Everyone wanted their moment. Everyone wanted their time with the masters. On an unusually cool Florida night, with a wind whipping around the Channelside Theaters reception area, two exploitation icons sat, waiting to greet their fans. It was magical, the kind of high profile appearance that turns Tampa from a backwater cultural burg into an outpost along cinema’s historic highway. When the Gasparilla Film Festival announced that Blood Feast, the 1963 gore epic would be part of their itinerary, some movie snobs scoffed. After all, we’re talking about a 45 year old cheapie that earned its reputation on notoriety, not name talent. But when it was also disclosed that producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis would be on hand to reminisce about their infamous film, the connection became clear.
For those unfamiliar with those names, Friedman is the acknowledged ‘Mighty Monarch’ of the exploitation arena, a producer who had a more than influential hand in taking the taboo busting genre from the grindhouse to the arthouse - and back again. His partner in crime was Lewis, a Chicago based maker of advertising and industrial films who quickly learned that the real money was in pandering to the prurient interests of an audience. Getting their start in nudist camp films, the guys quickly learned that anyone could feature topless females cavorting around lush tropical backdrops. They needed something new and different. With his fascination with Grand Guignol, Lewis suggested gore. Instantly, the pair traveled to Florida, concocted a bizarre Egyptian ritual narrative, and Blood Feast was born.
Now, nearly five DECADES after they literally created the first splatter film, they were back in the Sunshine State, and reveling in the overwhelming accolades that never came their way eons ago. Friedman, 85 and in slightly failing health, stood and greeted his admirers, while Lewis, 79 and as spry as ever, sat at a table and held court, just like any member of royalty would. Among the throng waiting were fanatics, geeks, punk rock devotees, and the occasional gob-smacked critic. Hands clasped DVD covers, worn trade paperbacks, souvenir barf bags given out for the screening, and some highly unusual mementos. One young man, a fledgling F/X artist who was inspired by Feast, brought his metal make-up kit. After the standard star-struck approach and the exchange of personal pleasantries, he got Friedman and Lewis to sign his case.
From the outside looking in, these exchanges seemed slightly selfish. With both men clearly feeling their age, it was oddly uncomfortable to watch their fans swarm and monopolize their space. Some would stand for a second or two, happy for a signature and a quick digital snap. Others, however, needed to explain themselves, to clarify their passion for Freidman’s films or Lewis’ later productions in obsessive detail. As others waited for their equally important moment, these home video vampires stood their ground. Certainly the guests of honor never showed it, nor did the festival handlers, but there was an invasive atmosphere that made some of the exchanges uncomfortable to watch. There is a mythos surrounding these men that mandates a certain level of respect. For some of the Kevin Smith wannabes in the crowd, it was more about their perspective than those being honored.
Still, fandom breeds a certain level of entitlement, and the rarity of the appearance definitely brought out that facet. But there were also high levels of admiration, and some clear moments of inspired reverence. A few in attendance held copies of Friedman’s definitive biography A Youth in Babylon, praising a clearly moved man for his enlightened narrative on the history of exploitation. Lewis found himself signing everything from old VHS copies of Feast to ultra-rare Laserdisc versions of the film. Even soundtrack CDs, released since the advent of home video, found their way into the mix. Couples calmly asked for photos while one clueless attendee turned to a group standing nearby and asked, “Who is Herschell Gordon Lewis?”
It was that kind a night, an event where the age old adage about never meeting your heroes bore both legitimacy and ludicrousness. For anyone who’s heard Friedman and Lewis on DVD commentary tracks, or has been lucky enough to see one of their few taped interviews, meeting them in person is like déjà vu all over again. Their voices remain the same - a clear combination of a well lived life and pure carnival barker showmanship. While they look much older, the same glint appears in their eyes, faces literally lighting up the minute someone mentions Lewis’ work in marketing (where he truly made his name) or Friedman’s connection to the carnival (he still comes to Florida every year to attend the industry convention in Gibsonton).
Before they knew it, the theater was ready to show their film. Promises of a pristine print from San Francisco quickly turned out false. Instead, a relatively ratty copy of Blood Feast gave viewers a scratchy, slightly out of focus look at the classic. Even in 35mm, the audience knew it was a lark. As Lewis would later say in the hilarious post-screening Q&A, they laughed in all the right places. There were audible gasps during the gore, and more than a few Mystery Science Theater 3000 like riffs. Every once in a while, a keen observer could hear Lewis and Friedman talking, their recognizable voices responding to something they saw on the screen. There was applause at certain points and a clear sense of satisfaction when it was all over.
Local St. Pete Times film critic Steve Persall, instrumental in getting Feast shown at Gasparilla, led the post-screening interview. While they searched for a working microphone, Lewis stood up and proudly announced that they both could ‘project’, and from that moment on, the genuine lovefest began. As a fount of undeniably entertaining stories, both men mesmerized the crowd. They told of how a concrete sphinx outside the Suez Motel on Miami Beach inspired their plot, and how Kansas City banned the use of the word “Blood” in film advertising - which made showing In Cold Blood quite difficult. There was a singalong (Lewis leading the audience in a stirring rendition of the Two Thousand Maniacs theme song) and a last minute slasher gag that went horribly wrong.
After the aborted effect, a feigned throat slashing that saw more fake gore on Lewis than his intended victim, the remaining fans starting moving toward the men. On the screen above was a symbolic splash of grue, leftover from the effort. As it trailed down the stark white scrim, workers hurried to wash it off. Yet the imagery was undeniable. Here were two octogenarians, life spent in pursuits both in and outside of exploitation, being celebrated for finally placing ample arterial spray onto celluloid. Even in 2008, they can’t help but leave their imprint everywhere they go.
A little Windex and elbow grease finally cleared off the claret, but few will forget the magical evening spent with two true artform pioneers. The grindhouse gave mainstream movies the chutzpah to move beyond studio system mandates - and it was men like David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis who took all the risk. It’s about time they were rewarded - and on this one Tampa evening, they definitely were.