Herschell Gordon Lewis continues to defy convention. Today, he’s one of the most respected authorities on direct marketing and advertising, with more than 15 books in print. But few who seek the insight of the 70-something guru know of his illustrious career as a drive-in titan. A career that has thrilled and inspired each successive generation to discover his work.
He’d taught English at Mississippi State College. Rode the television broadcasting boom to Chicago in the ’50s. But it was when he answered the siren’s call to filmmaking, that his life began to follow a weird-wild path through America’s drive-ins. He partnered with exploiteer David F. Friedman for his feature debut in 1960 with The Prime Time (as producer), which chronicled a young woman’s quest for excitement at the cost of her virtue. And for the next three years, the duo made many of these sexploitation pictures, of those, only a half-dozen survive today. It was a decidedly prolific genre, and Lewis happened upon a notion that would take he and Friedman along a divergent path, one not merely less traveled, but one completely uncharted.
The idea was simple: graphic, on screen G-O-R-E in screaming color. The film was Blood Feast (1963) and it would FOREVER change the horror genre. By way of perspective, Psycho (1960) was among the first mainstream films to truly show oozing blood — but, in black and white. Herschell’s picture had geysers of the red stuff! A buxom blonde actually got her TONGUE ripped out! Even the "Blood Feast" title was formed on the screen with splattering plasma. The flick was immediately a box-office smash, and would continue to run in drive-ins for more than 20 years. It also blazed the gruesome trail followed by such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Other gore pictures would follow, including Feast’s companion pieces in the unintentional "Blood Trilogy" — Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red. In the next 10 years, Herschell would dabble in a myriad of genres: juvenile delinquents, wife-swapping, biker babes, political satire, LSD weirdness and others. But for his final picture, in 1972, he’d dance with who brung him with The Gore Gore Girls.
If it’d been anyone else, that would be the end of the story. But Herschell left show business and returned to advertising where, during the next two decades, he would establish himself as a leader in that field as well. Today, he lives in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he heads Lewis Enterprises, a marketing consultation firm. He and his movies are continuously honored at film festivals all over the world. And when asked about those days, now long past, Lewis beams with a father’s quiet pride for prosperous children — not so much for his unique skill as a filmmaker, but more for the movies themselves, and the enjoyment they still bring to audiences.
Shock Films and Something Weird Video are largely responsible for spreading the gospel of gore to a new generation of fans. And together, they have brought 16 Herschell Gordon Lewis pictures to DVD, each packed with exploitation extras, and many with insightful commentary tracks by the man himself. In tribute to a screen legend, and one of my personal B-heroes, I intend to guide my fellow CineSchlockers through ALL of these remarkable discs:
Goldilocks and the Three Bares
Here lies, bare bosomed in the sun, one of only TWO known "nudie musicals" with the other, Sinderella and the Golden Bra, rounding out a devilish double feature. This mercenary project, for which Lewis and Friedman were enlisted by Chicago theater-owner-turned-producer Thomas Dowd, explores the tale of a lovesick lounge singer who’s crushed when his honey reveals herself as a weekend NUDIST! Being the money man, Dowd naturally had a wish list for Lewis, which included making a crooning heartthrob of NINE-FINGERED yard man Rex Marlow (his left middle finger missing at the knuckle). Tom also wanted the nudist camp where Allison Louise "Bunny" Downe was to do her fleshy frolicking to boast yachting and HORSEBACK RIDING. Never mind how REAL sun worshipers recreate. Just imagine Bill Kerwin‘s discomfort when he barebacks as Marlow’s cartoonish sidekick!!! What a pro.
Notables: 33 breasts. Giant novelty sunglasses. Gratuitous apocalyptic newspaper headline. Lengthy snail-speed car chase. Gratuitous prize-fighter Joey Maxim (who wears his script on his sleeve).
Quotables: Kerwin yelps, "Boy, you girls sure are sensitive about nudism!" Eddie knows how to charm the ladies, "Say, that’s the first time you ever smiled at me. I like it. Can I have an encore if I buy you a hamburger?" Myrna can’t abide fast women, "I can see a girl has to take her clothes off to get YOUR attention!"
Time codes: First glimpse of nekkidness (21:13). Spectacularly buoyant bathing beauty (33:46). The gal who typed the script for Blood Feast disrobes (47:50). Flick’s title finally sneaks its way into the dialogue (1:05:30).
Scum of the Earth!
Near the end of his sexploitation years, this entry arrived at a time when the nudist camp and nudie cutie flicks of the day gave way to "roughies" — titillating stories of naive girls lured into indecency. Here, a pornography ring eases a wide-eyed Kim (Allison Downe) into their clutches with the promise of enough cash to start college. She thinks she’s merely modeling fashions, only Harmon (William Kerwin) the sleazeball shutterbug keeps upping her paycheck, and diminishing her wardrobe with each sinful session. Kim wises up much too late and is caught in a web of blackmail which forces her to submit to the sleaziest of photo shoots. Possibly involving a strapping buck named Ajax who has been licking his chops since he first laid eyes on her. We never really SEE what the poses are, but the way they keep talking about how HORRIBLE they are, makes the whole thing seem all the more seedy. The best part is when the porn king berates a sobbing Kim, telling her she’s "DIRTY! Do you hear me!? DIRTY!!!"
Notables: No breasts. Three corpses. Giant novelty phone. Whipping. One foot chase.
Quotables: Sandy is a model with limits, "Remember, I’m not double jointed." And she knows the sort of fellas she’s mixed up with, "If you don’t go along with these morons, they’re going to place your bosom all over this town!" A horndog highschooler recognizes Kim at the malt shop, "I don’t know if she’s a lady, but I have proof she sure ain’t no gentleman."
Time codes: Fuad Ramses before he went gray (21:10). Freeze-frame pervert’s delight (29:11). Straight talk for little Miss Muffet (48:20). A 15-minute timewarp (54:00).
A true classic. The granddaddy of the slasher genre, and must-have for any self-respecting CineSchlocker. Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) is a busy man. He runs an exotic catering business. He’s a mail-order book salesman. And he spends his evenings hacking up nubile young girls for the sacrifice necessary to reanimate his goddess, Ishtar. An eye here. A leg there. A dash of brains. All the while, he skulks around, dragging his leg and bugging his eyes — generally, LOOKING like a homicidal maniac. In the flick’s most famous scene, a blond coed (Astrid Olson) gets her tongue ripped right out of her skull. The primitive effect (by today’s standards) was done by placing a sheep’s tongue, stage blood and red Jell-O into the cavernous mouth of a former Playboy Club waitress — then allowing the whole mess to spill out for the camera. Fuad also dismembers a gal in a bath tub. Knocks another girl’s beau over the head, and then proceeds to brain her as well, literally. Trying to sort out the murders is police Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin), who just happens to be dating Suzette Fremont (Connie Mason). Will he wise up before Fuad adds Suzie to the dessert menu? Or will Ishtar rise again and whup some mortal butt? See for yourself.
Notables: Two breasts. Eight corpses. Hypnotic-stares. Gratuitous python. Egyptology lecture. Swimming pool frolicking. Coed whipping. Death by garbage truck.
Quotables: Hands down, the best line in the flick is from Suzette, "Hey! You wouldn’t sacrifice ME on this altar, would you?!"
Time codes: The famous blood-red splatter titles (2:45). June 1963 Playmate Connie Mason joins the flick (10:50). Ms. Mason reads her dialog from a lampshade (24:30). The thrilling foot-chase finale (1:02:30).
Two Thousand Maniacs!
