As a filmmaker, Herschell Gordon Lewis was a businessman above all else, and his movie career was spent either chasing or creating trends. But the one trend that he is directly responsible for -- the splatter film, where Grand Guignol theater is translated to the screen for the sole purpose of allowing the viewer to ogle the dripping viscera of the human body -- has endured, inspiring an entire new genre of film and breaking down the barriers of what is allowable in onscreen violence. All of Lewis' artistic choices were made for strictly mercenary reasons, and retaining a competitive edge over Hollywood was prime consideration. In simply showing more onscreen than other filmmakers would dare, Lewis inadvertently created a monster that still stomps messily among us and influenced American culture (popular and otherwise) forever.
His film career began one day when he was complaining to an associate at his ad agency that the only way to make real money in the business was to shoot features. When the man asked why he just didn't make one, Lewis realized he didn't have an answer, and the seeds for The Prime Time were sown. Lewis produced but did not direct this inaugural project, a mildly sleazy melange of juvenile delinquency and beatnik jive, and his experiences with the film encouraged him to take the reins of further productions. He was dismayed by what he considered to be unnecessary wasting of time and resources while the picture was made, and he was determined to trim every financial corner in hopes of larger profits. He debuted as a director with Living Venus, notable primarily for introducing Harvey Korman in his first feature film role.
Around this time he went into partnership with David F. Friedman, an ex-carny and road show man who had the background and instincts to help exploit Lewis' films to their utmost potential. They wasted no time in jumping into the nudie film business, producing low-budget product for display at striptease clubs. The Adventures of Lucky Pierre cost only $7,500 to make and was a hit, a silly burlesque-style rip-off of Russ Meyer's The Immoral Mr. Teas. The pair then turned to nudist colony films, one of the few ways that filmmakers could legitimately show skin in those stringent times. Their films were successful enough, but both Lewis and Friedman were hungry for something that could separate them from the rest of the pack. While watching a gangster film one night on television, Lewis noticed that a character's bullet-riddled body barely bled, and a brainstorming session with Friedman led to a whole new genre of film.
While blood had been shown onscreen before in other non-Hollywood productions, no one had devised a film that would focus directly on the carnage, with scene after scene of graphic, stomach-churning mayhem as the sole point of the show. The gimmick was something that might give the filmmakers an edge over their competition. After wrapping up their nudist colony epic Bell, Bare and Beautiful, the two were inspired by the Egyptian facade of the hotel they were staying at and developed a script on the spot about a sinister caterer who collects body parts for use at a feast designed to raise an ancient Egyptian goddess from the dead. Blood Feast was completed in two days and was a hit in 1963, filling drive-ins and outraging decent citizens. Lewis and Friedman had found their cash cow and were determined to milk it.
They would continue down the exploitation path with 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red, Alley Tramp, Monster a Go-Go!, Sin, Suffer and Repent, and Moonshine Mountain, and even tried his hand at two children's films: Jimmy, the Boy Wonder and The Magic Land of Mother Goose. Lewis explored a number of exploitation subjects in the latter half of the 1960s, usually following proven trends in an effort to strike while the iron was hot. She-Devils on Wheels arrived early in the popular surge of motorcycle action dramas, while Blast Off Girls was a belated attempt to exploit rock & roll. Suburban Roulette was an uncharacteristically tame story of wife swapping, and Something Weird's plot included LSD use along with witchcraft and extra sensory perception.
While Lewis may have been playing the field, he hadn't given up on the gore genre completely. The bizarre horror comedy The Gruesome Twosome arrived in 1967, as did his lengthy vampire epic A Taste of Blood. But his final two horror features helped cement his legacy as the creator of gore films with an enthusiastic exclamation point. 1970's The Wizard of Gore is a surrealistic, confounding tale of a mysterious magician who uses sleight of hand and mind control to physically tear his victims limb from limb. Even more grotesque, though, was The Gore Gore Girls (1972), a jaw-droppingly tasteless nudie-horror-comedy that found Lewis outdoing every outrage he had ever perpetrated on the audience. While the effects remained as cheap as ever, the audacious brutality and mutilations (set against corny humor and an inappropriately jolly musical score) earned The Gore Gore Girls the first X rating given solely for violence.
The film turned out to be the voluntary end of Lewis' movie career. He had kept his advertising agency throughout his filmmaking years and it was flourishing, as was his expertise with copywriting. Finding it harder to outdo his fellow exploiteers as well as the more liberal Hollywood features of the time, he gave up the grind and went on to a very successful career in direct mail marketing and copywriting; indeed, the instructional tomes he's produced on the subjects are considered essential reading for many professionals. Lewis ended up losing the rights to his films after putting them up as collateral for a car rental business venture that failed. He didn't mourn, thinking that they weren't worth much, but when home video exploded in the 1980s, Blood Feast found a whole new bloodthirsty audience, and as the years have progressed, Lewis' films are more popular than ever. After years of musing over returning to the slasher genre he created, Lewis finally began production for Blood Feast 2 in 2001; the film was released the following year.
Herschell Gordon Lewis never regarded himself as a great filmmaker, and it wasn't false modesty on his part that prevented him from making such a claim. His interest in a motion picture career was predicated solely on making money, something that he has always cheerfully admitted. Whether or not he succeeded to the extent that he desired is only for him to decide, but one thing is for certain, his work opened up avenues for a legion of hucksters and con artists to make millions off the cruel desires and tasteless urges of audiences. Lewis died in 2016, at age 87.