Part of what makes Herschell Gordon Lewis so fascinating is that he's really two people. Fans and detractors alike describe him as The Godfather of Gore due to his gruesome exploits as a '60s drive-in titan. While, to the button-down business world he's a direct-marketing guru and all-around good egg. Certainly no ghoul. That is, of course, unless one happens to catch that wicked gleam in his eye -- the one that reveals his gloriously grim sense of humor.
It was my great fortune to interview one of my foremost B-idols about his growing DVD catalog. Mr. Lewis shares, in great detail, his fledgling steps into sexpolitation success with The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. He reveals how he and partner David F. Friedman expertly marketed ground-breaking films like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs. We also learn when Lewis first realized the cult status both he and his films had achieved. Plus, Herschell clubs me over the head with the biggest news of all -- his return to filmmaking after 28 years -- with Blood Feast 2: Buffet of Blood!!!
They've done a great job with your DVDs at Something Weird, but you put in quite a few hours on them yourself, with the commentary tracks. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
Here's what happened. Mike Vrany, who runs Something Weird Video, and Jim Maslon, the chap who bought up all these films some years ago, and Dave Friedman -- the three of them came down here. We sat in my living room and screened video tapes of these movies. Some of which were like children coming home after having been away 20 years! [Laughs.] We screened them silently, while Dave and I made comments as we looked at them. It was quite an exhilarating experience. And we recalled a lot of anecdotes that I had really stored deeply in my subconscious.
I'll bet. They're certainly a lot of fun to listen to, and they sound like that. You really do sound as though you're enjoying yourself, and I'm surprised with the amount of details that you can share after all these years.
They were lots of fun as we made them. We never took the business that seriously. Nobody tried to play auteur. Or said, "Oh boy, we're gonna win awards with this material." And to have the opportunity to share that with other people is really a great pleasure.
"Auteur" is sort of a dirty word with you, almost.
It is indeed! I'll tell you why. I feel it's used for people who would rather have someone refer to the filmmaker than to his product. And that has always bothered me. I don't think the people who make these movies should be in the foreground. I think the product has to stand on its own. I've seen that too many times: "Idea by Eddie Murphy. Produced by Eddie Murphy. Written by Eddie Murphy. Lyrics by Eddie Murphy." I used fake names! I used the name Sheldon Seymour when I wrote the music for these movies. More often than not, I didn't use my own name. And that was because it looked stupid to have a one-man gang, which is what we had. When we shot Lucky Pierre we had a total crew of two people. I was the director and camera man, and Dave Friedman was the producer and sound man. We had no ego riding on it at all. So you're quite right, I object to people whose ego is so paramount that they have to shove it onto the public. I don't see any need for that. I apologize for the sermon.
No! That's exactly the sort of stuff I'd like to hear. You've told the story many times, of actually going in to meet David Friedman the first time, but how did you become aware of him?
Now this is something that may be lost in history, but it seems to me someone who had a peripheral relationship with the film industry said, "There's a film distributor, a hard-boiled guy down on South Wabash Avenue," which in those days was film row in Chicago. "If you want a true statement of what an independent film can do, without a lot of B.S., the person to talk to is Irwin Joseph." So, down I went to South Wabash Avenue, and here in this rather seedy office was Irwin Joseph and his very bright, young assistant Dave Friedman, who had been a publicity man for Paramount. Dave showed me some of the campaigns he'd done for product that didn't really deserve the kind of bright, sensitive and public-aware material that he was putting out. He and I bonded at once, because truthfully, he and I were closer in age than Irwin Joseph and I were.
When Joseph's company eventually went out of business, it was a very sad thing for us both, because he owed my company for a lot of film rentals. Dave was also at loose ends. Now, I had a benefit in that I was knowledgeable in the area of film directing: use of a camera, how to cut film, and so on. Especially in 35mm. So, I got a job as a director at the old United Film and Recording Studio on Erie Street in Chicago, which wasn't all that good, but at least I was able to put Kraft dinner on the table.
