Eaten Alive (1977)

The HOOPER posts, they just keep on a’ coming! I can’t blame some folks for not cuddling up to EATEN ALIVE. It’s scattershot, brutally blunt and sometimes feels like it’s held together with spit and crossed fingers. Like the run down hotel it takes place in, the overall structure comes off as flimsy and second hand and the walls literally wobble. Yet it’s also strangely eerie and I don’t know what your nightmares look like but mine don’t look too far off from the random, nausea-toned whirlwind found here.

There’s not much as far as plot goes, sad sacks line up to be scythed and fed to a crocodile, but genuine sense-defying horror hovers about like an impenetrable wall of humidity. Bottom of the barrel country tunes bleed together with manic music box chimes (and a chorus of wails) and even as the whole package plays with pointlessness, it’s so darn expressive that you have to take a step back and gawk. EATEN ALIVE’s commitment to chaos makes it a slippery fish and hard to get a handle on but as a surreal horrific mood piece, it works big time for me.

There’s really no identifiable reality to cling to here for comfort. EATEN ALIVE, with its makeshift, puke-toned, sets comes off as a hellish high school stage production or a cancelled Satanic soap opera. HOOPER, having just exited the bleached bone dust bowl dimension of THE CHAINSAW MASSACRE, flipped a switch in his head and got down to experimenting with garish unnatural color and lighting, a proclivity that will come to full fruition with THE FUNHOUSE.

The film texture itself is collage-like sometimes stark and brazen, sometimes shrouded and hazy. Maybe it’s just grindhouse sloppy but it jars regardless. I can’t help comparing it to the mash-up, psychedelic roulette wheel visuals that ROB ZOMBIE puts to use in his films. HOOPER may have been paying a bit of an homage to horror comics with his color palette but I’m also reminded of the plethora of neon-soaked eighties music videos that EATEN ALIVE predates as well (or stranger still, ROBERT ALTMAN’s FOOL FOR LOVE). The clash of “real” weathering and grit and “unreal” otherworldly color may throw some off but maybe that’s the point. So much of what is going on here comes off as a slap attack on the viewer.

Speaking of the ROB-ZOB, EATEN ALIVE definitely digs dumping its ladle in hillbilly sleaze and stirring the white trash gumbo. It’s not only the local yokels like the TARANTINO-quoted Buck (a young ROBERT ENGLUND whose, “I’m Buck and I like to fuck” resurfaced in KILL BILL) who come off as less than noble characters. Even TCM survivor MARILYN BURNS is difficult to relate to or rely upon completely. First of all, she’s not a very good mother and second of all, I still can’t for the life of me figure out why she wears a “new Jan Brady” wig at the start of the film and then discards it without ado. Her husband is bat-shit crazy for what purpose to the story I don’t know and her daughter (a pre-HALLOWEEN KYLE RICHARDS) does little more than scream at the top of her lungs (not that that didn’t work for BURNS in TCM).

If you want to know how much EATEN cares about your sensibilities just check out how it milks poor RICHARD‘s peril. I won’t reveal her outcome but her safety is not the usual assumed “given” based on her child status. That’s really one of EATEN ALIVE‘s biggest strengths, the fact that you can’t trust the film or anybody in it at any time. Everybody we meet is crazy, duplicitous or falling apart in some way and weirder still, the victims all but take numbers and volunteer for their savage fates.

The crocodile is paper mache phony and the sets are about as convincing as a SID AND MARTY KROFFT production. Nobody, not MEL FERRER (who is presented as little more than an animated portrait painting) or THE ADDAMS FAMILY‘s CAROLYN JONES (made up for the most part like a hunch backed cartoon witch) or main loon Judd (a wild-eyed and mumbling NEVILLE BRAND) is identifiable as an authentic human. I guess these are all reasons enough for some viewers to put up their hands and decline. When presented with wild arbitrary violence such as this maybe it’s instinctual for some to automatically comb for any evidence of falsehood to keep their footing and/or distance.

Perhaps it’s a cop out on my part but I don’t think a film like this needs to be bound by rational laws. In fact, I think its main agenda is to stick its tongue out at rationality in general. The truth is, when real horror does find its way into your life that old pal rationality is the first to yell, “Check please!” Real horror really can render everything senseless and the familiar world a false cardboard stage.

There’s an intense (though relatively short-lived) chase scene within EATEN ALIVE that almost takes place on a fairy tale page with prop trees bending to impossible winds amidst swirling, machine made mists. It’s a raging, Southern gothic storm and it’s cheap and lovely like a plastic champagne flute. Whether you buy into the situation or not HOOPER does orchestrate a multi-layer cake of suspense with several floors of his Starlight Hotel reaching fever pitches of the grotesque simultaneously. If EATEN were a dream this is the moment of crescendo right before the sleeper wakes. No, it’s not very believable at all but every dreamer knows it’s quite real enough.

I love character driven psychological horror; I love expertly timed set pieces too but there is a special place in my heart for films like EATEN ALIVE that rattle and run on simple unleaded insanity. The adult me protests and throws down barriers but the primal me rolls over like a sniveling dog. I suggest watching EATEN ALIVE alone without the distracting voices of sense and reason, preferably late at night when the walls between “awake” and “asleep” grow soft and blur. I’ve come to see it as a blood-stained music box with a headless, spinning hillbilly ballerina inside. Sure, this is some frayed, imperfect jacked-up business and it’s no TCM but when baby Leatherface has a bad dream, it just might look like EATEN ALIVE.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Amanda By Night
Amanda By Night(@amanda-by-night)
11 years ago

I’ve been talking about this movie lately with my mancub because we are OBSESSED with Neville Brand. We just discovered Laredo and love him. He’s definitely VERY different here, and not just in character, but he’s almost unrecognizable in this part in comparison. I thought it would be interesting to show him this so he get an idea of just how different he is here.

