How punk adopted the Godfather of Gore

The inside of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s brain (artist’s conception) Credit: Luis Colindres

In 1987, Michael Bishop was invited to join an underground band in Richmond, Virginia, whose trashy, theatrical collision of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror made them subversive standouts in the city’s punk scene. Bishop already had a reputation as a gifted bassist, and he was still in high school when he joined Gwar

The band’s obscenely violent onstage personas were part of an ever-evolving backstory too incoherent and ludicrous to summarize here—suffice it to say they played bloodthirsty intergalactic conquerors, and Bishop wore oversize gladiator gear and called himself Beefcake the Mighty. In a mythos-building 1989 interview for Maximum Rocknroll, his bandmate Sexecutioner claimed that Beefcake had “invented music by stretching dinosaur entrails across the freshly carved Grand Canyon.”

Even back then, Gwar’s stage show involved a phalanx of costumes and props. The band had several nonmusical members, many of whom had studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University, and they fabricated removable body parts, bloody entrails, and alien creatures. For much of 1987, the band’s headquarters—nicknamed the Slave Pit—was in the Richmond Dairy Company building, a dilapidated four-story complex with milk-bottle turrets. 

“I think the first time I ever saw a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie was on one of the televisions at the Slave Pit,” Bishop says. “I would come and hang out with the artists who were making props and costumes, and they’d watch it while they were working.”

During his early years in Gwar, Bishop got to know a handful of Lewis’s horror movies. Lewis had run production companies based in Chicago, and between 1960 and 1972 he amassed a wild, lurid, slapdash filmography, making more than 30 movies. (He would direct only two more, plus parts of an anthology, before his death in 2016.) He sometimes worked as a director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, and composer on a single project, though often he’d make it hard to tell by using pseudonyms in the credits. 

Lewis didn’t just make horror movies. His first features were “nudie cuties,” exploitation films that papered over their salaciousness with a cheeky, disarming layer of comedy. In the late 1960s, he even took a shot at children’s movies. But Lewis is celebrated primarily as a horror pioneer. His debut in the genre, 1963’s Blood Feast, is widely believed to be the first horror film that showed (simulated) human guts, and it earned him his sobriquet: the Godfather of Gore.

Mal Arnold and his eyebrows play Fuad Ramses, the killer in Blood Feast (top and bottom right). One of Ramses’s victims, played by Astrid Olson, can’t believe what’s happened to her tongue (center right). Credit: Courtesy Something Weird Video

Lewis’s reputation in the film world is well documented. He influenced horror auteurs Wes Craven and John Carpenter. He’s the subject of at least four books, including Randy Palmer’s comprehensive 2000 treatise, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Godfather of Gore, which shares its name with a 2010 feature-length documentary. One of that documentary’s directors, B-movie auteur Frank Henenlotter, dedicated his 1982 debut, the cult classic Basket Case, to Lewis. 

Henenlotter adores Lewis, but he might have to settle for second place behind John Waters, who paid homage to Lewis in 1970’s Multiple Maniacs, 1994’s Serial Mom, and 2000’s Cecil B. Demented. Waters included a Q&A with Lewis in his own autobiography, 1981’s Shock Value, and introduced his hero thusly: “His films are impossible to defend; thus, he automatically becomes one of the all-time great directors in film history.”

Lewis’s oeuvre isn’t to all tastes, to put it gently, and not just because he liked to throw around bathtubs of fake blood. He approached filmmaking as a businessman first, emphasizing speed, efficiency, and frugality. He was a marketing genius but at best a workmanlike director. Palmer’s book claims Lewis and his team shot Blood Feast in nine days for $24,500. When his actors weren’t on camera, they sometimes pulled double duty by slating scenes with clapboards or holding boom mikes. His crew used all matter of animal parts—chicken skin, fish eyeballs, lox, a sheep’s tongue—for gore effects. 

Lewis’s films can be rough going, clogged with awkward pacing, unnatural dialogue, and even worse acting; the framing is bland, the editing choppy. But as is so often the case with cheap, trashy movies made with more energy than skill, these failings contribute to their strange charms.

