I was born a poor white child in the waning winter days of 1979. Never was I able to step foot inside a grindhouse theater, and the only time I ever went to a drive-in theater that wasn’t doubling as a flea market was to see Fletch when I was barely old enough to remember going in the first place. VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and spending a lot of time at the houses of friends and relatives with access to pay cable movie channels helped fill me in on the deranged cinematic greatness I was too young to catch first run in its proper theatrical venue. Being born in the wrong place at the seriously wrong time was no excuse for me to not become a fervent admirer of the finest exploitation movies ever made.
B-movies, C-movies, Z-movies, I’ve seen a lot. If I lived a few extra lifetimes after my first ran out I could never be able to see all of the movies I ever wanted to see. My DVD and Blu-ray collection isn’t massive (getting there though) and yet there are still a few titles I have yet to sit down and watch. Sue me, I stay pretty busy most of the time. Once upon a time there were theaters from the largest metropolises to the smallest one-horse burgs that specialized in playing the kinds of offbeat, occasionally undefinable, made-for-a-quick-buck flicks that were too gonzo to show its grimy celluloid visage in mainstream cinemas that primarily attracted bored suburbanites and their spoiled, hateful children. You could see a lot of these schlocky gems in double or triple feature bills or “dusk ’till dawn” marathons that cost substantially less for a ticket than a IMAX 3D screening, even with inflation taken into account. You definitely got your money’s worth, that could not be denied.
Star Wars rip-offs, dubbed kung fu adventures, hard-edged blaxploitation crime thrillers, splattery Italian horror epics, violent revenge flicks, and these are some of the genres that could be deemed classifiable. There were others, many others, that seemed to have been made simply because some disturbed person knew it could be done and would go to their grave trying to accomplish what others told them was a colossal waste of time.
I’ve compiled a list of twenty of my favorite exploitation movies complete with original poster art, trailers, and links to where you can buy most of these titles on DVD and/or Blu-ray. For this article I was lucky enough to receive some invaluable perspective on most of my selections from a man who not only knows more about these movies and countless more like them, but has seen them in their intended venue – the seedy grindhouse theater screens that once existed along 42nd Street in New York City’s Times Square. He is none other than 42nd Street Pete – collector, historian, radio show host, convention panel moderator, raconteur, and an all around amazing guy to know.
So without further adieu, let’s get this all-night exploitation movie marathon started.
Star Wars was the movie that launched a thousand rip-offs that weren’t limited to the U.S. They were coming hard and fast from nations like Japan, India, Brazil, Turkey, and yes, even Italy. The finest movie to emerge from the pack of Lucas imitators was Luigi Cozzi‘s Star Crash, a brain pan-searing concoction of space adventures, Harryhausen-esque stop-motion animation sequences, vivacious heroines fighting and laser blasting in the skimpiest of outfits, Amazon women (on horseback!), a robot that talks like an angry Roy Rogers, amazing visual effects sequences with obvious miniature and model shots, and energized battles among a gorgeous galaxy of stars that twinkle with nearly every color in the spectrum.
If that isn’t enough to make you track down the DVD or Blu-ray online, then check out this cast list: former Bond villainess Caroline Munro as the beautiful heroine Stella Star, child evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner (Food of the Gods) as her friend and navigator Akton, legendary bug-eyed character actor Joe Spinell (Taxi Driver, Maniac) as the evil Count Zarth Arn, future Oscar-winning screen legend Christopher Plummer cashing what had to have been a mighty nice paycheck as the Emperor of the Universe, and the one and (thank God) only David Hasselhoff as his swashbuckling son Simon. What other movie in existence has General Chang and Michael Knight playing family? None, but Star Crash, babies. This movie is pure, unadulterated fun that gets better every time you watch it.
42nd Street Pete sez
Luigi Cozzi’s Star Wars clone that packed the Grinhouses with nerds looking for another Star Wars fix. They didn’t get it. Packed with good actors including Caroline Munroe, Christopher Plummer, the late, great Joe Spinnel & Robert Tessier, and a pre-non alcohol soaked David Hasslehoff. This one is a lot of fun.
Star Crash is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
Keep your pathetic human centipedes and Serbian films. Cannibal Holocaust actually had people believing its cast had been murdered and turned into human sausage links, all of it captured on film naturally. Nowadays, there’s a new “found footage” movie in theaters almost every week. Back in 1980 when Holocaust began playing all over the world it was practically unheard of. I guess that’s why director Ruggero Deodato was arrested on suspicion of murder because Italian authorities believed he had made a snuff film. He later beat the rap by producing the actors in public, but by then the movie’s reputation had been cemented forever and Cannibal Holocaust was legend.
Cut through the decades of hype and censorship battles and what is left is still a highly effective and nasty social commentary on the media’s obsession with sensationalized news stories, even if they have to create it in order to satisfy their sponsors and audience. Deodato combined some extremely convincing special effects (the woman impaled on a stake was burned onto so many memories it has become the single most recognizable image from the movie) with naturalistic performances from some talented and mostly unknown American and Italian actors and his own realistic documentary-style direction. Kowtowing to demands of the international marketplace, Deodato knew he couldn’t make a cannibal movie without tossing in some real scenes of animals being killed. In a flick that featured women being raped with stone dildos and men getting their dongs severed and devoured, it is the moments where coatimundis and turtles are gutted and torn limb from limb that haunt your dreams. Exploitation movies are not always fun, you know.
42nd Street Pete sez
So much has been said about this, so I’m hard pressed to add anything new. It was yanked out of a local theater after just two days because of the turtle scene. I had to go see it at The Liberty on 42nd Street. The film flatlined the usually rowdy crowd into stunned silence. A woman in the back was openly crying and a couple of people puked up their nightly intake of malt liquor and cheap wine. The question was any of it real lingered unanswered for years. A film that led you to expect the worst, then it actually gave it to you.
Cannibal Holocaust is available for purchase on DVD and Italian import Blu-ray.
The ultimate revenge film. Quentin Tarantino loved it so much he named his late-’90s distribution company after it. William Devane plays a Vietnam veteran who returns to his hometown after being held for seven years as a prisoner of war to find his wife remarried and his son barely recognizing him. If that don’t beat all a gang of redneck thugs break into Devane’s house to rob him of some silver dollars given to him for his years of military service, murder his wife and son, and mutilate his hand in a garbage disposal. Seeing as how you can never keep a good soldier down Devane replaces his mangled hand with a sharpened hook and sets off after the murderers with the help of fellow veteran and POW Tommy Lee Jones.
Paul Schrader wrote the script not long after he made his name in the industry by writing Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, another film about a disenfranchised Vietnam vet who becomes steeped in violence and bloodshed but for different reasons. His draft was subsequently rewritten into a more entertaining movie by Heywood Gould and directed by B-movie specialist John Flynn. Flynn also directed The Outfit, a great adaptation of one of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels starring Robert Duvall, and Steven Seagal’s best movie Out for Justice. 35 years after its release Rolling Thunder remains a gut punch of an action thriller and above all a haunting tale of a soldier without a country and without a war looking to get back both. The ending is a real knockout. Pure perfection.
42nd Street Pete sez
An unheralded revenge classic that started the careers of William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. James Best from Dukes of Hazzard is a bloated, oily bad guy leading a bunch of sadistic killers. The Wild Bunch-inspired ending had the patrons cheering as Devane & Jones blasted the shit out of Best & company.
Rolling Thunder is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
Sex and Fury
Naked sword fights, fountains of blood, doomed romances, and softcore lesbian love scenes – there is not a single moment in Sex & Fury that doesn’t feel gratuitous. That’s why I love it so. Few movies can be as unabashedly entertaining as this. The universe would not allow it to happen. Japanese actress and singer Reiko Ike leaps out of a bath to fight a small army of male assailants in a full-on battle to the death with clashing swords, and doesn’t bother to get dressed first. Swedish screen beauty Christina Lindberg gets nude a lot and shows off the assets that made her an international icon. Exploitation movies can often be ugly and unpleasant so it’s nice once in a while to see one that is pure pleasure.
The 2000 remake with Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie was nothing but bloated Hollywood garbage that only exists so otherwise decent actors can forget everything they know about their craft for a few months and get paid to screw around with expensive sets and toys. The original Gone in 60 Seconds was the twisted metal lovechild of writer, director, actor, and stunt driver H.B. “Toby” Halicki and nearly four decades after its release it remains B-filmmaking at its purest and most entertaining. Prior to entering the world of independent filmmaking Halicki collected cars, owned and operated both an auto body shop and a salvage yard, detailed and repaired cars for an insurance company, and was a prominent real estate investor.
When he set out to make Gone in 60 Seconds in 1973 Halicki had little more than a few pages of script and plenty of cars to destroy. The storyline is sparse but the action – to use an appropriate – was full throttle intense. The centerpiece of the movie is a relentless 40-minute car chase that tears up five cities and 93 cars as Halicki’s car thief hero Mandrian Pace (love that name) attempts to elude the cops. The director truly suffered for his art, funding the movie out of his own pocket (even halting production so he could earn more money to continue filming by fixing up cars) and even compacting ten vertebrae while performing a car jump in the 1973 Ford Mustang lovingly named “Eleanor” – which was replayed in the final film in slow motion and from several different angles just so we could take in every delirious second of the stunt. Few movies have been able to turn chaotic car chases and automotive destruction into wild and ragged cinematic art the way the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Maybe I’m giving the movie too much credit, but I’ll take a good old-fashioned multi-car pursuit and senseless carnage over any modern over-CGI-ed action sequence any day of the week.
