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Blood Feast

"Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror! You'll recoil and shudder as you witness the slaughter and mutilation of nubile young girls--in a weird and horrendous ancient rite! Box Office Spectaculars presents BLOOD FEAST--more grisly than ever in Blood Color!"

--1963 ad copy

"WARNING! This program contains graphic violence."

--2000 DVD sleeve admonition

How times have changed. It's no secret today that a generous portion of the films sold under the banner of "horror" (not to mention plenty from other genres) contain all manner of gruesome excesses. The simple, understated admonition above has become a fairly common catch-all. But think back to 1963. No such thing as a "gore film" existed.

Exploitation filmmakers had exhausted their options when it came to providing audiences with sexy thrills that the censors didn't want them to see. They had succeeded to such a degree that mainstream Hollywood studios were now beating them at their own game. With "adapt or die" as the rule, producer David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis chose innovation over imitation. Asking themselves what they could still surprise an audience with, they arrived at a simultaneous answer--and the answer was an enthusiastic "Gore!" And the result was Blood Feast.

The film's story is a simple one: mad caterer Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) is collecting body parts from various female victims, ingredients for a special recipe to be prepared in the honor of the goddess Ishtar. Ramses' victims practically choose themselves by ordering his book on "Weird Religious Rites." "Have you ever Egyptian feast?" Ramses asks a customer. This customer wants to hire a caterer for her teenage daughter Suzette's birthday party--and thanks to Ramses' hypnotic powers, she happily agrees to his strange idea, never dreaming that Suzette will be the final ingredient if the caterer gets his way. It's up to two heroic police detectives (William Kerwin--billed here as "Thomas Wood"--and Scott Hall) to follow the madman's trail and save the innocent Suzette before it's too late.

Lewis and Friedman promised a shocker, and they made good before the credits had even rolled. While Hitchcock's Psycho stunned viewers with its classic shower scene, Blood Feast offered its counterpart--the "bathtub scene"--as an opener. No exercise in cinematic style or character development this--just a literal bloodbath culminating in a graphic leg amputation. Full color, full detail, nothing left to the imagination. And during the progress of this rather short feature, several more gut-punches were in store--the most infamous being the "tongue" scene, which requires no explanation (though the story behind the achievement of this effect--duly recounted on the commentary track of this DVD--is almost as disturbing as the scene itself).

This wasn't the 1980s--no viewer of Blood Feast could claim that they'd seen plenty of such material in other films. And this wasn't the 1990s--the point had not been reached where every act of cinematic violence was held up to the light and analyzed by both sides of a national social-political debate. No context for graphic screen gore had been established. It was simply there because it hadn't been there before. It was there to surprise; to shock; to cause an immediate sensation. There was no way it couldn't succeed in this purpose: viewers were left reeling.

And as they reeled, they didn't have a chance to make fun of the film's deficiencies: the less-than-convincing acting; the budgetary limitations (Ishtar is a department-store mannequin, for instance); the continuity errors (one howler involves a straw hat quickly painted black as a substitute for the actor's forgotten original); and other elements which make Blood Feast a laugh riot for those viewers of today with the stomach to handle it. Lewis has often been quoted as saying that his pioneering gore film is " a Walt Whitman poem--it's no good, but it's the first of it's type". In fact, he repeats this sentiment during the audio commentary track of Something Weird's DVD release of Blood Feast. Poetry scholars may object, but the point is clear, nonetheless. In fairness, the film is not without technical merit: Lewis and Friedman were far too experienced to allow sloppy photography or sound recording, and the unique, eerie music, accentuated with a driving drumbeat, sparks recognition to this day.

Something Weird's DVD is, without exaggeration, a stunner. The film's colors have never looked so bright or vivid in any previous video incarnation, while the print used here (presented in fine Dolby Digital mono sound) is sharp, clean, and flawless. The strengths and weaknesses of Lewis's film are equally highlighted. A bounty of supplemental material comes with the package, as well. Both Lewis and Friedman are heard on the aforementioned audio commentary--an entertaining and informative interview conducted by Something Weird's Mike Vraney. The theatrical trailer is included, and a "Gallery of Exploitation Art" displays all manner of advertising material for this and many related items. (This material can also be viewed in the Christopher Wayne Curry's book A Taste of Blood.) The biggest surprise (to even the filmmakers) was the discovery of roughly fifty minutes worth of Blood Feast outtakes; however, this novelty quickly wears thin. No audio was available for these clips (so sound bites from several Lewis films are played as accompaniment); and aside from the revelation that the opening bathtub scene originally involved nudity (the film as presented has none), there's nothing truly startling or unfamiliar here. Most amusing of the supplements is the educational short "Carving Magic," which features Lewis players William Kerwin and Harvey Korman, who enjoy exchanging potshots at each other's meat-carving abilities, until enlightenment arrives in the form of a nationally-televised home-economics expert. This short is described as "grisly" on the DVD packaging, but a trip to the slaughterhouse it isn't. It's here because no one could deny the novelty value of its inclusion.

If one truly wants to learn about Herschell Gordon Lewis and his work, there is no better starting point than this DVD. For those who already consider themselves Lewis fans, of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Now that Lewis had "shocked the world," the inevitable question was..."what do you do for an encore?"


Go to:
A Taste of Blood (book review)
Blood Feast
Two Thousand Maniacs
Color Me Blood Red
A Taste of Blood
Something Weird
The Gruesome Twosome
She-Devils on Wheels
The Wizard of Gore
The Gore Gore Girls