In a 1987 archival interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis on Arrow Video's latest release of Blood Feast, the "Godfather of Gore" defines “exploitation” in one sentence. He says it is the "technique of substituting wits for dollars." The way he further discusses reading the minds of his potential audience, I'll give a further spin on the definition. Exploitation is a form of guerilla marketing, making and promoting films in an unconventional way with little budget to spend.
Lewis indirectly qualifies his definition with a comment in another special feature of the dual format disc, How Herschell Found His Niche. "You've got to appeal to somebody. Even if it's the dregs of society, that's at least a group of people." Putting two and two together, Herschell Gordon Lewis was able to uncannily predict a demand for "splatter movies," of which Blood Feast was the first, and then create a supply of product to meet that demand…inexpensively.
Following his work in "nudie cuties," erotic feature films which contain female nudity, Lewis collaborated with producer David F. Friedman to create a new subgenre. They were able to enter the lucrative drive-in theater market with horror, which they could not do with their nudies. The filmmakers learned that 70 minutes was the magical running time to land one of their movies in the first spot of a double feature.
On the commentary track with Lewis, Friedman and Mike Grady from Something Weird Video, Lewis comments that they didn't want to keep making movies in what was becoming a crowded field. They asked themselves, "What would major companies not make?" Watch Blood Feast (1963) and you'll quickly learn the answer. Even low class movies can have high class impact. There's no doubt Herschell Gordon Lewis was a pioneer in the horror genre.
At risk of losing all cred, I will admit that this was the first time I'd ever watched Blood Feast. It must have been shocking to audiences when it was first released, and even more so as its reputation grew. I've seen far worse by now, so my first impression was to treat it as a cartoon. With its vibrant colors, especially red, and over-the-top killer with garish makeup used to advance the actor's age, it's surreal at the least. While it may be cartoonish, it's not funny…
Well, I mean, it's not intentionally funny. Over the years, as horror hounds became more desensitized to violence on the screen, I believe the conversation became more about the low budget qualities of the movie. Going into it, I was better prepared for a "bad" movie than for a gory one. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Blood Feast does indeed have a story. It's simple, yes, but not atypical for horror films of any mark on the graphic scale.
In this type of movie, the identity or motivation of the killer is not a mystery. Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) is a caterer who's murdering young women and harvesting their body parts for a ceremony that will bring to life ancient Egyptian princess, Ishtar. Conveniently, Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) hires Ramses to prepare a "special" dinner for her daughter, Suzette (Connie Mason), which falls perfectly on the calendar for resurrecting Ishtar.
Coincidentally, Suzette is interested in "Ancient Weird Religious Rites," a book sold by Ramses, and she attends a lecture at which the speaker explains the very plot in which she is embroiled. All right, we shouldn't expect her to guess who's coming to dinner on party night, but you'd think Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin)… who also attends the lecture… who is also dating Suzette… might. Nope, Pete's a bit of a dimwit.
This is the story structure on which the gory details hang. To fully appreciate the part they play in Blood Feast, try removing them. With no elaborate murder and mutilation scenes, you'd have only this story. Is it enough for a movie, even at only 67 minutes? Yes and no. It's enough for a movie with style and finesse. But it's not enough for a movie directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. The gore is his style and there's absolutely no finesse in the delivery.
What's interesting about the gore, and what you may not remember, is that we never see actual violence being inflicted. We see only its aftermath. So if Ramses is sawing off a leg or pulling out a tongue, we see only his back and his arms moving. Then we see his handiwork... loooong shots of his handiwork. The camera rests in one place for uncomfortable lengths of time, or else pans slowly across a landscape littered with mounds of pink and red flesh and blood.
The gore isn't realistic enough (that I know of) to be truly terrifying. However, Lewis is able to stimulate the imagination just enough that it's unsettling. The aforementioned tongue scene, while outrageous, does a particularly effective job of depicting, not the tongue itself, but the victim turning her head to the side while all kinds of liquids bubble out of her mouth. In other scenes, the body parts may look believable, but the body wounds do not.
In Blood Perspectives, an 11-minute special feature with Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher, Ascher states that Lewis's movies plays as "as accidental documentaries" or time capsules. "Between the cracks of the stories, there’s all this other stuff." McCarthy elaborates that they're a "real world record of someone who isn’t a Hollywood director using real people who aren’t actors."
I agree with that assessment and will add that Blood Feast is also important in the real world evolution of the horror movie. I don't necessarily want to say that I liked it, but I didn't dislike it. In either case, I consider it necessary viewing. I've heard people say they won't watch it because they don't like all the gore. If you've seen it, you're qualified to make that assessment. But if you haven't seen it, give it a try. It might not be exactly what you think it is.
I won't say the same thing about Scum of the Earth (1963), the feature that accompanies Blood Feast on the Blu-ray. Between their nudie cuties and gorefests, Lewis and Friedman made one of the first "roughies," a subgenre of the sexploitation movie which added male violence against women, including kidnapping, rape and murder. I'd rather meet someone who admires the cartoonish violence of Blood Feast than the distasteful subject matter of Scum of the Earth.
I suppose it could also be considered a time capsule and is probably a more authentic portrayal of a seamy underbelly of society; however, it's worse because it depicts underage women as the innocent victims of blackmail and violence. Low budgets, bad acting and sensational subject matter are common in both movies. They're just more forgivable in the fantasy world of gore where they merely look nasty, than they are in "true" drama where they are nasty.
Note: From what I can tell, this disc was previously included as part of The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, a 14-film retrospective released last year. The set carries a retail price of over $150, so the single Blu-ray is a more inexpensive way to own a couple pieces of cinematic history. Plus, Arrow always does it right; Blood Feast looks as good as it can possibly look.
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD presentations
Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Scum of the Earth - Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1963 feature
Blood Perspectives - Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher on Blood Feast
Herschell's History - Archival interview in which director Herschell Gordon Lewis discusses his entry into the film industry
How Herschell Found his Niche - A new interview with Lewis discussing his early work
Archival interview with Lewis and David F. Friedman
Carving Magic - Vintage short film from 1959 featuring Blood Feast Actor Bill Kerwin
Alternate 'clean' scenes from Scum of the Earth
Promo gallery featuring trailers and more
Feature length commentary featuring Lewis and David F. Friedman moderated by Mike -Grady
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil