Herschell Gordon Lewis may not be one of the two greatest filmmakers of all time, as fan John Waters once claimed, but he's undoubtedly one of American low-budget cinema's most colorful and notorious figures. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School Of Journalism, Lewis dabbled in academia after his graduation, but later left to work in advertising in Chicago. His advertising work eventually led to his participation in several hastily assembled exploitation films, including Living Venus and The Adventures Of Lucky Pierre, but he didn't find his niche until 1963's Blood Feast, which is widely considered to be the first splatter movie. Blood Feast was a huge hit, breaking new ground for onscreen gore and bloodshed and leading to a string of bizarre low-budget films with telltale titles like Moonshine Mountain, Alley Tramp, She-Devils On Wheels, and Monster A-Go Go. After directing 36 films under several pseudonyms between 1960 and 1972, Lewis left film to concentrate on his enormously successful career in advertising. He recently returned to film for the forthcoming Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, his first directorial effort in 30 years. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Lewis about gore, the sometimes-negligible quality of his work, and the unusual path his career has taken.
The Onion: Let's start at the beginning, with college.
Herschell Gordon Lewis: I went to Northwestern for 215 years and was a starving student, as everyone has been at one time or another. I was living in Chicago and the campus was in Evanston, and on days when I could hitchhike and save the 35 cents that the el cost, I felt a tremendous sense of achievement. I would stand out there by a stoplight with an armload of books looking sad, and every once in a while, someone would pick me up.
O: What made you decide not to go into journalism?
HGL: I didn't get any offers. One goes where the good Lord sends us. Some people are born journalists, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them. Having been responsible for many millions of written words, I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I had, but who knew in advance? The crystal ball is very cloudy sometimes.
O: What led you to start filming commercials?
HGL: A fellow I'd gone to school with owned an advertising agency in Chicago, and he came flying down in a private plane to recruit me to be his television director. He said he was about to pick up a major television account, and he needed me. As it turned out, he didn't get the account, but he had a handful of small accounts, and we were shooting them in a little film studio in Chicago called Alexander And Associates. Typical of this deal, the owner was a man named Martin Schmidhofer, and while we were equal partners, the company was called Alexander And Associates, even though Alexander had left the company. Martin was a terrific technician, but he had no business sense at all. So I bought a half-interest in the studio and we changed the name to "Lewis And Martin Films," because "Lewis And Schmidhofer" wouldn't have fit on the building. We only had 16mm film, and the studio wasn't doing much business, so to keep body and soul together, I got a job writing for the Morlock advertising agency in Chicago, an ancient direct-mail marketing agency. Eventually, Marty moved to Florida and just said, "Here, you take it." So here I am with this film studio and a deal I didn't relish. One day, I was complaining about my business and somebody said to me, "Well, how do you make any money in your line of work?" I said that the only real way to make money was to make features. So, in a moment of madness, I put together a company called Mid-Continent Films, and every friend I had invested in it, but I was the biggest investor. We made two movies, which are loaded with mistakes. During the first movie, Prime Time, I just listened to too many people, and I became producer and I hired a director, and we shot it at Fred Niles Studio in Chicago, which was a big mistake. It cost far more than it should have, and it was kind of useless, which I realized even as we were making it.
O: What was the film about?
HGL: A young coming-of-age type of thing with a young girl and a young guy and… it made no sense. But that's where I met [legendary exploitation producer] David Friedman. We made a deal with the distributor, who had a company called Modern Film Distributors. He was going to distribute the film, and Dave Friedman was his assistant. After we shot Prime Time, Mid-Continent shot a second movie—and by that time I was like the wedding guest in The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, I was older but wiser—called Living Venus, about the rise and fall of a Hugh Hefner type, and I directed. I will tell you, without ego, that there is no comparison between the two pictures.
O: Did you begin thinking of yourself as a filmmaker at that time?
