YOU CAN'T talk about cult horror without talking about Herschell Gordon Lewis, the iconic director rightfully dubbed "The Godfather of Gore." Beginning with 1963's drive-in sensation Blood Feast, through 1964's 2000 Maniacs and 1965's Color Me Blood Red—his last collaboration with legendary producer David F. Friedman—all the way up to 1972's The Gore Gore Girls, Lewis defined the gore film with an outrageously over-the-top but always campy and low-budget string of films. He then quit movies for a successful career as a guru of advertising and marketing. He returned to film to direct 2002's sequel Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat.
Lewis is known for his no-nonsense attitude about his own work, and his ability to speak eloquently on the business of film. This Friday, Nov. 2, he travels to the Bay Area to appear for a two-night engagement of his 1970 classic (and my favorite of his films) The Wizard of Gore, as part of the Late Night Picture Show series at San Francisco's Clay Theatre. Lewis spoke to me from his office in Florida.
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CULT LEADER: Many years ago, in their book 'Incredibly Strange Films,' the Re/Search group wrote a wild essay ascribing some very deep metaphysical themes to 'Wizard of Gore.' What do you think when you read intellectual interpretations like that?
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: I think it's funny. The idea of zen and the art of making a schlock movie, it doesn't support itself. I try to explain that to people—but not really forcefully, because I'm delighted that they attribute motives that weren't there. It makes me more of an artiste than I really have been. My intention was to get people in the seats of theaters, because back when I made this stuff, your picture either was a success in the theater, or not at all. We didn't have videocassettes, we didn't have DVDs, we didn't have cable.
Film legend has it that you started the whole gore genre simply because so many people were doing nudie films that you needed to figure out some other kind of exploitation angle that would sell.
Positively! A field gets crowded, and when a field gets crowded, the people on the bottom end have to disappear or change. That's true in any facet of business you want to name. So here I was trying to figure out: what kind of motion picture might there be that the major companies either wouldn't make or couldn't make? And it really was as much an accident as it was a deliberate choice. I was watching some ancient gangster movie on television, and the police pumped this fellow full of bullet holes, and he died peacefully with a little splotch on his shirt. And I said, "Hold it right there!" That really was the genesis of the gore movie, because nobody was making that kind of movie. Proof of it was that censor boards had no regulations then against gore.
What are your memories of making 'Wizard of Gore'?
Wizard of Gore in a sense was a jinxed picture. A lot of things went wrong in the shooting of that movie, including the ultimate effect that I wanted, where we tear a body literally from top to bottom. We couldn't do it, because they threw us out of the apartment we had all set up to shoot. And yet I've heard in years subsequent to that that this picture has great depth. But you see, I never took that auteur point of view, and I certainly hope I would never do that.
However camp and low-budget it may be, it's still unnerving in 'Wizard of Gore' when Montag is putting his hands in his victims and actually touching viscera. Even though you know it's fake, even though it looks fake, the mind still rebels from the taboo quality of it.
We had to do it that way, because I could not afford the kind of effects that were starting to show up in major company pictures. They had moving mandibles, and they had electronic gadgetry, and they had exploding clothing. And they had rubberized extremities, instead of having to use department store mannequins. What I would have given for a rubberized piece of something!
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS appears with THE WIZARD OF GORE on Friday, Nov. 2, and Saturday, Nov. 3, at midnight at the Clay Theatre. Advance tickets are $9.75, available by calling 777.FILM, or at www.moviefone.com. CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Read the complete interview with Lewis at www.metroactive.com.
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