This is how the ‘gore’ cinema was born: in drive

As a professor of English literature at Mississippi State University, Herschell Gordon Lewis was very, very bored in the mid-1950s. That was going nowhere, he was young and already stagnant, and at the same time he was good at publicity. He knew how to shoot commercials, he understood the power of communication, he sniffed shrewdly at the audiovisual business and a hunch predicted a great future for him. Luckily for him, at the end of that decade, two events radically changed his life: he met producer David Friedman, who put Lewis (Pittsburgh, 1926-Fort Laudesdale, 2016) to direct films with naked girls, the nudie cutie, that in spite of their low quality they obtained benefits in the neighborhood cinemas; and one day in 1960 he saw Psychosis, and decided that he would shoot what Hitchcock did not show. Thus the cinema was born gore, films of viscera, blood and dismembered bodies, a genre that stars in the tenth edition of the Film Festival Lo + Forbidden, which is being held at the Artistic Metropol cinema in Madrid starting this Thursday. It opens with The Gore Gore Girls, by Lewis, which is now half a century after its premiere.

Without knowing it, Lewis invented the cinema gory (a verb translatable from English as to dismember with a knife or even gore), although the passion for the dismemberment of human bodies or their evisceration already existed in some religions 2,000 years ago. Bloody shows triumphed in ancient Rome and in the Middle Ages. And in 1897 in Paris he opened Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, which specialized in ultranaturalistic horror shows. But for Lewis the flame lit with Psychosis. “For me, the film cheated,” he would say years later. “Hitchcock was showing the results, but not the action, because he couldn’t risk being turned away from theaters. We didn’t care.” To the cinema of his naked torsos he added blood, stab wounds, torn legs and arms, wounds through which the intestines or the brain escaped. And he swept.

American director Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Three years after Hitchcock’s walk through the Bates Motel, in 1963, Lewis and Friedman premiered Blood Feast, the first film gore. Shot in Miami for $25,000 in nine days, Stephen King calls it the “worst horror movie” he’s ever seen. Lewis was not interested in acting, or the camera, nor did he really have any artistic talent. But it did harbor a vision for the aesthetics that should be underlined on screen: liters of blood, a sequence with a tongue torn from the mouth of a woman for whom they used a lamb’s tongue. And of course, no black and white: his films would be in color so that the blood would shine in all its splendor.

That type of cinema had no place in traditional theaters, and for this reason Friedman and Lewis opened a market in drive-ins, where their films added success after success. Despite the negative reviews, both for the artistic result and for the earthquake it meant for the morale of the time, Lewis triumphed. Advertising wizards, directors and producers handed out vomit bags at the start of screenings and used any phrases against their work to their advantage by adding any phrases against their work to their advantage.

Amy Farrell, in a moment of'The Gore Gore Girls'.
Amy Farrell, in a moment of ‘The Gore Gore Girls’.

Thus, in two years they brought together another seven more titles, films that lasted between 60 and 75 minutes, and among which stand out 2,000 maniacs either Color Me Blood Red, title after which Friedman and Lewis embarked on separate careers. From 1965 to 1972 Lewis directed another 20 fictional feature films. He diversified themes —although always of the genre gore—, increased the duration of the films (A Taste of Blood, of 1967, already lasting two hours) and continued in its niche market of drive-ins. In 1970 he premiered The Wizard of Gore, the first time he brought out the concept in the title. But the next generation of passionate horror filmmakers had vastly more talent than Lewis: in Italy, Mario Bava started the giallo (the Italian terror) in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and in the USA it was released in 1968 The night of the Living Dead, by George A. Romero. In a very short time, Lewis’s work had become outdated, articulated around provocation, and without managing to get out of the drive-in ghetto.

In 1972 Lewis decided to retire from the cinema. And he did it with The Gore Gore Girls, the gala screening of the Lo + Prohibido Film Festival. It is probably the best work of the filmmaker, his last attempt to enter commercial theaters (cut off, because he received an X rating), which he also took the opportunity to talk about sexual positivism, post-traumatic stress among the American soldiers who had participated in the Vietnam War… It is the bloody chronicle of the pursuit of a journalist and a private detective to catch a murderer of stripper, who carries out her crimes with sadism (including the famous sequence in which one of the women has her nipple cut off and chocolate milk comes out, in an attempt to pass her off on screen as breast milk mixed with blood). And it contains a few doses of parody of Lewis’s earlier work; At the end of the film, a poster finishes off the plot: “We announce with pride: this movie is over!” (We proudly announce that the film is over), something that was completely true in the case of Lewis, who left the industry. He went back to advertising and marketing, he made a lot of money, published dozens of books focused on communication, and would not direct movies again until three decades later, when in 2002 he premiered Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eatalready become a cult filmmaker.

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This is how the ‘gore’ cinema was born: in drive-ins and with bags to vomit at the entrance