Dave's background was primarily in publicity and the release and distribution of movies. So, he went out hunting distribution deals. Dave was able to negotiate some sort of relationship with a distributor in Dallas, Texas -- a superannuated, crotchety old guy named Al Sack. He was the Irwin Joseph of Dallas. Both Sack and Joseph were anomalies in film distribution: They were honest people. [Laughs.]
Dave said, "I've got a deal here if you want it. Al tells me, if we can make a one-reel, color 35mm film of cute girls carousing around with beach balls, or whatever, he will pay us $7,000." An egregious fortune in those days. I looked in my little crystal ball for about two seconds, and said, "Wait a minute! I can use the camera here at United Film Studios." They had one that was so old it belonged in the Smithsonian. But it worked. It was a 35mm Mitchell camera. I said, "OK, I can be on the camera, and I can cut this film. Our only cost will be a couple of models and some raw stock." I figured we could come out of there with perhaps $2,000 each, which was a lot of money, especially in the condition the two of us were in. I said, "Dave, you tell him he's got himself a deal!"
In ancient Greek drama, there's a device they call the deus ex machina -- god from machine -- and when the Greek dramatist couldn't figure a way out of a plot line, they would have a god come down on the stage in a basket. [Laughs.] He would wave his arms and that would resolve the plot line. I had a deus ex machina. A fella named Jack Curtain -- I guess my Alzheimers is in remission, because I remember these names -- and Jack Curtain worked for a New York film laboratory. He came in to see me and said, "What are you working on?" Well, everybody has to show off, and so I go, "Oh, I've got this deal with Al Sack." And I told him the story and he said, "This kind of thing is a hot property right now. If you will expand this from one reel to a full-length movie of 70 minutes, I will give you this proposition: No laboratory bills will be due until 90 days after the answer print is delivered." Now in English, that means I can get a finished print, put it in the theaters, and have the film rentals pay off the lab. And instead of Al Sack owning this movie, we would own it. That was really a no brainer.
It was October, it was cold in Chicago, and that's when we shot The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. We shot it in four days. When the sun was out, we shot. Sometimes it was in the 50s, which was not good for the girls. We had a knock-down comedian named Billy Falbo who had a little part in a movie I made called Living Venus. Falbo was delighted to be in this thing, because it gave him a chance to mug at the camera. I was the producer, director and camera man. Dave was the producer and sound man. We were the crew. The actors had to handle their own clap stick, throw it aside and start acting. [Laughs.] In fact, we made up titles, we had "Lenses by Coca-Cola Bottling Company." Just to make sure the whole thing was accepted as a total satire, which it was.
People like Russ Meyer were making films something like this. But they were shooting 16mm and blowing it up. Lucky Pierre was the first one shot in actual 35mm color and shot on a Mitchell camera, then the Rolls Royce of cameras. So, when people would go to a drive-in theater, here was this beautiful, rock-hard image on the screen, which belies the cheapness of this movie. [Laughs.]
Seventy minutes is 6,300 feet of 35mm film. We only bought 8,000 feet of film, so when we cut the slates off, there was nothing left! We didn't have enough to make a trailer, but it made no difference at all. There was a fella in Chicago named Tom Dowd who ran a little theater called The Capri. Tom Dowd was a friend of Dave Friedman. Dave did, and does, know everybody in the business. He is the most fantastic contact man I have ever met. There is nobody on this planet that doesn't know Dave Friedman. Anyway, Tom Dowd agreed to play Lucky Pierre in his theater, and we gave him the answer print. The technical aspect of filmmaking wasn't as grand as it is now. The answer print was the one you used to make corrections, so there were things that were dark and things that were light, but it was inconsequential. He played that thing for nine weeks and it far, far more than covered the entire cost of everything we had done. [Laughs.] And I said, "How long has this been going on?" That, of course, was the renaissance of my filmmaking career.
I know the more popular answer would be Blood Feast, but my favorite of your pictures is Two Thousand Maniacs. I guess it must be the Southerner in me.
Me too. Far and away my favorite. Far and away.
Is it!? OK, good. What about it are you so connected to?
Blood Feast was experimental, so we cut every corner we possibly could. I should not be embarrassed by the primitive nature of the effects or the acting in there. The idea was to see whether this kind of picture could get played.
