Despite whatever negative connotations the term “exploitation cinema” might bring to mind, it is a concept which, at its heart, is really much more benign than you might think. Basically, an exploitation film is one which focuses on an element simply for the sake of luring in the audience – sex, blood, a specific ethnicity, or even Megan Fox and giant transforming robots. And, in the parlance of Hollywood, exploitation was a way for the major studios to distinguish the “low brow” fare of the little guys from their own “important” movies. More to the point, exploitation cinema was, and remains, a way for people without marketing budgets to compete in a lopsided marketplace. Take, for example, “The Human Centipede” – for which, I’m sure, you’ve never seen a poster or a television commercial but about which you’ve certainly heard and formed an opinion.
In a nutshell, the history of exploitation cinema goes like this: Pin-ups proved to be great morale boosters during WWII, so when the GIs returned home, there was a boom in burlesque and striptease. As more and more live theaters converted to movie houses, both theater owners and distributors realized that it was more economical to film the acts of Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm and the like than to shuttle the stars around the country – suddenly one popular act could be performing simultaneously in multiple cities across America. Following a few key decisions by the US Supreme Court, sex was not deemed intrinsically obscene, and the doors were opened to a broad spectrum of “naked” movies – from footage of nudist lifestyles to Russ Meyer’s “nudie cuties,” which lived up to their wholesome name. Because actual sex couldn’t yet be shown on film, producers needed other ways to increase the sensationalism of their titles. Soon, they borrowed from the pulp magazines of the day and created “roughies,” in which violence towards (often nude) women became the norm. With sex and adult themes now sanctioned on screen, Hollywood began to fight the exploitation peddlers at their own game by relaxing the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code and releasing more and more exploitation-like fare. In 1960, Paramount Pictures struck out at the small exploitation producers with one of the mightiest blows it could summon: a film called Psycho.
Although a good deal of Psycho’s esthetics were dictated by Alfred Hitchcock’s making of the film against the wishes of Paramount’s bosses (and on the cheap), Hitchcock was, wittingly or not, steering directly into exploitation traffic. Since the Paramount Decision of a decade earlier, which had broken up the studios’ ability to own theaters and exclusively control what played in those theaters, film distribution had become a dog-eat-dog world, with the major players ever increasingly encroaching upon sensational fare. If the little guys were going to survive, they were going to need to show more nudity and more violence. By 1960 and the release of Psycho, nudity had already been pushed about as far as the law would allow. The only place left to go was to crank up the violence. Enter filmmakers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman.
Back in the late 1950’s, Herschell Gordon Lewis was a humanities teacher turned ad man who had a small production company and was looking for a way to make money in the film business. After seeing the success of Russ Meyer’s “The Immoral Mr. Teas”, Lewis figured that sex always sold, so that’s the basket into which he initially put his eggs. After producing one nudie romp on his own, Lewis partnered with David Friedman, who had a background in film distribution; together they began to put out a series of nudie cuties and nudist camp films. But the nudist market quickly became crowded and over-saturated, so Lewis asked himself the most important question of his career:
“What kind of motion picture might there be that the major companies either could not make or would not make but that theater owners still would book and that people would go to see?”
While in Florida shooting one of their nudist pictures, Lewis uttered a single, all-important four-letter word to Friedman: Gore. Psycho was already a smash hit, and, as he would continually demonstrate throughout his career, Lewis had a nose for identifying trends. Sure, there were laws against how far they could push the sex in their films, but gore wasn’t so stringently regulated. He had Friedman’s attention. But what would the picture be about? As they were currently staying at the Suez Motel, which boasted a scaled replica of the Sphinx out front, an Egyptian theme came to mind: a tale of a cannibalistic Egyptian feast. They began working out the story and pulling actors from their nudist picture. Four and a half days and $24,500 later, they had their movie: Blood Feast (1963).
