From Island of Lost Souls to Zombie Flesh Eaters – an examination of exiled Mad Doctors, Voodoo and Castaways of Terror

Much of Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), a chilling adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, creeps about in the shadows. Though the ghoulish make-up effects which bring to life the house of pain’s twisted creations are brilliantly realised by Wally Westmore, it is perhaps what we don’t see which most disturbs. Suggestions of indiscretion, perversion, or hidden pasts lurk with the malformed creatures on the edges of the night. Charles Laughton’s manic doctor speaks of his assistant Montgomery’s indelicate medical school misdemeanours back in England and hints of the sexual assaults they have both perpetrated on Lota, the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). All of this deeply unnerving subtext prevails over the grim crackling soundtrack, replete with the uncontrolled howls of agonised beast-men.   

While the original book had been a scathing critique on animal vivisection, arriving amidst the Darwinian controversies and religious debates which still besieged much of the west, like the previous M (1931), it seemed to prefigure the fast encroaching Nazi era. Whereas Lang’s movie mirrored the paranoia of Hitler’s Germany, with its many scenes of secluded meetings and kangaroo court proceedings, Kenton’s film seems to be a grim warning about the dangers of unchecked scientific ‘progress’, the grisly on-screen experiments eerily mimicking the kinds of atrocities that would later be carried out by real-life Dr. Moreau figure, Josef Mengele. 

In many ways, Island of Lost Souls and indeed the slightly earlier production, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), would provide the template for the ‘interlopers caught on a remote island with a god-like maniac’ feature. The basic formula has been repeated on countless occasions. King of the Zombies (1941), Island of Terror (1966), and Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980) are just a few examples of these kinds of cinematic offerings. Even Edgar G. Ulmer’s distinctly perverse The Black Cat (1934) seems to riff on this theme. Though the island is replaced with a Futurist mansion, the trapped strangers, scientific experimentation and torture are all in place. Coppola’s classic Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, itself, arguably borrowing heavily from Wells’s earlier book, certainly presents us with very similar aspects to Kenton’s piece. This would come full circle, when Marlon Brando who played megalomaniac Kurtz, ended up in the title role of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996). This version, if it had been left with original director Richard Stanley, might have been something special; however after he was sent into Moreau-style exile by nervous studio execs, John Frankenheimer was ushered in to finish the job. The result is a hodgepodge bit of nothing much spoiled by Val Kilmer’s titanic ego and Brando’s playful procrastination. Anyone wishing to explore the fascinating story of that extremely difficult shoot should check out the brilliant documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau (2015).

Aside from this, there had only ever been one other official adaptation. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1977), starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York, is a fairly forgettable affair. Though marginally better than the 1996 effort, Don Taylor’s attempt offers none of the uneasiness of Kenton’s version and feels stilted and slightly pointless. There have of course been many other examples which have also played around with Moreau style figures. One of the most interesting, if slightly dubious continuations of this idea is explored in Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979).

Beginning life (or should that be death) as a rushed and unofficial sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead AKA Zombi (1978), Zombie Flesh Eaters AKA Zombi 2, directed by Lucio Fulci, was in many ways a patchwork affair. After an outbreak of mysterious deaths in Manhattan, plucky reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) and companions follow the trail back the tropical Island of Matul. There they encounter a living dead outbreak, old magic, and overworked surgeon, Doctor Menard. Dominated by producer pressure, the quick cash in sought to try to monopolise on a host of earlier successors. As well as the obvious undead element, we also get nudity, eye-gouging horror, and at least one underwater zombie versus shark fight. On many levels, it’s completely ludicrous yet there is something about its pick and mix approach which renders it one of the best things to have spewed out of the extremely saturated exploitation market of the late nineteen-seventies. 