I’m not a super huge fan of the movie as a whole. It’s sleazy and has some moments but felt to me (especially in Burns’ chase scene) a fairly blatant attempt to recreate some of the TCM magic, but with an indoor set instead of the great barren outdoors. Still, it’s got folks like Stuart Whitman, Brand and of course the wonderful and beautiful Roberta Collins (her Brand story on the DVD is hilarious and creepy) so I kept my copy (a screener) because this is one of those movies I like to watch just to see all those great faces.

11 years ago

They really had a different philosophy about trailers back in the day, didn’t they?  Seems like the main emphasis was “Dear God, don’t let them forget the name of this movie!”.  These days you get the film’s title once at the end of the trailer but here we get it what – six times throughout with three mentions right up front:  “Get ready for Eaten Alive”, “Eaten Alive directer by Tobe Hooper”, “Mardi Rustram presents Eaten Alive” “Eaten Alive will be the most chilling 90 minutes you ever spend in a theater!”, “By the way have we mentioned that Mardi Rustram presents Eaten Alive?”  and finally “Get ready for Eaten Alive” again…..
Still, it looks incredibly trashy and audacious – maybe the American trash equivalent of Suspiria?

11 years ago

Watching the part where William Finley does that weird freak-out staredown out of nowhere really is like having a waking nightmare.

I’ve tried to describe this movie to people before, and the best I can do is to say that it’s like Tobe Hooper dropped acid and then produced The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a cheap stage play.  It presents a murky, atonal alternate reality that I’d probably feel suicidal to find myself living in.

Having said that, the weird thing is, I love watching it anyway.  At least, I’ve loved watching it each time I’ve put it on since my first viewing, when I was severely disappointed and thought it was a huge piece of shit.  I’m not sure why I gave it a second chance, but I’m glad I did.

Amanda By Night
Amanda By Night(@amanda-by-night)
11 years ago

Lance, I only listened to the Collins bit. I believe that they have various actors come in during their scene and talk. I could be wrong. The Collins bit is priceless, even more so now that she’s passed away. There’s a lot of wig wearing in Eaten Alive.

Btw, I feel like I read somewhere that the movie is meant to evoke a comic book feel (which you picked up on), hence the sets and colors you see. It makes sense.

I’ve seen Eaten Alive about 3 times. The last time was to review it for a site where my work is no longer posted. 🙁 My initial reaction and my current feelings have remained the same for the most part. Only now I have a deeper respect for Brand because as I learn more about him, the more I love (and fear him!)…

11 years ago

I kid you not, a recurring nightmare of mine is being ‘Eaten Alive’ by a giant crocodile. I am not quite sure if this is an argument for or against watching the film. Your review makes it sound rather intriguing, though.

11 years ago

I love this movie! I saw it numerous times in the theaters back in the ’70s. When I began my dvd collection this was one of the first titles I had to have. It is a nonsensical sleaze-fest, but there is so much to like about it. The cast certainly, the atmosphere, the gratuitous violence, the morbid country music, the off the charts insanity of it all. I could watch this one at least once a year. I didn’t know there was a commentary track! Damn, now I have to buy another version of the film…
Thank you for pointing out one of my old favorites.

11 years ago

I love this movie. . and though I enjoy TCM 2.. I see this as the true sequel to the original TCM. It puts me in a mood I can’t really find anywhere else. Its almost like a long version of the dinner scene from TCM.. insane and uncomfortable. And along with TCM.. this is a movie that looks like it smells like shit..
Great review..

11 years ago

Between the crocodile and the scene where he chases the girls up the stairs, all I could think of was:
Texas Scythe Massacre or Texas Crocodile Massacre.
BTW, I think she’s wearing a wig because she’s supposed to be a prostitute.

11 years ago

Yeah, you’re right. (I was thinking of the wrong woman)  Hmm, I just don’t know.  Maybe he wanted to portray her with that wig and changed his mind hoping no one would notice the continuity error?
Looks like someone else is bothered by this hair-raising mystery.
BTW, this movie is based on real-life serial killer, Joe Ball.

11 years ago

Man, I so much enjoyed reading your explication of such a vile, vile film. Backyard “Suspiria” is tearing the exact thought from my head. And the Tarantino/Zombie comparison’s are right on the mark. Having talented persons speak horrid dialogue and do vacant ugly things is just so jarring to moi. I totally dig the set design but have found the film nigh-unwatchable for the circling-the-drain performances. Just vile. Hooper is just the loosest cannon. He’s ancient now, and still has no control over what could be massive abilities. I was reminded of this Sunday whilst watching “Mortuary” on Sci-Fi. There’s a moment when the crappy kids make a re-appearance in the diner, when the main guy and gal are making out, and the creepy gal taps her nails on the pie-case, that is just magisterial. The rest of the scene plays great as well, and then I guess the dude gets lost in the footage. If Hooper ever had a decent editor, beyond Poltergeist, he’d be a worthy legend. Pheww, sorry.