Gone in 60 Seconds is available for purchase on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
In the late 1970s produce-director and Andy Warhol protege David Weisman purchased the American distribution rights to the first two films in Japan’s popular Lone Wolf and Cub series from Toho Studios. Then with director Robert Houston he had both films edited into a single feature entitled Shogun Assassin, which was released to theaters in 1980 courtesy of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Telling the story of a lone samurai (Tomisaburô Wakayama) who takes his infant son on a mission of violent, sword-slashing retribution against the insane shogun who ordered his death and killed his beloved wife in the process. The blood and precious body parts of their enemies are shed in many scenes of intensified combat over the course of the movie, all displayed in brutal and glorious color.
Shogun Assassin used ten minutes of the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie, Sword of Vengeance, for flashback fodder while the rest of the running time was taken up by the second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx. English language dubbing and narration were then recorded to use as narrative connective tissue. Actress and comedian Sandra Bernhard was reportedly among the American voice-over cast. Shogun Assassin works both as a screaming mad blast of violent fun and a clever beginner’s course on Asian action cinema. If you like this movie, and you bloody well should, it would behoove you to check out the entire uncut Lone Wolf and Cub. Shogun Assassin is a great place to start your education.
42nd Street Pete sez
I think Corman brought this in as a New World release. Even edited, the arterial blood flowed like soy sauce across the screen. Fanzines compared the blood shed to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead that was out the previous year. Inner city grindhouse patrons loved this film.
Shogun Assassin is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
Fight For Your Life
If stodgy conservatives and prudish liberals took severe vocal umbrage with Django Unchained‘s graphic violence and uncomfortably rampant use of racial slurs, then Fight for Your Life would have made them soil their undies and crawl under the nearest table weeping tears of menstrual blood. William Sanderson of Blade Runner and True Blood fame scored his earliest lead role in a movie as a hateful escape convict who, along with two half-wit accomplices, takes a peaceful black reverend played by Robert Judd and his family hostage and subjects them to endless acts of racist humiliation. That’s just the beginning. By the time Sanderson and his slobbering goons try to lynch the preacher’s wife, bash in a little kid’s face with a rock, and throw a topless women to her drowning death, even Gandhi would be howling for these vicious pricks to get some hardcore punishment. It happens and it is glorious.
The distributor knew what a potential cultural hot potato they had on their hands so they cut trailers and TV spots to appeal equally to black and white audiences. Fight for Your Life later became the only movie to end up on England’s “video nasties” list due to its offensive language. Even to this day it’s a tough movie to watch.
42nd Street Pete sez
One of the few times I didn’t think I’d make it out of the grindhouse. And I saw it under the title Stayin’ Alive. Didn’t know what I was getting into as this was one racist movie that incensed the predominantly black audience. William Sanderson’s over the top performance as an escaped con racist cracker pushed the film to it’s limit. A William Mishkin production, shot in NYC & parts of New Jersey. My white ass bailed before the end credits.
Fight for Your Life is available for purchase on DVD.
Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci made political satires, erotic thrillers, spaghetti westerns, and violent murder mysteries. But it wasn’t until he made Zombie (a.k.a Zombi 2), an unofficial sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (Italian title: Zombi), that horror fans from Sicily to Sacramento started to take notice of his special talents when it came to orchestrating gorgeous tableaus of gory mayhem. Zombie‘s international smash success gave Fulci license to return to the decayed well of the lurching dead time and again for movies like City of the Living Dead, House by the Cemetery, and his artful 1981 classic The Beyond, but his first remains his best and most accessible in the genre.
Fulci doesn’t deal in soap opera plotting or sociopolitical commentary; the man has always been about grandiose displays of beautifully-photographed horror. His marching armies of undead flesh munchers cover every inch of the widescreen frame and actually look like they just crawled out of a two-century-old cold grave. When someone gets bit in the neck or arm flesh is torn like fresh baked chicken and blood erupts in bright red splashes across the screen. Fulci knows how to make the audience experience the terror his characters are facing with a series of relentless set pieces with terrific build-ups and payoffs that can drive you into fits of squeamish giggles or irreparably scar your very soul. Three words: splinter, meet eye. One of the essential living dead flicks, a true classic.
42nd Street Pete sez
Since Dawn of the Dead was released as Zombi in Italy, Italian copy cat cinema dictated a Zombie 2. What they didn’t realize was A: the film was good enough to stand on it’s own & B: We had a new grindhouse hero in Lucio Fulci. Released by the Jerry Gross Organisation (JGO), it was given a huge ad campaign as posters were plastered all over NYC with the rotting zombie head and “WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU on it. Aside from the then jaw dropping SPFX , the film stood on it’s own and is respected by fans and it’s cast today. Zombie just blew the grindhouse patrons away because as good as Dawn of the Dead was, many felt Zombie was better. in fact when you compare the two films today, I would have to say that Zombie has held up better.
