Film Review: Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore

Crammed with clips, behind-the-scenes footage and other archival material, this documentary love letter to pioneering exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis is aimed squarely at fans of his boundary-testing gore and nudie movies.

“I’ve often compared Blood Feast to a Walt Whitman poem,” says the lanky, genial Herschell Gordon Lewis, by way of introducing his first and most notorious gore movie. “It was no good, but it was the first of its kind.” A fair enough assessment, and a revealing one: Lewis taught at Mississippi State University before his purely financial investment in a low-budget studio—Chicago-based Mid-Continent Films—launched a very different career.

Gordon only intended to produce Mid-Continent’s first feature, a good-girl-gone-bad drama called The Prime Time (1959), but quickly fired director Gordon Weisenborn—“He was very good at lighting beer cans and that kind of nonsense, but directing actors was a little bit beyond him”—and took over. The result didn’t make much money, but through it Lewis met David F. Friedman, who worked in Paramount’s publicity department and was a limited partner in a small distribution company. Lewis and Friedman were two of a kind: natural-born hucksters who loved the art of selling movies as much as—if not more than—actually making them. Both were keen trend-spotters, gleefully shameless panderers to the allure of the shocking, and thoroughly pragmatic about their chosen business.

They stared out making nudie-cutie movies: 100% sex-free pictures that showcased pretty girls in their birthday suits pursuing wholesome activities like jumping rope, bouncing on trampolines and playing tennis, all made possible (and profitable) by a recent Supreme Court ruling that nudity in and of itself did not constitute obscenity.

After several features shot in and around Florida nudist colonies—an experience that left Friedman and Lewis with an apparently endless supply of amusing anecdotes, many of which they share here—the duo started brainstorming the next big thing, and decided it was graphic violence. After all, how many bare breasts and behinds could any market support? Inspired by an Egyptian-themed motel, they concocted the primitive but enthusiastically gory Blood Feast (1963), which was as loved by drive-in and grindhouse thrill-seekers as it was reviled by critics.

The partnership broke up after 1965’s Color Me Blood Red, but Lewis kept on making movies until 1972, turning out hillbilly comedies (Moonshine Mountain, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya), an all-girl biker flick (She-Devils on Wheels), hippie pictures (Blast-Off Girls, The Girl, the Body, and the Pill) and sundry works for hire. In the ’70s he went into direct sales and marketing with considerable success, which is probably a large part of the reason he regards his exploitation career with affection rather than the bitterness characteristic of contemporaries whose later years were spent in obscure poverty.

The Godfather of Gore’s interviews with actors, crew and fringe-culture commentators are uniformly articulate, funny and steeped in the details of a wild-and-woolly age of independent filmmaking so alien to today’s that it verges on the surreal. Standouts include directors John Waters, who fell in love with Blood Feast at a Baltimore drive-in and praised Lewis lavishly in his 1981 book Shock Value, introducing the “godfather of gore” to a new generation of hipsters, and Frank Henenlotter, director of Basket Case and lifelong fan of exploitation movies, whose excesses he describes lovingly but without rose-colored nostalgia; body-builder Mal Arnold, who stumbled into a bit as an extra on Lewis’ Daughter of the Sun (1962) and a year later wound up starring as mad Egyptian murderer Fuad Ramses in Blood Feast ; cinematographers Andy Romanoff and Steven Poster, both of whom started working with Lewis when they were barely out of their teens and went on to lengthy (and in Poster’s case, illustrious) careers; and James Dennett, who at the start of his lengthy career as a production manager saw the slender, non-violent Lewis punch out the belligerent head of Chicago’s stagehands’ union for calling him a “Jew bastard.”

The movie clips are generous (probably too generous for the faint of heart) and supplemented by outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage; a handful of newly edited together scenes from the uncompleted An Eye for an Eye (1967), in which an eye transplant also confers telepathic powers on the recipient, are a particular treat. 
Produced by Something Weird Video, which owns the video/DVD rights to the bulk of Lewis’ output, The Godfather of Gore never pretends to be an objective assessment of Lewis’ career and cultural importance. That may be the reason it ignores the soft-core sex movies he made in the late ’60s under a variety of pseudonyms, and why the reminiscences are so uniformly positive: No matter how genial Lewis may have been—and all the evidence suggests that he was far nicer, less crass and generally better company than some of his colleagues—there must be someone whose memories of working on his fast, cheap and frankly exploitative pictures are less than glowing. The Godfather of Gore is a fan’s movie, and fans should love it.