HGL: Not at all. I just thought that maybe that was the way I could get something going. It was a commercial enterprise, as far as I was concerned, and that attitude hasn't changed over the years. Well, lo and behold, Living Venus had a fairly good start, but then Modern Film Distributors went bust, owing Mid-Continent a ton of money. Suddenly, I had neither friends nor money. I had sold my film studio to raise money for Mid-Continent, so it was like the O. Henry story [The Gift Of The Magi] where the woman sells her hair and the guy buys her a comb. So I got a job as the staff director of an old company, The United Film And Recording Company. I was shooting TV spots whenever I could get them, and it was really not a good time. The breakthrough came when one day Dave Friedman showed up, and he was at loose ends, too. Dave said to me, "Al Sack"—who was a venerable film distributor in Dallas—"says that if we can make a one-reel movie of cute girls running around in the sun, he will give us $7,000." We were like, "Seven thousand dollars!" It was a fortune. Here's the way I looked at it. First of all, United Film Studio had an old Mitchell camera that basically belonged in the Smithsonian Institution, but it worked. The Mitchell is like a Rolls Royce; it never wears out. And, of course, I could run the camera, which is what I was doing anyway. I felt I could cut the film, and I felt like if we were going to shoot outdoors, all I'd need was maybe one reflector, you know, not even a light. All we would need was a couple of girls, and Dave said he could handle that. I figured our whole cost would be $2,000, so then we could split the other $5,000. Terrific. So that was the deal I agreed to do, and I agreed to do the score and have a musical background, because United Film had a piano, an organ, and a celeste. And it struck me that that was a good way to make money. Ancient Greek drama has a device called deus ex machina, and whenever a Greek playwright would write himself into a corner, a god would come lowering himself down in a basket and give some edicts, and that would solve the plotline. Well, my deus ex machina was a guy named Jack Curtin, from a film laboratory. He dropped into United Film and said, "Hey, what are you working on?" He knew that I had done a couple of features, and he knew what had happened to them. So I said, "Hey, I've got a deal for a one-reeler in color. Do you want to handle it?" And he said, "What are you talking about, a one-reeler?" I said, "Well, that's the deal." He said, "Look, you want a deal, I'll make you a deal. If you will make a full-length picture, 70 minutes, I'll make sure that no lab bills are due until 90 days after we get the answer print." I couldn't believe it. A full-length feature on those terms was just irresistible. That's when we made The Adventures Of Lucky Pierre, which was the first movie of its type to be shot in 35mm color. Russ Meyer had shot a couple, but he shot them in 16mm, and they'd be blown up, and it was grainy. So we shot this picture in four days, and it was in October, and the girls were freezing, and it was primitive as can be, and we only bought 8,000 feet of film for a movie that would have to be 6,300 feet long. We used everything. There was one girl, I told her to stretch, but she thought I meant scratch, so she started scratching. Well, we left it in. There was a fellow named Tom Dowd who owned a theater called the Capri and who was a friend of Dave Friedman, and he agreed to play Lucky Pierre at his theater. We gave him the answer print, and believe me, it was crapola. But he ran that thing for nine weeks, and it made more money than Prime Time and Living Venus put together. We paid off the laboratory, we made 10 more prints, and we were solidly in business. At that point, we agreed to start shooting a couple of movies. We came down to Florida and began to shoot cheap stuff. One was called Daughter Of The Sun. And looking back at them, they're laughable, but they were playable. I had an old Volkswagen bus crammed with obsolete equipment, but it could go anywhere. And when I say old, I mean to get into reverse, you had to get under it and shift the bars with your hands. So we developed a reputation, Dave and me, for shooting movies on the cheap. I was usually the director and cameraman, Dave was the producer and soundman, and we would pick up a couple of grunts wherever we'd go. So we'd do these little movies for other people. Tom Dowd, for example, who one day said to himself, "Why should I pay this kind of money for a film rental when I can just make my own movies?" Well, the deus ex machina of this story was, I was down in Miami, and we were shooting a movie for these two guys, and I said, "Why don't we make a movie for ourselves?" I didn't want to make another of those types of films. Everybody and his brother was making those cute-girl movies.
O: Would they have nudity, or would they just be women in bikinis?
