This week is a sad one for horror fans, as it marks the passing of Herschell Gordon Lewis (June 15, 1929 – September 26, 2016), a man whose pioneering splatter movies changed the genre forever. While even his most well-known work is perhaps still not widely seen outside of horror circles, this is part of what makes him one of the quintessential purveyors of it. Horror – especially at its extreme end – has always been an outsider’s genre, offputting and disturbing to wider crowds. Sure, a lot of the tropes and extremities that Lewis introduced are commonplace now in major pictures but his work (although shot primarily to make money from the drive-in circuit in the early 60s) has remained on the fringes. A cult favorite for those in the know.
For me personally, he carved out a special place in my heart because Blood Feast was the first proper ‘video nasty’ I watched. For those reading from outside the UK, the ‘Video Nasties’ were a list of films banned in Britain back in the 1980s and – for horror fans/collectors – this served as a convenient shopping list for which films were essential viewing. Some of them, once seen, were admittedly not great, most were surprisingly tame, others still rank among the best genre films of all-time but, wherever else it fits on the list, Blood Feast will always have the honour of being my first.
As a young horror fan, I’d got hold of it via a tape trader who advertised in the back of FEAR magazine. The film I wanted most from him was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but the guy was offering two films on one long-play tape, so I picked Blood Feast as my second feature because it sounded cool. I can vividly remember the day I came home from school to find the tape had arrived in the mail. It was a balmy summer’s afternoon and before 4pm had even hit, I was parked in front of the TV ready to have my mind blown to pieces. While I loved The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was Blood Feast that I kept going back to. I wanted to show it to all my friends. We watched it over and over until I could quote all the (brilliant) dialogue. It spoke to my big dumb horror-loving teenage soul like nothing before ever had… Even some 30 years after it was made, it was by far the bloodiest thing I’d ever seen.
Blood Feast was not just my first ‘Nasty’ but also the first horror feature Herschell Gordon Lewis directed. Prior to this, he’d worked as an advertising copywriter (which I can fully imagine as being like a particularly gonzoid episode of Mad Men), a teacher, and a director of TV commercials before teaming up with producer David Friedman to make a string of ‘nudie-cutie’ films. In line with the restrictions of the era, ‘nudie-cuties’ were allowed to show nudity as long as it wasn’t sexualized. Everyone got their clothes off but no one had sex which, in the early ’60s, was as racy as it got. Lewis and Friedman’s films – which are now endearingly silly – made money and this gave them a taste for what they could achieve if they shifted their focus to the more lucrative drive-in market (which wouldn’t touch the nudie stuff). A new kind of film altogether was born.
Lewis had seen Psycho and wondered what would happen if a similarly macabre storyline was shot but with the murders shown in graphic detail, instead of just seeing the aftermath. The result was Blood Feast (1963), a psychotronic gem that’s inarguably the first splatter movie, almost certainly the first proper slasher movie and by miles the goriest thing ever made up until that point in time. I can’t imagine the impact it would’ve had seeing something like that for the first time when it was released.
However, what’s strange watching it now though is, even though it’s grimy, cheap, lecherous and at times even quite disgusting (watching a real sheep’s tongue, soaked in fake gore, being lovingly pulled out of a woman’s mouth can still make one feel a bit queasy), Blood Feast has an inarguable sense of fun to it. You can tell everyone was having a genuinely great time making it and the goofball humor of Lewis’ nudie-cutie features very much survives into this and indeed his other films.
The plot is knowingly ridiculous. Fuad Ramses, a mad caterer with freaky eyebrows, prepares an Egyptian feast for a girl’s birthday but, little does anyone know, it’s a special Egyptian feast that hasn’t been prepared for centuries; a literal blood feast! Fuad hacks and chops his way through the town’s nubile girls with view to serving them at the party as a sacrifice to the Goddess Ishtar. It’s all told with marvellously kitsch dialogue (when Fuad meets his end in a dump truck, the cops nod to each other that it’s “just like the garbage he was”), a spirited performance from Mal Arnold, an insanely grating timpani score (by Lewis himself), and some lovely touches of black humor to temper the violence (when we see the bloody remains of the victims in Fuad’s kitchen, one corpse has a salad bowl resting between her legs – never let it be said he’s not fond of a fancy garnish).