Those charms might as well have been engineered to win over Bishop and his bandmates. “Gwar valorizes the low—like, the sort of things people look at culturally and want to dismiss,” Bishop says. (Today he’s back in Gwar after many years, and now fronts the group as Blöthar the Berserker.) “Gwar’s always been interested and motivated in finding the value in that, and using that as the basis of our mode of expression. That’s how Gwar makes meaning. Herschell Gordon Lewis is a part of that formula.”

Punk history is lousy with horror hounds who share Bishop’s love for Lewis’s movies. “The films were outsider, notorious, abrasive, and over-the-top—all things one often associates with punk rock,” says artist Lisa Petrucci, owner and operator of Seattle mail-order movie company Something Weird Video. 

Petrucci’s late husband, Mike Vraney, launched Something Weird in 1990, naming it after a 1967 Lewis film. Vraney had developed his taste for B movies and exploitation fare while working in punk. In the late 70s, he cofounded Modern Productions, which booked punk and new wave at the Showbox, across from Seattle’s Pike Place Market. In the 80s, he managed punk bands, including the Accused, T.S.O.L., and the Dead Kennedys—and sometimes turned them on to Lewis’s films. 

Two of the most enduringly influential groups in the history of punk, the Misfits and the Cramps, waded up to their eyeballs in horror—and they were obvious fans of Lewis. The Misfits’ 1983 album, Earth A.D. / Wolfs Blood, includes the song “Bloodfeast.” In 1986, the Cramps released a cover of “Get Off the Road,” a song Lewis wrote for his 1968 biker exploitation movie She-Devils on Wheels. When California label Birdman released a compilation of music used in Lewis’s films in 2002, Cramps front man Lux Interior contributed artwork, drawing the director’s name on the cover in letters shaped like lengths of intestine.

“When you think of severed heads,” sings Glenn Danzig, “Think of my face.”

“The Cramps were the bridge between 60s pop culture and late-70s punk,” says cult film expert Zack Carlson, coauthor of the 2010 book Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. “For whatever reason, their whole rockabilly thing incorporated Herschell Gordon Lewis more than any other filmmaker—along with all this other stuff they adopted as they picked and chose the stuff that they thought represented them.” 

Carlson has programmed for Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and its annual Fantastic Fest. He’s the guy who bought a 35-millimeter print of long-lost 1987 martial-arts caper Miami Connection listed for $40 on eBay, launching it into the canon of endearingly incompetent Z movies. He grew up before you could find everything on the Internet, so he learned about punk rock and fringe films the old-fashioned way. 

As a teen Carlson worked at a record shop in Oxnard, California, and befriended an older couple who educated him in cult movies. They gave him a copy of the 1986 book Incredibly Strange Films, which opened his eyes to an entire constellation of directors who shot for the moon on shoestring budgets. “Clearly at the top of the heap was Herschell Gordon Lewis,” Carlson says. “He was the originator, and he was so prolific. And he was such a huge personality on his own.”

Film distribution company Severin recently hired Carlson to write a companion book for a new box set of films by Ray Dennis Steckler, another director he encountered via Incredibly Strange Films. Carlson has noticed a lot of 1960s cult moviemakers getting a third wind. “I don’t know exactly what’s prompting this—these guys were rediscovered in the 80s and early 90s,” he says. “It’s happening again, thanks to Severin and Arrow. It’s exciting. I’m wondering, like, how many lives do they get?”

The trailer for The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast includes a clip from Blood Feast with Lewis as a radio announcer.

In 2016, Arrow released The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, packaging 14 of the director’s films on seven discs; on the set’s cover, which is illustrated like a cereal box, the silver-haired director eats from a bowl of viscera. Lewis appreciations continue to come out to this day. Last month Georgia-based outfit Terror Vision (run by Ryan Graveface, owner of the new Odd Obsession in Bucktown) released the documentary Blood, Guts & Sunshine, a history of Florida horror movies that directly links the state’s modern output to Lewis’s work.

It’s not hard to find mash notes to Lewis from horror fiends, but the connections between his work and punk rock have been less thoroughly examined. When I decided to write this story, my idea was to collect as many of those links in one place as I could. Lewis’s gore movies hit the same sweet spot as lots of early punk.

