Before every wannabe filmmaker had unfettered access to the combined filmographies of Edward D. Wood Jr. and William Castle, B-movie parodies were more than just a collection of knowing references for genre geeks. Films like John Landis’ Schlock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show made an impact on audiences by mixing the ingredients of grade-Z filmmaking into an intoxicating cocktail that was often even stranger than their inspirations. Released in 1982, the consciously cult Canadian classic Big Meat Eater is another agreeable pastiche of pulp trash, an unusual musical/sci-fi/horror/comedy about aliens, Turkish butchers and radioactive deli meat set in the Technicolor 1950s.
At Simon Fraser University in the late 1970s, students Laurence Keane, Chris Windsor and Mike Chechik met in a year-long crash-course in film production. Sharing a love of the comic, the trio collaborated on a variety of short film projects, including a 1950s beach party/horror spoof called Campus Carnage, Roofman, a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Vancouver’s soaring rent rates and It Takes Two, a venereal disease film contracted by the BC government that they somehow managed to turn into a comedy. After graduating, the budding filmmakers came up with an idea for a feature film called The Butcher of Burquitlam.
Burquitlam, as it is colloquially known, refers to a small area between the Vancouver suburbs of Burnaby and Coquitlam. “I was fascinated by this little community,” explains Laurence Keane. “It consisted of basically a strip mall with a centerpiece store–a butcher’s shop. It kind of summed up the feelings we had about Vancouver and Canada at this time: Burquitlam was a charming, insulated island stuck in the 1950s.” At the end of the 1970s, Keane, Windsor and Chechik finally developed the Butcher into a script, a satire on earnest Canadian films of the period. “The idea evolved into a film about multiculturalism, small town attitudes, a Canadian butcher, his murdering Turkish apprentice, aliens, and allegiance to the Queen-all set to music,” he says. With Keane producing and Windsor directing, (Chechik was off working as a cameraman for Greenpeace) the film–renamed Big Meat Eater–finally went in front of cameras in 1980.
Both a tribute and a takeoff of B-film and blind optimism in science, the film follows a cast of eccentric characters as they look forward to the mysterious future from the quaint small town of Burquitlam, British Columbia. After being fired from his job as town hall boiler-minder by corrupt Mayor Rigatoni (Howard Taylor, Boom), Turkish behemoth Abdullah (Clarence “Big” Miller, A Name for Evil) murders his boss in cold blood. Donning his fez and hitting the streets, Abdullah soon finds himself in the employ of town butcher and eternal optimist Bob Sanderson (George Dawson, The Grey Fox). Unbeknownst to Bob, however, Abdullah is more interested in using the meat cooler as a hiding place for the Mayor’s body than he is in slicing up orders of cold cuts.
Meanwhile, just above the earth, a pair of aliens (convincingly portrayed by wind-up toys) discover that the butcher shop is a rich source of “Balonium,” a radioactive fuel created when Bob’s meat scraps fuse with the chemicals in his septic tank. In order to harvest the Balonium, the space invaders bring the Mayor back to life, who in turn hires construction contractor Joe Wyzinski (Stephen Dimopoulos, Happy Gilmore) to build a large pavilion of the future called ” Vision of Tomorrowland.” Of course, Tomorrowland is really a landing pad for the aliens, and it’s to be built right on the site of the butcher shop, which Bob learns must be torn down immediately. But before the job can begin, Joe’s nerdy son Jan (Andrew Gillies, The Virgin Suicides) also identifies Balonium as a potential fuel source for his own homemade space rocket, and makes plans to get to it first.
It’s easy for a modern audience to see how Windsor and Keane might have been riffing on established cult classics The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its campy musical aspirations, and Plan 9 from Outer Space, with a “grave robbers from outer space” plot, but Big Meat Eater is less interested in handing out perfunctory nods to B-classics than it is concerned with manipulating familiar conventions to create something of its own. Threading a clever and humorous meat motif throughout the film, Big Meat Eater ties together three wildly different tales about alien invaders resurrecting the dead, a murdering apprentice butcher and a do-it-yourself teenage astronaut hopeful. The film’s schizophrenic script tackles the unrestrained self-assurance of the 1950s, making impossible leaps from community talent shows to the birth of universal languages to fortune tellers in an anarchic pattern known only to the screenwriters. The sets may be threadbare and the special effects hokey, but unlike an Ed Wood film, the ideas, satire and bewildering pace of the story on screen prove enough to distract the viewer from any budgetary shortcomings.