Blood Feast – with its raucous advertising campaign that handed out vomit bags and promised “nothing so appalling in the annals of horror” – was a drive-in smash (and critical catastrophe) so Lewis quickly followed it up with his masterpiece, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), arguably kicking off the entire redneck horror subgenre in the process. This time, a group of tourists wind up in a fictional backwoods town that are celebrating their centenary by (you guessed it) chopping up the locals. The gore is even more sadistic and inventive and the story more elaborate. The ending is even weirdly atmospheric but all of this darkness is wrapped up in Lewis’ trademarked humor which – this time – goes as far as his writing and singing the catchy banjo-led theme song The South’s Gonna Rise Again!
From there, Lewis gave hungry audiences splattery treats at a pace of at least one a year (while still turning out the sexploitation films in parallel). Almost all of these films are now revered as classics among fans and show off Lewis’s playful imagination when it comes to Grand Guignol shocks. Highlights include Color Me Blood Red (literally a film about an artist who uses blood instead of paint!), A Taste Of Blood (a surprisingly measured vampire story that, like the ending of Two Thousand Maniacs!, gives us an inkling of what we could’ve got had Lewis taken his gothic flair further), The Gruesome Twosome (a trashy tale of a wigmaker who kills young women for their hair, this one opens with a surreal, ten minute ‘conversation’ with two wig-block heads, inserted purely to pad the runtime to feature length!), She-Devils On Wheels (a Russ Meyer style feature about a homicidal female bike gang who “ride their men as viciously as they ride their hogs” and includes a spectacular decapitation trick), and The Wizard Of Gore (in which a stage magician uses illusion and hypnotism to get away with graphic mutilations, culminating in one of Lewis’ most bizarro endings).
After making the proto-postmodern self-eviscerating Gore Gore Girls in 1972 (a film that satirises the nascent splatter genre itself and ends with the line “We announce with pride this movie is over!”), Lewis retired from filmmaking and spent several decades writing books about advertising/marketing (as well as, in the late ’80s, novelizations of Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!, both sold through the late great FantaCo Enterpises). He returned to film in the 2000s with a couple of ultra-low-budget shot-on-video efforts – Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat! (2002) and The Uh-Oh Show! (2009) – that have some fun gore and a lot of cameos by trash luminaries eager to work with the master, but (since the market’s now flooded with campy SOV splatter movies) neither quite capture the magic of his original run. But both at least offer some chuckles.
Still, that initial run of splatter movies hold up as being incredibly watchable and have influenced everything in horror from the grindhouse stuff of the 70s, to the slasher boom of the 80s, to the postmodern comedies of the 90s, to the torture porn movement of the 00s and beyond (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez both owe a lot to his template).
What also kept Lewis in the spotlight and a firm favorite of fans was how game he was, right until the end. He made himself accessible, was always happy to talk to fans, to zines, to websites, to festival hosts, to anyone who wanted to chat with him about his work and he was always ready with a great story. He provided wonderful director’s commentaries for all his films that are genuinely hilarious and engaging (almost as good as the films themselves!), full of not only interesting facts about the era and the material but a lot of side-splitting, often self-deprecating, anecdotes about where things went wrong. Lewis never took himself seriously. He never let it go to his head. When asked by the AV Club how it felt to be considered one of the all-time filmmaking greats, Lewis just laughed and said “Well, I’m glad that somebody feels that way.”
Yet many of us really do.
It’s a testament to this fact that the recently announced Blu-ray boxset from Arrow containing most of his films, endless extras and booklets, and a royal treatment normally reserved for the likes of Kurosawa, sold out almost the second it went up for pre-order. Speaking personally, when I heard the news about Lewis’ passing, it took me right back to that summer’s day and that first sight of those garish credits (“in blood color!”) and the deep, sudden rush of joy I felt while watching Blood Feast. It may seem strange to non-horror fans that films as brutal as these could generate such warmth and such affection but, like I said, that’s precisely what was so special about Lewis. He really got ‘us’, the drive-in crowd, the grindhousers, the video kids, the ones who wanted it bigger, gorier, trashier and seedier than everything else. And he delivered it all with a smile and wink.
RIP Uncle Herschell. Forever the Godfather of gore.