Herschell Gordon Lewis plans another director's cut
Photo by Colby Katz
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."
Lewis could afford to pay only paltry salaries to a few musicians. "And I rented some kettle drums from a place in Chicago called Frank's Drum Shop, but I had neglected to hire a kettle drummer — it just never even occurred to me. So, in addition to scoring, I played the kettle drums, and it worked out. That released me from any inhibitions I had had about writing music. I felt any damn fool could do it, and I proved that."
In 2000 Maniacs, Lewis proved it again. In one scene, he recalls, "there's a harmonica playing 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home,' and I'm playing the harmonica! I didn't regard that as anything that required a member of the musician's union!" For that film, Lewis and Friedman invented a fake Florida town populated by Yankee-despising serial killers. Unfortunate Northern tourists happen by and are hacked to pieces and roasted, a large boulder is rolled atop a woman, and, most grotesquely, a man is placed into a wooden barrel studded with nails and tossed down a hill. The soundtrack is a silly amalgamation of rural folk pickin' and grinnin'. The name Lewis gave to the bluegrassians — the Pleasant Valley Boys — was later echoed by the Soggy Bottom Boys in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? And Deliverance, which debuted in 1970, engaged in the wholesale theft of the concept of vacationers done wrong with "Dueling Banjos" replacing "The South's Gonna Rise Again," Lewis's original 2000 Maniacs theme.
"It begins with this little sing-song," says Lewis, obligingly slipping into his rumbling baritone: "There's a story you should know/from a hundred years ago...."
Up at a small film studio in Orlando, Lewis brought in a local group to record the tune. But this singer came in and — "There's a story you should know / from a hundred years ago...." Lewis repeats, this time in falsetto. His Brezhnevian brows raise at the memory. "I said, 'Wait a minute.' I had the deepest voice in the room, and obviously I knew the words. So it's my voice you hear on 2000 Maniacs, and I've never regretted that."
By the time Lewis quit making movies in 1972, he had acquired a library of strange background music to suit his work. But whenever he could, he wanted music that he felt lifted his movies above the level of many of the cheap independent films of the day. In fact, after 1965's Color Me Blood Red, Lewis and Friedman split up due to the latter's decision to saddle the picture with a canned soundtrack.
"In my opinion, the difference is profound," Lewis scowls. "It doesn't have anywhere near the impact that customized music might have."
But it was never Lewis's intention to seek fame as a composer — hence, he used pen names like Sheldon Seymour to disguise his role. In fact, during the mid-'70s limbo years, before he found his marketing muse, he'd written off his films and music. He gave up the rights to his pictures (they'd been put up as collateral for a failed bank loan), most of which have now resurfaced in some form or another, with the exception of This Stuff'll Kill Ya! (1971) and Year of the Yahoo! (1972). By the early 1990s, a young entrepreneur named Jimmy Maslin had made a career out of buying up the rights to about 30 of the old films and releasing them via his Seattle-based company, Something Weird Video. And that's how Lewis was reminded of his old bloodletting soundtracks.
Beethoven soothes the savage
Photo by Colby Katz
"One day in, oh, about 1985 or 1986 or maybe later than that, Maslin called me in a panic and said, 'Are you a member of ASCAP or BMI?' I said, 'Why should I be?' And he said, 'Because John Waters is making a movie called Serial Mom. He wants to use the opening of Blood Feast in that movie, and he needs the music rights.'
"So I said, 'Well, give them to him.'"
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"He said, 'I don't own 'em — you do.' Which was a big mistake on his part, I felt."
After Lewis signed on with Broadcast Music Inc., he received a $500 check, he recalls. "I get a royalty twice a year from it. It doesn't come to much, just cigar money. A strange company called Rhino Records put out a recording — in those days, it wasn't a CD; it was a 33 RPM record — and it was music from Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs, and they fleshed it out with screams from the two movies."
Just last month, Birdman Records of Burbank bettered the out-of-print Rhino effort by releasing of the 74-minute Eye-Popping Sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The Blood Feast and Maniacs splatterings are still there, with the original radio spots and official preshow voice-over announcements: "A nurse will be on duty during the showing of this picture not as an advertising gimmick but because she very well may be needed."
A previously unavailable Lewis-penned highlight comes from 1968's She-Devils on Wheels, which was originally performed by his teenage son and his friends. ("When he went to high school, everybody had a rock group," laughs dad.) Titled "Get Off the Road," it featured a snarling chorus of girls sneering, "We're the hellcats nobody likes/man-eaters on motorbikes."
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.
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?"
Margo, Herschell soon learned, hadn't been referring to the Spartacus actress. "I knew who Kiss was," he admits sheepishly, "but I'd never heard of this guy." At the event, Simmons ended up touting the filmmaker as a true celebrity, hero, and icon, and "Since then, he's my closest friend," Lewis says, clearly tickled.
Simmons has a cameo in the upcoming 2001 Maniacs, a remake of Lewis's bloodshed watershed. Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund stars. In January, three independent Fort Lauderdale filmmakers — Jarrod Canepa, Robert Hooker, and Mike James — are planning to premiere their low-budget, underground film Hunting for Herschell. The plot, as Lewis understands it, centers on "two guys who want to make a gore movie and want my imprimatur on it. So they kill and dismember people to get at me.
"I thought the whole thing was a joke," he says, grinning in disbelief. "They asked, 'Would you object if we did this?' How do you answer something like that? How many people who are still alive have a movie made about them? They actually had a script calling for me to be in it."
Though he cautions that the picture "is going to be very flat unless they have some really strong music in the background!" Lewis has accommodated the fledgling filmmakers.
"I am not going to rain on their parade. They are extraordinarily serious about this project, and who could ever jump on people who are serious about what they're doing?" His eyebrows suddenly lift to cumulonimbus heights. "Especially when it's about me!"
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