Us youngsters will never understand the sleazy pleasures of the early cinematic pervert. In the glorious 70s, there was no VHS or Betamax. No DVDs, YouTubes, on-demand podcasts, or home theatres. If you wanted grime, you had to go downtown and find it—at a scummy, dangerous grindhouse.
That word—probably one of this century’s most badass—is all over town thanks to the impending theatrical take-over of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s new gutter-film extravaganza… Grindhouse. Taking their sleazoid obsessions to the hilt, each writer/director made a 60-minute film which plays back-to-back as a double-feature. Tarantino’s Death Proof stars Kurt Russell as a psycho stuntman slaughtering vixens with his muscle car, while Rodriguez’s Planet Terror has a rag-tag gang—including a chick with a machine gun for a leg—taking on flesh-munching zombies. Between films are fake trailers directed by other fanboys-turned-superstars: Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses), Eli Roth (Hostel), and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). Also look for Nicolas Cage as a notorious, racist stereotype Fu Manchu.
Clearly, this is all very awesome. But what’s a grindhouse? The 60s fall-out brought free love, drugs, gratuitous violence and callous despondency to the public eye. Vietnam was televised; Deep Throat made pornography mainstream. The gritty new director-driven Hollywood—Altman, Scorcese, Coppola, De Palma, Peckinpah—shifted radically away from weak-kneed studio blowhards, while artsy foreign stuff—Bunuel, Bergman, Godard—took a shit on cinema’s rulebook. Roger Corman taught producers how to pump out a gazillion cheap flicks a year with shameless marketing, censors loosened up a little. Tits, gore, dirt, nastiness and acid trips were what the new youth culture wanted to see.
Enter the lowbrow cinema bliss of the exploitation film. Films sold on scandalousness, sensationalism, and gooey cheap thrills—mostly sex and drug-related—had been around since the 30s, but it was at the turn of the 70s that all kinds of crazy taboo shit was let loose on the world from every corner of the globe. Particularly Italy. Zombies, cannibals, sex slaves, black-gloved killers, lesbian nuns, women’s prisons, post-apocalyptic he-men, “educational” mondo films, martial arts, geysers of spraying samurai blood, blaxploitation, junkies, bikers, girl gangs, acid-crazed hippies gone mad, rape-revenge…
Major theatre chains avoided this stuff. Thrill seekers had to go to drive-in theatres—a teenage staple since the 50s—or better yet, their nastier urban equivalent, the grindhouse. These once-thriving inner-city playhouses had turned to bump-and-grind burlesque before finally de-evolving into sleazeball movie palaces by the late 60s. New York’s 42nd St.—long notorious for prostitution, peep shows, pimps, perverts and pillpoppers—was the grindhouse Shangri-La until the mid-80s, when city hall shut them all down to make the area more Disney-friendly.
Tarantino and Rodriguez grew up adoring this cinematic underbelly… and Grindhouse is their imitative tribute. Not surprising, since Tarantino’s career is based on “homages” to other filmmaker’s cool shit—Reservoir Dogs is Kubrick’s The Killing via Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, Kill Bill milks the female samurai revenge saga Lady Snowblood, and Tarantino’s portion of Four Rooms apes the climax of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (with a nasty twist).
In doing that, he’s had critics and audiences slurping his jock for the last 15 years. Anything attached to Tarantino, no matter how frivolous the association (“Presented by Quentin Tarantino”, “One of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films”) carries more weight, gravitas and head-nodding approval than a best picture Oscar.
But by lauding his influences in every shot and every interview, Tarantino became the gateway for the under-30 generation into the wonders of exploitation. He mentions a film—people watch it. Critics now take “trash” films seriously. And with the wonderful DVD revolution, every neglected hunk of grindhouse greatness has exploded from the scrapheap with a pristine THX-mastered, 3-disc DVD release with ten hours of bonus material. It’s weird that, for sheer options and availability, 2007 is a way better time to be a lover of sleaze cinema than in sleaze’s heyday. It’s all so easily available. The true grindhouse vibe, though, is definitely dead and gone—we’ll all be watching Grindhouse the movie in a multiplex with clean seats and a five dollar taco. And we’ll like it. But next time Quentin, how about restoring crumbling old movie dens throughout the continent by playing your movie there only. Start an anachronistic revolution. People will go if you tell them. And it will be sweet.