With Blood Feast a box office bonanza, Lewis and Friedman wondered to themselves, "Hey, what if we actually made a GOOD one?!" And they did. Easily my favorite of the gore pictures. It’s a musical. It’s a comedy. It’s just brilliant. The sleepy Southern town of Pleasant Valley lures two carloads of Yankees off the main highway and into a world of horror. It’s a deceptively serene city, especially given its kiddos entertain themselves by making hangman’s nooses and worse. Mayor Buckman (Jeffrey Allen) encourages, er, forces the strangers to be the guests of honor for the town’s centennial celebration. Then the REAL arm twisting begins. Among the six ill-fated Yankees are Feast’s Connie Mason and William Kerwin. Those familiar with the Broadway musical Brigadoon will readily grasp the filmmakers’ inspiration. Admirers of Betsy (Linda Cochran), the love ’em and kill ’em Southern belle, can see much more of her in The Defilers, Friedman’s fleshy roughie.
Notables: No breasts. Four corpses. Cat strangling. Thumb tumbles. Non-union actor drawn and quartered. Multiple chase scenes. Slow-pitch softball. Arm roasted on spit.
Quotables: Herschell sings the theme song he wrote: "There’s a story you should know from a hundred years ago / And a hundred years we’ve waited now to tell / Now the Yankees come along and they’ll listen to this song / And they’ll quake in fear to hear this Rebel yell [Repeat] / CHORUS: Yeeeeehaw! Oh, the South’s gonna rise again! [Repeat] / Robert E. Lee broke his musket on his knee / And a thousand pieces shattered on the ground / But he looked up then and he gathered up his men / And from his lips there came an awful sound [Repeat] / CHORUS / Stonewall took a gun and he made the Yankees run / But he took a fatal bullet in the chest / As he fell down dead old Stonewall said, / ‘I’m givin’ you a dieing man’s request’ [Repeat] / CHORUS / Jeb Stewart spurred his horse and the Yankees run of course / But there wasn’t any powder in his gun / So he said to his boys, ‘Let’s make a lot of noise.’ / And we’ll charge again and make them Yankees run [Repeat] / CHORUS."
Time codes: The flick takes a ferocious turn (25:10). What is this all about anyway? (38:10). The immortal Yankee in a Barrel scene (39:20). Harper rises from his watery grave (1:21:15).
Color Me Blood Red
This picture marked the end of the Lewis/Friedman partnership, which they explain on the disc’s commentary. A frustrated beatnik painter by the name of Adam Sorg (Gordon Oas-Heim) spends his days at his ratty beach-front home, attempting to create art, but mostly being nagged by his girlfriend. Yet she actually saves his career when she accidentally pricks her finger and bleeds onto one of his canvases. Being the demented son-of-a-gun he is, he becomes mesmerized by the color, encouraging her to donate more blood with the help of a razor. She freaks, and he finishes his masterpiece with his own hemoglobin. It’s a monstrous success, and we drift into a vicious cycle very similar to Roger Corman‘s A Bucket of Blood (1959). The need for more of the red stuff, to make more hit paintings, means Sorg must tap the arteries (and intestines) of unwilling donors. His bitchy girlfriend naturally being first to go. And he’d have gotten away with it to, if it hadn’t been for those nosey kids.
Notables: No breasts. Four corpses. Weenie roasting. Gratuitous French accents. Gunshot to the face.
Quotables: How to charm your mate: "If we ever got married, the first thing I’d do is get a divorce" and "If we get married, I’m gonna hire me a psychiatrist." Jack emotes when faced with a shocking discovery, "Holy bananas! It’s a girls leg!"
Time codes: The thrilling paddle boat sequence (11:10). A bloody breakthrough (19:15). Sorg can’t handle criticism (26:30). Worms wriggle inside rotting corpse (1:12:19).
Monster a Go-Go!