You can read more of my thoughts on Zombie‘s recent Region B Blu-ray release here.
Zombie is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
When it comes to making biker movies, or most movies requiring an assload of testosterone, it’s pretty tough to beat the Australians. Ever since Easy Rider came along it seemed like every major film market had to throw together a motorcycle exploitation flick with just enough bikes, babes, and brawls to placate the masses. Actor Sandy Harbutt only made one film as a director, but Stone is one mean mother of a motion picture. Its plot about a square peg cop (Ken Shorter) going undercover in the outlaw biker gang the Grave Diggers to catch an assassin knocking their members off for reasons no one is quite clear on is standard by any definition, and yet what makes Stone a great movie is its commitment to authenticity and honest storytelling.
Harbutt – who also co-wrote the script and played the Grave Diggers’ leader Undertaker – isn’t afraid to show his bikers as more complex and introspective than they are usually portrayed in popular culture. They love living off the grid and pissing off the so-called civilized that dare look down on them. They’re human beings with pasts, hopes, and dreams. They’re fiercely loyal to their gang and will protect each other by any means necessary. More of a raw docudrama than a straight-up narrative feature, Stone isn’t concerned with its boilerplate plot. It’s raw, raunchy, funny, and shockingly brutal. As cold and hard as its title implies, Stone shames every wannabe biker flick made before and since. The real deal, accept no substitutes.
Oh, and it gets bonus points for featuring several actors who would go on to play memorable roles in the original Mad Max. Fifi, the Night Rider, and the Toecutter all play members of the Grave Diggers.
Stone is available for purchase on single and double disc DVD editions.
I wouldn’t call Truck Turner the greatest blaxploitation movie the genre ever produced, but it is my personal favorite simply because I always have great fun watching it. Star Issac Hayes would be forever associated with action flicks aimed primarily at black audiences of the time after recording the Oscar-winning theme to Shaft, the movie that signaled a sea change in how minority actors, actresses, and filmmakers were treated and perceived in the film industry. Hayes had practically no acting experience but his music made him a star on the international stage and that was good enough for famous B-movie factory American-International Pictures to install Mr. Hot Buttered Soul in the lead part of an L.A. bounty hunter going up against pimps, killers, and killer pimps in an all-out battle from the streets to the halls of a hospital.
Hayes’ severe deficiency in the acting department shows at times but his natural charisma and blunt force screen presence make up for that. Besides, director Jonathan Kaplan (who would later direct Jodie Foster to her first Oscar win in The Accused) backs up the Black Moses with a stellar supporting cast including character acting god Dick Miller (Gremlins) as a bail bondsman, Scatman Crothers (The Shining) as Truck’s pimp amigo Duke, Lt. Uhura herself Nichelle Nichols as a foul-mouthed madam who orders Truck’s death as revenge for his killing one of her best pimps, and Yaphet Kotto (Alien, Blue Collar) as the smooth-talking pimp who accepts the job. I’ve written the word “pimp” in those last two paragraphs more than any other time in my life. The movie was produced by the men who helped bring us the immortal kung fu action classic Enter the Dragon, and one of that film’s writers Michael Allin co-wrote the script with Oscar Williams (Black Belt Jones).
Truck Turner may lack in the departments of edginess and street-tough reality, but it more than compensates with pure entertainment value.
It may not be the defining Italian spaghetti western, but Keoma is one of the genre’s best and deserving of more love from fans than it has received. Enzo G. Castellari is now and forever one of the Boot’s finest directors of pure adrenaline-fueled celluloid entertainments; he made horror films, war movies, crime dramas, and post-apocalyptic actioners. His 1981 killer shark thriller Great White was blocked from ever being released in the U.S. thanks to a lawsuit brought on by Universal Pictures after the studio decided Castellari’s movie was highly derivative of their own blockbuster Jaws. And it was. It was also tons more fun to watch than any of their crappy Jaws sequels. When Castellari made a movie he didn’t just show up for work, get his time card punched, and then let his first assistant director take over the show while he napped in his trailer. He loves what he does and it always shows.
For Keoma Castellari cast original Django Franco Nero as a half-breed Civil War vet who battles his own step brothers and a vicious despot for the soul of a small town. There’s plenty of shoot-outs in the movie but the real fireworks on display comes in the form of the conflict between Keoma and his corrupt brethren. Olga Karlatos, whose most famous moment as an actress was getting a piece of wood shoved into her beautiful right eye in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, plays a woman Keoma saves from the clutches of his brothers’ boss, while Hollywood legend Woody Strode (Spartacus, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) is effective in his supporting role as an old friend of the hero. Guido and Maurizio De Angelis composed the score, including a haunting theme song that is the most memorable ever created for an Italian western. Castellari has said in the past that he considers Keoma his personal favorite of all the movies he has directed. It’s not hard to see why once you watch the movie for yourself.
