CHILLING CLASSICS MONTH: The Driller Killer (1979)

Before Ms. 45, The King of New York and Bad Lieutenant (a film that rivaled The Car for my grandfather’s affections), Abel Ferrara directed and starred in this film, which was classified as a video nasty. It’s also fallen into the public domain, which is why it’s on the Chilling Classics set.

Reno Miller (Ferrara, using the name Jimmy Laine) and his girlfriend Carol start the film inside a Catholic church, as an elderly homeless man kneels at the pulpit. The man approaches Reno, who suddenly flees, unaware that the man is his father.

Despite his bohemian artist existence, Reno has pressing real world issues, like paying for the huge electricity bill for the Union Square apartment he shares with Carol and her drugged out lover Pamela. But the masterpiece he is painting is going to change all that — if he ever finishes it.

After fighting against the noise of a band called Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters playing all night one door away and seeing a vision of himself covered in blood, Reno hits the streets, avoiding gangs and telling himself that he can’t end up like the homeless walking dead.

Reno tries to tell his landlord about the band playing all night, but the authority figure — such as it is — has been bribed and only wants his rent money. He gives Reno a dead rabbit, which he decimates as he hears voices and has a vision of Carol with no eyelids.

That night, Reno kills his first derelict and then tries to see a show with the band from next door. Their music makes him even more upset, so he leaves as his roommates make out. His next murder spree sees his kill the homeless all over New York City.

Tony Coca-Cola barges further into Reno’s life, kissing Pamela and blasting his guitar while our hero — well, the protagonist — paints him for the rent money.

The final stage of Reno’s madness occurs when an art gallery owner declares his masterpiece unacceptable and Carol leaves him when he has no emotion. She moves back in with her ex-husband as Reno goes wild, killing the art gallery guy with his drill. Pamela finds the dead body and runs as Reno grabs her. We’re left unsure as to what happens next.

Carol and her ex-husband have already fallen back into their routine as lovers when Reno intrudes, killing the man while she showers. She doesn’t notice his dead body and gets into bed, thinking her ex-husband is under the covers when it’s really Reno. And just like Black Christmas, another 1970’s slasher that doesn’t have a definitive ending, we cut to black.

From its buzzing soundtrack to religious iconography, punk rock aesthetic and scenes of brilliant red blood drenched murders, Driller Killer is a grimy, scuzzy and noisy blast of strangeness hidden within this box set. It’s unlike anything else on it, a slasher where nude women are safe and the most marginalized of all citizens, the homeless, are destroyed left and right by a man who wants to wipe out his father and himself. Hell, it’s unlike almost any other movie you’ll watch ever.

There was talk in 2007 that David Hess (Last House on the Left and House at the End of the Park) would star in a remake of this film, created by Robert director Andrew Jones called Driller Killer Redux. The rights were never cleaned up, Hess died and the project never became a movie.

You can find this streaming on Shudder and for free on the Internet Archive and on Amazon Prime. If you want to own a physical copy, you can either get the Chilling Classics box set or buy the Arrow Video release, complete with new commentary from Ferrara, at Diabolik DVD.

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