Herschell Gordon Lewis


A former English teacher and mail-order salesman from Detroit named Herschell Gordon Lewis saw an exploitable niche in the film industry and, starting in 1963, with Blood Feast, he moved on it like a bitch: gore, gore, and more gore. He didn’t shut the blood spigot off until the 21st century, leaving behind such anti-classics as Scum of the Earth, 2000 Maniacs!, and Monster A-Go-Go. Tony Mostrom revisits Lewis’ filmic legacy for PKM, exploring the roots and limits of the gore genre in the process.

One Saturday afternoon in the Summer of 1973, a classmate from junior high and I took a bus from the Valley down into Hollywood and walked several blocks to a cheesy “dollar” theater on Hollywood Boulevard (it was his idea). I think it was called the Aurora or the Esquire, something like that. There we sat through a real piece o’ junk: a tedious, slow-moving, low budget horror movie called Cannibal Girls. (Actually, we only paid 49 cents.)

Trailer for Color Me Blood Red (1965):

There was very little good about Cannibal Girls. It wasn’t spooky, wasn’t entertaining, wasn’t well-made, the dialogue was hokey, the acting sucked, and it definitely was not so-bad-it’s-good like an Ed Wood movie. It was just dumb and tedious and it felt like it went on for hours. The trailer is really all you need to see:

The one good part (or parts) of Cannibal Girls though were the drippy, bloody scenes where those naughty Girls ate their unlucky hotel guests’ grisly, red, bloody, bony meat and guts. That was sort of interesting to me…but I was put off from cheapo horror movies that were filmed in color from then on. I’d stick with the old Universal movies from the ‘30s. Black-and-white horror films were just better.

This brand new but grainy-looking film starred Eugene (“Gene”) Levy and Andrea Martin, who would both go on to genuine, lasting fame ten years later as cast members of SCTV, the Canadian version of SNL. (Note: Eugene Levy and his son recently won multiple Emmys for their hilarious hit streaming TV series, Schitt’s Creek.)

Oh, one other thing that stands out in my memory about the movie is how hairy the actors and actresses all looked, faces filling up the screen with gleaming and sweaty close-ups: the men with skin blemishes and orange-colored, white-man afros and awful ‘70s sideburns, some pimples…not to mention gold granny glasses and moustaches all over the place…yuck. That for me was almost as gross as the eating of fake guts.

Find any movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including the film noir of the ‘50s, that showed so much as a spatter of bloodstains whenever a character had been shot…it was one of those things that just never happened.

Then there was the “gimmick” of this film, an idiotic “warning bell” that went off and was meant to tell you the audience member, “it’s really scary now!” but was just really irritating. Man, it was lame.

Little did I know that Cannibal Girls, with its scenes of cannibalistic murder-gore, was most likely inspired by an obscure “regional” director who was working in the Midwest, someone whose films were five times bloodier than these mild-mannered Canadian pikers, these so-called Cannibal Girls, but someone whose films wouldn’t be seen in L.A. theaters for years to come.

At 15, I didn’t know anything about the cheap underworld of low-budget films, the so-called Exploitation films, which specialized in what used to be commonly known as sensationalism. This meant crime, drugs, softcore sex and monster-horror themes on a sub-par level, from cheap cheeseball director-producers like Samuel Z. Arkoff, William Castle and Roger Corman.

Those guys’ operations dated back to the ‘50s and their production companies had names like American International, Arkoff Pictures, Howco Films and Box Office International (the word “International” seemed to always be popular with lowbrow production companies, no matter how unconvincing it sounded).

These were the guys who had produced black-and-white monster films in the ‘50s, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, War of the Colossal Beast and The Tingler: atomic age, sci-fi horror shock schlock for kids (more often than not starring Vincent Price, by the way), that offered the kind of buzzer-under-the-chair, 3D-glasses, in theater gimmicks that were desperately concocted to lure the audience back from their addiction to the boob tube at home and come back to the movie theaters.

Trailer for I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

Trailer for The Tingler (1959), directed by William Castle:

Notice the unwritten ‘50s movie code as expressed in the Werewolf trailer above: the police captain looks at a crime scene photo but he dares not show it onscreen, only commenting: “These are the official pictures? Hmm…slash on either side of the throat.”

To which I say ‘let’s see it, damn you, let’s see it!’

Many of these quick-buck producers were still sitting at their desks, barking orders in their small offices on North Ivar Street in Hollywood when the ‘60s really took off, and most of them slid easy as eels into the cultural zeitgeist, riding the wave when it came, with new! full color! grade-Z horror fare.

