RIP Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore

by / Sep. 26, 2016 3pm EST

In honor of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the legendary “Godfather of Gore” who passed away over the weekend (in his sleep, at the age of 90—nothing like the way people tended to die in his films), allow me to exhume an interview I did with him in 2008 for an appearance at a local film festival.

“I thought they’d discovered a new planet or something,” was Herschell Gordon Lewis’s initial reaction to people asking him if he’d seen Juno. To the contrary, he soon started getting a lot more comments from people who saw the [then current] Oscar-nominated film with its scenes in which Juno and the guy looking to adopt her baby bond over Lewis’s 1970 film The Wizard of Gore.

Lewis, of course, is the legendary Godfather of Gore, whose horror film of the 1960s are still shocking to audiences who don’t know what they’re in for when they come across one. To those who are, they are the essence of camp.

Juno brought him “feedback from people I haven’t heard from in 20 years,” says the veteran filmmaker by phone from his home near Fort Lauderdale. “Of course, if they really loved me they wouldn’t have waited 20 years to call! But I’m delighted because I liked that movie.”

Although he dabbled in other film genres, Lewis, who has a Ph.D in psychology and in his early years was a professor of English literature at Mississippi State College, made his mark in film history by inventing the gore film. At a time when death onscreen was a placid, dignified affair, his movies brought explicit carnage to the screen. They were made in the 1960s with budgets that never got near six figures, and the various dismemberments, gougings and disembowelments in his films are patently fake. But, as Lewis chuckles, “It was easier to startle people then.” They’re like early nudie movies (a genre Lewis also worked in) in that the audience they were made for, raised on the white-bread fare of the 1950s and 1960s, was titillated at the mere expectation of seeing something forbidden. Call it gorenography, but it made Lewis a very successful man.

Lewis left the film business in 1972 when he saw the studios moving onto his turf. “It was time to get out because the major companies were making the stuff far better than I could,” he explains. “They had budgets, they had stars with name value, they had studios. So I said, ‘I had a good run, goodbye.’”

The movie world wasn’t quite done with him, though. While Lewis moved into a lucrative career as an ad man and direct marketing expert (he’s published nearly 30 books on the subject), his films continued to play on a drive-in circuit that spread further out of the South every season. An early 1980s booking of his 2000 Maniacs inspired the name of a certain young band from Jamestown, who misread the marquee and remembered it as “10,000 Maniacs.” [ED NOTE: I will always regret that I wasn’t able to contact John Lombardo of 10,000 Maniacs to tell him about Lewis’ appearance; it would have been wonderful if he could have played guitar while Lewis sang, as he always did at these things, the song he wrote for the movie, “The South’s Gonna Rise Again.”]

He came to wider attention with the publication of John Waters’s 1981 book Shock Value. Waters interviewed Lewis for the book and wrote, “I discovered his [films] at my local drive-in, and when I saw teen-age couples hopping from their cars to vomit, I knew I had found a director after my own heart…With titles such as The Gore-Gore Girls, Wizard of Gore and The Gruesome Twosome, his films are impossible to defend; thus, he automatically becomes one of the all-time great directors in film history.”

The appetite among cult-film buffs that was whetted by Waters and other outré writers was finally sated by that marvelous new invention, the VCR. Lewis’s films were released to videocassette at a time when rental stores were lucky to have as many as 1,000 titles in stock. Even his most obscure titles found an audience with kids weaned on Halloween and Friday the 13th as well as cult fans bored with Hollywood’s fixation on cloning Star Wars. (If I’m not mistaken, the very first movie I ever rented was Lewis’ Blood Feast.)