“These are all the cave paintings—punk records and Herschell Gordon Lewis movies,” Carlson says. “It’s, like, the caveman in everybody.”

The killer in Lewis’s 1967 splatter comedy The Gruesome Twosome, played by Chris Martell, demonstrates one of the worst ways to solve an inventory problem at a wig shop.
Credit: Courtesy Something Weird Video

Herschell Gordon Lewis was born in 1926 in Pittsburgh; he died in 2016 in Florida. He helped run a TV station in Oklahoma, taught at a college in Mississippi, and maintained a career more than 50 years long in ad copywriting (including for a commemorative plate company in Minnesota). But Chicago is where Lewis based his activity as a filmmaker. Even when he shot in Florida instead, Chicago provided the reason. “Every year when it got cold, we’d do another picture in Miami,” Lewis told biographer Randy Palmer.

Lewis earned degrees in journalism at Northwestern University, and in the 1950s he learned the ropes of the industrial film business. He worked in TV commercials and public relations, and he and a man named Martin Schmidhofer became co-owners of a Chicago production studio they called Lewis & Martin Films (get it?). In 1960, Lewis founded Mid-Continent Films to get into the features game—he thought that was the only way to make real money in the business. 

The company’s first movie, 1960’s The Prime Time, was filmed locally (Lewis produced but didn’t direct) and featured the cinematic debut of Karen Black. Production mistakes allegedly inflated its budget to a disastrous $100,000, and by all accounts it bombed. Mid-Continent folded after one more film. 

Lewis worked on his own after that, and this taught him an important lesson: namely, that with a skeleton crew and no oversight, he could do the work better and cheaper. 

Leaving aside Lewis’s hostility to the expense of union labor, that attitude is pretty punk. “I love the aesthetic of having a vision and not stopping to figure everything out, and not having a budget, but being so motivated with your idea that you’re going to make it happen,” says Detroit musician Amy Gore, who named her first band after Lewis’s 1972 horror comedy The Gore Gore Girls. “Film was expensive, and making a film was expensive, and that just didn’t seem to bother HG at all. And I love that about him.” 

Gore and her Motown-influenced all-female band broke into the Detroit garage-rock scene in the late 90s with the same sort of DIY ingenuity. They created matching outfits by making their own iron-on shirts and spray-painting their shoes. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Gore says. “But I got myself, I got some girls to back me up, and we got in the studio, and I got someone to pay for a recording. I made a record and got to go to Europe and tour the world. I think that ethos is definitely an HG inspiration.” 

Gore Gore Girls released their debut full-length in 2001.

Lewis had his breakthrough with his third film, 1961’s The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, a dirt-cheap nudie cutie made with producer David Friedman that played at Tom Dowd’s Capri theater in the South Loop for around two months the following spring—it was the largest-grossing picture Dowd had shown to date. By 1963, though, Lewis was running out of funny ways to film topless women, so he and Friedman found another way to be provocative: gore. 

“We could either do a film that was so loaded with sex as to be almost unfilmable, or we could do a picture that was so loaded with horror as to be equally unfilmable,” Lewis told Palmer. “And since there was an overabundance of nudie pictures, we opted for the horror angle.” Blood Feast came out that same year, and it’s since inspired generations of punks.

“The only reason the Herschell Gordon Lewis films got made, distributed, and seen, regardless of the creators’ intention, was because they didn’t have any regard for the rules—if Herschell Gordon Lewis had had regard for the rules, he would have been doing very, very different kinds of films,” says Screeching Weasel front man Ben Weasel. “He wanted to do something that was shocking and went beyond and all that. But in order to even get to that place, you have to be willing to step over a line.” 

Weasel found Lewis’s movies in the mid-80s, around the same time he got into punk. Lewis became one of the personal heroes who shaped his music. “I liked the rule breakers,” Weasel says. “I liked the ones who didn’t allow other people to tell them what they could and couldn’t do. The result of that, for me, ended up being—for one thing, I was at odds, and still am, with an awful lot of people. But I think it just dovetailed, at that time, with a sense of freedom.” 

