Gore Scores

The return of the eye-popping sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis

She-Devils on Wheels, the movie's poster claimed, was "the ultimate statement of gender equality." At the time, rowdy, Easy Rider-type biker pictures were hot. The gory story of an all-girl motorcycle gang called the Man-Eaters was a clever subversion of that formula. In the film, a gang initiation leaves one member's boyfriend in shreds after she drags him behind her bike; a male rival is decapitated by a wire the girls have strung across the road.

Other rarities dredged up for the new Rhino compilation include three surf-garage numbers Lewis wrote for 1967's Blast-off Girls. They were recorded by a forgotten band called the Faded Blue. "Well, people said it was a garage band, but I regard it on a higher level," he says today. He also wrote "The Pill" from that same year's sexploitation epic The Girl, the Body, and the Pill; a teen rampage tale called "Destruction," while more banjo plucking and tales about Pappy's still form the title track from Moonshine Mountain (1964).

If any track on Eye-Popping Sounds is begging for a revisit, it's the Rat Packian martini-lounge "Suburban Roulette" from the eponymous 1967 flick about spouse-swapping in the cul-de-sacs. "The other guy's wife is always greener," croons a smoking-jacketed lounge lizard in a style later shaken and stirred by the likes of Combustible Edison.

Herschell Gordon Lewis plans another director's cut
Colby Katz
Herschell Gordon Lewis plans another director's cut
Beethoven soothes the savage
Colby Katz
Beethoven soothes the savage

The last tune, "Living Venus," from the less-than-titillating 1960 skin-mag saga of the same name, is rare lovey-dovey Lewis: "The gods on Olympus created the loveliest girl in the world, and they brought her to me."

When a representative from Birdman Records contacted the tennis-playing, world-traveling condo-dweller and asked him to write the program notes for Eye-Popping Sounds, "I had no idea what those fellows were going to put on there," Lewis says. "In many cases, I didn't have the movie on hand, so I had to remember from deep memory. I never thought it would see the light of day."

In his office, the phone rings continually as he cranks up the computer. "I know I have mail," he grunts. At home, he's a Beethoven listener, and he ambles over to his baby grand, his long fingers pumping out one of the deaf master's etudes. A former board member of the Florida Philharmonic, Lewis's music library includes Sousa marches, operas, Camille Saint-Saens concertos, and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. There are a few books on independent films, including a biography of Ed Wood Jr., but a book of Mapplethorpe photos is among the most edgy in his collection. There are poetry anthologies from cummings, Dickinson, and Sandburg. The Godfather of Gore has a soft spot, a keen mind, a firsthand knowledge of the world, and an awesome grasp of culture. But he's proudest of his row of self-penned books in his library upon which he built his castle, including one translated into German as Werberiefe mit Power.

He accepts the Godfather of Gore mantle with a bemused detachment -- perplexed why the interest in his old movies now rivals the fortune he later amassed writing tomes like Catalog Copy that Sizzles. "I take this stuff very casually," he says. For a while, he was almost embarrassed about his surprising resurgence. To this day, many of those who've solicited his writing advice have no idea of his past in the director's chair, and many of his former film fans may have no idea if he's even alive, let alone a quintessential self-made businessman.

"I'd have clients or associates say, 'You know, there's this weird director with the same name as yours,' and I'd say, 'Obviously an impostor' or admit it, all sotto voce -- I didn't want people to know. But the Internet has ripped away everyone's seventh veil."

On an emotional level, he says, he's proudest of his movies, "where I am regarded as an outlaw." Intellectually, he favors the direct marketing, "where I am regarded as a guru. But I'm not embarrassed about being lionized on any level," he says with a wink.

Still, the extravagance of praise for films made with mannequins, chicken skin, and handmade soundtracks makes him shake his head in wonder. In a week, he'll be in Paris for the L'Etrange Festival for Blood Feast 2's premiere. This historic reteaming with Friedman, Lewis explains, even carries forward a thread of its predecessors' plot. After his return, he'll visit the Cinema Wasteland festival in Ohio, where he'll spend a few hours recording a new version of "The South's Gonna Rise Again" at Cleveland's Interzone Studios.

Of course, rock has paid homage to Lewis: Natalie Merchant's former band was called 10,000 Maniacs. The Gore Gore Girls, the title of his last picture, is the name of an all-female Detroit garage-punk outfit. Stills from She-Devils on Wheels have been appropriated for album covers, and not only did the Cramps cover "Get Off the Road" for their 1986 album A Date with Elvis but leader Lux Interior is responsible for the guts-'n'-blood artwork adorning The Eye-Popping Sounds of.

Two years ago, at the gore comic-oriented Fangoria Festival in New York City, Lewis's wife, Margo, mentioned that someone really wanted to meet him. "Who might that be?" he asked. "Gene Simmons," she answered. "Jean Simmons!" he replied, shocked. "Isn't she dead?"

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