Mention the name Herschell Gordon Lewis to film fans and you’ll get two responses. They either love him or hate him. I fall cleanly into the first camp, as I’ve always loved the demented cinema of Mr. Lewis, who passed away Monday at age 87. Whether watching a triple feature of terror at the old Capital Theater on a Saturday afternoon, or later rewatching his movies via the magic of VHS, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s blood soaked no-budget epics provided hours of gruesome entertainment for me, and helped warp my impressionable little mind (like it needed any help!).
Lewis got into the film business in the late 50’s, teaming with sexploitation king David F. Friedman to make a series of nudie-cutie flicks like BOIN-N-G! and GOLDIELOCKS AND THE THREE BARES, before creating their first masterpiece, 1963’s BLOOD FEAST. The film’s about Fuad Ramses, an Egyptian caterer who slaughters young women in order to revive the goddess Ishtar. Blood and guts filled the screen in glorious Blood Color (according to the poster) like no one had ever seen before. The movie was a smash on the drive-in circuit, and though it was trashed by critics for its ineptness, the team of Gordon and Friedman laughed all the way to the bank.
My favorite Lewis classic is 2000 MANIACS!, in which a group of Yankee tourists stumbled onto a Southern town inhabited by the ghosts of dead Confederates seeking revenge. The unsuspecting “guests” are dismembered, decapitated, drawn and quarter, and rolled downhill inside a nail-spiked barrel in gory, graphic ways. The movie is so delightfully demented, with no redeeming social qualities whatsoever, that you can’t help but love it!
After COLOR ME BLOOD RED, about a mad painter similar in theme to Corman’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD, Lewis and Friedman parted ways. Lewis kept cranking out the carnage-filled craziness on his own: GRUESOME TWOSOME, THE WIZARD OF GORE, THE GORE-GORE GIRLS. He returned to sexploitation (SUBURBAN ROULETTE, BLAST-OFF GIRLS!) and dabbled in other genres, like the teensploitation JUST FOR THE HELLOF IT and even children’s fantasy (JIMMY THE BOY WONDER). Yet it’s his lunatic horror movies for which he’ll always be remembered. Nobody dared to put that much blood and gore onscreen until Herschell Gordon Lewis broke the barrier. He’s a pioneer of independent filmmaking and whether you like his stuff or not, you’ve got to respect him for doing it his way. Like Ed Wood, he had his own vision of moviemaking, sick and twisted sure, but damn entertaining. He’ll be missed.