A Crash Course in Grindhouse Cinema
With the release of “Machete Kills,” grindhouse flicks are once again invading the mainstream multiplex. (Here’s my take on that film.) The term is used to describe a group of films mostly released in approximately the 60s to the late 80s, after which the grindhouse proper essentially mostly dried out. Named for the more low-rent movie theaters that typically played films of an exploration bent- most notoriously in the 42nd Street district in NYC- it isn’t a genre so much as a type of film noted for extreme sex, violence, and often decidedly perverse subject matter.
To say these films aren’t for everyone is putting it mildly, but, like it or not, these films have been a tremendous influence to some, notably Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, whose collaboration “Grindhouse,” made up of the double feature “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror,” actually inspired the original “Machete,” which started out as a faux trailer shown with the two movies.
For this list, I’ve chosen to break Grindhouse down into the various subgenres that were typical of the type of fare shown in the theaters dubbed as such. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, simply a look at some of my favorites, with some suggestions for future viewing if you like the films I’ve chosen. Be sure to click on the hyperlinks for trailers and further information!
So, without further ado, let’s get started, and if you get too freaked out by my selection, just keep repeating to yourself: it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…
Arguably the most maligned of genres, save perhaps pornography, horror is the foundation on which most exploitation lies. Indeed, it’s the decrepit, crumbling, cobweb-strewn foundation upon which all cinema at partially lies. Film pioneers like Georges Méliès and Thomas Edison both explored the genre in film’s infancy, and the vampire remains one of the most popular draws in film and television alike, and has been since the early 1900s, with films like “The Vampire” and “Nosferatu.” Seeing as horror has never been everyone’s cup of tea, it was no stretch to take the genre to another level- a lower, darker, more violent level.
Arguably the first true “gore” film, 1963’s “Blood Feast” would be near-unwatchable, even by today’s standards, if it weren’t for the laughable acting and scripting. The primitive but effective special effects took the genre to a new level- cinema’s equivalent to Grand Guignol Theater. Filmmaker H.G. Lewis, setting the action in Florida (of course), unwittingly started a whole new subgenre, as he would be but the first to push the boundaries of what was considered good taste, pun definitely intended to those who’ve seen the film. Lewis didn’t stop there, continuing onward with such grindhouse classics as “The Wizard of Gore” (a modern day variation of actual Grand Guignol Theater where the horror was all-too real), “Color Me Blood Red” (in which a Pollack-like painter uses something other than paint in realizing his artistic visions) and the Hillbilly horror classic “2000 Maniacs,” which inspired such future efforts like the legendary “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Eaten Alive” (also by Tobe Hooper), “Tourist Trap,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Motel Hell,” all concerning backwoods dwellers that would make the “Deliverance” guys squeal like pigs themselves.
The other seminal moment in horror came with the release of 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” by the legendary George A. Romero. Considered by most to be the first modern zombie tale, it spawned the even more gruesome “Dawn of the Dead” and more zombie movies than you can shake a shotgun at. (For a much more thorough look at the subgenre, check out my multipart article here, here, and here.) Among the most notable were goremeister Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy: “City of the Living Dead,” “The Beyond,” and “House by the Cemetery” and, of course, “Zombie,” which was originally promoted as “Zombi 2,” an unofficial sequel to “Dawn of the Dead,” known as “Zombi” overseas.
However, the most notable grindhouse-era subgenre was likely slasher movies, sometime also dubbed splatter movies. Though not without precedent- notably “Twitch of the Death Nerve” and “Black Christmas”– John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” which remains one of the highest-grossing independent films in any genre ever, really kicked out the subgenre in earnest in 1978, leading to even major studios getting into the act, i.e. Paramount’s “Friday the 13th” series and similar-minded efforts like “My Bloody Valentine” and “April Fool’s Day.” While “Halloween” itself was inspired mostly by Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Italian Giallo, like Dario Argento’s “Deep Red,” and was more subtle than its red-headed stepchildren, it definitely got the ball rolling, leading to a host of low-budget knock-off films like “New Year’s Evil,” “Graduation Day,” and “Prom Night.”