Lewis’s gore was never especially convincing—no one will ever mistake a mannequin arm for an actual severed human limb. But it’s compelling, even repulsive, because he lingered on it so discomfitingly. In Incredibly Strange Films, Lewis told contributors Andrea Juno and Mark Pauline about seeing audiences at Two Thousand Maniacs! react to the first sign of blood: “The audience doesn’t know what to do! We have them! How many films are there where the production keeps the audience in such an unsettled state that the audience literally doesn’t know what to do,” he said. “They’re afraid to leave their seats because that’s a sign of cowardice. They’re afraid to watch because they’re afraid of what they’ll see.”

In Two Thousand Maniacs!, Shelby Livingston plays Bea Miller, seen here at the end of her visit to Pleasant Valley, Georgia. Credit: Courtesy Something Weird Video

“It’s hard to fuckin’ watch,” says Seattle graphic artist Art Chantry, who shaped the visual identity of the city’s grunge and garage-rock scenes. Mike Vraney helped Chantry establish himself in the city by hiring him to do posters for the Showbox, and they shared a love for trash. Chantry has mixed feelings about Lewis: “I think what he did was cynical and nasty and a big middle finger,” he says. “And it also changed everybody’s life in our culture. . . . In the circles that I ran in, Herschell Gordon Lewis was as well-known as John Waters is in the general population today. He was a central figure. But then, I tended to hang out in pretty dented circles.” 

Any town with a punk scene seems to have had at least one of those dented circles. Writing about the Cleveland scene for the Guardian in 2013, UK music critic Jon Savage credited regional TV horror host Ghoulardi, aka Ernie Anderson, as an early influence. Bob Richey, who drummed for the Pagans and currently plays guitar for Les Black’s Amazing Pink Holes, grew up watching Ghoulardi’s Shock Theater and going to horror conventions, where he met Herschell Gordon Lewis. He also pulled off something that very few other punks did: he got Lewis into a recording session with one of his bands. 

“A lot of bands have done covers of his stuff—to my knowledge, anyway, the closest anybody got was Lux from the Cramps doing art for an actual Herschell Gordon Lewis record,” Richey says. “I think we were the only ones that got him, really got him, to be on a record and do it.” Lewis had flown to Cleveland in the early 2000s to attend a Cinema Wasteland convention, and Richey talked him into staying an extra day to record vocals with the Amazing Pink Holes. 

Herschell Gordon Lewis in the video for the Amazing Pink Holes’ cover of the theme from Two Thousand Maniacs!

“We only kept him working four or five hours, tops,” Richey says. “We got a video and two songs out of him. He was so professional.” In 2004, Smog Veil Records released those two tracks—covers of theme songs from the Lewis movies Two Thousand Maniacs! and Moonshine Mountain—on a translucent, blood-splattered six-inch record. Richey didn’t talk to Lewis again after that recording session.

“I don’t think he knew punk,” Richey says. “I think punk found him.”

Hyperventilating advertisements for two Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter films: The Wizard of Gore (1970), and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) Credit: Courtesy Something Weird Video

Lewis filmed Blood Feast from a 14-page script, working in Miami after wrapping up a nudie cutie called Bell, Bare and Beautiful. Writing Blood Feast‘s timpani-and-organ score allegedly took Lewis longer than shooting the movie. The plot, such as it is, concerns an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses who dismembers people to make a lavish meal—and to sacrifice them to the goddess Ishtar. Lewis paid Florida’s Barfred Laboratories to concoct a new stage blood that could be safely swallowed. Made from Kaopectate, it cost Lewis $7.50 per gallon, according to Palmer’s book. In the film’s most infamous scene, Ramses yanks out an unsuspecting woman’s tongue—actually a sheep’s tongue. 

Blood Feast opened in summer 1963 at a Peoria drive-in owned by one of the film’s producers, Chicagoland movie-exhibition mogul Stan Kohlberg. When Lewis and Friedman drove down to check out the reaction on the second night of the run, they hit traffic a mile from the theater. As Lewis said in the 1975 anthology Kings of the Bs, “Blood Feast I’ve often referred to as a Walt Whitman poem—it’s no good, but it’s the first of its type and therefore it deserves a certain position.”

