"Argento's good, but Lewis is completely demented. We're talking buckets of goo. Red corn syrup everywhere. And fake brains up the yin-yang."
from the Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno
Forty-five years ago, Herschell Gordon Lewis gave movie horror a makeover with a machete.
Nobody had ever seen anything like Blood Feast, the first movie in which victims died with their eyes open, drenched in corn syrupy gore.
Lewis didn't think anyone would ever see it.
"We opened Blood Feast with a lot of trepidation at a remote drive-in in Peoria, Ill., figuring if we die in Peoria, who's going to know?" Lewis, 81, said recently from his home in Plantation. He'll be in Tampa this weekend for a 45th anniversary screening of his creation at the Gasparilla Film Festival.
Lewis and producer David F. Friedman holed up in a motel room, waiting for a phone call with ticket sales numbers. Sold out.
The next night, they went to see for themselves. Traffic was stalled by a mile-long line of cars ending at the box office.
"We thought it was an accident," Lewis said. "Then we found out we were the accident."
Blood Feast became a national drive-in phenomenon despite only 25 prints in circulation. Home video was science fiction back then. Friedman estimated this $25,000 production grossed $6-million, a return that would still impress Hollywood today.
More important, Lewis and Friedman created the splatter movie genre, setting a grisly standard for today's horror movies and video games.
Audiences were disgusted, then couldn't wait to tell friends about the new taboo. Before the MPAA existed, local censor boards decided whether a movie could be shown in town. They had rules about sex and profanity, but violence had never needed consideration. "I guess we were the progenitors of a lot of legislation," Lewis said.
The plot is luridly simple: A caterer in Miami Beach preparing an "Egyptian feast" for a client cooks with body parts. The movie shows him stalking women on beaches and in homes, dismembering their bodies. Very different from the nudie flicks Lewis and Friedman previously made and studios were beginning to emulate.
"We asked ourselves a question," Lewis said. "What kind of movie could there be that the major film companies either couldn't make or wouldn't make? Today, of course, the bars are down completely. But what kind of movie might there be that I would have a lock on?"
Lewis saw an old Edward G. Robinson mobster movie on TV and was inspired.
"The police pumped him full of bullets, and he died peacefully with his eyes closed and a little splotch on his shirt. I said: 'Hold it. That is not the way it's supposed to be.' "
Lewis and Friedman were staying in Miami at the Suez Motel, which had a 6-foot sphinx at the entrance. That gave them the Egyptian angle and a free prop for the movie.
"From there, the movie literally wrote itself," Lewis said. "People ask me: 'Who wrote the script for Blood Feast?' And I say: 'What's that?' "
Lewis is proud of influencing modern gore flicks such as Hostel and the Saw series. But even he gets shocked now and then.
"They've gone way beyond what I thought would ever happen," Lewis said. "I predicted that maybe by the 22nd century some of my movies might show on cable. Now, in terms of technique, they've been well-passed.
"In terms of innovation, that's a different story altogether, because so much stuff today is derivative. They're producing the same movie over and over again. Some of the effects people have gone overboard in trying to out-do one another. I believe in intensive gore rather than extensive gore - one body at a time."
Even so, Lewis defends today's goremeisters against claims that graphic movies inspire real-life violence.
"We are not originators of society," he said. "We are reflectors of society. I can't imagine even now anybody taking this stuff seriously.
"I don't know of anyone who ever committed a criminal act as a result of seeing Blood Feast.
"The only criminal act was making it in the first place."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
If you go
Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman present a 45th anniversary screening of Blood Feast at 9 p.m. Saturday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa. Tickets are $10. Visit the festival Web site (www.gasparillafilmfestival.com) for information