Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
It feels only appropriate to kick off a brand-new series dedicated to gore and splatter with the film widely considered to be the first splatter film ever; Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast. The first film of its kind to use its gore as a selling point to attract audiences, Lewis’ first film also happens to be one of the oldest films to have made the Video Nasties list. While not technically a great film, even by Lewis’ own admission, it’s so historically important to horror that it should be required viewing for fans of blood and gore.
Dubbed the “Godfather of Gore,” Herschell Gordan Lewis had a more academic based career after graduating with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. It wasn’t until he began working for an advertising company in Chicago that he began to dabble with film on the side, eventually buying out the advertising company and retooling it into a film company. It would lead him to a fruitful partnership with producer David F. Friedman, and the pair then created a number of erotic exploitation flicks until the market for that type of film would diminish, causing them to explore new avenues in film. Inspired, or rather infuriated, by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and how it cheated its audience by keeping its kills off screen, Lewis wanted to do the exact opposite. He wanted to create a similar film with the gruesome kills at the forefront and in your face, and he wanted the film in color to show off the red blood.
Shot in mere days for a low, low budget of under $25,000, Friedman and Lewis realized they could take advantage of the drive-in audience for their seminal splatter film. Friedman came up with a bunch of publicity stunts, including giving out vomit bags with hired “nurses” to hand them out and even going so far as to file an injunction against Blood Feast in Sarasota, Florida to block the film from being screen there. Once it was granted and effectively banned, Friedman then filed a counter-suit to have it lifted. Somehow, that worked too. The “legal battle” Friedman warred for and against his own film drummed up the intended publicity.
Friedman’s marketing tactic, and the gory nature of the plot was very much in line with the Grand Guignol theatrical experience, from which Lewis and Friedman drew inspiration. Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses (played up to eccentric effect by Mal Arnold) kills women in the suburbs of Miami to harvest their organs as part of a sacrificial ritual to his beloved Egyptian goddess Ishtar, with the police trailing far behind in tracking him down. It’s the simplest of plots in a film with a short run time of 67 minutes, which gives the gore the spotlight. You can forgive the cheesy dialogue, the shaky camera movement, and Arnold’s comical white-painted eyebrows and exaggerated limp because it was never about the story. It was about the unadulterated gore.
Lewis sets the tone right out of the gate with Ramses’ slaughter of an unexpected victim during her bath time, complete with typical bath time reading of book Ancient Weird Religious Rites (doesn’t every gal have a copy?). When Hitchcock would have turned away once Norman Bates went in for the kill, Lewis zooms in as Ramses hacks away at his victim in her bathtub, and closes in one the clumpy bits of her eyeball on his machete. The camera continues to look on in voyeuristic pleasure as Ramses continues to hack away at victim after victim.
The shoestring budget meant a lot of obvious mannequin usage for hacked limbs and corpses, but Lewis splurged on real animal offal in attempt to lend authenticity to his kills. Though he imported most of the animal organs locally, he had a sheep’s tongue shipped in from Tampa Bay for the scene in which Ramses rips the tongue from his victim’s mouth in her hotel room (the victim played by Playboy employee Astrid Olsen). It’s surprisingly effective for its time.
Released just 3 years after Psycho shook audiences to their core, it’s easy to see why Lewis’ first foray into splatter and horror would ruffle feathers. Though the gore doesn’t compare to what’s available today, and the blood is an oversaturated, thick red, it was downright shocking in 1963. Friedman and Lewis knew they didn’t have a masterpiece on their hands, but that wasn’t their intent in the first place. They wanted a no holds barred gore fest, and they nailed it. Lewis’ work only improved from there, with more impressive efforts soon for follow.
Responsible for not only launching the splatter sub-genre in horror, Blood Feast served as a major influence for George A. Romero, John Waters, and Tom Savini. It received a remake in the form of underrated horror comedy Blood Diner in 1987, and numerous references in various films like Juno and Serial Mom. Blood Feast may be schlocky and of its time (the over the top beach boyfriend wailing to the cops is an all-timer), but there’s no denying it’s importance in the canon of gore films.
Most brutal kill:
Beach babe Marcy loses her brains – While teen Tony is wooing his girlfriend Marcy on the beach for some canoodling, Ramses sneaks up on the lovers, knocking out Tony and hacking up Marcy’s skull with his machete to harvest her brain. A bloody mess in the sand, Lewis hovers lovingly on the mess of gray matter in Ramses’ hands. Of all of the blood and guts in the film, Marcy’s on screen death is the messiest.