Keoma is available for purchase on Blu-ray (with The Grand Duel) and DVD.
Massacre Mafia Style
Let us raise a 7-11 Big Gulp cup full of watered-down Chianti to the late Dominic Micelli – better known as Duke Mitchell – an obscure nightclub entertainer who rose halfway to prominence as one-half of a Martin and Lewis rip-off act that went nowhere. He later became known as the “King of Palm Springs” to no one but himself and decided to throw his hat into the ring of pumping out grungy, bloody gangland shoot ’em ups based on the first dollar gross receipts from The Godfather.
Though he made only two movies in his lifetime as a director – the first sat in his garage in rough cut form unreleased for decades – Mitchell left his mark on exploitation cinema before lung cancer claimed his life on December 2, 1981. Massacre Mafia Style (released on home video as The Executioner) was his magnum opus. Mitchell directed, wrote, produced, composed the music, and starred as Mimi, the son of an old school mob boss in exile who returns to the City of Angels and with his best pal Jolly Rizzo sets out to take over the city’s criminal underworld. This involves racking up a higher body count than in half of the Friday the 13th movies; in the first five minutes alone they stroll through an office building pumping bullets into anything that moves and electrocute a man confined to a wheelchair in a urinal. Lotsa blood, more Italian food than a full season of The Sopranos, and some of the most inappropriately awesome music ever heard in a movie. Think you can find a better Sicilian-flavored crime flick this hilarious and fun? Bah fongool!
Though Mitchell died long before his work as a director was accepted by fans of psychotronic cinema, those movies – including his long-unreleased debut Gone with the Pope – were championed by the late Sage Stallone of Grindhouse Releasing and may one day be released on Blu-ray and DVD.
Squeaky-voiced Linda Blair/Shawnee Smith lookalike Lace (Robbie Lee) is the leader of the all-girl gang Dagger Debs. They’re a tough bunch of young broads but they’re basically known as the arm candy for the all-male Silver Daggers. New girl in town Maggie (Joanne Nail) gets mixed in with the Debs and eventually becomes one of their most outspoken and forthright members. She earns Lace’s respect but also the suspicion of Lace’s second-in-command Patch (Monica Gayle). Sex, betrayal, predatory old lesbians, public displays of violence, miscarriages, goofy jokes, and battles to the death – that’s Switchblade Sisters.
I would compare this movie to a delicious multi-layered dessert cake. When you watch Switchblade Sisters (originally titled The Jezebels), one of the crowning achievements in the directing career of Jack Hill, you get a little bit of everything that is awesome in cinema. Primarily an antisocial girl gang flick – possibly the best in the genre – Switchblade changes gears almost every five minutes and kicks ass while doing so. It also has elements of women in prison movies, blaxploitation, teen comedy, sexploitation, ABC After School Specials, and beneath all of that a shrewd modern retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy of deceit and murder Othello. Every time I watch this movie I think I gain a little weight. Makes perfect sense now. Damn it, I love Switchblade Sisters.
Switchblade Sisters is available for purchase on DVD as a single disc and as part of a triple feature box set with Detroit 9000 and Mighty Peking Man.
The Inglorious Bastards
No, not that one. This one. The really fun one. Sure I have a lot of love for Tarantino’s WWII epic that borrowed the name (but not the correct spelling) and little else of this 1977 Italian production. Enzo G. Castellari – him again – delivered a terrific throwback to the macho Nazi-bashing propaganda flicks of the 1940’s that involves a group of escaped American military prisoners whose efforts to flee to Switzerland gets them back in the war in a big way. Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson play the toughest members of the team because they’re probably the biggest names in the cast, but for extra variety Castellari also throws in professional bad movie magnet Peter Hooten (Orca, the 1979 Dr. Strange CBS TV-movie) and Scottish character actor Ian Bannen (Waking Ned Divine) among the reluctant heroes taking on those dirty Nazis.
The Inglorious Bastards has not an ounce of fat on its bones. Svenson, Williamson, and their combat crew haven’t the time for mawkish sentimentality and brooding introspection. They’re out to put boot to throat on Uncle Adolf and his goose-steppin’ fun bunch. Castellari keeps the action coming at us so fast if you blink you might miss a good killing. You can’t take a second of this seriously since no one in the cast bothers to do so. In one scene Williamson caps a German soldier right before looking directly into the camera with a smile. Castellari’s bastards come across a group of lovely German lasses who bathe nude in a lake and don’t hesitate to blast Yanks with their heavy firepower while topless. The final extended action set piece involves a massive train crash and tons of Nazis getting shot and blown up in spectacular fashion. Castellari shoots some of the carnage in gleeful slow-motion and when the train crashes into a station at the end and explodes the director doesn’t make an effort to conceal the fact that it is actually a miniature set getting blasted. And you know what? That is awesome. These Bastards may be inglorious, but their movie is a square-jawed classic that’s so goddamn man-tastic it needs to shave every four hours.