Lewis made 35 films in a dozen years, and has no illusions about them (he cheerfully refers to the bulk of them as “pieces of crap”; of his most infamous gore film, he often says “Blood Feast is like a Walt Whitman poem. It’s no good but it’s the first of its kind, therefore it deserves recognition.”) But if he has any regrets you’d never know it. In his early 80s, he’s living the good life, still playing tennis (he brags about beating a producer half his age who wanted to make a film with him) and running his own consulting business. He got back into the director’s chair a few years ago for Blood Feast 2, and looks forward to doing so again—as long as someone else foots the bill. In the meantime, he’s more than happy to pass the time talking about his old films, which should make his appearance at the Riviera Theater next Thursday night a treat. He’ll be showing his personal favorite of his movies, 2000 Maniacs, a ghoulish variation on Brigadoon in which the residents of a town massacred by Union soldiers in 1965 rise from the dead a century later to wreak vengeance on Yankee tourists.

Our conversation [which took place in February 2008] began in the time-honored tradition of all calls between Buffalo and Florida:

It’s 19 degrees here today. How’s the weather down there?
So-so. It’s barely 80 degrees here.

You’re outside of Fort Lauderdale, right?
Yes, Pompano Beach.

I used to live not too far from there, in Hypoluxo.
I always loved that name, Hypoluxo—it sounds like the name of a detergent!

I have to say, Florida was just a little too warm for me.
Now wait a minute—have you seen your psychiatrist lately? I was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Chicago and lived in Minneapolis, so my only regret is that that I didn’t move down here sooner.

Were you already living in Florida when you started making nudist camp films there?
No, I was living in Chicago and when it turned cold—uh oh, time to make a movie! We’d head down to Florida with no idea in mind, other than to make a movie. What kind of movie? We didn’t care, as long as it’s warm! It’s called the casual approach to cinema.

I had an ancient Volkswagen bus, crammed with obsolete equipment. I had a great big old Mitchell 35 millimeter camera [most independent films were shot on cheaper 16 millimeter stock]. People used to say to me, “That camera ought to be in the Smithsonian,” and I’d say, “Where do you think I got it?” But the reason I wanted that camera was, no matter how foul the acting might be, it would put a rock-hard image on the screen that was clear even if you were in the back row of a thousand-car drive-in. Anyway, we were down in Miami shooting a movie for somebody else.

That was the Virginia Bell movie, right? Bell, Bare and Beautiful?
Right. You’re quite a Boswell, you know more about my movies than I do. I may have to call you back and say, “Hey, what did I do there?”

It went fast, one of our four-day wonders. So we thought, Let’s make one for us. The only question was, what kind of movie could we do that the major film companies weren’t making and wouldn’t make? And there came that lovely, lovely four letter word: G-O-R-E.

Once Blood Feast hit the screens and we saw the business it was doing, I said to Dave Friedman [his partner and producer of the early films], “What if we did a decent one?” Because we really hedged our bets with Blood Feast—shot it very quickly, half the people in it were from the burlesque movie, the whole thing was very hand to mouth. A number of theaters said to us, “If you had a little more production value and it weren’t quite as bloody, we’ll book it.” And that [guaranteed booking] was the kingdom of heaven in the motion picture business, long before we had video cassettes or DVDs.

So we went to a little town in Florida called Saint Cloud, adjacent to what now is the Disney empire, and we shot 2000 Maniacs with a good deal more care. I don’t want to compare it with major company product from the production viewpoint, but I certainly can compare it with major company product from the viewpoint of longevity. Because even now, 2000 Maniacs still shows.

Someone remade it in 2005 as 2001 Maniacs, which may have missed the idea. I haven’t seen it, but I’m told it’s somewhat more polished and somewhat more mean-spirited than the original. I can’t imagine anyone coming out of 2000 Maniacs and saying, “This is for real.” I can imagine them coming out of 2001 Maniacs based on what I’m told and being somewhat downcast at what they’ve looked at.

You know Dave Friedman got his start in Buffalo—he was a booker for Paramount films here in the early 1950s. He was always inspired by the old carnival mentality to publicity—“Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Your movies always had great advertising campaigns. As a copywriting guru, which of your movies would you say had the best ad lines?
There was one that worked so well that it had other producers coming to me trying to get me to do the campaigns for their movies. It was for a 1967 movie called The Girl, the Body, and the Pill. The campaign was simple: two cartoon balloons, like in a comic strip. The balloon on the left says, “Do you know what they call girls who don’t take the pill?” And the balloon on the right says, “Mommy.” There was a theme song which I wrote—“There’s a little round pill in a little round case/And it means so much to me/Cause without that little round pill/I’d have a family.“

And as is true so many of the pieces of crap that I turned out, it’s camp—that was the idea behind it. I’m bothered by some of the stuff that comes out today from independent producers who don’t understand the nature of entertainment! It’s especially true now that everybody and his brother has a digital camera and friends who will be actors, and their stuff gets ground out like so much hamburger with no attention to the fact that there’s someone on the other end who might want to watch it!

Your movie that was used in Juno, The Wizard of Gore, about a stage magician whose gruesome fake murders onstage later become real, was remade last year. Did you have any involvement in that?
No. Jeremy Kasten, who made that, is a very decent fellow, and he sent me a DVD of it and called to ask me what I thought. Which is like asking someone, “What do you think of my child?” He had Crispin Glover playing the Wizard, in a white suit, and one thing I didn’t understand, the effects take place behind a screen. This may have been his way of mollifying the distributors or the theater owners or Blockbuster or whoever will not stand gore being shown vividly.

How many of your scripts did you write? I know you used a lot of pseudonyms in the credits of your films to make it seem like you had bigger crews.
People often ask me, “Who wrote the script for Blood Feast?” And I say, “A script? What’s that?” One of the names I used was “Seymour Sheldon,” and also “Sheldon Seymour.” At the time we were making these, it seemed to me that everyone I knew who owned a theater or was a film distributor was named either Sheldon or Seymour. So I thought, We’ll put those names together and everyone will be able to identify with us! I wish people making today’s movies had more of that approach rather than being wrapped up in their own egos.

You and Dave Friedman made a comeback a few years ago with Blood Feast 2, your first movie in 30 years. Did you enjoy getting back in the director’s chair?
Yes, I did—what a wonderful experience! For the original Blood Feast, we were, let’s say, crew challenged. I did the lighting, I operated the camera, I even wrote the score. Because I didn’t want to pay anybody. I cut it, there were never any second takes. It was as primitive a production job as could be done, and at the end of the day everyone, case and crew, pitched in to pick up the cables and get the equipment back on my Volkswagen bus.

Now, for Blood Feast 2, I was—The Director! I sat in—The Director’s Chair! I could watch the action on a Television Monitor! So if there was a microphone in the picture, I fix it, instead of seeing it that night in the rushes. Big difference—I even had an assistant director, if you can believe it. I never worked less and had a better time.

That was released to DVD in two versions, the rated-R version [missing most of the gore] for Blockbuster, and the special edition for everybody else. Those who might rent that movie at Blockbuster will wonder, What is this all about? All you have here is a bunch of mediocre acting.

What about the followup you were rumored to be making, Grim Fairy Tales?
We supposedly made a deal with a producer to do that, and like a moron I exposed that agreement to the world at large, at his insistence, prior to any money changing hands. Gradually he faded and disappeared altogether. So I’m sitting with this script which I’m really very eager to make—I wouldn’t mind shooting it in Buffalo—but the deal is now simply quiescent and looking for a home. Because if I were to finance a movie, any movie, I would quickly wind up in divorce court.

You’re very well known in the field of direct response writing. Just what is that?
A direct response writer is someone who creates a message, whether for mail, email, television, any kind of communication, in which the purpose is to have the target of that message perform a positive action as the direct result of having seen or heard that message. The difference between that and conventional advertising is that image is secondary to results. You want the greatest amount of response for the least amount of money, and you count response not by, say, the number of clicks on an email, but by the number of actions your promotion generates. I’ve had a great deal of luck in that field—I’m in the Direct Marketing Association’s hall of fame. In direct marketing I have fame, in film I have notoriety—there’s a difference. But what it proves is that if you live long enough, you become legitimate.