A*P*E (1976. South Korea/USA)
Image | Dir: Paul Leder
Joanna Kerns, of Growing Pains fame, fights a giant killer ape! The King Kong formula has been done many times over in wonders like Son of Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1951), and Mighty Peking Man (1977), not to mention King Kong (1976) and King Kong (2005). But never so ineptly and ridiculously as in the 1976 Korean blockbuster A*P*E—originally shown in 3D! Joanna De Varona stars as the damsel in distress (before she changed her name to the Maggie Seaver you know and love). Unlike far too many monster movies that have you waiting forever until the menacing confrontation, A*P*E starts with crazy monkey destruction right from the get go. No effort is made to help you with suspension of disbelief either as a guy in an obvious ape suit wrestles with toy ships and stuffed animals. They’re supposed to represent actual cattle and an actual navy, and if A*P*E were an artsy metaphor for some greater political message, perhaps they would’ve succeeded. But that’s not the point. The point is a giant primate raising havoc for 87 minutes without any explanation. At one point the ape raises his furry middle finger to the sky, as if to say, “The joke’s on you, movie-goer.” A gem.
Blue Sunshine (1976. USA)
Synapse | Dir: Jeff Lieberman
Maybe the reason my hair is falling out is due to all the acid I took years ago. That’s what happened to the characters in this 1977 must see. Ahhhh, acid. Acid is fun but deadly. A 10 year delayed effect from Blue Sunshine acid caused the male and female (yes, ladies it can happen to you) pattern baldness in this pockmarked gem. Oh, and their eyes roll up in their head and they become wildly murderously psychopathic. Wigs galore in this well thought out intelligent exploito. I thought it’d be more far out but I actually applaud that it wasn’t, as it makes it all the more plausibly scary. Hallucinations mapped out into a grimly bizarre reality; the look, the vibe, the actors and locations all seem to be part of a come down sprung on us, the audience. And we are all better for it. Is it a drug hysteria film? No, it’s no Reefer Madness, it’s not based on reactionary fear but more as a type of “What if?” scenario. At the time that this movie was made, no one had really done any research into the long-term effects of LSD on the human mind as it was too new a drug; though it was known that flashbacks occurred years after ingestion! Blue Sunshine is an important cautionary tale to be sure, one that doesn’t show teens falling off of buildings believing that they can fly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either.
The Candy Snatchers (1973. USA)
Subversive Cinema | Dir: Guerdon Trueblood
Incorporating drive-in/grindhouse sleaze with classic noir pot-boiler elements, this intensely pessimistic, low budget gut-puncher follows a trio of luckless kidnappers who abduct a virginal teenage girl (Susan Sennet) and bury her alive. They demand a fortune in diamonds as ransom from her stepfather who happens to have been looking for a way to get rid of the bratty teen anyways. Unfortunately for Candy, a seven year old mute autistic boy is the only witness to where the kidnappers buried her. The kidnappers get more and more desperate, insane, and brutal as the story unravels. The violence and depravity end up out of control, ending the movie in one of the most nihilistic downer finales of its era. This delivers everything one could hope for from a film of this kind: lurid sex, sudden violence, extreme characters, shocking plot turnabouts, and highly quotable dialogue. For decades The Candy Snatchers wallowed in obscurity thanks to never having joined the home video or DVD format, and yet it’s infamous reputation thrived amongst collectors.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980. Italy)
Grindhouse Releasing | Dir: Ruggero Deodato
The most notorious cannibal movie of all time. Four young Americans head off to the Amazon to shoot a documentary but never return. So Professor Harold Monroe (played by Robert Kerman of Debbie Does Dallas fame) heads off to the “green inferno” and discovers that the group were eaten by cannibals. Monroe is able to recover the footage and returns to New York to sift through the National Geographic documentary gone horribly wrong. In the grainy footage we see gratuitous acts of rape, torture, impalement, decapitation, castration, animal cruelty and, of course, cannibalism. This movie introduced viewers to the concept of “found real footage” almost 20 years before The Blair Witch Project. To help perpetuate the belief that the documentary footage was real, the actors signed contracts to not make any public appearances for a year after the film’s release. The trick worked as the film was confiscated by Italian authorities and the director was nearly thrown in jail for making a snuff film. Adding to the controversy was that the uncut film has many real acts of animal cruelty and is one of the reasons why Cannibal Holocaust has been banned in too many countries to list off. If reading that incites you to write a letter, might we suggest sending it to Sylvester Stallone’s kid? He owns Grindhouse Releasing, the company that put out the uncensored DVD last year.