HGL: They had bare breasts and that kind of thing, but it was all rather harmless. It would probably get a PG these days, but at that time, they were considered rather daring, and they were specialty pictures. I said, "What other kind of movie is there that the major companies either will not make or cannot make?" We were staying at a little hotel on the North Beach called The Suez. And the Suez Motel, outside, has a cement sphinx. Well, a sphinx is a sphinx. I've been to Gaza and Egypt, and what the heck, you look up at the sky and it's a sphinx. We were looking for a movie theme, and I said, "Wait a minute!" On an off night, we had gone to see an old gangster movie with Edward G. Robinson or somebody, and the police shot him full of bullet holes, and he died peacefully, with his eyes closed, with a little spot on his shirt. That's when I had my "Eureka!" moment. I said, "Wait a minute, what if…"—and out leaped that wonderful four-letter word, gore—"we make a movie that no one has ever made before? What if we make a movie where people die with their eyes open?" And here was this sphinx. The pieces came together, so we came up with the idea for Blood Feast, about this Egyptian caterer. Now, why was he an Egyptian caterer? Because of the sphinx. So I figure, in for a penny, in for a pound. We went all-out, or what was all-out at that time, because nobody had ever done that before. Nobody had ever had blood gushing. We went down to a little cosmetics laboratory in Coral Gables, because in Living Venus, I'd had an angry father hit this guy in the mouth and the stage blood was purple! I said, "Gee, that won't work." So off we went to make our own stage blood, and it looked like blood. If you had a transfusion with it, you'd probably die, but you wouldn't know the difference. We bought a couple of gallons. In fact, I think they're still selling it to this day. So we went and made Blood Feast, which was undoubtedly a watershed picture. We shot it very quickly, because we didn't want to risk anything. We intended it as a specialty film that we might show on Halloween, that type of limited showing, to be euphemistic. As we were cutting this movie in my little cutting room in Chicago, I thought to myself, "Oh, what have I done?" People would come in and look at it, and they just couldn't watch it, and it wasn't just because it was a work print with grease marks all over it. I said, "What the hell are we going to do with this movie?" So we made a deal with a rather unpleasant man named Stanford Kohlberg, who owned a bunch of drive-ins, to open this movie at his drive-in in Peoria.
O: That way you could tell, literally, whether it would play in Peoria.
HGL: That was the idea. I figured, "If it dies in Peoria, who the hell will know?" We put together an outrageous campaign—again, the first of its kind. The basis of that campaign was "nothing so appalling in the annals of film," and we had blood dripping out of the poster. As a matter of fact, once we got rolling with it, some of the newspapers rejected our ads, and we had to tone them down. So we opened on Friday, and we weren't going to go down there. I just didn't want to see it. But Saturday, we couldn't stand it, so we loaded up our wives and headed down to Peoria, and about a mile from the theater there's this big pile-up of cars. And I think, "Oh, great, that's just what we need, an accident along the way." We were the accident. In one day, the word of mouth had spread like the plague. When we got to the theater, they didn't want to let us in, but we explained who we were. So there we were, watching these beat-up old cars drive in with four people in the car and two in the trunk. We put together a campaign that had vomit bags, and printed on them was, "You may need this when you see Blood Feast." I went to some film festival recently where they were selling them for $25. Once we made Blood Feast and it had proved itself, I said to Dave, "What if we make a decent one?" That's when we went down to St. Cloud, Florida, and shot 2000 Maniacs, which is to this day my favorite film among the ones I've done. We changed the course of motion-picture history, in that once people started seeing how these pictures were doing business, they said, "Wait a minute. We'd better do this, too." Although we were regarded as outlaws for years. First of all, we were not part of the mainstream, the Hollywood establishment. Second, we had started a very strange evolution, or de-evolution, in film.
O: Did you have to deal with a lot of censorship with Blood Feast?