Fun fact: when Xenon Video reissued Bastards on VHS in the ’90s they reedited the movie so that Williamson’s character was the lead and re-titled it G.I. Bro. The tagline – “If you’re a kraut, he’ll take you out!”
Inglorious Bastards is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
In 1970 Melvin Van Peebles had just finished his first studio feature as a director, the race relations satire Watermelon Man. Columbia Pictures was satisfied with the final product and its healthy box office and offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal. That’s when the young up-and-coming filmmaker got the idea to make a movie “about a brother getting the Man’s foot out of his ass”. Columbia didn’t like the idea and neither did any of the other major studios in Hollywood. What a shock. The elitist film industry that prides itself on making socially progressive features was more than happy to subjugate black actors, writers, and directors for years in the name of appeasing the bigoted status quo. Needless to say Van Peebles was going to have to make his pet project independently. At least that way he would have more creative freedom. But he had to pay more than money to get Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song on celluloid.
Van Peebles wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the title role of a sex show performer who kills two racist cops when he sees them beating up on a young black militant. He goes on the run (literally – a huge chunk of the movie is made up of shots of him running) to Mexico to avoid being captured by the vengeful authorities. Van Peebles shot the film on a shoestring, performing his own stunts and contracting gonorrhea after doing an non-simulated sex scene. He packed the supporting cast with amateur, unknown actors and credited them in the movie as “the Black Community”. After the budget ran out in post-production Van Peebles secured a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby the finish the film. Lacking the cash to hire a composer he wrote the music himself and an unknown band named Earth, Wind, and Fire performed the songs as a Greek chorus. In the movie’s main theme they cheer on Sweetback with the empowering chant “You bled my Mama. You bled my Papa. But you won’t bleed me.”
Sweet Sweetback is often unfairly labeled the first blaxploitation film. Its surprise box office success – supported heavily by the Black Panther Party – definitely signaled to the major studios that there was a market for violent films appealing to black audiences, but Van Peebles’ intention was to inspire future filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, Carl Franklin, and most recent Ryan Coogler to make their own mark on cinema history. There needed to be more films that portrayed the reality that was black America – not the media-sanitized version – and allowed the untapped potential of minority actors and filmmakers to flourish and evolve rather than be ignored and vilified. Van Peebles’ film is far from a masterpiece, but it endures as a timeless work of cinematic art that shows what a real filmmaker could do when working at the top of his game and without the interference of the suits. One of the defining independent movies of the 20th century, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a loving kick to the teeth. “Rated X by an all-white jury” the theatrical advertising campaign proudly announced, it is truly badass. And yes, it is the movie that inspired the name I post under here at Geeks of Doom.
42nd Street Pete sez
Sweet Sweetback’ Baadassss Song ushered in the era of Blaxploitation Films. Director Melvin Van Peebles couldn’t find a distributor because of the film’s inflammatory content, so Melvin approached exploitation czar, Jerry Gross, who’s company was, at this point, floundering. Melvin wanted a million and a deal was cut . That saved Gross’s company and blaxploitation type films had about a ten year run in the 70s. Not a film you would want to watch if you were the only white guy in the grindhouse. A true classic.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is available for purchase on DVD.
Master of the Flying Guillotine
There were many contenders for the throne of the greatest Chinese martial arts movie star in the wake of Bruce Lee’s unexpected death. Few were as talented but also loathsome (if the cast and crew of the Australian action gem The Man from Hong Kong are to be believed, and I would never doubt the Aussies) as Jimmy Wang Yu. An extremely skilled fighter with a dynamic screen presence, Yu was best known for playing the One-Armed Boxer in a 1971 movie of the same name. But it was outclassed and outdone by the 1976 sequel Master of the Flying Guillotine, which upped the stakes from the previous movie by having Yu’s character not only compete in a martial arts tournament but also face the vengeance-seeking master of two fighters he had killed in One Armed Boxer. This is the master of the movie’s title, the one who wields a weapon of unparalleled deadliness – the flying guillotine, a contraption designed to look like a hat that conceals a bladed rim capable of lopping the head off of whatever poor sucker it lands on.
The fight scenes, featuring a wide variety of fighting styles and crazy characters, are well-staged and incredibly cool. Flying Guillotine is pretty much a martial arts arcade game brought to bold, bloody life. Yu also wrote and directed the movie and supplemented the score by Frankie Chan with music by German electronic rock bands like Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream. Between the cheap schlock of Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave and the magisterial power and grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon lies Yu’s wicked little ass-kicker.
42nd Street Pete sez
As much as I’m not the greatest fan of martial arts movies, ya gotta love a film that has a device that decapitates people. One of the more outrageous offerings at the theater that had 3 different Kung Fu films every week. The predominatly black crowd popped huge every time a head got ripped off.
