I first encountered I Eat Your Skin (1971) on one of Rhino Home Video’s Elvira’s Midnight Madness VHS tapes. This low budget voodoo flick shot in Florida in 1964 looked awful but that was kind of the point. I mean, in terms of the Midnight Madness tapes, these were all films Elvira kept in some crypt anyway. But that’s always been the charm of regional genre exercises like I Eat Your Skin; they’re bad movies that look like crap. Somehow this always helped sell the quirky pleasure of indulging in a rather tasteless exploitation picture.
I Eat Your Skin is a film of colonial terror set on the aptly named Voodoo Island where a scientist (Robert Stanton) has turned the Black population into a zombie army when he was supposed to be curing cancer. The human debris of the slave trade has been commodified into literal cannon fodder. The hero of the film, pulp novelist Tom Harris (William Joyce), has come to Voodoo Island not to liberate the people, but to hook up with island girls and research a new novel. Ultimately, the only recourse of the hero is to blow-up the island, ending the zombie lives of hundreds and drowning a voodoo culture in the Carribbean.
The brain child of Florida based schlock auteur Del Tenney, I Eat Your Skin exemplifies all of the faults of American Imperialism. The commodified population of Voodoo Island are either zombie monsters or dancing figures that offer the escapism of an exoticized culture. Black men and women, the descendants of slaves, are eroticized bodies in motion; figures of pleasure and of fun for Tom Harris and company. Del Tenney trades on the tropes and cultural politics of the fifties to deliver a spectacle rooted entirely in the assumption of Western supremacy.
The problematic views of Del Tenney were obviously out of date when he produced his film in ’64, and woefully behind the times when I Eat Your Skin finally got a release seven years later. Ever the showman, neither politics or social norms factored into Del Tenney’s creative process when he was out to make a buck by filling the screens of Florida’s drive-ins. What pleasures I Eat Your Skin has to offer are entirely rooted in Del Tenney’s deaf ear for dialogue and the wooden performances of the actors tasked with bringing Tenney’s words to life.
William Joyce is particularly amusing as the heroic, square jawed hunk of a writer who underplays when he shouldn’t and goes full on camp when it is not necessary. Joyce’s character Tom Harris, like so many jungle heroes, is the audience surrogate. But Tom Harris also represents Del Tenney’s own modus operandi. Like Tenney, Harris is out to turn Voodoo Island into a work of sensationalist escapism in order to make a living. The fallout of European colonialism and the entitlement of American imperialism have provided and opportunity that Harris cannot pass up and that Tenney cannot resist.
There is nothing special about I Eat Your Skin except for the fact that it’s kind of an oddity in the context of the grindhouse circuit of the seventies. Honestly, Elvira’s corny jokes and goofball asides before and after I Eat Your Skin did more to elevate the experience of watching the film than anything Tenney did for the film himself. By his own admission Del Tenney did not particularly like I Eat Your Skin. As a time capsule of Florida’s genre filmmaking scene in the sixties I Eat Your Skin could be of some value or offer a kind of enjoyment.