Even today this trailer for Blood Feast may offend some and should be considered potentially NSFW:
The sentiment that went into the making of Blood Feast was pretty much “let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.” Lewis and Friedman would open the film small – at a single drive-in in Peoria, Illinois. They attended the opening night with their wives, anxious to gauge the reaction to this new spectacle in cinema. If the audience hated it, they’d know immediately. For an even more immediate reaction, Friedman turned to his wife. In one word, she offered her critique: “Vomitous.” The word inspired Friedman to order half-a-million vomit bags printed with “You May Need This When You See… Blood Feast. Stained in Crimson Color!”, which would be sent to theaters a week before the film premiered. “Vomitous” or not, Blood Feast was a smash hit everywhere it played.
In the documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: Godfather of Gore, director John Waters recalls seeing the film at his local drive-in: “People leaning on the horn every time there was a gore scene. That was approval – that was like applause at the drive-in.” In Los Angeles, it played at the prestigious Los Angeles Theater, one of the grandest of the old movie palaces. In some areas, fearing that audiences would be too nauseated to purchase concessions, theater owners screened the second movie first (these were the days of the double feature), which only increased the build-up for Blood Feast. Critics hated it, but audiences were flocking in. Lewis himself likens the film to a Walt Whitman poem: “It was no good, but it was the first of its kind.”
When it came time to assemble our list of Halloween guests, there was no doubt that Herschell Gordon Lewis had to be on it, for without him, there would be no Halloween, no Friday the 13th, no Hostel. Lewis created a genre that still remains central to the horror canon today: the “splatter” flick. These aren’t movies about creepy old houses or past wrongs coming back for revenge, these are on-the-screen, in-your-face, hands-over-your-eyes blood and guts symphonies, each one trying to outdo the last. And we love them. Now, Mr. Lewis’ film choice for our festival may come as something of a surprise, but I think that it make a lot of sense, a point which I’ll get back to later. His pick for our late night, drive-in fest is Universal’s The Mad Ghoul from 1943, and here are his thoughts on the film:
“George Zucco was as unlikely a “leading man” as ever existed. Bela Lugosi was implicitly an oddball, but Zucco was just an average-looking man, reading unremarkable lines from unremarkable horror screenplays. This movie is as primitive as one of mine, but the title is a stopper.”
While Universal Studio was undoubtedly the king of monsters movies, the studio’s creative heyday was firmly during the 1930s. By the time the ‘40s came around, most of the monsters of the past decade were being dredged up for unremarkable sequels (The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man’s Revenge) and only a few remarkable new pictures, such as The Wolf Man, rose above B-Movie status. Among the original pictures which came from the studio at that time was The Mad Ghoul. The plot involves a professor recreating an ancient Mayan “zombie” gas which, if inhaled, turns the victim into a somnambulist slave. Unlike most zombie takes, however, in The Mad Ghoul, the condition is reversible via the injection of a serum made from herbs and the heart of the recently deceased.
Plotwise, The Mad Ghoul is actually a romance. Dr. Morris, the professor (played by the aforementioned George Zucco) is in love with Isabel (“scream queen” Evelyn Ankers) the girlfriend of one of his students, Ted (David Bruce). Isabel wants to break it off with Ted but just can’t find a way to let him down easily, something she confides to Dr. Morris. Morris, of course, quickly comes to the conclusion that if Ted is out of the way, Isabel will be his – overlooking the fact that she’s actually in love with another guy named Eric. First, Dr. Morris uses the zombie potion to put Ted into a suggestible stage, during which he’ll convince Ted to call it off with Isabel. However, just when Morris believes that he has Isabel all to himself, she confesses her love for Eric, throwing another obstacle in front of the doctor’s affections. Needless to say, since Dr. Morris has already gone down the zombie slave path with Ted, he has no qualms repeating the experiment and ordering Ted to undertake more nefarious endeavors.
A scene from The Mad Ghoul:
And, let’s not overlook the best exchange in the film:
Dr. Morris: “And in here, a secret from perhaps beyond the world. What do you see?”