Other notable- and notoriously trashy- films include “Maniac” (recently remade with Elijah Wood this year), “The Slumber Party Massacre” (which was written by lesbian feminist author Rita Mae Brown!), “The Burning” (which helped launch Miramax), “Sleepaway Camp” (the ending of which has traumatized many a young viewer), “Mother’s Day” (also recently remade) and “Pieces” (a favorite of cult filmmaker Eli Roth). Slasher movies thrived in the 80’s until the MPAA defanged them and the genre died out for a while- along with the grindhouse theaters-before later being resurrected for a time with the classic “Scream.”
Also worth a mention within the horror genre are the somewhat uncategorizable efforts of cult favorites Stuart Gordon (the “Re-animator” trilogy, “From Beyond”), Frank Henenlotter (the “Basket Case” series, “Brain Damage” and the hilarious “Frankenhooker”), and the then-future blockbuster filmmaker Sam Raimi (the “Evil Dead” series).
Astonishingly enough, there was a time in which pornography went mainstream, with viewers flocking to theaters in droves for the likes of “Deep Throat” (the partial subject of the recent biopic “Lovelace”) and “Behind the Green Door.” The road to porn’s brief, shining moment in cinema was paved for by grindhouse cinema, however, including so-called “nudie cutie” films like “Nude on the Moon” by female filmmaker pioneer Doris Wishman and efforts from the aforementioned H.G. Lewis (such as “The Adventures of Lucky Pierre”) and the legendarily awful Ed Wood (such as “Orgy of the Dead”).
You can’t talk the subgenre of sexploitation, though, without mentioning the notorious Russ Meyer, who pioneered it with the likes of “The Immoral Mr. Teas,” before moving into more radical fare like the legendary “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” (schlockmeister John Waters’ favorite film), “Vixen” and “Supervixens” (which inspired the Garbage track). Meyer’s work became so popular he managed to team up with the major studio 20th Century Fox for a few features, including the cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which featured a screenplay by no less than Roger Ebert, who should talk about judging other people’s stuff with that on the resume. This flirtation with the mainstream didn’t last and Meyer returned to the grindhouse for stuff like “Up!” and the excellently-titled “Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens,” his final feature.
Meyer’s work was once dismissed as low-brow, exploitative fare, with its bra-busting, buxom bevy of pulchritudinous babes, looking like the real-life embodiment of the types of women you see in comic books; but time has been kind and they are now seen as forward-thinking, sly socio-political tales of female empowerment. It should also be mentioned that you won’t find any plastic surgery enhanced ladies in any of his films, so there.
Of course, not all sexploitation fare can be post-modern feminist propaganda by nature, and much of it does indeed live up to the exploitation title. Gratuitous nudity is a staple of grindhouse flicks, and there’s room for every fetish, be it cheerleaders (“The Pom Pom Girls,” “The Swinging Cheerleaders”, “Revenge of the Cheerleaders”), women in prison (“The Big Doll House,” “Reform School Girls,” “Barbed Wire Dolls”- even Jonathan Demme cut his teeth on “Caged Heat”), sci-fi sleaze (“Galaxina,” “Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity,” “Cherry 2000,” “Flesh Gordon”) and even- shudder- necrophilia (“Nekromantik 1 & 2,” which both feature female protagonists). There’s even a slew of naziploitation flicks, which would be fine if it were Nazis being exploited, but instead it’s the Nazis doing the exploiting, which makes it all a bit icky- see, if you must, “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS,” which inspired an ongoing series, and stuff like “Love Camp 7” and “Salon Kitty.”