Typical of this Z-horror fare was Bloody Pit of Horror (1965), which had an aura of “seriousness” by being vaguely inspired by the writing of the Marquis de Sade. Here is the trailer:


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins. The infamous stabbing-in-the-shower scene frightened the pants (and the dresses) off the entire US of A. Not since the 1925 unmasking of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, as he sat playing the organ, had the nation been so collectively frightened by one scene in a motion picture.

Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera

Recall that the only blood you saw up on the screen, in Psycho, were a few dribbles of dark, colored water pooling down the shower drain. That’s it. And back then that was considered shocking, because it was new.

The shower scene  from Psycho (1960):

With this scene Alfred Hitchcock had struck a nerve…so to speak. It was the tiniest hint of what could be depicted but never had been depicted.

But if in 1960 even Alfred Hitchcock, the great director, the great master artist, had attempted to show anything more than these quick little deftly edited shots of a knife pointing toward, but never touching, Janet Leigh’s naked body, Paramount Studios would have left any such footage on the proverbial cutting room floor. No, even “Hitch” wouldn’t dare, because he couldn’t.

Even as late as the middle ‘60s, realistic blood-‘n-guts violence and the gory, visceral details of murder were still barred by the industry from ever getting shown explicitly on screen. Whether the budget was hi- or low- didn’t matter.

Find any movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including the film noir of the ‘50s, that showed so much as a spatter of bloodstains whenever a character had been shot…it was one of those things that just never happened.

Apparently, even a hint of blood on a nice clean double-breasted suit was considered too much, back in the black and white era…and this rule applied even to cowboy movies.

“Blood Feast is like a poem by Walt Whitman. It’s no good, but it was the first of its kind!”

But as the ‘60s started to heat up, even the mainstream Hollywood studios woke up to the notion that they could start mining themes of sex, violence and drugs, prodded along now by the influence of European films, the Beatnik and hippy sex and drug culture and, of course, the Playboy magazine era of basically loosening up about sex…and interestingly, this was going on while the old Hollywood studio system was slowly crumbling and falling apart, as the old dictatorial “studio bosses” themselves were dying off.

Blood Feast

But far, far away from Hollywood, out in the Midwest, a Detroit-based mail order salesman named Herschell Gordon Lewis stuck a tentative toe into low budget moviemaking, beginning in the late ‘50s.

In 1959, he directed a short PSA-type film (for the Dearborn Department of Libraries): a short called Carving Magic: it was an instructional film for housewives about “How to Cut and Serve Various Slabs of Meat”!

Herein therefore layeth the roots of Lewis’ later elaboration on the techniques of murder and bloodbaths on film. And yes, that’s the young Harvey Korman playing the house husband in the film…

Lewis and his business partner, David Friedman, then made a very mild softcore “nudie cutie” film, for local distribution only (remember, this was early on in the Playboy magazine era). It was called The Adventures of Lucky Pierre.

More a collection of static tableaux than a “motion” picture, Lucky Pierre was the filmic equivalent of those gag cartoons in 1950s magazines of businessmen standing in offices cracking jokes while looking at Jayne Mansfield-type women with gigantic asses and balloonish breasts. As a cartoon, that works. As a film, well…it didn’t really work. Lewis himself later referred to it as a “harmless nudie film,” something like the calendar in a car mechanic’s office.Friedman told an interviewer that the two men had a discussion after the mediocre success of Lucky Pierre: “We made a list of subjects that were exploitable, subjects that the majors wouldn’t touch, subjects that were in…bad taste.”

During this discussion Lewis, a former English teacher who was aware of the traditions of blood and sadism in the ancient writings of Petronius, the Marquis de Sade and the Grand Guignol theater in Paris, suggested “gore” as a possible angle since, as he said later, “there were no regulations against this kind of picture.” Which means that Lewis and Friedman found a “gimmick” of their own and in the process broke what was all along a mere unwritten law, a custom, a gentlemen’s agreement, and so… “tim-berrr!…(crash).”

Thus a career in gore was launched: their early 1960s audiences, unsuspecting teenagers at Midwestern drive-in theaters expecting some average cheap horror thrill on a Saturday night, were the first to be left speechless by what they saw on the screen while watching Lewis’ first gory offering, Blood Feast.

Trailer for Blood Feast (1963), Herschell Gordon Lewis’s first gore feature:

One unique moment in cinema history occurred when Lewis the director while filming Blood Feast, ordered a slaughtered sheep’s tongue to be inserted into an actress’s mouth so that it could appear to be pulled, yanked out of said mouth gruesomely on camera. Some claim that the tongue was soaked in Pine Sol disinfectant to make it “taste better” during the long waiting between shots, but that the actress actually gagged at the flavor. Go figure!