One of its key strengths is the way it combines gory effects with the more traditional style of older work such as White Zombie (1932). It’s essentially where the creaking memories of black and white chills meet the bloody horror of the modern world. Eschewing Romero’s social commentary and urban settings, Fulci presents us with a tale of medical experimentation, lost islands, and of course voodoo. Whereas Tom Savini sought to present his walking dead as visual symbols of twentieth-century living, Giannetto De Rossi’s make-up jobs actually gave us realistic-looking corpses. Maggots spill from eyeballs, rotting cadavers lumber horribly about dusty deserted spaces, their features are not Dawn of the Dead caricatures but ghoulish hollowed-out faces of the damned. 

Following almost exactly the same format as Zombie Flesh Eaters, even poaching star Ian McCulloch, Zombie Holocaust (1980), another Italian production from a year later took the same mish-mash approach, again repeating the Manhattan to tropical island idea, but this time adding yet another cash-in element – the cannibal. Clearly an opportunistic grab at two short-lived markets, director Girolami attempted to mash together the Romero style undead feature with a decidedly more brutal style. Taking his cue not just from Zombie Flesh Eaters, but from flash in the pan successes like The Man from Deep River (1972), or the troubling Cannibal Holocaust (1979), he sought to combine the best (or worst) of both worlds. And as fun and throw away as it is, there is also something so repellently bleak about it that sticks with you like the faint whiff of vomit days after a beer-fuelled bender. It’s as though all the fears about the oncoming new decade and the vilest things about the last hundred years were bubbling to the surface in a blood and guts gore-fest encompassing waves of uncontrollable panic and guilt-laden horror. There is the offensive simplification of race and culture into convenient stereotypes: non-white characters are at best lazy and cowardly and at worst savage flesh-eaters, women are there to be gawked at or torn apart on a madman’s operating table, and the white man is presented as either saviour or God; either way, he’s usually in control. 

It’s deeply problematic; though it stops short of the real animal cruelty that we see in other cannibal features, it’s rife with casual racism and deeply ingrained misogynist viewpoints. It does though, sail closer to Island of Lost Souls territory, than even Zombie Flesh Eaters. Its Dr. Obrero character played by Donald O’Brien is clearly a cheap Moreau clone, but whereas Charles Laughton, under Kenton’s excellent direction, never allows anything too graphic to play out, it’s not the case here. In one horribly memorable scene journalist Susan (Sherry Buchanan) is scalped and tortured. When her screams become too much, her vocal cords are snipped out before our eyes. The message about women’s voices being silenced by a sadistic patriarchy might not have been intended but it is there none the less. 

Though these films vary greatly in quality, they all seek to alarm us in some way. The shocks we find in Zombie Holocaust or Zombie Flesh Eaters may be more obvious, but they are no less clear in Island of Lost Souls. The latter is a deeply unpleasant work, brilliant but horribly disquieting. And like the aforementioned exploitation pieces it aims also to titillate. Kathleen Burke who plays Lota was cast only after winning a publicity generating competition set up by Paramount Pictures. Her presence on-screen is a deliberate move to enliven the more animalistic qualities of male members of the audience. It may be subtler than a zombie/shark skirmish but it’s no less sensational. 

One noteworthy aspect of Zombie Holocaust is the way it subverts some of the content it borrows from Kenton’s film. While in the latter, Moreau tries to ‘evolve’ his beast natives into bizarre human-like creatures, Girolami insultingly presents his actual human natives as being less than animal. It is simply accepted that brown-skinned islanders would of course be cannibals. This is never explored or questioned. 

All three productions, though, notably close in strikingly similar ways, each combining a final battle, a fire, and an escape by boat. The idea that white interlopers visit new worlds and leave them in burning tatters is a none too subtle metaphor for the ravages of colonialism.  And though all the aforementioned features were made years before the fact, the recent isolationism of Trump’s America or the collective self-harm of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, seems in some way to hark back to our fascination with islands of lonely terror. We may not be faced with zombie hordes or animal-human hybrids (yet) but we are left with ourselves. And it’s that point, perhaps in a post coronavirus world, that we must ask what we want to do with our inherited spaces. Given that Moreau like figures are always lurking in the shadows, waiting to take a scalpel to our fragile sense of community, should we sit back and wait to be inducted into yet another house of pain or recognise we are not ‘things’ and fight for our freedoms?