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In a few weeks, 73-year-old Fort Lauderdale millionaire Herschell Gordon Lewis will be in a Cleveland recording studio. There, he'll sing a new version of the theme song to 2000 Maniacs, the classic gore film he directed in 1964. Members of underground Ohio rockers the Pagans, Pink Holes, Pere Ubu, and the Cramps will provide the musical backing. At the same time, the first film he's made since abandoning B-movies and fake blood in the early 1970s will be unveiled. Blood Feast 2 updates his 1963 film, which introduced the gore genre to disbelieving moviegoers via eyes gouged out with watermelon scoops, tongues plucked out by bare hands, and ritualistic sacrifices. The dinner music for the new Blood Feast is performed by Southern Culture on the Skids.
Lewis chuckles softly while singing the opening line from the theme: "'There's blood and gore all over the floor; where's my spoon?' Then he adds 'Gory, Gory Hallelujah.'" He cackles to himself. "It's much more contemporary than the stuff I used to do."
What Lewis used to do -- before he ditched filmmaking for a massively successful direct-mail empire and the 26th floor of an oceanfront Fort Lauderdale high-rise -- was create campy dark humor mixed with internal organs, eyeballs, and other offal. When he needed that stifling feeling of impending doom (clearly a regular occurrence given so many killings and dismemberments), Lewis was as effective as his subsequent marketing savvy. Blood Feast, an exercise in gruesome violence filmed in Miami, detailed the hemoglobin-rich exploits of an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses. Most important, it allowed Lewis and partner Dave Friedman to show what had never been shown before: blood by the bucketful, and previously unfathomable carnage. John Waters has called him "the Citizen Kane of gore."
"The way I look at it is, if Columbus hadn't discovered America by now, somebody would have," says the robust, fit, and affable Lewis, tucked into a corner of an overstuffed red couch at the end of his grand living room. His eyebrows arch menacingly but amusingly, and a small thicket of gray hair pokes through the v of his polo shirt. Nothing lies outside his balcony but blue distance -- just the sky meeting the Atlantic, with tankers and cruise ships providing the only perspective. Art collected from trips around the world -- carved teak window screens from India, a buffet set from Italy, a huge carved lion staring with glass eyes -- adorn marble floors.
"All I did was make the kind of movie that inevitably was going to be made. But, yeah, I made it first, and I'm thrilled with that. At the time, I wasn't thinking in those terms, I was simply trying to make the kind of movies the major companies weren't making."
Prior to that baptism, Lewis and Friedman were pioneers in the nudie-film business, where Lewis had already realized that his musical background went hand in hand with slicing off nonessential fiduciary appendages. But Blood Feast needed music as terrifying as the images. Hence, songs from the score are titled "Eyes Gouged Out/Legs Cut Off!" "Brains Knocked Out," "Tongue Torn Out," "Ancient Weird Religious Rites," and "Leftovers." He carefully scored parts for cello, trombone, and organ. The queasy cello moans on "How Dry I Am" are enough to rouse the squeamish, but it's the BOOM BOOM BOOM of the ghastly, steadily approaching kettle drums that make sphincters tighten.
"When we were making Blood Feast, I knew exactly what I wanted in a musical score, but I was getting quotes from arrangers that were terrifying me. They were higher than the cost of the movie" -- which set him back $24,000.
Like nearly every child his age, Lewis took violin lessons. "I played in the high school orchestra, and I studied orchestration for one semester -- just the kind of dilettante background that makes people arrogant. I was an usher at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and in fact, I continued to usher almost until I was able to graduate from college," he recalls. "And what an education that was. I saw things that even in memory are still warm. I saw the last concert Rachmaninoff ever gave. I met Stravinsky -- I still have his autograph."
Lewis earned his journalism degree at Northwestern University and moved to Mississippi in his early 20s, where he taught college English. After testing radio and television advertising and freelance copywriting back in Illinois, he met Friedman. The two started collaborating on films that began to bring in money after they produced "nudie-cutie" and faux nudist documentaries. Looking for an untrammeled avenue, they decided upon unabashed murderous gore -- and found it almost as profitable as it was controversial.
When it came time for Lewis to orchestrate Blood Feast, the process stripped the director of the arrogance his cultured youth had created. "But I did score it. Yes, it took me longer than it did to shoot the picture, but I didn't have to pay anybody else. The idea was not to be an auteur. I had no main office to call and say, 'Vell, ve need another million doh-lars to finish this picture.' I was it. We were self-financing, so I had a choice: I could have used canned music, which would have destroyed that picture. Or I could write the music myself. There really were no other options."