Outdoor theaters in Los Angeles were still playing Blood Feast nine years later, in 1972, which is how musician and movie producer Jimmy Maslon came across it. “I was blown away,” Maslon says. “I went again the next night and recorded the dialogue with a cassette recorder—and brought it to school the next day and played it for all my friends.” 

Later in the 1970s, Maslon started playing rockabilly as Jimmie Lee Maslon. A fan of his named Eric Caidin introduced him to the Cramps, who had collected Maslon’s records. Maslon says the Cramps covered Lewis’s “Get Off the Road” after he jokingly suggested that guitarist Poison Ivy sing it.

Cramps guitarist Poison Ivy takes a rare vocal turn on “Get Off the Road.”

Ivy loved Blood Feast as much as Maslon did. “Blood Feast, even though it’s funny, is also still horrifying if you think about it, even though you can look at it and say, that looks like ketchup and it’s unrealistic,” she said in an early-90s Ghastly magazine interview. “The idea of it all is horrifying. The guy who thought it up first, just the notion of what’s going on, makes you horrified of the guy who made it, even. Yikes! Who set him loose?” 

In the early 80s, Maslon and Caidin scrounged up the money to acquire the rights to Blood Feast from Kohlberg, who outright owned several of the director’s films after a bitter falling-out in the mid-1960s. “We bought the rights together pretty inexpensively,” Maslon says. Blood Feast turned out to be the first of many Lewis films he bought, and initially he figured he’d rent them to universities for screenings—but then the rise of cable TV and home VCRs provided him with an unexpected opportunity. 

The average price of a VCR in November 1984 was $500, according to a New York Times report that year. When Sony introduced its first home VCR in 1975, it cost $1,400. An RCA vice president told the Times that in fall of ’84, one in seven homes had a VCR. This led to the rise of video rental stores, which needed more than just new movies to fill their shelves. “I had these infamous horror films,” Maslon says. “So basically, I was getting flocked by requests.” 

Underground director and set designer Steve Hall began renting movies from a stereo store in San Diego in the early 1980s, before he was old enough to drive. The store didn’t carry much variety, but he could get some of Lewis’s films. 

“Nobody from my demographic would have ever known him,” Hall says. “Those movies would have been completely gone, no one would have seen them, unless it was for VHS, and hitting us all at that time—like, 14-year-olds, like little sponges, looking at that because it’s the only tape that’s available.”

Lewis’s films inspired teenage Hall to shoot his own movies on video, using inflatable dolls he’d bought at a local sex shop instead of actors. “Me and my friends, in my parents’ garage, started making these movies on Hi8,” he says. “With all, like, animated blow-up dolls in full scenarios. I have two hours of movies of them.” In the 90s, Hall began screening his films (by then cast with live humans) at the I-Beam in San Francisco and the Casbah in San Diego. “I knew all the band people,” he says. “So we would use our movies to open up for the bands.”

In 1998, Hall befriended Jim Rota, who was about to found Los Angeles heavy metal band Fireball Ministry, and hired him to edit some of his underground films. Rota had a similar personal history with Lewis, discovering the director’s movies as a teen in the 1980s through a rental spot called Castle Video in his native New Jersey. 

“There was a guy at that video store that would always put stuff aside, because he knew me and my friends would come in,” Rota remembers. “That was where I first saw Blood Feast, because that guy was like, ‘This is the first movie that showed organs. It’s the gore milestone.’”

Rota has remained a dogged horror hound, and he recently produced a horror film of his own: the Foo Fighters’ Studio 666, which came out this past February. “Dave [Grohl] wanted to make a horror movie,” Rota says. “Dave came up with the story. My partner, John [Ramsay], and I called Tony Gardner, who’s all our favorite special-effects guy.” 

If you’ve got rock-star money, you basically owe your fans a ridiculous horror film.

