Gore Pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis Gets His Due at Anthology


“Y’know, an idea based on blood and lust—it could spread quickly in a civilization founded on superstition.” This from the much-pseudonymed William “Rooney” Kerwin, playing a detective in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963), a film whose unprecedented violence established the “gore” movie cult.

“The audience loved it,” recalls one former usher in Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore, of Blood Feast’s Los Angeles movie-palace premiere. “It was a realization for me as to what ghouls theater audiences really are.” The release of Godfather, Jimmy Maslon and Frank Henenlotter’s H.G.L. documentary, occasions Anthology’s Lewis retro—and is coincidentally timed with the passing, just weeks ago, of his one-time producer and partner, David F. Friedman. Godfather reunites Lewis and Friedman to narrate their careers, illustrated by awkward re-enactments as well as ample excerpts and outtakes. A patchwork of digressions—from Kerwin’s womanizing, alcoholism, and appearance in educational films as “a sympathetic cop who tells a kid not to eat worms” to Lewis’s talent for negotiating sponsorships from fried-chicken joints—evokes a bygone world of hustling, flimflam moviemaking. Recalling the birth of the promotional Blood Feast barf bag from the dim-eyed autumn of his life, the Alabama-born Friedman remains the same Southern midway pitchman-type he cameoed as in Byron Mabe’s She Freak (1967). Lewis, a trim, twinkling octogenarian with a Henry Fonda Midwestern drawl, shows off the gold sink at his house.

Headquartered in Chicago, Friedman and Lewis began as an independent two-man crew feeding the early-’60s market for “nudie cuties,” four-day-wonder features with suspiciously tan-lined nudists romping at Floridian “nature camps.” Intimations of violence emerge in Scum of the Earth (1963), Friedman and Lewis’s presumably tongue-in-cheek self-indictment, with grassroots pornographers, including Kerwin (as “Thomas Sweetwood”), in the process of entrapping a teen and threatening to expose her transgressions to her geriatric parent. Scum’s principal enticements are the murder of a thirtysomething “minor” with a cap pistol, which begins one of Lewis’s boring climactic chases, and Lawrence Wood’s wind-up-toy-obsessed idiot smut-lord giving a sweaty-lipped soliloquy in sequentially tightening close-ups (“You’re damaged merchandise, and this is a fire sale!”).

Bodily harm isn’t merely implied in Lewis’s other ’63 effort, Blood Feast, concerning a community terrorized by the serial murderer of innocent girls, perpetrated by an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who dedicates his sacrifices to a department-store mannequin, spray-painted gold. The Egyptian theme was determined by Friedman and Lewis’s use of Miami Beach’s Suez Motel as their studio, and parallels the raiding of Old Hollywood Biblical epics in ’60s underground films.

Ramses’s outrages were shown in close-up: torn-out tongues, giblets slithering in viscera the color of BBQ sauce. The profits from Blood Feast confirmed Lewis’s formula for stage blood (the secret ingredient was Kaopectate) and success. He imagined fresh atrocities, while branching out into biker flicks, kiddie pics, lesbian Westerns, j.d. nihilism, and unclassifiables like Something Weird (1967). Maintaining a consistent non-sophistication, both avant-garde and Neolithic, through a dozen years and 30-plus films, Lewis retired from the saturated exploitation field in 1972 to fully focus on his side career in marketing, which had informed his filmmaking (“an idea based on blood and lust—it could spread quickly . . .”), giving seminars and writing books like Sales Letters That Sizzle.

Today, Blood Feast’s banquet is humbled by multiplex trash like Drive Angry and Black Swan, but the perversity in Lewis’s movies is a lost recipe. The documentary quality intrinsic to exploitation films is abundant—time capsules of mid-’60s Florida strip malls and motel rooms; naïve, mismatched performances of the centerfold/dinner-theater/gym-rat/bank-teller school. Lewis’s gifts as a composer show in the timpani drums under harrowing trombone that give Blood Feast its austere, ceremonial tone, while the lurid delectation of Lewis’s films counter his own implication that his attraction to such material was strictly business—an ambivalence unchallenged in Godfather and summarized by the Moonshine Mountain (1964) credit in which he billed himself: “Herschell Gordon Lewis, who ought to know better, but don’t.”