take advantage? Kiss me.” Quite playful and more than a progressive stance in those repressed days before the Summer of Love and Sexual Revolution.

Even on a lesser production composer Aldo Piga and director of photography Ugo Brunelli can be relied upon to deliver something of merit. Barbara Hawards is no María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata, or Soledad Miranda – but she does cut a nice figure and Brunelli captures her from her best side every chance he gets. Milena Vukotic and Carla Cavalli probably get the most lines out of the other ballerinas. Vukotic is still acting to this day while the rest never acted anywhere else. Giuseppe Addobbati was a support player for the most part, and it’s good having him as the lead for a change. Addobbati is most remembered around these parts for his role in the Barbara Steele monochrome gothic horror classic Nightmare Castle (1965). Walter Brandi and Dieter Eppler made more threatening vampires but Addobbati does the best with what little he’s given. The rest of the ballerinas act well enough, but their purpose is mainly decorative. The Gaston Leroux elements are superficial at best, and easily ignored since this is a pretty straightforward vampire flick with little actual story. The Monster Of the Opera is very much a product of its time – it’s kitschy, silly, and loaded with babes.

That The Monster Of the Opera is somehow considered the lesser of The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) is a bit puzzling. Polselli’s direction possesses far more flair than Piero Regnoli’s kind of daft The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). It overflows with the kind of subdued sensuality that the better gothics from the Latin countries (in both Europe and South America) specialized in around this time. Barbara Hawards was a decent enough actress, and she certainly looked the part – but it’s evident that there was no María Luisa Rolando in congress this time around. That Renato Polselli would shoot the giallo Delirium (1972) about a decade later shouldn’t surprise anyone, and that The Monster Of the Opera was co-written by future giallo specialist Ernesto Gastaldi was one of those unavoidable instances of serendipity in Italian exploitation with several talents working in close proximity from each other. Compared to his most remembered work a decade in the future Renato Polselli elegantly pushes the envelope as far as the censors would allow. It would however be in the wild and exuberant 70s when he would indulge his worst excesses.