I’m proud to say that Herschell Gordon Lewis was born in the same town as me, Pittsburgh, PA. He was lured from a career as an educator into being a radio station manager and then, well, advertising got him. I can relate. I’ve spent the better part of 25 years doing the same. But then Lewis got smart. He learned how to make money.
He began making movies with David F. Friedman, starting with Living Venus. Their nudie cuties would be innocent today, but showed way more skin than mainstream films. These weren’t high art. They were made to turn a profit and they sure did, from movies like Boin-n-g! and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre to the world’s first — and probably only — nudist camp musical, Goldilocks and the Three Bares.
Once nudie movies got boring, Lewis needed another tactic. He found it. Oh wow, did he find it. Gore. Blood everywhere, guts all over the screen and no limits to the depravity that he’d fester on drive-in screens nationwide. It all started with Blood Feast.
This is a pretty simple film: Faud Ramses wants to make sacrifices to the Egyptian goddess Ishtar to resurrect her, so he kills beautiful young socialites when he’s not catering their coming out parties. He’s also wiping out anyone that requests a copy of his book, Ancient Weird Religious Rites.
Shot in Miami, Florida — where life is cheap! — in just four days for just $24,000, Blood Feast used all local ingredients for the gore, except for a sheep’s tongue that came from Tampa Bay. Friedman was a genius at publicity, helping the film succeed, giving out vomit bags at screenings and even applying to get an injunction against his own movie in Sarasota so that it couldn’t be shown.
Lewis and Friedman didn’t stray too far from their sexy roots, bringing in June 1963 Playmate of the Month Connie Mason to star in the film. She would come back for Lewis’ even more astounding Two Thousand Maniacs!
As for Lewis, he left filmmaking in the 1970’s, served some jail time for fraud and then began copywriting his way to even greater success, a second — maybe even third or fourth career — later in life. He wrote and published over twenty books, including The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion, Direct Mail Copy That Sells! and The Advertising Age Handbook of Advertising. His books were all over the place at my first agency job and I was shocked to discover that the author of these books — one of the godfathers of direct mail and eblasts — was also the American godfather of gore. Sometimes. life makes sense.
In 2016, Arrow Video released a huge boxset of his films and the man whose work was often in grimy drive-ins and Something Weird video cassettes finally began to be appreciated as an auteur. Funny, as he was the man who said, “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form.”
You know those movies that they warn you about and tell you that they’ll warp your mind and make you a maniac, how you’ll never be the same again? This is that movie. You should probably watch it right now.
It’s available on Shudder with and without commentary from Joe Bob Briggs.
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