This unscheduled foray into sci-fi presented itself when Herschell acquired Bill Rebane‘s unfinished black-and-white film Terror at Halfday. With the aid of some deliriously absurd narration and a dash of additional shooting, Lewis cobbled together enough footage to eek out a second feature to pair with his beloved Moonshine Mountain. It’s a familiar yarn about an ill-fated astronaut who returns to Earth as a 10-foot-tall, 400-pound, pizza-faced monstrosity (real-deal tall man, get this, Henry Hite) who turns anyone he paws into an overgrown and very lifeless PRUNE! (Even if a "dead" actor can’t quite hold a twisted grimace for his postmortem closeup). Bikini’d babes jiggle for their lives as this beast lumbers hither and yon, miraculously managing to evade capture. Marvel at the much-too-tiny cardboard space capsule and, most of all, behold how Lewis adeptly handles an actor’s amazing-disappearing toupee.
Notables: No breasts. Four corpses. Gratuitous go-go title song. Martini closeup. Sunbathing. Trucker smooching.
Quotables: Our narrator emotes, "There is ONE terrifying word in the world of nuclear physics: RADIATION!" The pressure is on, "What the hell do you want from me doctor!? … I don’t have a precision mind like yours!"
Time codes: This boogie-woogie dancin’ gal made the scene AND the trailer (15:40). First clear look at the monster (23:53). Here’s one of the added "filler" sequences (50:10). As in Blood Feast, Herschell’s voice on the radio (51:18).
A Taste of Blood
Herschell’s epic. It’s the longest, has the best production values, and one other thing his pictures hadn’t attempted before — character development. Bill Rogers plays John Stone, a happy-go-lucky fella who receives a creepy package from across the pond in England. Inside are two heart-shaped brandy bottles, and a note explains they’ve been willed from his forefathers, and he’s to toast their memory. He does, and it’s good stuff. Too good. Yep, it’s blood, and John is smack dab in vampire city. He’s skulking around at night, sleeping all day, and generally surly toward his bodacious wife (Elizabeth Wilkinson). There’s a whole lot of plot, but it boils down to simple vengeance, and Dracula Junior’s got a list and he’s checking it twice. Two interesting variants from traditional vampire lore, is that instead of a hypnotic stare, he wears a gaudy ring that makes folks do his bidding, and when he vamps out — he turns B-L-U-E and his skin looks like the chipped paint on my garage door. Once again, the incomparable Bill Kerwin (as Dr. Hank Tyson) is right in there acting his little heart out.
Notables: No breasts. Six corpses. Putting. Oversized letter opener. Phony accents. Sleep driving. Multiple neck snacking.
Quotables: John is a lousy liar, "I like working at night. It keeps me off the streets." Hank has never listened to Art Bell, "Vampirism? Voodoo? Ah, that’s all mumbo jumbo."
Time codes: Herschell in a ultra-rare on screen role as a sailor (39:25). Classic Dracula imagery (50:55). The Queen of the Grind does her stuff (1:02:55).
Another of Herschell’s mercenary projects. It’s from an idea by James F. Hurley, who by the end, wasn’t at all happy with what Lewis had done with the picture. Hurley was a devout believer in E.S.P., and well, Herschell was a devout believer in box office success. The two notions clashed. Regardless, the title is wholly appropriate. This IS something weird. Really, really weird. Basically, a fella gets zapped by a downed power line, which horribly scars his face, but provides him with unparalleled psychic abilities. He sets up a fortune teller shop, and is called on by a comically hideous WITCH, who offers to pretty up his mug for a roll in the hay. He agrees and it gets even more bizarre from there. The film became the namesake of Mike Vrany‘s video business.
Notables: No breasts. Six corpses. Electrocution. Gratuitous martial arts training footage. Sniping. Flame throwing. Cackling witch. Blood Feast-style foot chase.
Quotables: A nurse with a horrible beside manner, "You’re disgusting! No one can look at you! Not even yourself! A freak like you should have died!" A real wise guy wonders, "A sensitive? What’s a sensitive? A guy who sunburns too easy?!" A twist on a familiar refrain, "I’m a psychic, not a psychiatrist!"