Master of the Flying Guillotine is available for purchase on DVD.
Day of the Animals
Forever bless the soul of the late William Girdler. He wrote and directed some of the finest exploitation movies of the 1970’s, including the Pam Grier vehicle Sheba, Baby and a pair of the best Jaws rip-offs in Grizzly and Day of the Animals. Day is the best of the bunch by virtue of the fact that it is completely out of its mind. Jaws had a killer shark, Grizzly had a killer bear, but Day of the Animals sicced an entire murderous animal kingdom on a group of hikers trapped on a mountain with dwindling supplies. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the adorable creatures of God’s domain have been driven to attack by the continued dissolution of the ozone layer. Christopher George, that rugged manly man of TV war shows and John Wayne westerns, plays the mountain guide leading the hikers on a idyllic trip that quickly becomes a savage nightmare for his charges and smashing entertainment for the audience.
Day of the Animals promises cheap, dirty thrills and it delivers in spades. Nothing can ever quite the top the scene where none other than Leslie Nielsen‘s asshole ad exec rips his shirt off, attempts to rape a terrified woman, and then decides to wrestle a bear. But watching Susan Backlinie (the first victim in Jaws oddly enough) plummeting to her death against a poorly rendered bluescreen backdrop is too hilarious for mere words. Dirty Harry composer Lalo Schifrin was responsible for the menacing music score. George’s gorgeous spouse Lynda Day George plays the female lead alongside a supporting cast that includes the late Ruth Roman (Strangers on a Train), Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), and Michael Ansara – the latter of whom also played an important role in Girdler’s genre-defying classic The Manitou. Few movies can live up to their absurd premise with such intense flourish as Day of the Animals. All hail its greatness.
42nd Street Pete sez
William Girdler’s Grizzly was a huge hit, so why not make another film with a whole bunch of animals on a rampage? So when the ozone layer or whatever breaking down, it causes animals to attack humans. It also drove Leslie Nielsen crazy enough to fight a bear in a pivotal scene. A big hit with the grindhouse crowd as it was pair with, what else, Grizzly.
Day of the Animals is available for purchase on DVD. Scorpion Releasing currently has a Blu-ray release in the works for later this year.
Bay of Blood
The original “body count” movie. Mario Bava, the master of Italian horror, never shied from going a little graphic in his earlier films Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and Baron Blood when the occasion called for a little extra blood or nudity. For his 1971 movie Bay of Blood the maestro delivered the most violent work of his entire career. Bay helped establish the template for the American slasher horror movie that would also receive contributions from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Stylish as the giallos of that period in Italian filmmaking but with a higher casualty list than most of its brethren, Bay of Blood became notorious for its increasingly gruesome death scenes. People were strangled, stabbed, decapitated, and had their throats from ear to ear. The crowning touch was the scene where two young lovers are run through with a spear while in the midst of naked rutting. Friday the 13th Part II tried the same thing a decade later but the cowardly MPAA insisted the scene get slashed until the moment died on screen. How’s that for irony? Bava did it first and did it best.
The gory effects were provided by the late Carlo Rambaldi. You might remember him best as the creator of E.T. Stelvio Cipriani, one of the great Italian film composers, was responsible for the music score that’s both alluring and menacing at its best. What set Bava’s film apart from its bloody, brainless ilk was its delightfully nasty streak of black comedy. Watching an unlikable group of greedy scumbags get chopped and diced into chunks of human sushi has rarely been this amusing.
42nd Street Pete sez Bay of Blood made the rounds with Mark of the Devil Part Two. It was a great double bill , but then it was called Twitch of the Death Nerve. It did the rounds of the Drive In & Grindhouse Circuit. It was released to Home Video as Bay of Blood. The film was a set piece for a series of violent murders, most which were stolen & incorporated in the Friday the 13th films. It packed them in at the old Liberty Theater on 42nd Street.
Bay of Blood is available for purchase on Region B Blu-ray from Arrow Video and Region 1 DVD as part of Anchor Bay Entertainment’s Mario Bava Collection: Volume Two box set. Individual U.S. DVD and Blu-ray releases are scheduled for later this year from Kino Lorber.
Roger Corman, the king of the B’s, had nothing to do with making the original Alien. But he was probably the only person who wasn’t involved in that smash hit sci-fi standard-setter who benefited the most from its box office success. Just as he had given the green light to every cheapo outer space adventure he could get his cost-cutting hands on in the wake of Star Wars Corman looked at the reviews and profits Alien was reaping and saw the future of his indie film studio New World Pictures. First there was 1981’s Galaxy of Terror, the slow-paced but gory and fun horror flick that employed the talents behind the camera of a young James Cameron and several of the special effects geniuses who would later go on – ironically enough, to create the spectacular effects for Cameron’s blockbuster sequel Aliens. The following year brought another Corman-produced Alien clone in Forbidden World, a much more entertaining and pleasurable viewing experience.
Allan Holzman made his debut as a director on Forbidden; he got the job when he convinced Corman to let him shoot a sequence that could be used as the opening to a space movie utilizing pre-existing sets and effects footage from movies like Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond the Stars. Armed with a script co-written by future B-filmmaker Jim Wynorski (Not of This Earth, Chopping Mall) Holzman whipped up an efficient little yarn with Jesse Vint (Macon County Line) as an intergalactic hot shot summoned to a scientific research station on a remote uninhabited planet that is having a serious problem with a mutating monstrosity designed to be the solution to severe food shortages. Naturally it grows to be a gigantic beast with a hunger for killing anything and anyone in its path, a path lined with walls created out of discarded fast food containers. Forbidden World might have a few echoes of Alien in its plot and setting, but I prefer to think of it as a loose remake of The Thing from Another World meets Heavy Metal, with Vint’s character bearing a few resemblances to Metal‘s no-B.S.-taking Lothario taxi driver Harry Canyon.
The cast also includes June Chadwick (V, This is Spinal Tap), Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff), Dawn Dunlap (Barbarian Queen), and Repo Man‘s Fox Harris as a sweaty, slightly nutso scientist who has a unique solution for destroying the beast. Susan Justin‘s soundtrack is sweet star-spanning electronica bliss. Oh and both Chadwick and Dunlap, who are both very beautiful ladies, get fully nude several times. They even get to shower together.
I just gave you all the reason you need to see Forbidden World. Now get out of my sight, and don’t forget to read the rest of this article.
42nd Street Pete sez
Another Corman cheapie supposedly filmed on left over sets from another film. A lot more violent & bloody than Sci fi fans were used to. A flesh eating alien monster, bodacious babes, oozing slime , gore and touches of black humor, what’s not to like. Fans lost their shit when a scientists cancerous liver is cut out and fed to the monster in a key scene. A favorite of the late, great Chas Balun.
Forbidden World is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture (a.k.a They Call Her One Eye)
For years it was known only in the U.S. by its heavily edited incarnation They Call Her One Eye (“then ran for their lives!” as the infamous Ernie Anderson-narrated American release trailer trumpeted) and the fact that its eyepatched-heroine inspired the look of Daryl Hannah’s vicious Kill Bill villain. In September 2004 cult film connoisseurs got their first chance to see the complete and uncut original version of the savage Swedish exploitation revenge epic Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Director Bo Arne Vibenius (under the pseudonym Alex Fridolinski) cast demure international sex icon Christina Lindberg as a young woman kidnapped and forced into prostitution and drug addiction by a sadistic pimp. Obviously she’s not going to spend the entire movie as a helpless sex slave, so once she starts using her meager funds to train in hand-to-hand combat and weaponry you know some seriously violent shit is about to go down.
And oh does it ever go down. Vibenius shoots most of the action in languid slow motion, making us experience every gun shot and cry of pain as if we were trapped in a violent daydream. Couple that with an unnerving sound design and you have a movie that doesn’t make the act of double-barreled retribution the most exciting adventure. The director spiced up his original cut with hardcore pornography inserts during the scenes where Lindberg’s character has to satisfy her many depraved clientel in order to take advantage of the loosened-up attitudes towards porn in Sweden at the time. None of those salacious beats made it into the They Call Her One Eye cut, but Synapse Films made sure to make their inclusion on their Thriller DVD a major selling point. One of the ultimate revenge movies, starring one of the most beautiful faces ever to grace the silver screen, and there’s a few money shots to top it all off.
42nd Street Pete sez
It played on the “Deuce” as They Call Her One Eye, it was pushed as a female version of Death Wish. It wasn’t. Aside from the eye removal & the nudity, it moved too slow to satisfy the jaded grindhouse patron. When I saw it, patrons threw crap at the screen during the slo mo death scenes.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture is available for purchase on DVD in uncut and R-rated editions.
There you go, ladies and germs. My personal favorite of the best of B-cinema to ever grace theater screens and video store shelves. If you have never seen any of these titles, then the Amazon links I provided should remedy that shortcoming but good.
Special thanks goes out to 42nd Street Pete for granting my uncultured ramblings a smidgen of legitimacy with his own fond remembrances of an important era of moviegoing that people are just now beginning to appreciate. Pete has written a book that is currently in the editing stages. Meanwhile you can listen to his radio show Short & Sweet with 42nd Street Pete every Friday night at 8pm EST on Jackalope Radio and purchases from his line of DVDs available from After Hours Cinema. He also has his own really sweet magazine called Grindhouse Purgatory and you can order copies from Pete personally by contacting him at his Facebook page.
See you at the movies dear readers, but don’t forget to keep your money in your shoe.