“Exploitation” you see, was just another word for “crass” or “trashy.” The audience itself was being exploited in a sense, too, because they were basically being looked down on, rendered dumbstruck and stupefied by these movies: notice the finely wrought musical delicacy of the female narrator’s voice in the trailer for Lewis’ 1967 murder-gore film, The Gruesome Twosome, in all its cheap, amateurish dumbness:


Then there’s this Lewis trailer, which speaks for itself:


Lewis was an intelligent, educated guy smart enough to know the real worth of his own productions. After his rediscovery by film fanatics in the ‘80s, when even French critics tried to puff him up as an “auteur” genius, he would have none of it: when the famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinema called Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs among the “best” horror films of all time (!) and declared Lewis “a subject for further study,” his reaction was “that’s what they say about cancer.”

In person, Lewis struck many fans as the total opposite of the moody, tortured neurotic they probably hoped he would be, and he was candid in his opinion of  his own work: “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form,” he once said, rather notoriously.

In fact, he came off more like a cheery, good-natured car salesman, partially because he was a salesman, a mail order entrepreneur who was used to giving “tips” on how to make it in business….basically a Rotary Club speaker type who had once stumbled onto something: making cheap movies for fun and profit.

Personally, he was charming and articulate, a man who could quote the classics and ancient Greek playwrights with aplomb, despite being a hacky “trashmeister” himself. Whenever journalists or fanboys asked him to analyze his movies, he told them categorically that they were not worth it.

Rednecks in Two Thousand Maniacs

For me, there is a teeming (if not steaming) unsavoriness to the life’s work of Lewis, and not for reasons of squeamishness. (Oh no, not me…a morbid child, I started reading and collecting true crime books at age 13, relishing the crime scene photographs.)

Trailer for 2000 Maniacs! directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis (1964):

But because of the grainy, home-movie quality of the bulk of H.G. Lewis’ films and because of the era in which they were made, there is an added element that gives one a certain…queasy feeling, and I’m not even talking about the weird, down-in-Dixie setting of 2000 Maniacs with all those Confederate flags and scenes of dumping corpses into a swamp (man, talk about a movie that doesn’t “age well…”).

These movies were shot during the ‘60s and the ‘70s, a time not only of race riots but a huge epidemic of serial murder sprees across the US.

In one especially notorious, blood-spattered year of crime (1966), a young alcoholic drifter named Richard Speck coldheartedly murdered eight (eight!) student nurses slowly, one at a time one night in their dorm, raping and strangling and stabbing all of them. (“It just wasn’t their night,” he once muttered like the piece of shit he was, to a cellmate in prison years later.)

Richard Speck

In that same royally fucked year of 1966, the so-called “man in the tower,” a crew-cutted young Marine named Charles Whitman, after killing his mother at home then shot and killed a slew of strangers (all of them college students) far below where he was hiding, with a cache of rifles, on the top of a building at the University of Texas. He then shot himself.

For thoughtful people who are aware of the American propensity for violence and murder and what a godawful time the ‘60s and ‘70s were in terms of psychotic, bloody crimes (remember the Son of Sam in the Summer of ‘77?), it’s hard to watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, these grainy, vaguely home-movieish snapshots of the middle American landscape populated with regional non-actors with accents and not get a queasy, “semi-documentary” kind of feeling that you’ve just pulled up America’s carpet and are now seeing what was wriggling and steaming underneath it.

At this point, the alleged “humor” some claim to see in Lewis’ movies feels…well, strained. What the hell was in the air back then? (To quote William Burroughs: “America is not a young land, it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians…the evil was there, waiting.” Quien sabe?)

“I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form,” he once said, rather notoriously.

Lewis himself was no help. His incongruously sunny disposition and seeming lack of depth, not to mention demons, was no doubt disappointing to some fans who wanted to meet an obsessive, devilish “artist,” driven mad to make these vile, disgusting movies. Instead, Lewis and his partner Friedman seemed to just latch onto a gimmick and stick with it, for a little while, what the hell.

Lewis knew he was no genius. His stuff may be cheesy fun, but the films are devoid of intentional humor or wit, unlike his famously vocal admirer John Waters, who had (and still has) obsession, and most importantly talent, on his side…that and having been practically born obsessed with his subjects and the desire to make art out of them with a real sense of style, and humor.

So let the late great king of mail order, Herschell Gordon Lewis have the final word on his films, yea, let his words echo through the marble corridors of film history for all time: “Blood Feast is like a poem by Walt Whitman. It’s no good, but it was the first of its kind!”

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Herschell Gordon Lewis