Time codes: "I have a drug here, perhaps you’ve heard of it" (35:42). Attack of the killer bed sheets (56:33). Cronin Mitchell (Tony McCabe) partakes in a mondo hit of LSD (1:03:35).
The Gruesome Twosome
While an unabashed return to gore, Lewis winces during the wacky opening scene, which became necessary when the film ran too short. This is the story of The Little Wig Shop and its proprietor Mrs. Pringle (Elizabeth Davis), her demented son (Chris Martel) and their beloved stuffed bobcat, Napoleon. It seems the local gals are crazy for wigs and Mrs. Pringle has the best in town. But they come at a ghastly price. Pringle lures girls into her shop, shoves them into a storage room, where Rodney chases them around before relieving them of their HAIR during truly gruesome and P-R-O-T-R-A-C-T-E-D scalping scenes. Audiences could close their eyes, but whenever they peeked — Yuck! Kathy Barker (Gretchen Welles) is a student who can’t seem to mind her own business, or stop making odd faces. She’s full of theories on her missing friends’ whereabouts. Much to the chagrin of her perpetually horny boyfriend. Ultimately, Ms. Davis’ eccentric performance propels the movie, and her big scene with Martel makes the Sawyer family of Texas Chainsaw Massacre seem slightly less original.
Notables: No breasts. Three corpses. Gratuitous shower scene. Face stuffing. Gratuitous Longfellow quotation. Beach frolicking. Machete to the gut.
Quotables: Kathy’s boyfriend isn’t happy, "How’d I ever get mixed up with a female James Bond?!" Wig shop patron admires the merchandise, "These are lovely, almost human." Kathy is well-meaning, but dim, "If we don’t follow every possible clue, why we could all end up dead, or worse." She’s also pretty naive when it comes to drive-ins, "Do you ever wonder what all these people, in all these cars are doing?"
Time codes: Bizarre four-minute conversation between Styrofoam heads (:00). Meet Napoleon (5:40). Coeds boogie atop beds while scarfing Kentucky Fried Chicken (13:30). A disturbing moment between mother and son (32:44). The ol’ hairpin to the eye socket trick (1:08:50).
A bit of a bait-and-switch with the title. This is actually the story of a boy band’s sputtering blast-off toward stardom — a tale that’s every bit as relevant today as it was then. Boojie Baker (Dan Conway) is a dapper dandy who struts around twirling a cane, with a dingy blonde on his other arm, a babe who performs certain favors to assure business dealings go Boojie’s way. Though he’s actually more of a pimp, he fancies himself as a hot-shot talent promoter, and with the aid of his lady friends, he successfully cons a homely garage band into a less than financially lucrative contract. But Boojie’s steady stream of party girls keeps the boys of The Big Blast pacified for only so long before they start yammering for an actual paycheck. Trouble intensifies when the group heads into the studio and realizes they’re woefully unprepared to make it as real musicians. No matter how much pot they smoke. Sexual innuendo is pervasive, but the flick is ultimately chaste and lean on charm.
Notables: No breasts. Screaming groupies. Gratuitous scene with guy lighting cigar with money. Coffee to the face. One miniature train. Reefer madness.
Quotables: Fledgling musician faces the reality of professional life, "I think we’re at the point where money is more important than girls." Boojie looses his cool, "A kid with a TRIANGLE has a better sense of tempo than you!"
Time codes: The proposition and its curvaceous fringe benefits (10:26). Could it be?! It is! That’s Colonel Sanders! (26:15). Pitiful rendition of "Chopsticks" (1:06:20).
She-Devils on Wheels
This one’s very close to Herschell’s heart, and with good reason. A fierce female motorcycle gang who boastfully call themselves The Man-Eaters terrorize the streets by day and have their pick of eager beaus by night. They tussle with a rival (MALE) gang over turf, but these gals aren’t the ones who end up bloodied, clutching their privates and soaked in URINE. One of girls breaks the ultimate taboo by actually falling in LOVE with a man. Another little chickie (Nancy Lee Noble) is initiated into the gang by having motor oil poured all over her half-nekkid body. Lewis held a casting call in Miami where he actually found real-life lady bikers for the flick, but ever mindful of his budget, those cast also happened to provide their own wheels. Don’t fall for the false ending after the credits.
