REST IN PIECES: Herschell Gordon Lewis

I was sad to hear Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away yesterday. Here’s a piece I wrote about this legend way back in 2000!

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When you talk about important film directors, names like Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick come to mind without a second thought.  But even the most studied of film afficianods will likely forget one of the greatest innovators of film the world has ever seen.  It’s time to give Herschell Gordon Lewis his due.  You could easily argue that without HGL, you wouldn’t have Leatherface, Fredd Kreuger, or even Natalie Merchant.  Confused?   Read on…

Herschell Gordon Lewis may be one of the most versatile men in the world.  At 71, he is the author of some of the more successful books on advertising and copywriting, some of which have seen over 15 printings.  His consulting company is Florida is incredibly successful.

Starting out with producing mind numbing industrial films, he teamed up with his pal David Friedman in the early 60s and began churning out such classic “nudie” films as LIVING VENUS, NATURE’S PLAYMATES, and the unforgettable GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BARES.  But when these topless jigglepix weren’t getting the attention they once garnered, he moved on and pioneered a new type of movie that was never seen before.

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In 1963, Lewis released BLOOD FEAST and introduced the gore movie genre to the world.  Though Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was released 3 years prior, there was nothing more shocking than a black and white scene of blood washing down the shower drain.  BLOOD FEAST, though featuring a story that’s goofy beyond belief (a caterer tried to bring the Egyptian Goddess Ishtar back to life by chopping up pretty girls), there’s so much blood in this movie, you’d swear it was a commercial for Heinz Ketchup. 

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It’s good goofy fun, and you WATCH THE ENTIRE BLOOD FEAST FILM RIGHT HERE, if you’re so inclined.   With a higher speed connection, the quality is pretty damn good.

Made for just $24,000, BLOOD FEAST made over $4 Million.  Lewis struck gold and followed it up the next year with what’s become one of my all time favorite movies…TWO THOUSAND MANIACS.

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If you haven’t seen this film, you’re missing out on a rare treat.  Imagine if the cast of ANDY GRIFFITH got rabies and deided to kill everyone who came through, you’d have a good sense of this incredible movie.  Some Yankee kids from up north drive through the beautiful Southern Florida town of Pleasant Valley, right in the middle of their Centennial Celebration.  Little do they realize, the whole town was killed off 100 years before in the Civil War and their ghosts have returned to get some good ol’ Southern style revenge.

Tricked into thinking they are the guests of honor, these hapless goofs get killed off in some of the most creative screen deaths ever seen.

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This poor lady not only gets her arm chopped off (which is so obviously a mannequin arm that it’s charming), but they eat it at a barbecue later that night.

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After getting this fella all liquored up, they tie each of his limbs to a different horse, and rip him to pieces.

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In a strange variation of the classic carnival dunk tank, this victim has to lie down under a giant boulder while people throw rocks at the target until it falls on top of her.  Though they made the boulder out of paper mache, it still weighed over 300 pounds, and Lewis actually laid down under it as it fell, rolling away at the last possible moment, to get the cool camera angle.

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Here you see a picture featuring the horrible aftermath of a deadly barrel roll.  This guy had to lay in a big yellow barrel (with a confederate flag on it, of course) and get rolled down a hill.   Sounds safe enough, but since the townsfolks hammered a ton of spikes and nails in it before they sent him on his way, he had a rough trip.

Though the barrel has a goofy looking dummy in it as it careens down the hillside, Herschell actually got inside of a barrell with his camera and was rolled down to come up with yet another winning shot.

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TWO THOUSAND MANIACS has a fun charm to it, as the mostly unknown extras seem to really be having a lot of great fun doing their job.  And the banjo hillbilly music throughout adds a nice touch.   In fact, the theme song “The South’s Gonna Rise Again”, was sung by Herschell Gordon Lewis Himself.  Of course, it’s not that he has a great singing voice, but it kept him from having to pay royalties for someone else’s performance (Listen to it right here).

The film was actually going to be called FIVE THOUSAND MANIACS, but the lack of plentiful extras in St. Cloud Florida (which no longer exists and is now a part of Disneyworld), forced Lewis to reduce the account.

But the film’s impact wasn’t lost on the group TEN THOUSAND MANIACS, who used the pioneering gore film as

The film was another hit for Lewis, and he followed it up with the third installment in what has been referred to as his “Blood Trilogy” COLOR ME BLOOD RED.

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COLOR ME BLOOD RED is the tale of an artist who find success by painting with his own blood, but when he finds he has only so much to spare, he has to seek alternative sources of this gorgeous paint.   This was decades before people were painting Virgin Mary pictures with elephant crap in New York.  Herschell clearly influenced the art world as well.