HGL: Oh, God, yes. Absolutely, we caught the censor board unaware. They had regulations against nudity. There was no nudity. They had regulations against obscenity. There was no obscenity. They had no regulations against gore, because no one else had done gore. It would be like having regulations against outer-space driving. But once we made Blood Feast, a whole new set of regulations came into existence. Only now, years later, are they loosening up a bit. I think last year was the first year that my movies could show in England without having to go through this strange system of "clubs," they call them. They weren't authorized to show them in regular theaters.
O: Did it feel strange, coming from such a professional and academic background, to be labeled the King Of Gore?
HGL: Well, you know, that's a latter-day appellation. Throughout all this, I was still writing ad copy for Morlock. Whenever I would go on location, I would carry a typewriter, too. Even when I was filming Blood Feast 2, I was still online every night, sending out ad copy. Back in the late '70s, I parted ways with all the movies, except for one thing: I still own the music rights to Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs, because I wrote them, and it's a separate set of rights.
O: What happened to the rights to all of your films?
HGL: A fellow in California bought them all up and shared them with a video company called Something Weird Video [Something Weird is the title of a 1967 film Lewis directed. —ed.], and they're starting to put them out on DVD. But I felt that that was an episode for me that was over. I was a footnote to motion-picture history at best. Then, suddenly, this renaissance happened.
O: Earlier, you mentioned feeling like an outsider and working outside the Hollywood system. What kind of relationship did you have with other filmmakers who were doing similar things—people like Roger Corman, William Castle, and Russ Meyer?
HGL: I knew those fellows, not that that means anything. In fact, Roger Corman and I discussed making a film together, but his deal was impossible. The movie we talked about ended up being Jackson County Jail, but I would have had to invest as much money as I would have, had I made it on my own. I had no real reason to do that. And, of course, both William Castle and Roger Corman were a lot more mainstream than I was. I couldn't work with Russ Meyer, because his philosophy was that everything had to be built around the female breast. Second, it's gotta be a Russ Meyer epic. My ego was never on the line. I always viewed the film business as a business. I also always felt that the campaign was always more important than the movie itself, because anyone can aim a camera. Putting some bodies in the seats, that's where my two careers collided.
O: Do you view your film career as a triumph of advertising as much as actual filmmaking?
HGL: I think I'm a lot more respected in the world of direct marketing than in film. In film, I'm a cult figure. In the world of advertising, I'm the great guru. My 26th book is coming out. Until the Internet exposed me, the worlds never really smashed together.
O: People in the advertising world weren't familiar with your history as a filmmaker?
HGL: They sure as hell are now. But for a long time, it would be a rare thing. For a long time, I'd be giving a speech on marketing or copywriting, and someone would come up to me and say, "Are you the same guy who did that Blood Feast movie?" Now, they're all over the place, and it's very rare that I go to a speech or give a talk and somebody doesn't come up with a one-sheet or a poster or something for me to sign.
O: On the Internet Movie Database, you're credited as working under something like 11 different names.
HGL: Oh, yeah, that's when I was shooting movies for Tom Dowd or whatever. You'll see, on some of my movies, the credit "music by Sheldon Seymour," or "unit director: Sheldon Seymour." And the reason for that is, I came to the conclusion that every theater owner was named either Sheldon or Seymour. So I put the two names together, because I figured they could identify with it. When Tom Dowd was making movies, he'd make up names, usually French names, so I'll be billed as Armand or something. It doesn't bother me. I don't necessarily want my name on some of those movies.
O: A lot of low-budget filmmakers object to the term "exploitation movie" because they feel it diminishes the value of their work. Are you like that at all?
HGL: No. Nothing can diminish me more than I've already been diminished. Pierre, for example, was a smash, and it was credited to Lewis H. Gordon. I didn't use my own name on that movie, and I thought nothing of it. See, these people, they need ego food. They're auteurs. I'm not. I regard the film business as a business, and anyone who feels otherwise deserves to die.
O: In John Waters' Shock Value, he calls you one of the two greatest filmmakers of all time.
HGL: Well, you know, John has a very warped sense of humor, and we're old buddies. He has a very small part in Blood Feast 2.
O: How did it feel to be named one of the all-time filmmaking greats?
HGL: Well, I'm glad that somebody feels that way. [Laughs.]