While growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, and still not of R-rated age, I used to fantasize what the new adult horror releases were like. I’d cut the movie one-sheets out of the newspaper and paste them onto my bedroom wall – on Fridays usually, when the black and white posters were big – sometimes full page. After two or three years, Id collected a wall full of yellowed newspaper clippings with classics like Madman, Chopping Mall, etc. (it goes on forever), and one that perplexed me for years – a poster with a man getting his forehead drilled to death with a long, merciless drill bit. For years until I saw the film, it mesmerized my imagination, and my splatter loving heart would swell when Id wonder what horrible, skin churning, hole boring terrors it could possibly behold.
The film was none other than Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, a slasher movie by every sense of the word, released just about a year before Friday the 13th and Halloween made the claim to the sub-genre. When a young New York City artist Reno Miller (played by director Abel Ferrara) inadvertently meets his indigent father in a local church, a combination of stress and fear and a nightmare that he himself will end up on the street goes into motion. A fear that ignites homicidal, psychopathic behavior once pushed over the edge, after a punk band Tony Coca Cola and the Roosters move into his building and practice all night long – night after night – destroying the peace of mind he needs to finish his painting, so he can pay his backed up rent. All of these factors eventually boil over and drive him to murder.
The Driller Killer is low budget by every sense of the word, shot in and around the dark, bum ridden, late seventies streets of New York City circa Ferrara’s Union Square lair at the time. But where it lacks in production, it makes up for with some interesting, if not absurd, characters. Reno Miller looks like a cross between Krug Stillo (David Hess) from Last House on the Left and Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) from Maniac. Tony Coca Cola (D. A. Metrov) and his pseudo New York Dolls band party with lesbians, practice bad sets, and wig out on drugs. Just about every character in this film is a sleazy sight to behold, and accurately reflective of the Mayor Koch era, when the scum of the underground was literally pouring out into the general public of the city.
One night Miller sees a Porta-Pack being advertized on a television commercial. It allows the user to go mobile with plug-in electrical appliances. Of course, his inner psychotic self knows enough to buy one for his drill. After dealing with countless nerve frying hours of bad music, Miller goes over the edge and stabs the shit out of a skinned rabbit head (which is real, and a meaty disgusting moment) – and eventually he hits the street to put his power tool fantasy to the test. Before long, a local bum is thrashing on the sidewalk, with a drill bit boring its way deep into his heart. Bright red blood flows strong and splashes everywhere.
Later all characters converge at the live show for Tony Coca Cola and the Roosters, where several of Miller’s issues come to a head and explode. This is where he runs into the streets and begins attacking at will. His homicidal killing spree claims eight people that night. While the kills are aggressive and spill a lot of arterial fluid, it’s a bit hard not to laugh amidst the wincing, as Miller’s vulgar display of power really does nothing to better the situation that drove him mad.
If the film were made nowadays, with the way plots are tweaked out the ass to try and make them “perfect”, the mad artist would have gone after his landlord who wanted the rent, his employer who treated him like shit and snubbed his work, his girlfriend and her lesbian cheating, and/or that entire band and its groupies – the people ruining his life and deteriorating his mind. But in 1979’s The Driller Killer, per the actual nature of a maniac, he jumps random strangers at bus stops and department storefronts, whether they be bums or locals. There was something about this that felt true to the psychotic behavior that took over. He becomes an actual homicidal maniac. The result is a gritty, semi-realistic street tale of an unstable man who snaps and takes it out on the people around him via an electric drill, whether he knows them or not.
Abel Ferrara’s street grit piece about a man who goes over the edge sweating his rent and his possibly desolate future in a punk dense 1970’s NYC ends up as low budget slasher artistry – reflecting the New York City punk rock underground and its slithering society against a contrast of judgmental Catholic religiousness, gifted works of art, and nude scenes of lesbianism. While initially banned in the UK (and quite possibly responsible for initiating the British “video nasty” ban list), and most notably remembered for the one-sheet with the man being drilled through the forehead, most of its cult status was achieved from these factors, and not from the film’s final product being anything of extreme offensiveness or legendary distress. Hearts pop and necks are leaked, but its almost always done through insinuation and clothing, and doesn’t get much worse than imagination plus bright red paint. Still, in some odd fashion, it’s the Clockwork Orange of pre-Halloween, low-budget slashers, and the title that landed Abel Ferrara in the center of the horror map.