Long before Tom Savini forced an arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat and David Warner was decapitated by a pane of glass, Herschell Gordon Lewis created the foundations for what would become the splatter movie through a succession of pictures that commenced in 1963 with Blood Feast.
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Chicago, Lewis worked as both a director for a television station and copy writer for an advertising agency before embarking on a filmmaking career with a series of nudie cuties in the early 1960s that included Living Venus and the lighthearted The Adventures of Lucky Pierre.
Following the surprise success of Blood Feast, Lewis and his producer partner David F. Friedman developed more gruesome features like Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red, while continuing to shoot skin flicks such as Goldilocks and the Three Bares. But after a decade of producing splatter movies he retired from filmmaking to focus on direct marketing, copywriting and penning books to offer advice on the subjects, but in 2002 he finally returned to directing with the long-awaited sequel Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat.
Herschell Gordon Lewis looks back on half a century in the film industry and his plans for the future.
Having earned a Master’s degree in Journalism, what were your first steps into the world of media and what were your early ambitions?
I had planned to get an editorial job with a magazine. Instead, since one of my degrees included Honours in English, I wound up on the faculty of Mississippi State, teaching English literature and an occasional journalism class.
What part did Martin Schmidhofer play in helping to develop your career and what experience did you have prior to shooting your first feature, The Prime Time?
From Mississippi State, where I became Director of Broadcasting to enhance my too-nominal income, I wobbled through several jobs in broadcasting and television, eventually becoming TV Director at a medium-sized advertising agency in Chicago. We shot a handful of commercials at a small film studio. The principal of that studio, Martin Schmidhofer, told me he needed a partner. I bought a half-interest. Marty had hands of gold, and through him I gobbled up every technical aspect of filming I could swallow.
Your next important collaboration was with David F. Friedman. How did the two of you meet and why do you feel the two of you were able to work so well together?
Dave Friedman was the ultimate partner. We played off each other. Nobody I’ve ever met, before or since, could match him in exploiting a low-budget movie. We met when I assigned distribution of The Prime Time to a distributor for whom he worked. The distributor went bankrupt, damaging all of us, but the happy result of that adversity was pairing Dave and me.
Why did you choose to direct what was commonly referred to as nudie cuties’ flicks and how successful were these earlier efforts?
Certainly there was no point producing a film that couldn’t compete with major company product. Dave had contacts in the exploitation world, which gave us some assurance that these films could achieve profitable distribution. He was right.
What prompted you to produce a string of gory films during the 1960s and how did you manage to create such elaborate special effects with such small budgets?
Imagination always is a proper substitute for dollars. Our effects were primitive but, because they originated the genre, outrageous enough to create a stir. We moved into that genre because our success in the ‘cutie’ business had recruited too many competitors.
Why do you feel filmmakers were able to produce more violent and risqué work during the 1960?s when sex and violence had been far more restrained just a few years earlier?
Audience sophistication was a major hallmark of the 1960s. The ratings system was an open sesame for the big companies, and the independents were able to milk some of the overflow.
In some ways Blood Feast was a reaction to Psycho; with a subtle shower sequence replaced by a bath murder that featured nudity and explicit violence. Was it your intention to take what Hitchcock had produced a new level of obscenity and how was the movie received by audiences, critics and censors?
Obscenity isn’t the operative word. Supershock is more apt. Psycho teased, to gigantic effect. My conclusion was obvious and logical: Replace tease with actuality. Critics were aghast and so were many moviegoers and exhibitors. But a core of gorehounds sprang up, giving us notoriety if not reputation. That core has expanded year by year until today it’s mainline.
Another important collaboration you had was with Allison Louise Downe. How would you describe your collaborations together and how did she first become involved in your work?
We hired her, first, as an actress. Later she was on our production team. As I recall, we occasionally gave her screen credit for scripts that were collaborative efforts. But never was she a partner.
In many ways, your reputation and that of your work is on par with Russ Meyer. How would you say both sexuality and violence are portrayed within the horror and exploitation genres and, more specifically, in your own work?
Russ glorified women. We were businesspeople. I’ve never wavered in regarding the film business as a business. The Pygmalion complex, in which a producer falls in love with his/her own creation, is an emotional highway that has to led to disaster.
One film that featured several disturbing scenes was The Gruesome Twosome, in which several young women would be scalped in graphic detail. Were you ever concerned that you may be pushing the violent aspects of your film too far?
History has answered that question. The unthinkable becomes mainline after repeated exposure. None of my films ever were as mean-spirited in their violence as the output of some of my competitors.
Out of all the movies that you directed during the 1960s and early ’70s, which in particular are you most proud of and which do you find somewhat disappointing?
My favorite was and is Two Thousand Maniacs. I’m still called on, at horror film festivals, to sing the theme. Yes, it’s my voice on the soundtrack. When we release The Uh-Oh Show I may update my favouritism.
In 1972, you chose to retire from filmmaking after a successful decade with The Gore Gore Girls. How come you decided to leave the film industry and instead turn your attention to marketing?
The major companies had begun to produce my kind of movies. They had three assets I couldn’t match; budget, star value, and highly realistic effects. My other career, in marketing, was beginning to flourish. So in 1975, not 1972, I decided it was time to exit the arena.
You have since become a leading figure in marketing and advertising, having written several books and presented various seminars. How would you compare the nature of this business to the one you had previously worked in and do you have any regrets about leaving the world of filmmaking behind?
My marketing career has been infinitely more profitable, both financially and ‘reputationally.’ But when and if a producer says, ‘Let’s go,’ I’m ready. Proof is The Uh-Oh Show, which as I write this is in the final stages of editing.
In the decades since you first brought gore to the screen, the horror genre has featured elaborate gruesome effects in such movies as The Omen, Friday the 13th and their many imitators. How much credit do you take for creating the splatter movie?
I don’t want it on my tombstone, but I enjoy being called the ‘Godfather of Gore.’
After a thirty-year absence, you chose to return to the director’s chair with Blood Feast 2. What were your intentions with this movie, what prompted you to direct once again and why chose a sequel to one of your older films?
Jacky Morgan, the producer of Blood Feast 2, had every element in place; script, cast, crew, and minimal financing. He also had negotiated use of the title with Jimmy Maslon, the current owner of Blood Feast. I was a hired director. Who would turn down such an offer?
With Hollywood becoming obsessed with remakes, it was inevitable that filmmakers would eventually begin to rework your back catalogue. How do you fell about your work being updated and what are your thoughts on these remakes?
My reaction is mixed. It’s something of an honour to have a vintage movie remade in modern dress. I don’t always agree with the approach. But as the surly waiter in a restaurant says, that ain’t my table.
Your name has recently been attached to a few different projects, such as Blood De Madam: The Fallen Ones and Grim Fairy Tale. Which of these are you actually working on and what other projects do you have lined up for the future?
The Uh-Oh Show is the new title for Grim Fairy Tale. The others are conversations, of which the film industry has plenty. I’m negotiating for deals on Mr. Bruce and the Gore Machine. We’ll see what happens.