Herschell Gordon Lewis has been an advertiser, professor, theater owner and author, though he is most well known as the Wizard of Gore -- that is, as a filmmaker. From 1960 to 1972 he made over 20 independent films in various exploitation sub genres, but the most remembered are his horror films. He invented the sub genre of the gore or splatter film, starting with Blood Feast, which promises and delivers plenty of blood and guts. He had retired, but in the 2000s has returned to directing. I spoke to him recently by phone about his latest project, the future of film, and fried chicken.
NAmag: You’ve had a long career, and you’re been a jack of all trades. What are you up to these days?
HGL: Well, as you’re aware, I have a new movie out there. I’m not least bit happy with the distribution pattern on it, but I had a wonderful time making it. It’s called The Uh Oh Show. The original title was Grim Fairy Tales, with one m on grim, and the reason I changed the title was I began to get inquiries from people in the movie business saying, ‘Is this a live action version of the original Grimm brothers tales from the seventeenth century in Germany?’ I said, ‘No no no no. It’s about a quiz show.’ And after enough people raised this question, since the quiz show is called “Uh Oh,” I’d better change the name of this movie. So we changed the title to The Uh Oh Show.
NAmag: What is the Uh Oh Show about?
HGL: Well it’s-- (laughs) What I was trying to do with this movie is to bridge the gap that’s always separated what we call a splatter film from more conventional entertainment. You go to see a movie such as Scream or House on Elm Street or Amityville Horror, and as you walk in to the theater, or as you rent a DVD, you know immediately what you’re going to see. There is a derivative aspect here, where you have the feeling you’re seeing the same show over and over and over again, and a girl is sitting there and her phone rings and a look of horror comes over her face and the window smashes and a burly hand comes over and seizes her and slashes her to death, and after a while you say, “I’ve seen this before.” Even though it may be a fresh piece of film or a digital image, you’ve seen it before. You don’t say that about The Uh Oh Show because unlike any movie of this type ever made before, we've welded together conventional slashing and a wild sense of humor where everyone will recognize from the very first frame the whole thing’s a joke. Typically, for example, if I take an ax or a band saw or a radial saw or something like that, and I slash your arm off at the shoulder, blood will spurt and you’ll quickly die of blood loss and shock. Not in The Uh Oh Show -- you’ll just be irritated. And up comes the master of ceremony and that happens because you answered a question wrong and he says brightly, ‘Well you wanna come back next week and try again? You can still win all those prizes!’ And you’re holding your severed arm in your right hand, and you say, ‘All right, will you out this arm back on?’ ‘Yea sure! We’ll get it back on there.’ Well the next thing you see is a fella in a filthy workman's outfit with a hammer and a great big spike and he is hammering an arm onto this girls shoulder, a shriveled black arm, and she says, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not my arm and you’re putting it on backwards.’ He says, ‘Hey lady this ain’t the Mayo clinic.’ So the audience will know the whole thing is a joke. And that’s the way The Uh Oh Show runs from beginning to end. I’m hoping that this will set a different pattern.
One of the problems I’ve had with the The Uh Oh Show, and I say this somewhat out of school, and with some irritation: I wrote it and I directed it, but I have no authority nor position in the distribution of this thing. And I’m really-- at the moment, it’s just gone into release, or what we call with our movie "gone into excretion." At the moment I’m not happy with the release pattern, though something may change there.
NAmag: What do you think has changed about film distribution from when you used to make pictures and now?
HGL: Well, what’s changed is the consolidation. It’s a factor that’s pushed some of the independent productions into a ‘Direct-to-video cassette/DVD’ position. When I made Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red and The Gruesome Twosome and The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls, movies of that type, it was implicit that somehow or other these movies would play in theaters. At the time there had been a mild filtering of video cassettes, but distribution came from theatrical release, and we knew as we put together a movie that it either made it in theaters or it was gonna be a dud. Today, even major companies tend to even open direct-to-DVD because of the crowding. The problem now is that a theater may have eight or ten or twelve screens, but in comes a picture like Harry Potter, and it will tie up two of those screens for a matter of two months. So there’s a squashing factor. Many of the peripheral theaters and the drive-ins, those were the grist for our mill. They’re gone. So that competitive nature of it has shifted to the point that the independent gets squeezed, and that’s not unusual in business. That’s true of any thing. The independent gets squeezed so you live on your wits.
And in my opinion, the independent who wants to succeed has to pay at least as much attention to what’s going to happen to the movie after someone says, ‘Yea, the movie’s finished,’ and he or she does that by saying, ‘What’s the next thing we’re going to shoot?’ I admit that is something I didn’t do on The Uh Oh Show. I was so happy to be able to make this movie. So for the next one, if I make it, which is called Mr. Bruce and the Gore Machine, I’ll be a little more cautious about all those elements up front.
NAmag: Do you have any ideas that could help out independents filmmakers with distribution?
HGL: Oh sure I do. Everybody does. Every cab driver in Los Angeles has some. One element is to have a campaign ready. You don’t finish a movie and then say, ‘What are we gonna do for a campaign?’ The campaign should be coincidental with the actual production. Number two: in addition to the traditional media which is Fangoria and Rue Morgue, a filmmaker who has his wits about him will quickly begin to filter teasers out to columnists, to people who have some control over public reaction and then multiply that as the movie gets closer to completion. Well more importantly is total enthusiasm on the part of whoever produces this thing. Now in the early days, for some of my movies, I was both producer and director. So I had control over it and as Harry Truman said once, ‘The buck stops here.’ Today of course these things are split, and some movies, if you’re watching Netflix or something, here’s a list of executive producers, and that list goes on and on and on. Sometimes there are six or eight executive producers! Who is an executive producer? Well, I have my own definition of an executive producer: a schmuck with a check book. These people get screen credit. A screen credit is a very dangerous, dangerous gift to give someone because that individual immediately begins to think that he or she has authority. Along with authority should come responsibility, and that’s the reason for so much confusion in the ranks. But that of course is a condition that’s not about to change. I will tell you candidly that if someone says to me, ‘Hey, I’m gonna put this deal together for you, but I want to be listed as sole screen credit as executive producer,’ and I say, ‘Fine you can be de-facto producer all together. Sure, give me the money.’