Notables: No breasts. Two corpses. Group groping. Lesbian tongue rasslin. Gratuitous motorcycle racing. Decapitation.
Quotables: They may be wanton vixens, but they certainly value proper hygiene, "Man-Eaters is right! We spend half the dues changing the sheets around here!" The gang’s motto, "Sex, guts, blood and all men are muthers!"
Time codes: The Man-Eaters theme song (1:40). Karen has to prove herself by dragging a guy to death behind her cycle (30:40).
Just for the Hell of It
Juvenile delinquent pictures really had their heyday in the ’50s, but that didn’t dissuade Mr. Lewis from putting his spin on the genre. And his kids are MEAN. To them, it isn’t a good party if there’s a recognizable stick of furniture in the room after it’s over. Keith Moon and Johnny Cash have left hotel suites in better shape than these punks. Only they don’t LOOK like delinquents, in fact, they look more like members of the Young Republicans. Still, they wander the city engaging in random acts of willful and wanton destruction. They pick fights with little leaguers. One of them burns a poor lady’s newspaper WHILE SHE’S READING IT!!! These cackling teenagers even steal a blind man’s cane, for heaven’s sake! Such reckless behavior can only go on for so long without someone getting hurt — and tragically, they do.
Notables: One breast. Four corpses. Gratuitous rock band footage. Paint slinging. Pants splitting. Hand frying. Gratuitous police interrogation scene. Cream pie to the face. Bike bashing.
Quotables: Crusty old police chief has a problem on his hands, "These groups today, wandering around looking for trouble. Dropping out of school. Letting their hair grow! Joining some darn-fool movement. Getting into trouble somewheres along the way … they’re restless. They’re looking for trouble! They’re like a plague of rats!"
Time codes: Headlines chart the terror (25:43). These punks actually put a baby in the TRASH! (32:15). Lingering pan of Jeanne’s raped and mutilated body (1:15:25).
The Wizard of Gore
This tedious, but gorrific entry is more for devoted H.G. Lewis fans than the curious viewer. Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) may be the WORST magician ever. But he’s one helluva hypnotist. Montag rolls out the regular illusions, only his lovely volunteers drop dead shortly after each performance. He puts the whammy on his whole audience — they see the typical "Lady Sawed in Half" trick, but in reality he CHAINSAWS her and fiddles with her guts. If the premise sounds confusing, well, it is. But don’t worry, the idea’s driven home about 90 million times … chicks get swords crammed down their throats, another gal gets a six-inch hole punched through her tummy, and my personal favorite, the babe who gets a steel spike introduced to her left ear (and soon after, her right). Each time Montag makes a bunch of crazy faces and squishes their slimy guts between his fingers. Whata sicko. Once he’s done, he snaps the audience out of their haze and everyone goes along their merry way, none the wiser. Except, of course, for this nosy broad who hosts "Housewife’s Coffee Break" (Judy Cler). That figures, eh? If anyone can explain the ending, drop me a line.
Notables: No breasts. Seven corpses. Electric chainsaw butchery. Grave robbing. Spike through the brainpan. P-whipping. Sword swallowing. Magician Pop Tart.
Quotables: Sherry gripes at her dippy boyfriend, "You know, sometimes you make things sound as exciting as a shoe lace factory."
Time codes: Check out the plastic on the floor (15:50). Whoa, baby … make out time (58:10).
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!
If the stuff they’re talking about is the MOVIE, well, there may be truth in advertising after all. It’s a slow, painful death as a redneck moonshine cult dubbed the "Congregation of the Heavenly Spirits" sits around their church house swilling white lightnin’ and listening to the dubious sermonizing of the Reverend Roscoe Boone (