Saturday, October 22, 2016

Paying Tribute To The Godfather of Gore ... and Direct Marketing

Herschell Gordon Lewis wasn’t just a pioneer in exploitation movies and aggressive advertising. Indeed, his long, unsung career embodies everything that makes America truly great.



By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@Jimbo__X


Unless you are somebody really into either gory 1960s B-movies or general advertising copywriting, you've probably never heard of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who died Sept. 26 at the ripe old age of 90. But if you do know who Lewis was, he probably made some sort of palpable impact on your life. Indeed, if you've ever watched a John Waters movie (or tossed a handful of direct mail in the garbage), you are indirectly feeling the second-hand impact of the man himself.

Nicknamed "The Godfather of Gore," Lewis is probably best known for helming 1963's Blood Feast, a drive-in classic often considered the first true "splatter" film in the annals of American cinema. The pastel-colored horror flick (legend has it, the entire thing was filmed in just a couple of days) was notorious for its groundbreaking (and stomach-churning) violence, including scenes in which nubile young women have their tongues bloodily sawed off and their eyes gruesomely plucked out by, of all things, an evil, Egyptian-deity worshiping … caterer. Believe it or not, such fare was probably a step-up from Lewis' previous bread and butter, a series of nudist colony "musicals."


While Lewis' directorial oeuvre only span from 1959 to 1972 (although he did make a few cheapies in the early 2000s), he nonetheless managed to produce a high volume of all-time degenerate cinema masterpieces. Who can forget his 1964 hillbilly magnum opus Two Thousand Maniacs!, which centered on a bunch of Yankees traveling down south only to be held captive by Confederate ghosts (cleverly discussed as Georgian rubes) and mutilated and tortured to death via such ingenious execution methods as being rolled down steep hills in barrels lined with razor sharp nails? Or what about 1970's Wizard of Gore, about a magician who brutally murders women on stage while the audience thinks all of the neon blood splashing all over the place is just a larf? And that's nothing to say of his other genre works, including the moonshining epic This Stuff'll Kill Ya!, the wife-swapping "drama" Suburban Roulette and the juvenile delinquency-fest Just For The Hell Of It. Heck, he even made a couple of kids movies while he was at it, stuffing in offerings like Jimmy the Boy Wonder and The Magic Land of Mother Goose in between A Taste of Blood and She-Devils on Wheels.


Ever the renaissance man, Lewis gave up the B-movie trade in the early 1970s and promptly began his second career - this time, as one of the pioneers of "direct marketing" advertising. Indeed, he wrote no less than 21 books about his experiences in copywriting, many of which - such as Open Me Now and Marketing Mayhem - conveyed the same sensational bluntness that made his cinematic exploits so (in)famous.


Clearly, they don’t make them like Lewis anymore, that’s for sure. The living embodiment of the practically deceased Protestant Work Ethic, the man immortalized as “The Godfather of Gore” was utterly obsessed with production. Whether or not what he churned out was particularly good was an afterthought; the important thing was that he got that damned movie out about a dude who paints pictures of posies with hobo blood or that manual about antique dinner plate collection out under-budget and ahead-of-schedule. Some say he was a cheapskate, others say he was a brass-balled exploiter. Indeed, many call him a legitimate con artist, seeing as how he actually spent three years in prison for running all sorts of schemes to finance his film ventures, including a fake abortion clinic. But the one thing you can’t ever call him was “lazy.” While many of his contemporaries were layabouts complaining about “a lack of funding,” Lewis went out there and made movies, regardless of the budget, the filming locations or even the actors’ basic ability to speak decipherable English. Lewis was a man who was hell-bent on fulfilling his grandiose visions, and no trifling matters like “a lack of equipment” or “the ability to pay the cast” was going to stop him, either.


Lewis was really the reverse hipster. Instead of reveling in the dull irony of modern existence and worshipping effortlessness as virtue, he was dedicated to getting something out there, no matter the costs or production limitations. The artistes out there can spend three months trying to get the lighting on their abstract macaroni noodle portraits against sexism just right, but for a man like Lewis? Life was too short for “perfectionism,” and instead of wallowing in his own idealism as an excuse for never trying, he was more than content pushing out less-than-high-quality works if it meant being able to move on to the next even better idea. The man was an absolute degenerate cinema (and later, direct marketing) machine, pushing out material like a diarrhetic goose. Sure, nothing he produced can rightly be considered a cinema masterpiece, but then again, Lewis wasn’t in the cinema business - he was in the movie-making industry. And that, ultimately, is what separates him from other cult auteurs like Ed Wood and Ray Dennis Steckler - he was actually a competent filmmaker.


It’s utterly impossible to watch something like The Gore Gore Girls and Monster A-Go Go and not be entertained. Lewis may not have had the storytelling chops of Kurosawa or Fellini, but when it came to making nudity-filled, psychotonic, hyper-technicolor bloodbaths, his work remains unparalleled. Try as they may, not even the heavy hitters of Italian gore cinema like Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci could successfully replicate that redder-than-red meat and potatoes aesthetics of Lewis’ filmography. Even trash cinema icons like John Waters continue to sing Lewis’ praises - when it comes to nailing the atmosphere of Vietnam era, burlesque and acid grindhouse blood and guts jubilee low culture, nobody has ever been a better curator of the times.


While Lewis may not be the greatest American filmmaker of all-time, he may very well be the most American filmmaker ever. Nowhere else in the world could a man like Lewis - an advertising professor turned B-movie kingpin turned white collar felon turned copywriter extraordinaire - ever possibly blossom. No other culture or society on earth could have laid down the soil from which films like Blood Feast or Color Me Blood Red - those idiosyncratic time capsules/condemnations they are - could have sprouted. Only in America, as boxing promoter Don King oft states, would someone like Herschell Gordon Lewis not only have an opportunity to make such out-there movies, but actually complete them, sell them and make enough money off them to live in relative financial security for the rest of his life.


Many, many moons ago, an interviewer asked Lewis what he wanted his epitaph to read. His response? “He seen somethin’ different. And he done it.”


Indeed, I can’t think of a better way to encapsulate what made the life of this cheesy horror movie director-turned direct marketing guru so noteworthy. He was just a normal - albeit incredibly dedicated - man, who wanted to make movies and even more money. And where he lacked both financial and technical capital, he responded by pumping out a faster glut of “the advertising sells itself” B-movies than anybody else, with an emphasis on the prurient, the icky and the proletariat baiting so keen, one can’t help but consider Lewis a sort of anti-commercial hero - a DuChamp, if you will, who was really, really deft at making no-budget shlockers involving lots of blindingly bright crimson flying all over the place.


Or as the man himself so elegantly put it?


“History books will point out Columbus as the person who made the Americas available for exploitation,” Lewis once remarked. “I guess I can make the same kind of ridiculous claim.”

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