The Corpse Eaters as a title has a double meaning: eating corpses and corpses that eat. Clever, Canada.
The film begins with a flash forward to a funeral home, where the greedy love child of an alternate universe George Romero and Angus Scrimm accepts a late night body to be prepped for burial. He drives around for no reason like the intro to Manos: Hands of Fate while his funerary assistant does all the dirty work. Then he complains in voice over about money.
We then flash back to what happened: college-aged kids having fun in the sun with beer while a pervert owl watches. One of the couples is way into each other and decide to get all kinky with beer and then public sex, while the other does not because our heroine apparently suffers from depression. Though her spurned boyfriend tries to get in on the kinky ’70s porno that has busted out next to him, he gets rebuffed. The pervy owl sees all. With the sexing out of the way, the four decide to go to a nearby graveyard to spend the night because…hell, why not? They then enter a mausoleum and engage in a satanic ritual that the one dude’s uncle taught him once because again, why not? And then zombies rise, they kill the sexpot starlet (who is promptly forgotten), and everyone else abandons her and flees to the hospital. That’s when the medical drama kicks in.
Yes, real time blood drawing! Surgery! Sedative-fueled fever dreams! I have discovered that Canadian healthcare apparently pays for everything but really is slow as hell to get going, much like the rest of the movie. Our hero dies on the table, and our heroine has a weird Dracula-style incest dream about her now deceased brother in which he turns her into a zombie. This leads her to be understandably upset, because incest is gross.
We then return to the funeral home, where the greedy Romero/Scrimm dude gets drunk and then thinks he sees zombies. His eyeballs may or may not get eaten out of his head as things flash back and forth out of order, and then he’s in a mental institution with both eyeballs still intact. Roll credits. What the hell, Canada?
Ok, so, lots to unpack about this, but let’s take a moment to go over The Corpse Eaters principal claim to fame. It’s 1973, and a teenager who runs a drive-in named Lawrence Zazelenchuk (which he bought with the money he saved from working the mines) decides to make Canada’s first gore film. For $36,000 CAD, he wrote, produced, and did the special effects for the movie, while Donald R. Passmore directs and Klaus Vetter handles cinematography. Then Passmore leaves, and Vetter ends up both the cinematographer and director, meaning these two dudes made up about half the total crew. The movie has a short but successful stint at Zazelenchuk’s drive-in. Film distributor Howard Mahler hears about the film and buys distribution rights but then never releases it so he can claim it as a tax write off, thus screwing Zazelenchuk out of a bright future career in the industry. The poor guy winds up running a hotel in Florida and drinks himself to death at the age of 36.
Then the story takes a turn. A company called Encore gets a hold of a copy and secures the rights, releasing a 57-minute version of the movie and claiming it’s the only print available. This 57-minute version is the only one available for public consumption, leading obscure horror fans to believe the rest of the footage for what should have been a longer flick is partially lost…until it comes to light that a copy is sitting in the Library and Archives Canada but under copyright to Lawrence Zazelenchuk’s next of kin, Don. With the copyright set to expire in 2024, maybe we’ll finally get a full release of the original motion picture in all its glory, but for now we’re stuck enjoying the stripped down version. And all of this is because of a kid with a dream and a drive-in and another dude who wanted to cheat on his taxes.
Ain’t the film industry grand?
Look, Zazelenchuk’s writing wasn’t perfect by a long shot. The script is an utter mess with pacing problems, stilted dialogue, and a reliance on interludes like nightmare sequences and hallucinogenic flips that leave the audience confused. It’s a first film, what you gonna do? But his special effects work for the zombies and gore were on par with films of the era like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Zazelenchuk also managed to successfully get in on a few tropes before they had become tropes; for example, the virginal female lead serves as a pseudo-final girl. Also, we get eyeball trauma with the bizarre finale in the funeral home, something that Lucio Fulci would be running wild with in his gore films later in the decade.
There is another feature of the film, one supposedly put in by the “producers” (read: Zazelenchuk) to warn of the upcoming intensity of gore films. The film starts with a warning and shows an old man gagging as a strobe light flashes on him. This is then queued up at certain key points in the film to let those with weak stomachs in the audience know to look away. It’s a hokey trick to emphasize the shock value of the scenes, and the strobe is more troubling than a bunch of dudes in greasepaint eating fake meat out of a faux-dead woman’s stomach. But it’s also a touch of William Castle-style hijinks to hype up the audience for whatever was about to come next. While the effects are relatively tame compared to what we’d be seeing by the end of the 1970s, it’s a playful fusion of both past and present. I salute this addition to the movie.
All of this leads me to the final conclusion that, while The Corpse Eaters has a lot of problems and falls flat in a lot of ways, it also deserves our time, admiration, and respect. Zazelenchuk put together a film on a shoestring and did something unusual but interesting with it. He then got screwed hard by the industry, and we lost out on a potential horror icon who might have still been working if things had turned out differently. Thus, The Corpse Eaters is a fascinating tale about exploitation both on the screen and behind it, and it’s a movie that should get far more attention than it unfortunately does.
Now enjoy that hokey intro gimmick!
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