Double Agent 73 (1974. USA)
Image | Dir: Doris Wishman
Chesty Morgan is the star of this film, and if the fact that a woman named “Chesty” is featured doesn’t entice you, then you might as well stop reading now. Along with its companion picture Deadly Weapons (both released in 1974), this is what you might call a classic in the exploitation film genre. Director Doris Wishman was one of very few women to churn out pictures for the grindhouse circuit, and she did so rather prolifically. Double Agent 73 tells the story of a cartoonishly endowed woman acting as a secret agent to bust up (ha, get it?) a heroin ring. In order to be extra sneaky, she undergoes surgery to have a camera installed into her 73 inch bosoms. In potentially the greatest scene in film history, she breaks into an office in the middle of the night, unearths some secret files, tosses them onto the desk, rips open her shirt, and clandestinely takes photos of them. Why this couldn’t have been done with just a normal every day camera is a question you should never ask. This picture also inspired the far tamer Chesty Anderson, USN.
Empire of the Ants (1977. USA)
MGM | Dir: Bert I. Gordon
Joan Collins of Dynasty fame fights giant killer ants! Should be enough said, right? However, the real story of this film lies with that of its filmmaker, Bert I. Gordon, a nearly talentless man utterly determined on his subject matter. In 1957, his picture Beginning of the End told the story of gigantic grasshoppers terrorizing the countryside, and The Cyclops, made the same year, was the story of a giant one-eyed man terrorizing the Mexican countryside. These were followed by The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast, both about a gigantic man terrorizing the Nevada countryside. 1958’s Earth vs. The Spider has a self-explanatory title. In 1965, Bert G. came out with Village of the Giants, a mod cheapie about gigantic teenagers terrorizing the adult countryside. Come 1976 it was Food of the Gods which featured gigantic farm animals terrorizing the barnyard and countryside and then 1977’s marvelous Empire of the Ants. There actually was one film in which Bert let his creative juices flow, 1958’s Attack of the Puppet People had a crazy twist in which the lead characters shrink… and terrorize the American countryside. However, there is a scene prior to the shrinkage in which the lead characters go to the drive-in and watch… The Amazing Colossal Man!
Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971. Italy)
Blue Underground | Dir: Gualtiero Jacopetti
You may think you’ve seen some shocking and outrageous movies, but you haven’t peeped poop until you’ve peeped Jacopetti and Prosperi’s Goodbye Uncle Tom, and their even more incendiary Director’s Cut version. This Italian made, pseudo-documentary race-ploitation classic from 1971 is the most controversial and epic cinematic depiction of the American slave trade and its brutal legacy that I’ve ever seen. Imagine if modern filmmakers took a trip to the pre-Civil War American Deep South, and excitedly recorded all the injustices they saw. Rape, torture, children being sold as sex toys, beatings, racial and sexual humiliation, and the overall dehumanisation of mankind as it truly existed in America’s not-so-humble past. There’s a lot of angry rhetoric and also some very disturbing staged modern footage of some Black Panthers slicing up a white couple and smashing a honky infant head against a wall like a ripe melon. The movie has been called one of the most racist films ever made, and that accusation is certainly seeded in the fact that many of the slaves are portrayed as barely being human. But Goodbye Uncle Tom is not so much a racist film as it is a completely misguided and tasteless grindhouse movie. Whatever lessons about racism there are to be learned, they’ll be largely overshadowed by the rampant exploitation. This is the cinematic testament to good intentions gone completely awry, and it should not be missed.