Gardner has had a long career in horror effects. His most famous early production is the hilariously bleak 1985 punks-and-zombies black comedy The Return of the Living Dead, and he’s also worked on the 1988 remake of The Blob, Army of Darkness, Hocus Pocus, and Zombieland, among many others. “He’s a fucking wizard,” Rota says. “I asked Tony, ‘Can you come up with five or six ways you’ve always wanted to kill somebody onscreen?’” 

VCRs let consumers record or copy almost anything, and when people love a movie, they want their friends to see it. As videotape trading emerged, both in person and by mail, it often went hand in glove with cassette-tape trading in punk and metal. 

“Herschell Gordon Lewis, amongst trading movies like that, that was one of the absolute top names,” says Roctober editor and Reader contributor Jake Austen. “Getting a gore film that you hadn’t seen was absolutely amazing. It felt like, in garage-rock zines, you would talk about films like that the same way you would talk about bands. Like, you should know this Australian punk band and you should know this movie. It was an expectation, but not elitist—just go find it.”

“I had some friends across the country who were often people who were in punk rock bands, who were into tape trading,” says Ben Weasel. “The one guy for me was Chris Barrows from the band the Pink Lincolns down in Tampa; he was just constantly sending me weird shit. ‘Oh, have you seen this? Have you heard of this director?’ It wasn’t just films; it was weird videos that people made that were talked about but really hard to get. And I loved that kind of stuff.”

When Mike Vraney managed punk bands in the 80s, he devoured exploitation movies on VHS. Blaine Cook, front man of the Accused, remembers Vraney’s skill at recording movies from his TV at home. “He’d have that magic finger, and he would be able to hit pause when a commercial came on,” Cook says. “We were with him just as he was starting to collect all those VHSes. We’d go over to his house, and he’d let us take stacks of tapes.”

Maslon first learned of Vraney by reputation—and because he was releasing movies that Maslon owned. “Mike Vraney was actually pirating me,” Maslon says. After Vraney launched Something Weird Video, he set up a meeting. “He came to me very apologetic, and said, ‘Look, I know I did this, but I want to come clean and I want to pay you—I want to make a real deal with you,’” Maslon says. “We became very good friends.” 

Posters for Color Me Blood Red (1965) and The Gruesome Twosome (1967) Credit: Courtesy Something Weird Video

Lewis filmed the 1972 horror whodunit The Gore Gore Girls in Old Town and elsewhere on the north side at the behest of money man Bob Dachman. Dachman knew comedian Henny Youngman, who played a strip-club owner in the movie, and he bankrolled the production because his son Alan had written the script. The plot follows private eye Abraham Gentry as he tracks a mysterious killer terrorizing go-go dancers. The film emphasizes Lewis’s black humor; in an early scene, the killer mutilates a woman’s butt with a meat tenderizer, then sprinkles her with salt and pepper. 

The Gore Gore Girls would be Lewis’s final film until he came out of retirement in 2002 for Blood Feast 2. Lewis could see the industry getting crowded, and he didn’t think it’d be good business to try to compete with better-funded filmmakers: “Now the sex-film producers are turning to horror,” he told the Chicago Tribune magazine in January 1972. “The next couple of years will see a glut, with each guy trying to out-gore the other. What they don’t realize is that this kind of picture is show biz. Fantasy. If you treat it with too much reality, it will revolt the audience.” 

Lewis’s films didn’t tend to screen within big cities—they were almost exclusively drive-in fare—and often they didn’t make it out of the midwest and south. The New York City premiere of The Gore Gore Girls wasn’t till November 11, 1982, when horror zine Gore Gazette presented a showing at Club 57, a subcultural hot spot in the basement of a Polish church on the Lower East Side. It also hosted theatrical performances, punk concerts, art exhibitions, and the occasional female wrestling match. 

In May 1979, Club 57 creators Tom Scully and Susan Hannaford had begun programming a Tuesday series called the Monster Movie Club. The series had run its course by the time of the Gore Gore Girls premiere, but it made a space at the club for screenings of the drive-in trash beloved by artists in the scene. Those artists included the Ramones and the Misfits—and the latter played the first annual Monster Movie Club Costume Ball at Irving Plaza on Halloween 1979.