Ted: “A dead monkey?”
No doubt, The Mad Ghoul is far from Universal’s finest hour, and as Lewis observes, the balding, paunchy George Zucco is indeed an odd leading man. While a disproportionate amount of the film seems to be a battle between Zucco’s menacing eyes and David Bruce’s threatening haircut, there’s a strange joy to be had from the proceedings. It plays like a good Universal film (it certainly looks fine) recast with unknown actors – like a dress rehearsal with stand-ins. Most intriguing is the unique take on the zombie mythos – the nerve gas that can be countered by a restorative injection, an idea which begat today’s drink. It’s here, in this unlocking of ancient ritualistic rights that I find the connection to Blood Feast and its celebration of the ghastly Feast of Ishtar – both films centered on strange men unlocking even stranger arcane knowledge – and I can see Lewis’ appreciation for The Mad Ghoul and, perhaps, how it indirectly influenced his work decades later.
Corpse Reviver Shot
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake with ice, strain, and load syringes
Keep syringes on ice. Scale as needed.
The Corpse Reviver Shot is exactly that – a relatively faithful Corpse Reviver concoction of old in which we’ve replaced the orange juice with orange liqueur to amp up the viscosity and “shooter” quality. “Corpse Reviver” was a moniker applied to a variety of drinks (with the Corpse Reviver #2 being the most popular), and this version delivers it both in shot size and form (yes, you just squirt it into your mouth – don’t inject). We thought that it would be fun to make a drink that parallels the reviving serum in the film. And “reviving” is just the word for this one, with its bitter lemon zing that will surely awaken the palate, if not a corpse. As we also like to find ways to step away from traditional delivery systems, we were further inspired by the concept of a syringe. Any size syringe from 5cc to 50cc will work (one drink is 120cc, FYI) and can be easily purchased in bulk from numerous online medical supply companies. Just pre-load the syringes, keep them on ice, and let your guests go crazy.
In all honesty, today’s drink is little more than the engaging presentation of a classic, but sometimes that’s what makes all the difference. In the film Herschell Gordon Lewis: Godfather of Gore, Joe Bob Briggs proclaims Lewis “Part carny, part filmmaker. More advertising guy than filmmaker.” And that’s true. With his background in advertising and marketing (Lewis remains a leader in the world of direct marketing), Lewis knew how to put on a show. Director John Landis claims that while he isn’t a fan of Lewis’ films, “Oh, the posters!”
Aside from The Mad Ghoul, we recommend that you make the effort to check out Lewis’ work. Which is the best? Again, to quote Joe Bob: “You can’t ever say this is a great Herschell Gordon Lewis film and this is a bad Herschell film. When you watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis film, you’re watching it because it’s a Herschell Gordon Lewis film. The degrees of greatness to awfulness are really close together.” With that in mind, Blood Feast is the seminal work, while Lewis himself would rather be remembered for its follow-up, Two Thousand Maniacs! Many claim that The Gruesome Twosome is the best of the bunch, and personally, I think that The Gore Gore Girls (available on Netlfix streaming) has something to offend everyone. “I’d recommend for anyone who’s having a party to have it on a loop,” offers Briggs of Gore Gore Girls. “It’s a lot of fun.”
I’m honored to have Herschell Gordon Lewis choose today’s film for us. Whether you like his movies or are revolted by them, he changed the course of filmmaking forever. “The people in Hollywood take advantage of what pioneer filmmakers do for them,” Briggs surmises. “It’s a guy like Herschell who goes out and does it first and is despised for doing it. And then gradually, mainstream Hollywood changes and starts to show more and more and more and more – Herschell made that possible.”
Esoterica: Known stars were seldom seen in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films, but the few who did appear include Henny Youngman, Harvey Korman, and Colonel Sanders.
More from Herschell: After a thirty year absence, Lewis began directing again with 2002′s Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. He says that he may have one more film to release, Mr. Bruce and the Gore Machine.