The most grindhousey place on earth was the Deuce in New York’s Times Square back when it was still nasty. The theatres there covered every single cinematic genre of import, namely Martial Arts, Mondo, Cannibal, and Zombie movies, along with Biker, Women in Prison, and Nazi Sex Camp flicks, plus nunsploitation, blaxploitation, sexploitation…all the ‘ploitations, really, all there in one glorious, neon soaked ground zero of sleaze. It’s gone now, replaced by a lot of terrible crap, but you can still see it in the movies if you know where to look. Check out Midnight Cowboy for numerous wintry shots of the fabulous palaces of turpitude, profanity and tits and ass that lined 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Ave., right in its prime. Or Taxi Driver, in which crazed Vietnam vet Travis Bickle takes a girl to see a porno at the notorious Lyric Theatre, and for some reason she spazzes out like a total bitch. If those two movies are a little too “Oscar” for your tastes, the opening sequence of Umberto Lenzi’s cannibal flick Eaten Alive gives you a brief tour of the district, with an especially nice shot of the Harris, a cinema generally remembered as “menacing”, situated next to 42nd St.’s only all male bathhouse, the New Barracks. You probably shouldn’t ask me how I know that. The Harris specialized in unwholesomely sexy thrillers, or “roughies”, like The Dirty Dolls and The Candy Snatchers. Eaten Alive would eventually end up down the street at the Liberty, a relatively upscale venue that went for Eurosleaze garbage like, well, Eaten Alive. If you want something that adds a meta-textual feel to the experience, and also makes you horny, look for Michael Findlay’s Young and Wet; the demented account of a pornographer’s violent demise, set right in the Deuce, with some of Findlay’s other movies still adorning the marquees along 42nd. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to that magical place, in that magical time, although you can always rent Five Fingers of Death while you go through a box of poppers.
Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976. Canada/USA)
Anchor Bay | Dir: Don Edmonds
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is a pretty tasteless woman in a prison film set in a Nazi concentration camp (actually the set of Hogan’s Heroes). Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne), the busty blonde commandant, performs brutal experiments to show that women are superior to men, and consequently, should be allowed to fight in the war. Even though she dies at the end of the movie (sorry to spoil it for you), Ilsa somehow comes back to life for a sequel and is in charge of a Harem for a horny oil baron, El Sharif. Ilsa takes kidnapped Western girls, strips them of their clothes and teaches them how to be good little lovers. The ever-present threat of a hungry rat keeps the girls obedient. If only Americans would come to the rescue! The acting and scripts of most low-budget pornos put this film to shame. So why would you watch this? Because Ilsa’s a Canadian creation and you can tell people you’ve seen it, of course.
Maniac (1980. USA)
Blue Underground | William Lustig
This movie is mandatory! Earlier and superiorto Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Written by and starring the great Joe Spinell (Taxi Driver, Godfather), Maniac is character driven, dramatic, gritty, downbeat and sleazy as hell. 1980 NYC anyone? Excessive gore by Savini looks impeccable—very excessive gore that’s a perfect unflinching fit. A very believable movie, except for the part where the hot fashion photographer falls for the paunchy pock marked serial killer. That’s not so believable. But hey, the DVD has awesome bonuses: feature trailers, a short doc on Joe Spinell, examples of the critical outrage this movie garnered and more!
Satan’s Sadists (1969. USA)
Troma | Dir: Al Adamson
Satan’s Sadists is the best biker flick that I have ever ever (paste another ‘ever’ here) seen! It is seriously extreme! I am getting more and more fascinated by director Al Adamson. This movie is brutal and inhumane and fun! One biker (who looks like Lee Hazlewood but with a fake moustache instead of a too legit to quit) is named Acid so expect a tripped out sequence. Ahhhh, Acid. Acid is fun but deadly. Russ Tamblyn (he’s Amber Tamblyn’s dad, kids) plays the leader of this utterly remorseless gang of bikers. I have never seen a gang of bikers so nasty on screen before! And there’s a great Vegas style crooning soundtrack theme (“By the time I was born I was killing…killing for….Satan”) and some creative photography including my fave exploito staple of action being viewed slightly askew through an old cracked car windshield. I also recommend the Adamson female biker gang classic Angels’ Wild Women, though not as good it’s still an enjoyably nasty romp.
