Each week, Terror Cult zeroes in on a particularly odd and singular manifestation of the horror genre and analyzes some of its most significant, weird, interesting, gorgeous, and terrible examples. This week, we assist you in dealing with your Christmas hangover by transporting you back in time to a simpler time and place: the Midwestern ambiance of the drive-in movie theater, which deteriorated slowly over time from a wholesome family hangout, to a den of seedy and tasteless sex and violence.
Drive-in movie theaters are a tragically fading institution for a number of reasons, but particularly because of the depressing shift in the cultural landscape that their loss truly represents. Drive-ins originated in the 1940s as an alternative to traditional theatergoing experiences: filmgoers could pay admission prices equivalent to those charged by a regular movie theater, have access to the same convenient plethora of snacks and sodas, and enjoy a movie from the comfort of their own cars. Movies were projected on a giant outdoor screen, and audio was funneled in through portable speakers.
Going to the drive-in was originally pitched as a family activity, but as their popularity grew, drive-ins became a popular venue for sordid low-budget fare aimed at youth markets. This was particularly true in rural areas, where, like today, bored teenagers basically just wanted a place to go to get stoned, be mindlessly entertained, and feel each other up. A lot of the same titles being scandalously trumpeted on 10-foot marquees in places like Times Square ended up on the drive-in circuit, and the desperate angling for public attention and disregard for social decorum those movies displayed made many of them legendary.
Shoestring-budgeted gore films from the 1960s and early ‘70s paved the way for the advent of grittier and more complex gore films in the decades that would follow. As laughably cheap and awkward as many of them were, these films were early prototypes for the wealth of cerebral independent horror that defined the 1970s, and the glut of increasingly rote slasher flicks that grew to dominate the mainstream horror market during the 1980s. Filled with leaden dialogue, campy delivery, dazed-looking beehived glamour girls and buckets of red paint and cheap refuse from local butcher’s shops, drive-in horror is still surprisingly gory by modern standards, and even weirder today than it was in its heyday. Below are just a few memorable standouts.
Blood Feast (1963)
Herschell Gordon Lewis has earned the nickname “the godfather of gore,” and Blood Feast is the first entry in the director’s voluminous canon of horror films. Having already achieved moderate success with a series of innocuous, pre-porn softcore movies, Lewis teamed up with formidable low-budget producer David F. Friedman and churned out a series of shockingly intense gore movies. Blood Feast tells the story of a demented caterer whose worshipful lust of the Egyptian goddess Ishtar drives him to slaughter and ritually cannibalize a string of buxom young women. The film was so above and beyond the standards of good taste for its time that gore effects were still basically unheard of, and most of the viscera employed by the filmmakers – piles of intestines, muscle pulp, ligaments, brain matter, etc. – was actually real animal offal collected from butcher shops. The infamous motel room scene, where a model has her tongue ripped bloodily out of her mouth, is particularly gut-churning to watch, considering. (Friedman chortlingly informed interviewers for years afterward that the tongue had been sitting at room temperature for hours prior to filming, and by the time the actress reluctantly put it into her mouth, it had started to smell.)
Blood Freak (1972)
Produced by well-intentioned Christian organization as an exercise in anti-drug propaganda, Blood Freak tells the story of Herschell, a man who, after smoking marijuana and being cajoled into eating chemically treated turkey meat, wakes up with the head of a turkey in place of his normal head and a pathological craving to imbibe the blood of drug addicts. Naturally, Herschell’s only possible avenue for help in such a situation is to turn to Jesus; but as the bodies continue to pile up, it’s unclear if even Our Lord and Savior can put a stop to Herschell’s enormously bizarre and incoherent suffering. The weirdest, and most captivating thing about Blood Freak is its total sincerity. It was clearly made by people who really believed they had a very important point to make about drug use, and who thought the most effective way of making that point was to produce a film about a man who takes drugs and turns into a giant, bloodsucking turkey monster. Eat your heart out, William S. Burroughs.
The Corpse Grinders (1971)
Corpse Grinders is less gory than many of its contemporaries, but its plot is so bizarre, and its advertising campaign so tasteless that it has lived on in the hearts and minds of generations of film nerds regardless. The film chronicles the antics of a skeevy cadre of illegally operating cat food merchants, who team up with a pair of mentally unstable grave robbers and begin stealing corpses as a cheap source of meat for their product. When supplies become scarce, however, the offending criminals are forced to augment their supply with fresh kills, including their own employees. Matters are further complicated when cats who have consumed the food begin violently attacking and killing their owners, prompting a nosy surgeon and his busty blonde medical assistant to launch a private investigation. Corpse Grinders sometimes drags, but it definitely has its moments of intense grue, including stacked piles of freshly butchered human limbs, and steel drums filled with wet guts and blood.
The Flesh Eaters (1964)
Like Blood Feast, Flesh Eaters is considered one of the earliest American gore films ever made. It was shot in 1962, but wasn’t released until two years later, meaning that despite its release date, it technically predates Lewis’ slightly more infamous entry. Relying on an old standby trope, Flesh Eaters involves a sociopathic plot for world domination concocted by Nazis. As the film’s title suggests, this particular Nazi scheme involves a synthetic flesh-eating biotoxin, which has resulted in the genesis of a race of flesh-eating monsters sequestered on a deserted island. The film features some truly cheesy special effects, but it’s also incredibly bloody for its time, featuring plenty of juicy shots of melting flesh and hemorrhaging abdominal wounds.
Night of the Bloody Apes (1969)
Night of the Bloody Apes is a movie from Mexico, directed by Rene Cordona, the same guy responsible for those weird masked wrestler movies. Bloody Apes is about a young man whose well-meaning father transplants the heart of a violent gorilla into his body, causing him to morph into a deformed, blood-craving, limb-tearing, and sexually irresponsible savage. It’s more or less a classic monster movie, but with some added blood and guts, nudity, and gratuitous wrestling references. Most shockingly, the movie includes inserts of actual open-heart surgery footage, featuring a still-beating heart cradled in the bloody hands of an actual surgeon.
Two-Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
The final installment in the infamous Lewis/Friedman gore trilogy (the second being Color Me Blood Red, an unmentionable rip-off of the much cleverer Roger Corman film, A Bucket of Blood), Two-Thousand Maniacs! is also probably the strongest, and possibly the funniest movie that Lewis ever made. A town full of vengeful American southerners beset an assemblage of hapless road trippers after their car breaks down in the middle of rural nowhere. The townsfolk are bent on murdering the Yankee interlopers as retribution for the ravages of the Civil War, and their predations take on a number of creatively irreverent forms, from a nail-spiked downhill barrel role, to an impromptu cannibal barbecue. Two-Thousand Maniacs also boasts a surprisingly catchy bluegrass soundtrack, which was written and composed by Lewis himself.
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