But Big Meat Eater is more than just a top notch 1950s B-movie spoof, it also holds a place as one of the first English-Canadian films to turn a gently mocking eye back towards the Great White North, obviously tapping in to the same source of humour as many other fine Canadian films like Crime Wave, IXE-13 and Flick. With a bevy of nostalgic Canadian references, including a decades-old radio broadcast of Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s 500th goal, the film lampoons the attitudes and prejudices of the people of Burquitlam, who have put their faith in a future of kitchen appliances rather than the people of their community. The film plays with Canadian concepts of multiculturalism, portraying the Italian Mayor as a mob boss, Abdullah as a “bloodthirsty Turk” and the Wyzinski clan as walking Eastern European stereotypes who snack on whole cloves of garlic–all except for Jan, who has completely assimilated to Burquitlam society and adopted a heavy British accent. Like the portrait of the Queen on the Mayor’s wall and the townspeople’s determination to erect monuments to a naive vision of the future, Big Meat Eater politely skewers a Canadian mindset that is forever looking ahead while relying on the antiquated values of the past. This is nicely underscored by the film’s musical score, which serves up big band-style show tunes beside progressive new wave tracks by Vancouver underground heroes UJ3RK5, a group that at one point featured cyberpunk scribe William Gibson and former CBC DJ David Wisdom.
Considering the nature of the film, the performances are surprisingly better than they should be, and the film works because the frenzied satire is played completely straight by the actors involved. George Dawson is especially great as happy-go-lucky butcher Bob Sanderson and he’s nicely contrasted by Andrew Gillies’ troubled teenage science whiz Jan. Living up to his nickname, the 300+ pound “Big” Miller also proves a formidable presence in the film, despite any discernable trace of acting talent. A trombonist and singer, Miller performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1950s before settling in Alberta and becoming a mainstay on the Canadian jazz scene util his death in 1992. In a role that is quite reminiscent of Tor Johnson’s turn as the monstrous Lobo in Bride of the Monster, Miller plods through the town, mumbling and glowering at Bob’s increasingly alarmed customers.
Although clearly overdubbed, the song and dance numbers rank among the film’s many highlights. Miller is virtually mute in the film’s straight dialogue sequences, but he frequently takes the opportunity to break into jazzy, up tempo songs like “The Baghdad Boogie” and the movie’s theme song, “Big Meat Eater,” in which Abdullah proclaims his hatred of fruits and veggies while using his bare hands to tear through whole chickens and steaks. Others get to stretch their vocal chords too–the Mayor celebrates his reanimation by belting out a heart touching ballad, and, in my favorite scene from the film, Jan and Bob deliver a manic, Devo-esque song about the importance of chemicals to modern life while dancing spastically with circuit boards.
This mish-mash of styles easily makes Big Meat Eater one of Canada’s oddest film endeavours in its equally strangest era. The tax shelters, established in 1974, were about to collapse in the early 1980s as Big Meat Eater made its unlikely debut alongside a rash of teen sex comedies, by-the-numbers slasher films and straight up exploitation pictures that characterized Canadian film at the time. “Basically Big Meat Eater would have never, ever been made without the capital cost allowance,” explains Keane. “Despite its many critics, the CCA at least gave the initiative to filmmakers and not to bureaucrats–new filmmakers with unusual ideas were able to get them on screen.”
And if Big Meat Eater can be classified as anything, it’s certainly unusual. Maybe it’s the toe-tapping songs, maybe it’s the subversive satire, or maybe it’s just the frenzied kitchen sink approach to filmmaking, but Big Meat Eater works far better than it should an indescribably goofy treat that rebuilds the 1950s clichs from the ground up and twists them just enough to set itself apart from the run-of-the-mill creature feature parodies. Perhaps the finest cult hit to ever come from the chillier side of the 49th parallel, Big Meat Eater is a Balonium-powered monstrosity all its own, a film that pulses with an infectious–and distinctly Canadian–energy.