“Everything that was going on at Club 57—and that was just one night—everything that was going on, it was giving permission for people to express whatever idea they had, in any form they chose to express it in,” says performance artist, actor, and musician Ann Magnuson, who managed Club 57 for most of 1979 and 1980. “There was a sense of freedom, that each event, each encounter you had with people down there and their creative expressions, encouraged you to do the same.”

Club 57 brought in a who’s who of artists across scenes, including Keith Haring, Klaus Nomi, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And the Monster Movie Club attracted key underground cinematic players, among them Frank Henenlotter, original Fangoria editor Bob Martin, and Sleazoid Express editor Bill Landis, who’d distribute his zine from Club 57. 

“The appeal of people coming to the Monster Movie Club, of course, was because of the audience participation,” Magnuson says. “Everybody was encouraged to really revert back to being a nine-year-old, or a 12-year-old, or a 16-year-old—I would venture to say a great deal of the membership never really progressed, emotionally, past those ages. But there was a lot of screaming out loud, a lot of talking back to the film—and there was a tremendous amount of that when the Herschell Gordon Lewis stuff was played.”

Magnuson enjoyed the cathartic screenings, but only to a point. “When I became exposed to the graphic violence towards men or women, but predominantly women, I got really turned off and I stopped watching any horror films made after a certain era,” she says. “Because it became very cruel and sadistic.” 

Club 57’s film culture reverberated across the horror underground. In San Francisco, horror fanatic Jim Morton, who hung around punk clubs, launched a zine called Trashola after reading Sleazoid Express. Trashola caught the eye of RE/Search Publications editors V. Vale and Andrea Juno, who recruited Morton to help edit what became Incredibly Strange Films

A vengeful skateboarder rises from the dead in the shot-on-video classic Twisted Issues.

That book reached a visual artist in Florida named Charles Pinion, who fronted a Gainesville punk band called Psychic Violents in the mid-80s. He was taping local shows on a camcorder, and Incredibly Strange Films encouraged him to recycle some of that footage into a shot-on-video feature. Pinion and a couple friends began working on Twisted Issues (which he calls a “psycho-punk splatter comedy”) in November 1987, and it debuted in April 1988. “I feel like I’ve assimilated Herschell Gordon Lewis’s stuff so much that it’s just in there in these bloody pools,” Pinion says. “That’s splatter.”

Earlier this year, fringe film site Bleeding Skull (Zack Carlson is a contributor, naturally) named Twisted Issues the 12th-best shot-on-video movie. Pinion packaged VHS copies with a cassette soundtrack of Gainesville bands, and I especially love how the film captures the city’s punk scene in its infancy. I like to think it’s fate that the Fest, a multiday blowout that’s been bringing punks from around the country to Gainesville since its founding in 2002, falls on Halloween weekend.

Other punks who are fans of Lewis have given filmmaking a shot too. In 1990, Ben Weasel made a teen vampire flick called Disgusteen with around $50 and a camcorder. (“I’m embarrassed by it,” he says. “It was terrible.”) A couple years later, Bob Richey filmed This Is Elvis’ Birthday ’92 With Mike Hudson, which he recut and re-edited during the pandemic; the new version premiered at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom this past July. Gwar are perhaps one of the biggest successes in this regard. The group’s 1992 music video-slash-movie, Phallus in Wonderland, earned them a Grammy nomination. 

Every Gwar concert feels a little like a Lewis production—with the important difference that Gwar’s fake blood might actually end up on you. “We’ve got three 33-gallon tanks,” says Matt Maguire, who works on Gwar’s props, costumes, and stage shows. “It’s roughly 100 gallons that go out on the crowd, if we’re lucky. Usually we drain all the tanks.”

Maguire’s coworker Bob Gorman elaborates: “It’s really like pro wrestling—it’s about things being big, and over-the-top, and being seen from the back row, as opposed to being quote-unquote good,” he says. “It’s about the idea being stronger than the execution.”A movie doesn’t have to look great to be powerful, not any more than a band has to play perfectly. Lewis proved it in cinema just as punk proved it in rock ’n’ roll. “I don’t listen to punk rock at home,” Gorman says, “but I like shows. I like to see a band live, because it’s about the spirit and the energy.”


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