Snuff (1976. USA)
The notorious Snuff begins with porn/exploitation team Michael and Roberta Findlay and their 1971 film Slaughter. This Argentinian-lensed cheapee was a Manson Family cash-in, poorly dubbed and kinda boring… despite the bad-ass biker chicks, tan-line tits and Charlie character named Satãn (!!!). Producer Allan Shackleton bought the film and shelved it, until news reports about so-called snuff films—genuine murders, filmed for the purpose of entertainment—inspired Shackleton to shoot a new ending and rename it Snuff. The film now abruptly freezeframes during a pregnant starlet’s murder. Cut to the “real” film set, behind-the-scenes. Shooting wraps, but the burly director and a young female assistant are really “turned on.” They start to frolic; crew members discreetly roll camera. The excited director then mutilates the girl and yanks out her entrails. “Shit, we ran out of film,” says the cameraman. End of movie. No credits (This is preserved on the DVD which also has no menu). Snuff was the first film to self-impose a phoney “Rated X for Violence.” Shackleton anonymously tipped-off newspapers and women’s activist groups about a “real” snuff film in theatres, resulting in picketers, protests, banned screenings, FBI investigations, intense media coverage and huge profits. Shackleton hardly spent an advertising dime. Snuff remains the mutha of all urban myths.
Spider Baby (1968. USA)
Image | Dir: Jack Hill
Pretty much all of director Jack Hill’s films are highly watchable exercises in pure entertainment that slip and slide across the exploitation genre; whether it be his very influential Women In Prison movies Women In Cages and Big Doll House, his strong female blaxploitation movies Foxy Brown and Coffy, or his violent teenage girl gang flick Switchblade Sisters and so on…. But the one film of his that is nearest and dearest to my heart is the strange Spider Baby. Expressionistic and nearly genre defying, perhaps loosely falling into horror, relying on eeriness, slow shivers and creeps, and in no way conventionally structured, it fits in with other films of this ilk, films of the Bizarre, films that are my personal favourites because they share the same previously mentioned characteristics: Peeping Tom, Night Of The Hunter, Eyes Without A Face, and, hell, let’s throw in Carnival Of Souls as well. Containing heaps of black comedy steeped in its own profound dementia, Spider Baby is about a family that suffers from a hereditary degenerative disease resulting from inbreeding. This disease causes them to have a taste for human flesh, amongst other things. Don’t expect large dollops of gore though, this film has no need for it. Lon Chaney Jr. was not known to turn down roles in a great many B horror flicks towards the sunset of his career but his performance here as the caretaker is gentle and nuanced. Exploitation stalwart Sid Haig impresses as the “baby” of the family. Lon Chaney Jr. also sings the opening animated creepy and kooky theme song! Filmed in justifiably apropos black and white.
Thriller aka They Call Her One Eye (1974. Sweden)
Synapse | Dir: Bo Arne Vibenius
“The roughest revenge movie ever made! There’s never been anything as tough as that movie.” (Quentin Tarantino on Thriller, in Total Film magazine). Known for appropriating much of what makes his films cool from lesser known exploitation classics, Quentin nicked Darryl Hannah’s matching eyepatch and attitude from the Swedish film Thriller (or They Call Her One-Eye, as it’s more commonly known amongst movie dorks). The harrowing story of a mute farm girl who unwittingly hitches a ride with a pimp who victimizes young ladies by kidnapping them, getting them hooked on heroin, locking them in a room and then pimping out their asses until their various orifices are blown out n’ crusty. She’s not into this so the pimp gouges one of her eyes out to show her who’s boss. Her innocence crushed, she thinks of nothing else but revenge, and after gaining enough of his trust to be let out of the hump-hovel, gets training in martial arts, gun shooting and driving. What follows is a roaring rampage of revenge against the pimps and the johns who defiled her, and it’s utterly breathtaking in its sexualized violence. In the lead role is Christina Lindberg, who many cult film aficionados (myself included) consider to be one of the most beautiful women to ever bust shit up in a 70s exploitation movie.