And boy did it!
[Laughs.] Oh, and boy did it. When we had proved that, I said to Dave, "What if we made a good one?" So, certainly, you can't compare the quality of acting or production in Two Thousand Maniacs with that of Blood Feast. Although, Blood Feast was a big grossing film. But, yes, Two Thousand Maniacs is my favorite, including A Taste of Blood, my two-hour epic, which cost a lot more money.
Can we talk a little bit about the marketing of your films? Did you write the copy for the posters?
Dave and I did this sort of thing together. I had an advertising agency, so my art department produced the art under our supervision. Copy was a joint effort. Dave gave me the inspiration of really letting the adjectives fly. [Laughs.] In fact, after he and I parted company, my reputation became one of "this guy knows how to sell a movie." I had always felt that anybody can aim a camera. To get somebody into the theater is a different ball game all together. Other producers began to send me their films to do the campaigns, and I thought that was the ultimate flattery.
I like the little asides on some of the posters. The warnings. The "admonition" on the Blood Feast poster. Do you remember how that came about?
Part of it was defensive, because we weren't sure what reaction would be. We had had some indication of it in my cutting room when people would look and say, "You're not going to put THAT in the picture!" We projected that out to, "What if public contempt were to jump on us?"
If you ever saw the trailer -- the "coming atrocity" -- for Blood Feast, there was a fella standing there with a red background. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see scenes from the most unusual picture of all time. We urgently recommend if you have a heart condition, or if you are with a young and impressionable child, that you leave this auditorium." Figuring that if that wouldn't keep them in there, nothing would. It was a disclaimer, and disclaimers always have an effect opposite of the one that's intended. [Laughs.] But sometimes we would get heat, because the immediate thing that came on after, before people could even move an inch out of their seat, was the tongue scene. Occasionally, that would be the coming attraction while they had a Disney movie playing, so we'd get screamed at.
That was the curse of the bold, hearty pioneer. Now, of course, it makes no difference at all. Then, we were breaking ground that was considered strange. Before the ratings system, many censor boards existed in individual towns and states. There was censorship against nudity. We didn't have any nudity in Blood Feast. There was censorship against obscenity. We had no obscenity. There was nothing mentioned about blood gushing, because no one had ever done it. So, we initiated a lot of regulation that hadn't existed before. [Laughs.]
Mr. & Mrs. Lewis at the 2001 Fantasy Film Festival in Brussels.
When did you first become aware of the cult status your films had achieved?
Oh, years had gone by. I had figured this was an episode that had closed. I no longer owned the films. I was sitting here one day, and I got a phone call from a fella named Rick Sullivan who invited me to come to New York to a screening of The Wizard of Gore. "What?!" [Laughs.] I said, "Come on, who is this?" He gave me his name and said, "I'm quite serious. I found your name, and didn't know you were still alive." Nice compliment!
I was writing articles for various magazines for the industry that I'm now in, which is direct marketing. He said, "I found your name, and there can't be two people named Herschell Gordon Lewis, so I took a chance that you were the same one." I said, "Yeah, I'm the same one." He said, "May I invite you to New York. We'll pay you and your wife's airfare." I said, "Come on, give me your phone number and I'll call you back." He gave me a number that ended in three zeros, with a four digit extension. I called the number and it was Exxon Corporation, and I said, "Oh yeah, I know the gag." I gave them the extension and they said, "Mr. Sullivan's office." I said, "Can you tell me what his position is?" He was an accountant. It turns out this is typical of the new age of gorehounds. By day, he had a legitimate job. At night, his fangs came out. [Laughs.]
I figured, "OK, I'll go to New York." I said to my wife, "Margo, be prepared for this to be one of these Harvard Lampoon kind of things. It's ridicule, but it's good-natured ridicule." They met the plane. I figured the adulation was certainly fake. We get to this theater, and I'd never seen anything like it. It was like an Adolf Hitler rally. They showed a print of The Wizard of Gore, which was in such bad shape, it look like it was soaked in beer. Scratched all over the place. I thought, "Oh, god." Then I got up to speak and said, "Good evening." And this wild applause erupted. And I thought, "Gee, I've got even more profound things to say." That began the renaissance.
