THE GODFATHER OF GORE...
AND MUCH MORE!
Myk and Pitch Black talk to
Herschell Gordon Lewis
In 1963, a film named Blood Feast shocked audiences with graphic dismemberments and buckets of fake blood. Over the next decade, its director—an ad man named Herschell Gordon Lewis—became synonymous with films like 2000 Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red, earning him a reputation as “The Godfather of Gore.” In the forty-something years since Blood Feast, H.G. Lewis’ influence can be felt in areas that one might least expect. Lewis is a pioneer of direct marketing. He’s written best-sellers. He’s got a new single on Smog Veil Records, where he sings the theme songs for 2000 Maniacs! and Moonshine Mountain--backed by The Amazing Pink Holes, who reformed specifically for the project.
Horror Garage: You have a Masters in Journalism, have been a college professor and implemented the direct marketing campaign for Omaha Steaks. You’ve authored best-sellers like Sales Letters that Sizzle and run an advertising agency. You've made such a lasting mark on film that you're known as “The Godfather of Gore.” You're obviously a driven person—if you had to choose ONE thing that's kept you motivated throughout all of these enterprises, what would it be?
H.G. Lewis: Every one of us is driven by the desire for recognition. I seem to have a talent for communication, and I’ve exploited that talent. Motivation and talent don’t always run along parallel lines: I had wanted to be a symphony conductor.
HG: Recently, you released a single on Smog Veil Records with the Amazing Pink Holes. How did that come about?
H.G. Lewis: Frank Mauceri [Smog Veil owner] had the idea, based on a communications workshop I was scheduled to have in Cleveland … and I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to re-record two of my favorites.
HG: I know you learned to play violin growing up, and once even managed a radio station, which seems to have translated into your being an influence on popular music as well. For instance, the bands Blood Feast and Gore Gore Girls named themselves after your films, and it's common knowledge that the band 10,000 Maniacs tied their name to your film 2000 Maniacs. What appeal do you feel your films—or your approach in general—have for some of these bands? Have you ever gotten a fan letter from Natalie Merchant explaining how you've inspired her, for instance?
H.G. Lewis: I’ve had a few communications over the years, including one from the Gore Gore Girls. And Gene Simmons of Kiss had some kind words at an event we both attended. My influence on pop culture seems to be considerably broader than I originally had anticipated.
HG: Even as you ran your own advertising agency, you were working on outside projects like “girlie” films and later, gore. What was your reason for pursuing those outside projects? Was it for fun? Money? Fame? Creative expression? A challenge?
H.G. Lewis: In order: Money. Challenge. Fame and creative expression didn’t enter the mix until much later.
HG: My understanding is that Russ Meyer was an influence on your “girlie” period, but that ultimately the market for these films became so glutted it was very difficult to turn a profit. The legend goes that you saw a gangster film and were unimpressed by a murder on screen, inspiring you to invent a whole new “product” line in cinema—gore. Was it really that simple? Do you think this idea could have been a success in a country other than America? Why or why not?
H.G. Lewis: I hadn’t ever seen a Russ Meyer film until after Dave Friedman and I had produced The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. Russ was shooting in 16mm and blowing up the negative to 35mm. We shot in 35mm. The switch was indeed simple: First, the “cutie” film field was becoming crowded and turning in a direction I didn’t want to go. Second, that anecdote about the bloodless shooting is absolutely correct. A light-bulb went off: Why hasn’t anyone ever had a scene in which the bad guys died bloodied? Why hasn’t anyone ever depicted a violent death with the victim’s eyes staring? Really, I was surprised that no one had done this before. Hitchcock had the opportunity, but cheated with Psycho.
HG: Which movies do you have the fondest memories of?
H.G. Lewis: No contest: 2000 Maniacs!
HG: Which films were the most problematic to complete?
H.G. Lewis: The Wizard of Gore and The Gore-Gore Girls were jinxed pictures. I’ve nursed the thought of re-making The Wizard of Gore.
HG: How would you compare your films or business approach to those of contemporaries like Russ Meyer or Roger Corman? Is there more a fellowship, or a rivalry?
H.G. Lewis: Both fellowship and rivalry exist. I’d have enjoyed working with Roger Corman, an inventive film-maker whose budgets and distribution agreements I envy.
HG: Do comparisons to Ed Wood make you cringe, or laugh? How valid are those comparisons?
H.G. Lewis: I laugh. Ed Wood was deadly serious about his “product.” If you discuss my approach with anyone who ever has worked with me, I’m confident the response will be, “He never took what he was doing seriously.” My films were designed as satires...caricatures...camp.
HG: You've had a series of partnerships, the one with David F. Friedman probably being the most widely-known. In general, are you someone that seeks out a partner, or have things just fallen into place?
H.G. Lewis: They just fall into place--when they happen.