Splatter movie pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis dies at age 87, not as messily as you might expect
Herschell Gordon Lewis once slit my throat, before dozens of surprised witnesses in stadium seating.
Mr. Lewis died Monday under much more peaceful circumstances, in his sleep at age 87, at his Fort Lauderdale home. A quiet end to a life largely built upon gruesomely faked death.
In the 1950's Mr. Lewis swapped an advertising career for producing nudie flicks, which led to pioneering the splatter movie genre with his Miami-produced 1963 drive-in theater hit Blood Feast. One of those Florida productions that isn't usually cited by scholars, with more widespread influence than a handful of Cocoons.
Blood Feast changed my life, and eventually led to Mr. Lewis pretending to end it, at a Gasparilla International Film Festival screening in 2008. When asked by the festival for a classic Florida film suggestion, Blood Feast was my first and only choice.
For the unintiated, Blood Feast is the story of an Egyptian caterer whose menu isn't vegan. He's dishing out human sacrifices, in order to resurrect a pagan goddess named Ishtar. (Take that, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.) Blood Feast shattered the spatter ceiling, with Jell-O, Karo and cow heart special effects prompting the ballyhoo gimmick of barf bags handed out by a "nurse" at the concession stand.
Nobody had ever endured such explicitly bogus violence in movies. Mr. Lewis and his partner, the late David F. Friedman, didn't grasp the appeal for such gore until they were driving to a Pennsylvania drive-in booked as a test run for Blood Feast.
The two exploitation entrepreneurs noticed a line of automobiles parked alongside the road. Maybe a mile or so long. Turned out to be the wait stretching from the drive-in's box office. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Friedman knew they had a hit. Movies lasted longer in theaters before home video and cable TV. Blood Feast was a staple of the drive-in circuit for years.
My father ran a drive-in theater in Alabama then, pulling off one of my favorite childhood memories, that Mr. Lewis enjoyed hear. Dad posted one of his employees in a car, center lot, third or fourth row.
At the peak of a scene when a woman's tongue was supposedly being ripped from her mouth, the employee pounced from the car, screaming and clutching his chest. Within seconds - far too fast in an era before 911 - an ambulance my father hired raced in the exit and picked up the "victim." Siren waiting, the ambulance exited. A few minutes later, the employee was back behind the concession stand counter, nobody the wiser.
My father's drive-in was sold out for most of the next few weeks. Everyone in Calhoun County wanted to see the movie that caused someone to have a heart attack.
I told it when Mr. Lewis and Mr. Friedman joined me for a Q&A after the Blood Feast screening at the Gasparilla festival.
Just before the fake knife came out.
We'd arranged the faux massacre with show producers Andy Lalino and Andrew Allan, Tampa Bay filmmakers who produced 2009's The Uh-Oh Show, a grisly game show spoof written and directed by Mr. Lewis. The two Andys, as they're known, rigged my disposable sport coat with a fake blood squib, with a hypodermic trigger I'd push while Mr. Lewis "slashed" my neck.
The syringe jammed, a firmer push, and a crimson gusher unleashed, splattering Mr. Lewis' suit - that wasn't disposable - and spraying on the movie screen behind us. The audience enjoyed our unintentionally splashier finale.
Mr. Lewis was a a great sport about it. Fake blood was his business, after all. Some titles dotting his filmography are better than their movies: Boing-g and Goldilocks and the Three Bares in his nudie vein; on the splatter side Color Me Blood Red, The Gore Gore Girls, Two Thousand Maniacs - that Natalie Merchant upped to 10,000 when she needed a new band name, and one that doubled as Mr. Lewis's nickname, The Wizard of Gore.
Mr. Lewis enjoyed his gruesomely cultivated persona, ready with macabre wisecracks and sinsiter suggestions, although from all accounts like Norman Bates he wouldn't hurt a fly. It was an honor to be artificially killed by him. As Mr. Lewis might himself quip: Rest in pieces.