NAmag: Would you say it’s easier to make films these days?
HGL: Immensely. The Uh Oh Show is the first movie I shot digitally, and we use these big new cameras -- they’re called Red, R-E-D, and don’t let the short name fool ya, it’s a gigantic camera. It accomplishes what we’ve never been able to accomplish in 35 millimeter color film. Because I had some skepticism, we shot a couple of the more technical scenes in advance, in which we used both 35 millimeter film and digital. We then projected these onto a theatrical screen, not on to somebody's computer monitor, and everyone agreed the digital picture was superior to the film image. And what that means is, not only does cost per shot goes down, but it means we used to say,’OK well now we have a long shot,’ and have to do the same thing over for a close up, and the arms don’t match because somebody gestured. Now we can shoot with two cameras all the way through and not say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re wasting film.’ Because for the independent producer the cost of raw stock -- that is, 35 millimeter color film and processing that film and then making work prints out of it -- that can be the biggest cost factor in making the movie. I’m certainly not talking about somebody who has a hand held camera because his girlfriend wants to be in a movie. I’m talking about a professional digital camera. In my opinion, that’s the future of movie making. Of course we have CGI today -- computer generated imagery -- and all these aliens and terminators and monsters from outer space and transformers... some of them don’t have any live actors in them at all. They’re all computerized, and then from that they transfer from the video onto film. Another factor is that at some theaters already, instead of some hooligan showing up with two heavy cans of film saying, ‘Gimme last weeks film, here’s this weeks film,’ the projectionist will simply hit delete and download from satellite or whatever the film for this week. The whole projection system is done digitally. In my opinion -- I used to say ten years from now -- well five years from now 35 millimeter film will be well on the way to obsolescence. It’s simply a more economical way to show the same picture on a better definition. Who would ever want to object to that? That’s my take on the future of motion picture production.
NAmag: On your newer films did you use the same type of special effects as your other films? Still have a trunk full of animal guts?
HGL: Oh sure we used animal parts. There’s no CGI in the movie other than printing pictures into television screens. There’s no other way of doing it except CGI. But yes, we had pig entrails. The usual assortment. And no we don't’ after the shot use em for dinner.
NAmag: Once you’d retired in the early ‘70s, how long did it take you to realize you had this cult celebrity status?
HGL: I had forgotten the whole thing (Laughs). I guess it was one day in the early 1980s, I had a phone call -- I remember the fella’s name, Rick Sullivan -- he said, ‘I’d like to invite you to a retrospective of your films, and we’d like for you to be our guest. I said, ‘Come on! Who is this?’ figuring it was one of my tennis buddies. A renaissance had begun, I certainly had no idea.
NAmag: Do people recognize you on the street?
HGL: Well, the police do... Sometimes though. It stuns me because I was behind the camera. How would anybody know who I am? But on some of these horror festivals I’ll get off the airplane and , ‘Oh my god, look, he’s here he’s here!’ It certainly is heartwarming (Laughing). I’m serious. Its’ not as though I’m Brad Pitt or something... some of the recent shots I’ve seen of Brad Pitt, it’s hard to recognize him.
NAmag: What non-horror film are you most proud of?
HGL: I’d guess it might be Suburban Roulette. Because, at the time, theaters who would normally not play my pictures would play a picture like Suburban Roulette. It was quite a departure from the area where theaters would say, ‘Oh yea it’s one of his let’s play it.’ But, that’s guess work.
NAmag: You did the soundtracks on most of your films. What led you to that?
HGL: Economics. That began with Blood Feast. Well, I did the music on Blood Feast because I was getting estimates on doing the score that were more than the movie cost to make. (Laughs) Well, that didn’t make any sense to me in our budgetary area. In Two Thousand Maniacs, which today is my personal favorite of all the movies I’ve made, we had a musical group to do the main theme song, and they were spectacularly talented musicians, but when it came time to record the thing, turns out the main singer had a high tenor voice. (Laughs) We started to rehearse it and I said, ‘Wait a minute, that ain’t macho.’ Since I had written this music, I knew the tempo of it, and everyone’s supposed to join in on the rebel yell that’s in part of that. ‘Come on let’s break, wanna go to dinner?’ I said, ’What the hell? I’ll do it myself!’ And so I sang the theme for Two Thousand Maniacs without a screen credit. Cause I didn’t feel like it should look like one of these movies where one guy makes the whole thing. Though in a lot of cases it was that way. So here we are, a lot of years later, in the middle of October, I’ve agreed to go to Chicago, and they asked me if I would be available to sing the theme from Two Thousand Maniacs. My answer was, ‘Absolutely!’
NAmag: It’s a great song. One last question before I let you go, I’ve heard you’re a big fan of fried chicken, where’s your favorite place to get it?
HGL: My favorite fried chicken restaurant is Popeye’s. Now that may irritate the people at Colonel Sanders, but I have found -- since I am the world’s number one authority on fried chicken -- that what matters is my opinion. Even though Colonel Sanders himself, when he was alive, was in one of my movies as himself. A movie called Blast Off Girls. At the moment, it’s Popeyes. If someone wants to win my heart --and my wife knows this very well -- she’ll give me a smile and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to Popeye’s.’ And I will say, ‘You bet we will.’