Finally, there’s the rape/revenge subgenre, which firmly straddles the line between exploitative trash and feminist empowerment. On the one hand, the subgenre is not without precedent in the mainstream, in films like “Repulsion,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Straw Dogs,” “Death Wish” and “Virgin Spring,” the last of which inspired the most notorious grindhouse example of the oft-vile category, “The Last House on the Left.” Though not for the faint of heart, at least the film doesn’t play rape for anything less than it is: a violent, disgusting act.
It also, for better or worse, paved the way for a slew of imitators, including the likes of “The House on Dead End Street,” “Lady Snowblood” (which inspired Lucy Liu’s character in “Kill Bill”) , “Thriller: A Cruel Picture” (aka “They Call Her One Eye,” and an inspiration for Daryl Hannah’s character in the “Kill Bill” movies) and most notoriously, “I Spit on Your Grave,” which critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert mercilessly bashed, but which has its defenders, among them feminists like Carol J. Clover and Julie Bindel rallying behind the film’s no-holds-barred look at what should be an ugly subject matter.
My personal favorite, if one can have such a thing, is the amazing “Ms. 45,” in which a mute woman is raped twice in the same day (!) and snaps, leading up to an amazing finale set on Halloween. I won’t spoil any more, except to say you might want to watch out for women dressed as nuns on that holiday. (Oh, and lest you think I forget: yes, I’m aware there is such a thing as nunsploitation…)
Our final category is action, and it’s the place in which horror and sex merge most efficiently, which is appropriate enough in the world of grindhouse cinema. The roots of action flicks lie in the gangster and western genres. In the 60’s a new breed of such films emerged, with such modernistic and surprisingly violent for the time films as “Bonnie & Clyde” and legendary westerns, like the “Man with No Name” trilogy (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”) and “The Wild Bunch.” Not to be outdone, low budget cinema tackled this approach head-on, with B-movie producer par excellence Roger Corman getting into the act with such offerings as “Big Bad Mama” and “The Lady in Red,” and Italians capitalizing on the so-called “spaghetti western” craze with films like “Django” and “The Last Killer.”
Meanwhile, the Eastern influence (also a big source of inspiration for the western genre, notably with “The Magnificent Seven”) was brought stateside with “Enter the Dragon,” starring the legendary Bruce Lee. A whole slew of grindhouse imitators followed from various parts of Asia, including the likes of “The Street Fighter” series, with Sonny Chiba; “Five Deadly Venoms,” “The Big Boss,” “Drunken Master,” the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series (aka “The Swords of Vengeance” which includes the infamous “Shogun Assassin”) and the completely mental martial arts/fantasy mash-up “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain,” a big influence on John Carpenter’s underrated “Big Trouble in Little China.” I would be remiss if I left out that Americans got into the act with the likes of “The Octagon,” with Chuck Norris, who once co-starred with Bruce Lee; and “Above the Law,” with Steven Seagal.
The martial arts subgenre also crept into our next category, as well, which is perhaps the most celebrated in the action genre: blaxploitation, which runs the gamut from pure action flicks like “Black Caesar,” “Three the Hard Way,” “Coffy,” and “Cleopatra Jones” to more sex-infused entries like “Foxy Brown,” “Superfly,” and “The Mack” to comedic entries like Rudy Ray Moore’s hilarious “Dolemite” series, which includes the likes of “Disco Godfather” and “The Human Tornado.” There’s also horror-inspired flicks like “Blacula,” “Blackenstein” and “Abby,” which is best described as an African-American “Exorcist.” Most credit the classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” as the first entry in the subgenre, but really it was the mainstream feature “Shaft” that got the ball rolling, and set the template for the flood of blaxploitation mania to come.
Of course, not all grindhouse is easily categorized. Many films combine the above genres and subgenres into wild mash-ups that are in a league of their own. For instance, the “Mondo” craze that began in the 60’s with off-beat documentaries like “Mondo Cane,” which showcased odd customs from abroad, spawned the likes of “Faces of Death,” an ongoing series that features actual documentary footage of people and animals dying in horrific ways, alongside faux footage staged to look real, much like “found footage” films do in more recent times. Indeed, this aspect of these pseudo-documentaries crept into films like “Cannibal Ferox” (aka “Make Them Die Slowly”), “Cannibal Holocaust,” the “Guinea Pig” series and “Snuff,” leading some people to falsely believe the footage was in fact real. Needless to say, this didn’t hurt ticket sales- quite the opposite.
