They Don't Cut The Grass Anymore (DVD)
Ever since Andy Warhol dominated the New York art scene, the city's aesthetes have grappled with when it's okay to abandon craft, ignore good taste, and just riff on pop junk. By the late '70s and early '80s, it could be hard to sort out what was art and what was exploitation. Into that atmosphere stepped Nathan Schiff, a Long Island teenager who in 1979 shot a grisly 8mm gross-out exercise titled Weasels Rip My Flesh. (Yes, the title is stolen from Frank Zappa; no, nothing else about the movie is.) Weasels is a study in low-budget ingenuity, a well-put-together Z-movie homage about a radioactive rodent that savages a suburban neighborhood, with said savagery represented by rapidly assembled images of neon-colored goop, hunks of discolored meat, out-of-focus color smears, and abstract stop-motion. It's all just generally gross, and after Schiff drew notices in the local media for a sold-out screening at his high school, he brought back his principal cast (neighborhood chums Fred Borges and John Smihula) for 1980's Long Island Cannibal Massacre, which involves a semi-metaphorical subculture of bloodsucking suburbanites, but is mostly about actors holding real chainsaws against each other's real bodies. Their flesh is protected by clothing packed with bloody deli meat, but the climactic scene is still tense, just as the draggy vignettes preceding each dismemberment are enjoyable for their home-movie-like depiction of decadent suburban living. Over the next couple of years, Schiff began getting offers to show his movies on New York's underground-cinema circuit, and he catered to his new audience with They Don't Cut The Grass Anymore, about two Texas gardeners who come north to butcher yuppies in extended, riotously gory setpieces. The cultural commentary isn't exactly potent, but the glee with which Schiff and his friends play it out makes the movie more enjoyable than some of the era's slicker horror movies. All three films are now on DVD with Schiff commentary tracks and interviews with him and his collaborators, along with a collection of goofy early shorts. Strung together, the special features tell a story of entrepreneurship that's almost more compelling than the main features. But the features shouldn't be shrugged off: They're too tawdry to qualify as real art, but in many ways, they're more sincere. Schiff was a low-rent but high-spirited mixture of John Waters, Ed Wood, and Herschell Gordon Lewis, and his work was self-aware without being smarmy. His gore trilogy takes place in a "bedroom community" wilderness on the fringe of commercial development and far removed from metropolitan sophistication, a place where artistic endeavors are consigned to basements, garages, and backyards, where only shock can alleviate the boredom.