Herschell Gordon Lewis is a marketer. He is the author of the wildly successful how-to book, Writing Direct Mail Copy, as well as such other guides to selling as The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion, Writing Letters that Sizzle, How to Handle your own Public Relations. He was the author of Omaha Steaks’ direct mail campaign. He’s a senior fellow at the International Society for Strategic Marketing, and has worked as a marketing consultant for Lenscrafters and Barnes & Noble. His current career is, in fact, only a few shades removed from his previous incarnation as "the Godfather of Gore". Herschell Gordon Lewis made exploitation films. In 1930, Hollywood instituted a morals code, the Hays Code. It was largely ignored. More than being ignored, in fact, it seemed to serve as a list of what movie makers could try to get away with. In those toothless, "pre-Code" the bad guys were allowed to win. People drank too much and used drugs. Nudity was used (then, as now, only tastefully and when the plot demanded it, of course). White slavery was a central plot point in many movies. All this was disconcerting to a certain segment of the American populace, so in 1934, with the grudging acquiescence of the Hollywood studios, the Hays Code got teeth in the person of Joe Breen, and for the next decade the Hays Office kept a tight rein on depravity and loose morals tainting the movie going public. In 1943, Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (featuring Jane Russell and her "two great reasons" for stardom) posed the first great challenge to the Code, which slowly dissolved into irrelevance by the Sixties. Movie censorship remained on the for a long time; Mary Avara, head of the Maryland State Board of Censors, was on the job from 1960 until 1981. In the ‘40s, the Hays Code, censorship boards, and associated entities like the League of Decency were still a powerful force. Studios wouldn’t touch controversial material, and when a 1949 Supreme Court decision ended the studios’ monopoly on movie theaters, some entrepreneurs saw their opportunity.
It takes a born hustler to make people pay to see 25-year-old archival footage best suited for a sociology class, but Herschell Gordon Lewis’s partner, one-time carny David Friedman, managed it:
In 1956, Friedman released Cannibal Island, obstensibly a shocking story of south sea cannibalism, with the advertising tag: "He destroyed his victims… but saved their heads!". The actual meat of the footage was taken from a dust-dry documentary made a quarter century earlier which dealt with the customs and social life of primitive tribes that did engage occassionally in cannibalistic practices. Yes the film was 25 years old. No, there was nothing especially shocking in the content. But Friedman had learned the keystone lesson of a successful ‘roadshow’ man:
"One of my mentors, Dan Sonney, told me one thing one time I always believe that has been a source of both satisfaction and monetary rewards." Friedman says. "A movie is like a sack of flour. No matter how old it gets and no matter how empty, if you shake it, a little more flour will come out."
The exploitation roadshows toured the country, just as the much tamer spook shows and much more explicit stag movie shows did. The exploitation shows took a page from the stag shows, in fact; while not nearly as explicit, the nudie cutie and nudist colony films they distributed to the grindhouses, drive-ins, and independent movie theaters that had sprung up after 1949 did boffo box office. As Friedman recalls it, if they thought it would sell and they could slip it past the censors, they would make it:
They got us to thinking, Is there any legitimate reason that you could make a film about mutilation, about gore, about slashing, and yet have a raison d’etre, so to speak, for it? And we tossed around ideas: a Nazi concentration camp, Japanese death marches — okay, we didn’t particularly want to get into those. So we concocted this tale about a weird Egyptian preparing a feast, going back 2000 years, making it a historical spectacle, so to speak.
Fans of cult movies tend to love the truly bad. Ed Wood‘s films go through amateurism and come out the other side. Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is a jaw-drapping display of daffy incoherence. Andy Milligan, a horror director who’s experiencing something of a revival (1, 2, 3) seemed to use his nearly unwatchable product as an outlet for his own murky psyche and repressed sexuality. But the kings of exploitation weren’t trying to be awful. Some of them might even have been passable moviemakers given a budget. Awfulness simply made good business sense. Nobody coming to see The Wizard of Gore or The Gore Gore Girls or The Gruesome Twosome (that last featuring KFC’s Colonel Harlan Sanders, making his only cinematic appearance) was concerned with quality. If it was cheaper to reuse footage, to use amateur and quasi-amateur actors, to use a sheep as a stand-in for a person for bloody special effects, so be it. The movies were more profitable that way.
The profit motive eventually killed the exploitation movies; studios started distributing slasher films, and drive-ins and seedy Times Square theaters have largely gone the way of tailfins and Miss Rheingold. But Lewis’ desire to turn a buck and his marketer’s feel for what would sell left a legacy. B-movie king Roger Corman helped invent American independent cinema when he gave Jack Nicholson his big break; Lewis left behind a legacy of low-budget slashers, Friedman a body of movies about volleyball at nudist camps. America could have had it worse; in Albania, the hugely popular cult films featured no naked Swedish women or menacing serial killers, but instead starred minor English comedian Norman Wisdom as hapless newsboy Norman Pitkin. Nudie cuties and slasher movies may not be great art, but they’re what we wanted to see.