Ernest Mathijs describes the exploitation film by saying “Exploitation…is a type of cinema, often cheaply produced, that is designed to create a fast profit by referring to, or exploiting, contemporary cultural anxieties.” In other words exploitation films are created to make a quick buck off the audience. Critics and historians have long dismissed exploitation films as unworthy of studies. This has left the exploration of exploitation in the hands of geeks, weirdos, hipsters, and fans of all varieties.
Exploitation films exploit. They speak directly to the basest desires of the audience whether these desires are for sex, murder, or giant sharks. Exploitation films have been compared to sideshow attractions because they sucker people for a quick buck. Of course there is clearly an audience for such delights or the films wouldn’t be made. Their ads titillate and excite almost as much as the actual films and their campaigns are legendary. Classic exploitation films, like the rape-revenge classic I Spit on Your Grave (1978), were often purposefully remarketed after their original release to emphasize their gore.
Exploitation, for its base roots, has a complicated history and structure. Films like Idiocracy (2006) presume that our tastes are declining with time. But we’ve been filming naked bodies since cameras have been rolling. Some of the more iconic subgenres include sexploitation, Mondo films, blaxploitation, and (no, we’re not kidding) nazisploitation. All of these subgenres burned brightly and quickly faded as the audience sought more shocking and more thrilling delights.
Sexploitation films are the roots of pornography. Some of the films, like The Garden of Eden (1954), purported to be focused on naturalism. Other films let go of the pretenses and simply showed striptease and other forms of sexuality. In any case, these films found an audience lusting to see naked bodies and sexuality. Bettie Page found her notoriety within striptease films and remains a sex icon today.
Mondo films, very much like sexploitation, would disguise themselves as “educational films.” Many of these films claim to be documentaries but could barely be considered such. These films also manage to exploit racist and colonial notions of “how other people live” in order to shock audiences. In an age before the internet, films could make wild claims about people from around the world. Films like Mondo Cane (1962) are made with the specific purpose of shocking and disgusting audiences under the veil of “cultural understanding.” These films, in fact, would often stage or mislabel acts of violence, sex, and cannibalism.
Blaxploitation is easily one of the most mainstream versions of exploitation. Most people are aware of Shaft (1971) and Foxy Brown (1974). In many ways, these movies reflected a new era of filmmaking that began to take the Civil Rights Movement to heart. Filmmakers began to take African-American urban audiences seriously. They began to gear films toward them and create African-American heroes with the idea of exploiting this new market. Of course, eventually these films became sillier and sillier until they reach the point of Blacula (1972).
Nazisploitation, on the other hand, is what most people would consider the absolutely most offensive of the exploitation genres. These films manage to sexualize the Nazi regime and turn the Holocaust into a BDSM fantasy. As offensive as they were, the films made money. The audience’s thirst for the disgusting, the sexual, and macabre should not be underestimated. The most well known Nazisploitation film is probably Isla: She Wolf of the SS (1975) which depicts kinky acts of violence and the sexualization of Nazis.
The language around exploitation films is often complicated. Exploitation is not synonymous with “grindhouse” though they are often used interchangeably. Grindhouse refers to theaters that play films all day and all night, “grinding” out movies. Not all of these theaters showed exploitation films, but most did. Their cheap prices and long hours made them hotspots for crime and illegal activities. The fact that they often showed exploitation films made them a home for people on the outskirts of society and geeks. Exploitation pictures also differ from midnight films. Cult classics were played in theaters at midnight, often for months, making them the cream of the crop. Well-known midnight movies include El Topo (1970), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Eraserhead (1977). Most exploitation films never reached the cult status of midnight movies.
The history of the exploitation films mirrors the history of mainstream films. In the documentary American Grindhouse, Eric Schaefer comments, “You could say that exploitation is as old as the movie itself.” He begins during the age of Edison. One could say that the first thing people wanted to see on film was other people. The second thing people wanted to see on film were other people having sex. Shortly after exploitation began, Will Hays managed to rain on everyone’s joyous depravity by creating the first cinematic codes and standards. Sex and violence were not going to be tolerated anymore. But this didn’t eliminate the exploitation film. Instead it went underground and became even more desirable. Thus began the split between exploitation and mainstream film. It also began the association between exploitation films and grungy theaters, grindhouses, and other nontraditional film venues where films that failed the codes could still be shown.