Truck Turner (1974. USA)
MGM | Dir: Jonathan Kaplan
Isaac Hayes is best known today as the guy who sang the theme song to Shaft and provided the voice for Chef on South Park, but in a perfect world he’d be best known as the stone col’ nigga who handcuffed lightnin’ and bitchslapped thunder in this seminal blaxploitation classic. Isaac comes correct as Mack “Truck” Turner, a skip tracin’ bounty hunter who is fully adept at “bustin’ heads and breakin’ jaws”. In Truck’s ghetto world, the pimps are mean, the hos are savvy, and the madams are downright lethal. Case in point: Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols’ (Lt. Uhura!) portrayal of Dorinda, a madam with an ultra filthy mouth, “the finest bitches around”, and a squad of ruthless, blinged-out killers at her disposal all hell-bent on blasting Truck’s balls off. Yet another entry in American International Pictures fine line up of grindhouse crowd-pleasers. This movie sports intense action, funky music, outrageous characters, and some of the most entertaining dialogue and situations to be found in the blaxploitation genre. Ultra-underrated Yaphet Kotto is amazing as the evil pimp Velvet Blue.
Vice Squad (1982. USA)
Anchor Bay | Dir: Gary Sherman
Vice Squad rockets into action with what may be one of the finest opening credit sequences in the history of cinema: A veritable neon montage of shitty Hollywood street life jam-packed with skeezy whores, dangerous pimps, dubious johns, strutting cops, chickenhawks, leather men, hoboes, trannies, and bikers—all set to an incredible song, “Neon Slime,” screamed by the film’s star and villain, Wings Hauser. The movie follows a night in the life of Princess (Season Hubley), a caring mom who leaves her young toddling daughter with a babysitter so she can prowl the streets as a no-nonsense whore who ends up getting stalked by a crazy and violent pimp named Ramrod. Her first john of the night turns out to be an undercover cop, but Princess identifies him before she even gets in the car: “Do I look like a cop?” he asks with a smile. Princess flashes a sexy grin and replies, “Does a teddy bear have cotton balls?” When director Gary Sherman was interviewed about the experience of making Vice Squad, he candidly spoke about the fallout his skeezy grindhouse movie had in more reputable circles: “I got calls from John Milius and Martin Scorsese saying ‘Wow, where in the fuck did this come from?’ People in Hollywood were fighting about it. People reacted pretty violently to it. I actually lost a picture because of it.”
Willie Dynamite (1974. USA)
Universal | Dir: Gilbert Moses
This blaxploitation ditty stars a man who you’ve seen act hundreds of times. Maybe thousands. Roscoe Orman. What’s that? You’ve never heard of Orman? Well, in Willie Dynamite (or Willie D., as the title theme refers to him) Roscoe plays a coke snorting, fur sporting, prostitute exploiting, BMW driving pimp. Does the actor sound familiar yet? After strutting to the wawa pedaled sounds in this film, Orman was immediately cast in a popular television show replacing an actor named Hal Miller. At the end of 1974, the same year as Willie Dynamite’s release, Roscoe Orman scored the part of “Gordon” on Sesame Street, a role he would play everyday for the next 30 years. The music is composed by J.J. Johnson, who also put together the funk filled sounds for the Across 110th Street soundtrack—the title theme which was also used by Tarantino in Jackie Brown. This one’s a winner.
Zombi 2 (1979. Italy)
Blue Underground | Dir. Lucio Fucli
Okay, so you’ve seen Day of the Dead, sequel to Dawn of the Dead. Good work. But have you seen Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, the unofficial Italian sequel to Dawn of the Dead? A boat shows up in New York with a zombie stowaway that bites the jugular of a harbour patrolman. The police haven’t even seen Night of the Living Dead and thus aren’t too concerned. So a reporter and the daughter of the boat’s owner begin an investigation which leads them to an island full of zombies. But screw the plot, here’s all you really need to know about Zombie. 1) The score is amazing. 2) Fulci’s zombies look better than Romero’s zombies. 3) For no good reason, a woman goes scuba diving topless. Underwater she encounters a shark and a zombie. Then there’s an extended underwater fight scene between the zombie and the shark. Just what are you trying to suggest with this scene? That being underwater has an inverse effect on a zombie’s speed and they become lightening quick killers who are capable of fending off sharks with their bare hands? Don’t make me laugh.