That’s right, this month the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis, is my icon of the month.
Herschell Gordon Lewis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1929. His father died when he was six years old. His mother re-married a few years later and his family then moved to Chicago, Illinois where Lewis spent the majority of his adolescence. After attending grade school, Lewis received a Master’s degree in Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
A few years later, he became a professor of English literature at Mississippi State College. He was lured from his teaching career to be the manager of WRAC Radio in Racine, Wisconsin, and later to become a studio director at WKY-TV studio in Oklahoma City.
In 1953, Lewis began working for a friend’s advertising agency in Chicago while teaching graduate advertising courses at night at Roosevelt University. In the meantime, he began directing TV commercial advertisements for a small production company called Alexander and Associates. Lewis later bought out half of the company with business associate Martin Schmidhofer and renamed it Lewis and Martin Films.
Lewis served as producer on his first film venture, The “Prime Time” (1959), which was the first feature film produced in Chicago since the late 1910’s. He would assume directing duties on nearly all of his films from then on. His first in a lengthy series of collaborations with exploitation producer David F. Friedman, “Living Venus” (1961), was a fictitious account based on the story of Hugh Hefner and the beginnings of Playboy. Lewis and Friedman’s movies were early exploitation films, and the films’ nude scenes, although soft-core, were not seen in ‘mainstream’ Hollywood pictures because of the censorship imposed by the Motion Picture Production Code.
The two continued with a series of erotic films in the early 1960’s. These films marked the beginning of a deliberate approach to film-making which each respective party would continue through their production careers – films made solely with the intention of turning a profit. Typical of these nudies were the screwball comedies “Boin-n-g!” (1963) and “The Adventures of Lucky Pierre” (1961), a film made for a shoestring budget of $7,500 which would become the duo’s first great financial success which made three times its budget upon its first release.
Because film restrictions had not yet allowed for sexual depictions in films, the bulk of Lewis and Friedman’s early work consisted of nudist camp features like “Goldilocks and the Three Bares” (1963), which appropriately billed itself as “the first (and to date the only) nudist musical”.
With the nudie market beginning to wane, Lewis and Friedman entered into uncharted territory with 1963’s seminal “Blood Feast”, considered by most critics to be the first ‘gore’ film. Because of the unprecedented nature of this type of film, they were able to cater to the drive-in theatre market which would have been inaccessible with their prior skin flicks.
“Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)” and “Color Me Blood Red” (1965) followed the same formula. The full-colour gore on display in these films caused a sensation, with horror film-makers throughout the world becoming eager to saturate their productions with similarly shocking visual effects.
Lewis stopped working with Friedman after making “Color Me Blood Red”, but continued to make further gore films into the 1970’s. His next gore entry wouldn’t come until 1967, with “A Taste of Blood”, often referred to as the “Gone with the Wind of Gore” due to its relatively lengthy running time of nearly two hours.
The following year would bring a more extreme take on the genre, The Gruesome Twosome (1967), most notable for incorporating an electric knife used to scalp one of the victims.
Outside his notorious gore canon, Lewis pursued a wide gamut of other exploitation avenues throughout the sixties. Some of the more taboo subjects he explored include juvenile delinquency (“Just for the Hell of It”, 1968), wife swapping (“Suburban Roulette”, 1968), the corruption of the music industry (“Blast-Off Girls”, 1967), and birth control (“The Girl, The Body and The Pill”, 1967).
He was also not above tapping the children’s market, as with “Jimmy the Boy Wonder” (1966) and “The Magic Land of Mother Goose” (1967), which were padded out to feature film length by incorporating long foreign-made cartoons. Most of Lewis’ films are available for purchase through the Seattle-based video company titled Something Weird Video which finds and restores lost and little seen exploitation movies from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s.
Towards the end of the 1960’s, Lewis would return to the world of sexploitation, with regulations now being considerably more lax. Three of these films were shot in California, and for many years were presumed to be lost. “Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In”, an attempt at parlaying the rapid-fire skit-comedy-meets-psychedelia stylings of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In to the nudie market, was the first to be discovered, when a singular worn print surfaced in 2004. Also filmed in Hollywood were “Ecstasies of Women” (1969) and “Linda and Abilene” (1969), a lesbian western which remained notorious for having been shot on the Spahn Ranch during the period it was inhabited by the Manson Family.
A third obscurity, “Black Love”, was shot with a skeleton crew of three in Chicago, and marks Lewis’s solitary foray into hardcore pornography. The negatives for all three films were rediscovered in early 2012, at which point archivists began a lengthy and expensive restoration project. “Year of the Yahoo!” (1972) was also believed lost, though a largely complete print is now available on DVD as a double feature with the semi-gory ode to moonshine, “This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!” (1971).
Lewis financed and produced his own movies with funds he made from his successful advertising firm based in Chicago. Always resourceful despite the low budgets he worked with, Lewis purchased the rights to an unfinished film and completed it himself, re-titling the film “Monster A Go-Go” (1965). Many years later, the film gained notoriety after being shown on the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” television show, where the cast stated it was the worst film they have ever done.
Lewis would repeat this formula when he acquired a gritty psychological piece called “The Vortex” and released it as “Stick It in Your Ear” (1970) to be shown as a second feature to “The Wizard of Gore” (1970). This approach demonstrated Lewis’s business savvy; by owning the rights to both features, he knew he would not get fleeced by theatres juggling the box office returns, a common practice at that time.
Lewis’s third gore phase served to push the genre into even more outrageous shock territory. “The Wizard of Gore” (1970) featured a stage magician who would mutilate his volunteers severely through a series of merciless routines.
By 1973, Lewis had taken the gore approach to such a limit that it began to lampoon itself, which is why “The Gore Gore Girls” (1972) (featuring an appearance by Henny Youngman as the owner of a topless club) would mark his semi-retirement from film altogether.
By the early 1970’s, he decided to leave the film-making industry to work in copywriting and direct marketings. During his retirement from film-making, Lewis wrote and published over twenty books during his long business career in advertising, including “The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion” in 1974 and “How to Handle Your Own Public Relations” in 1977.
A slow but steady stream of books followed, which seemed to turn into a torrent in the 1990’s. Lewis settled in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and founded his own advertising company, Communicomp, a full-service direct marketing agency with clients throughout the world.
In 2002 Lewis released his first film in thirty years, “Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat”, a sequel to the first film. It featured a cameo appearance by John Waters, a fan of Lewis’ work.
He also made a cameo appearance in the 2004 film Chainsaw Sally, and starred in issue one of American Carnevil, a graphic novel created by Johnny Martin Walters.
In 2006, Lewis was inducted into the Polly Staffle Hall of Fame. In 2009, Lewis released “The Uh! Oh! Show”, a film about a television game show where the contestants are dismembered for each wrong answer. The first screening was November 8, 2009 at the Abertoir Horror Festival in Aberystwyth, Wales and concluded with a Q&A with Lewis about the film.
In 2012, Lewis published a memoir, “The Godfather of Gore Speaks”, in which he detailed his film career.