While the Hays codes continued to be enforced, exploitation thrived. Because these films weren’t being created by large studios they could get away with ignoring code. However, as Eric Schaefer points out, mainstream films, such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) began to tackle more adult subjects in the 1950s leading to the weakening of the codes. The Hays Code’s enforcement stopped and suddenly exploitation films had competition from mainstream cinema. Violence and sexuality in exploitation films began to escalate to match the audience demand. Filmmaking also became, in general, more accessible. Suddenly anyone with a camera, a dream, a bucket of red paint and a little money could direct an exploitation film.
These films progressed to where graphic violence and gore became standard practice. There almost seems to be a competition to make the most disgusting film. Shocking the audience and making money was the goal. The more outrageous the better. That’s not to say exploitation films devoid of meaning or context. They were being influenced by external factors like the sexual revolution, the counterculture and the civil rights movement. Blaxploitation films were among the first films made for black audiences. Directors recognized that black urban audiences were craving black urban heroes and they gave it to them. Exploitation movies were also some of the earliest films to show same sex relationships on screen. As problematic as they were, films like Chained Girls (1965) were the only places that LGBT people (in particular, lesbians) could see people like them at the cinema.
And yet, the impact of the exploitation film began to wane after the 1970s. Mainstream cinema began to openly borrow many of the elements of the exploitation film that had made them so popular. But mainstream films had a larger budget and more advertising than the smaller exploitation competitors. The birth of the porn industry also put a damper on the exploitation film industry. Audiences no longer had to rely on exploitation films in order to see sexuality on screen. And the mainstreaming of horror took some of the shock out of the exploitative violence. But does that mean exploitation disappeared? On the contrary. Now, more than ever, audiences have easy access to all sorts of horrible, delightful, disgusting and sexy things.
So why the sudden interest in exploitation? Is it that directors like Quentin Tarantino who grew up watching exploitation film are making the same kinds of movies they loved as kids? Machete and Machete Kills are not truly exploitation pieces, both have relatively large budgets and extensive advertising. And while Machete contained graphic violence and sex, it just wasn’t quite to the level of an actual exploitation film. One could say that Machete and Machete Kills are exploiting the concept of exploitation and selling it as the real deal. Hipsters and geeky purists may argue that this is somehow “wrong.” They may be concerned that people won’t see “real” exploitation films. But what does that even mean? Was anyone really insisting on lasting quality when they created classics like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)?
The real spirit of exploitation is the desire to make a quick buck. Exploitation films are wonderful because they don’t pretend to be anything that they’re not. They’re created with awful scripts, b-rated actors, and low budgets. They’re grainy not because it is cool, but because the cameras are awful and the film stock is cheap. Exploitation films have long served as canaries in the coal mine. They’re the first to pick up on trends and the first to kill the trends and move on to the next big thing. They’re so quickly made that they capture moments in time like no other films can. Exploitation movies exploited trends, controversy and social movements long before memes existed.
Exploitation films have been making a comeback in the past ten years and they’ve been given a budget, thanks to Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino was a child of exploitative cinema who infused his movies with the style and aesthetics of grindhouse. Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown was a faithful homage to blaxploitation. Tarantino is not alone in the exploitation revival. We can also see exploitation and grindhouse aesthetics in the films of Rob Zombie, Robert Rodriguez, and Jason Eisener. Films like Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) and Grindhouse (2007) show the continued popularity of exploitation homage. Films like the SyFy Original Sharknado (2013) prove that audiences still have a taste for the tasteless. Hell, even Ruffles potato chips have gotten in on the action with their grindhouse commercial (without any of the graphic violence or sex of course). So, has the exploitation film become mainstream?
Maybe we shouldn’t be so hipster about them. No one gets to claim ownership over exploitation films. The exploitation of exploitation films may just be a part of the increasing “mainstreaming” of traditional geek culture. We have more access to early exploitation films now than ever before. Their increasing popularity, their nostalgic value, and a growing academic interest has led directors to use the aesthetics of exploitation. In the end, exploitation films were not created as high art. They are lowbrow films that were created to make money. So if mainstream cinema picks up on their tropes, so be it. Machete Kills (2013) is just another example of this phenomenon and if it gets people interested in the history of the exploitation film, that’s even better.