About what year was that?
That was the early '80s. It comes in waves. I would go for two or three years and think, "Well, it's over." Then, suddenly, BLOOEY! I've got a bunch of invitations. Since the DVDs have come out, this has intensified. Last October, I was the guest of honor at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. Last month, Margo and I went to Brussels for the Fantasy Film Festival. Next week, there's something in Baltimore. It seems we're having this flare now.
Over the last 25 years I've heard, "Let's make Blood Feast 2," which is just conversation for a lot of people. Now, apparently, some people who are seriously in the film business do intend to make Blood Feast 2, and I'm supposed to direct it. Which I surely will do if it materializes. The guy insists it's going to be the end of July. His name is Jacky Morgan, and he's a film producer who knows what he's doing. The difference between Jacky Morgan and everybody that's come before him is two fold. First, he has a script. It's not the script that I would have written, but he has invested in a full-length professional script. Second, he's already sent me a shot breakdown, which normally the director does. This is not just, "Let's make a movie!" He is seriously interested in this. His shot breakdown makes a great deal of sense. He has an 18 or 20 day shooting schedule, and I'm half inclined to believe this really will materialize. [Details below.]
The first meeting of two legendary exploitation filmmakers.
Wow! I would desperately like that to happen. That would be great! At these festivals, you kind of reconnect with some of the people from your past. I understand you actually met Doris Wishman for the first time.
[Laughs.] Yeah! We had an invitation down in Miami, which is next door to me here in Fort Lauderdale. It was at some little theater on Lincoln Road. I don't even know why I agreed to go, except the people who put this on were so enthusiastic. That appeals to me. Down I went, and who was there but Doris Wishman. Approaching her dotage, but still very sharp. We had a nice hug.
The DVD culture includes a lot of film purists. They're all interested in widescreen and that sort of thing. What were the original ratios of your films?
They were all 1.85:1. They always were.
Mr. Lewis, this has just been a big thrill for me, and I really appreciate your time. Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans out there?
-- April 24, 2001
Prayers to the gore gods have been heard. Their grisly reply ... BLOOD FEAST 2: Buffet of Blood
Blood Feast, the original gore film, shocked the world with its meaty debut in 1963.
The immortal film's sequel is set to begin shooting in July, nearly 40 years after drive-in audiences first witnessed the unspeakable butchery of Fuad Rames (Mal Arnold). Blood Feast 2 also marks the reunion of exploitation legends Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman. Lewis will direct the full-length feature.
Producer Jacky Lee Morgan describes his labor of love as the campy story of Fuad's grandson, who knows nothing of his notorious grandpappy, but is cursed with an irresistible bloodlust of his own. According to Morgan, the film will be shot entirely on digital video and will be "low budget, the way it should be." So far, Lewis is impressed.
"The difference between Jacky Morgan and everybody that's come before him is two fold. First, he has a script. It's not the script that I would have written, but he has invested in a full-length professional script. Second, he's already sent me a shot breakdown, which normally the director does. This is not just, 'Let's make a movie!' He is seriously interested in this. His shot breakdown makes a great deal of sense. He has an 18 or 20 day shooting schedule, and I'm half inclined to believe this really will materialize," Lewis said.
In addition to commissioning W. Boyd Ford's script, Morgan has recruited Nick Leon and Horst Sarubin to create gore effects for Blood Feast 2. Original music will be performed by Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids. Something Weird Video's Mike Vrany and Jimmy Maslon are executive producers. Morgan also hopes to include cameos by Mal Arnold and gorehound John Waters. Shooting locations have been narrowed between Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans. A website has been established at www.bloodfeast2.net.
But ultimately, Morgan insists, "It's about Herschell and Dave. This is their day."
Morgan is a self-described Southern redneck from Covington, Louisiana who began his career producing concerts and now produces movies. Films like Larry Clark's chilling Bully; Love Liza with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates; and The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett and Cicely Tyson. Morgan now divides his time between New Orleans and Los Angeles.