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‘The Godfather of Gore’: Herschell Gordon Lewis

by Mark Burger

Herschell Gordon Lewis laughed long and hard. The cult filmmaker, who first brought bloodspattered grue to the masses in the early 1960s and is the subject of a new documentary, has just been asked a question that hardly bears repeating.

Bear with it: “Did you ever think your movies would endure this long and be embraced by entirely new generations of fans?” The films referred to include Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), A Taste of Blood (1967), The Gruesome Twosome (also ‘67), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), the latter featuring Henny Youngman in his first (and last) big-screen lead.

What does these films have in common? Well, they don’t call Herschell Gordon Lewis “the Godfather of Gore” for nothing.

Lewis’ laughter subsided.

“Certainly not,” he said. “If I thought they would endure, I’d have made them better!” In the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, characters endured dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment, and any number of disgraceful demises — all presented in blood-curdling color right before your very eyes.

These films were shot on the (very) cheap and released to the drive-in/ grindhouse circuit, often to critical derision (“Who cares?!” laughed Lewis), and every one made money.

That these films have survived and thrived for 30-plus years, attracting even more fans the second, third and fourth time around, “is one of the great mysteries of motion pictures,” Lewis said. “Here is my crap, which starred nobody and cost nothing to make, and they still exist. They’re still shown in theaters. I think it’s funny, but not so funny that I’m going to apologize for it.”

The new documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (see review, Page 34), recounts Lewis’ career as a filmmaker who found his niche and ran with it, giving rise to a fervent following whose proud members include filmmakers John Waters and Frank Henenlotter (both interviewed in the documentary, which Henenlotter directed with Jimmy Maslon) and a worldwide legion of fans.

Lewis hardly overestimates his contribution to motion picture art, but he doesn’t underestimate it, either. “As cheap and schlocky as the movies were, the market was enhanced by them,” he said. “There are doggone few movies that last as long as mine have.”

Lewis first made his name as a filmmaker with what they called “nudie cuties” — films that showcased the goings-on (and off) at nudist colonies, where about the most titillating aspect was a game of volleyball in the buff.

Lewis wasn’t the only one making these movies, so he and producer David F. Friedman (who died in 2009 but is interviewed in the documentary) sought something unique, something that hadn’t been seen in films before.

In terms of imparting advice to aspiring filmmakers, Lewis’ opinion is succinct and to the point: “Forget the approach you learned at film school and say to yourself, ‘If I were to walk into a theater, only because it was raining, and it was my film playing, would I pay to see it? Can I make that judgment dispassionately?’” Although never much of a film buff growing up, or even while making films, Lewis is more attentive to the industry these days. “Movie viewing is totally subjective,” he said. “I enjoy science-fiction” — and although he enjoys the advancements in visual effects, admits that many films rely too much on them. Additionally, “I enjoy movies that display a strong sense of humor.”

In many ways, Lewis is the ideal moviegoer: He just wants to be entertained.

When it comes to marketing and promotion, Lewis knows his business, having achieved considerable success in the field of direct marketing. He’s written more than 20 books on the subject, including The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion, published in 1974. So successful was this endeavor that Lewis essentially left filmmaking behind, not coincidentally around the time that films, even mainstream ones, were embracing violence and gore.

In recent years, however, befitting the cult acclaim afforded him, Lewis has returned to the director’s chair. In 2002, he directed Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, in which he was essentially a hired gun. He doesn’t dislike the film, but he’s reluctant to call it “his” film. Basically, he said, “I was hired to sit in a chair.”

The Uh-Oh Show, a savage satire of reality TV, followed in 2009. “I was very pleased to make this movie,” said Lewis, but he wasn’t satisfied with its distribution.

He’s currently preparing Mr. Bruce and the Gore Machine, another light-hearted blood-letting opus, “and it will be a better opportunity to test my current attitude toward distribution.”

Even in his 80s, “I’d just not as soon be be regarded as somebody who has come and gone.”

Looking back over his career, and the unexpected cult status it has gained him, Lewis laughed again. “I have no complaint about how the motion picture industry has treated me whatsoever.”

(Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore is now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The DVD retails for $14.98, the Blu-ray for $17.97. The official Herschell Gordon Lewis website is: herschellgordonlewis.com.

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