Using recently established Canadian Film Development Corporation loans, Canadian horror exploded in the early 1970s under the guiding hands of Ivan Reitman, Bob Clark and David Cronenberg. One of the rarest titles to emerge at this time was The Corpse Eaters, made by a handful of unknowns in Sudbury, Ontario. The Corpse Eaters is a slightly misleading title though, since it implies that the heroes of this film enjoy eating the recently dead. But that’s not the case– The Corpse Eaters refers to zombies eating freshly killed humans, making this Canada’s premiere zombie film.
The Corpse Eaters owes an obvious debt to Night of the Living Dead and Bob Clark’s American cult film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. It even steals a bit from a Canadian horror classic, Cannibal Girls. And although the film delivers on it’s promise of suspense and gore, it is seriously marred by a lack of a cohesive story.
When Reitman’s Cannibal Girls was released by AIP, it had a gimmick added to help drawn in the audiences a buzzer would go off during gore scenes, warning squeamish audience members to look away. The Corpse Eaters uses a similar ploy. A spinning, Ray Dennis Steckler-esque kaleidoscope pattern appears while a narrator informs us of his “moral obligation” to tell us of the “sudden nausea and shock” we may feel when watching this film. When we hear a buzzer sound and see an old man in a suit gagging into a handkerchief, we should turn away if we have sensitive tummies. Although we are told this measure was “suggested by audiences in test screenings,” it fully appears to have been written directly into the script.
From there, we launch into a House of Frightenstein-style theme song as the camera passes through the graveyard of the “Happy Halo” funeral home. Bill, the morgue assistant is working away when the funeral director informs him that the hospital is sending over one last body for the night, a young man who is pretty messed up supposedly mauled by a bear. While the director drives around the grounds, thinking out loud about the bear mauling, Bill is busy slicing and dicing the fresh corpse in the first gore scene. When the director returns, he helps Bill puff out the corpse’s cheeks with cotton batting.
Suddenly, two couples are power boating around in cottage country to generic instrumental acid rock. Uptight Lisa and her boyfriend Alan are heading towards an island with her brother Richie and his girl Julie. Once they arrive, Richie and Julie start making out, but Lisa won’t let Alan touch her. Richie starts stripping Julie in front of the others and even sprays a can of Molson Ex on her breasts in one curiously Canadian scene. This is followed by a ludicrous sex scene intercut with shots of an owl. Finishing up the afternoon with a refreshing swim, the foursome discusses what’s on tap for the night. Since it’s Friday the 13th, and they have already gone to all the local Sudbury rock concerts, they decide it would be fun to go to a graveyard. Lisa doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but she is overruled, and Richie suggests that bringing pot might assist them in “blowing their minds.”
That night they visit an abandoned graveyard the next town over. Just as the first drops of a rain shower start falling, the couples duck inside one of the vaults they notice is open. Lisa is getting increasingly scared, but the others don’t seem to care. Richie offers to preform a seance. Everyone holds hands and Richie says some incantations underneath an upturned cross. The friends are disappointed when nothing seems to happen from inside the vault, but not surprisingly we are shown that things are quite different on the outside. Decayed hands begin shooting up from the earth, and the dead slowly rise and stumble around the graveyard in scenes blatantly ” inspired” by Night of the Living Dead.
It isn’t long before the zombies burst into the vault and assault the startled teens. After a warning scene of the gagging man, the action unfolds in slow-motion as Alan tries to fight the creatures off with a shovel. The buzzer sound morphs into spacey sound effects mixed with moaning, and a few zombies are killed, oozing green pus on the floor. Richie is seriously hurt, but Lisa manages to drag him back to the car while Alan holds them off. And Julie? Well, she never got out of the vault, and the zombies rip art her body for a gut-munching scene that could have easily appeared in countless Italian zombie films.
Alan and Lisa take a bloodied Richie to the hospital, where he promptly dies on the operating table. When the doctor tells Lisa, she is visibly upset, and regrets ever going to the graveyard. That night she visits Richie’s body in his hospital bed. Astoundingly, he slowly sits up and kisses his sister full on the mouth. When she pulls away, her mouth is covered in blood. Alan comes in to comfort her, but instead she takes a huge bite out of his shoulder, killing him. An unaware nurse wanders in on her rounds, and Lisa stabs her to death after she sees the gory tableau. But wait a minute it’s all revealed to be Lisa’s dream.
At this point we realize that the bear mauling victim Bill was preparing for burial at the beginning of the film was Richie. Presumably everything that just happened has been a flashback of sorts, but since the film didn’t bother to notify us, this becomes very confusing. After helping Bill finish the work on Richie, the funeral director retires to his office and starts drinking. He falls asleep on his desk, but is soon awakened by strange sounds coming from the main parlour. Cautiously, he stumbles downstairs to investigate…
According to Caelum Vatnsdal’s book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, The Corpse Eaters was made in 1973 by teenager Lawrence Zazalenchuk, who owned The 69 Drive-In on Route 69 outside of Sudbury. He had saved $36,000 from working at an Inco nickel mine, and decided to write and produce a horror film starring local actor Edmond LeBreton and a bunch of high school friends (Michael Hopkins, Terry Leonard, Michael Krizanc, and Helina Carson). Director Donald Passmore started work on the film, but after four days, he was fired, and Klaus Vetter took over. Once finished, Zazalenchuk found he could not afford the lab costs to have The Corpse Eaters developed, but finally saved enough in drive-in proceeds. The Corpse Eaters received its premiere at The 69 Drive-In in Sudbury and went on to a long local run before it was bought by a New York distributor in the market for a tax write-off, and shelved.
With easily has the most extreme effects of any Canadian horror movie, The Corpse Eaters is worth a look if for no other reason, than it has the distinction of being the first gore film made in the Great White North. Unfortunately, the film itself leaves much to be desiredit never really recovers from the success of the initial zombie attack, seemingly unsure of which direction to proceed in. A rare piece of Canadian horror film history worth checking out.