Another largely European grindhouse import can be found in what is commonly called “Eurotrash,” another catch-all subgenre that includes horror sexploitation like the films of Spaniard Jess Franco (“Vampyros Lesbos,” “Female Vampire” “Bloody Moon,” “She Killed in Ecstasy,” “Marquis De Sade’s Justine” and plenty more where that came from) and Frenchman Jean Rollin (“The Nude Vampire,” Fascination,” “Living Dead Girl”), who both also did hardcore pornography to help pay the bills. Another long-standing figure in grindhouse cinema is the notorious “Emmanuelle,” which began as a French endeavor, before launching iterations in Italy (spelled “Emannuelle” and featuring Laura Gemser), Japan (such as, naturally, “Kung Fu Emanuelle”), and, of course, the US, who still does the series to this day, with the likes of “Emmanuelle in Space” and Emmanuelle Through Time,” featuring former porn star Allie Haze, aka Brittany Joy. As she has tangled with everything from cannibals to white slavers to vampires to women’s prisons to secret agents, she really is a category unto herself!
Of course, no grindhouse list would be complete without arguably the most successful portrayer of trash cinema: John Waters. Unless you’ve seen some of his early work in particular, his work really is sort of indescribable, but suffice it to say, everyone from drag queens (frequent star Divine was the first big-name transvestite ever) to Jim Carrey (Waters has people “talking” with their butts long before Ace Ventura) to shows like “Fear Factor” or “Bizarre Foods” (Divine ate dog poop for the sake of his art) to gross-out filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers owe him a debt of gratitude. He cast real-life criminals like Patty Hearst and former porn stars like Traci Lords in his films, and still went onto to work with big names like Johnny Depp, Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake and Christina Ricci.
What’s more, two of his films, “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby” were hugely successful Broadway plays, with the former garnering a big-budget musical starring John Travolta…in drag, no less. You really can’t go wrong with any of his films, but for his early work, “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester” are notoriously insane (though I’m partial to “Desperate Living”) and “Serial Mom” and “A Dirty Shame” are a lot of fun from his more recent work. His art has been shown in respected galleries all over the US, and he frequently speaks at colleges as well. I had the pleasure of attending both, and meeting the man himself, and you couldn’t hope to meet a nicer guy, considering the stuff he’s known for.
Well, that about does it for this list. Obviously, I can only do so much justice to grindhouse cinema in one article, and I had to skip including some of my all-time favorites, including the wacky work of Lloyd Kaufman’s insane Troma (“The Toxic Avenger,” “Tromeo & Juliet”); the various biker (“She-Devils on Wheels,” “Satan’s Sadists”) and automobile-driven flicks (“Vanishing Point,” “Death Race 2000,” “Mad Max”); creature features (“Piranha,” “The Food of the Gods,” “Q: The Winged Serpent”); wacky musicals (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “The Apple,” “Forbidden Zone”); the Italian Giallo (“Suspiria,” “Blood & Black Lace,” “A Lizard in Woman’s Skin”); arthouse grindhouse (“Eraserhead,” “Santa Sangre,” “Matador,” Andy Warhol’s “Bad”); and such “it’s all right there in the title” efforts as “I Dismember Mama,” “The Sinful Dwarf,” “Satan’s Cheerleaders,” “Escape from New York,” “I Drink Your Blood,” “Driller Killer,” and perhaps the most reprehensible film I’ve ever seen (not really a compliment), “Bloodsucking Freaks.” Or maybe I didn’t, as I just snuck them in right there!
Happy hunting, and remember: it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…