After the death of the old Hays Code, and the implementation of the modern movie rating system, there were several noticeable effects before too long. For one, films could be made with very adult and provocative subject matter- subjects and images forbidden by the previous code could be used under the new R rating, and even X rated films like Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris received critical acclaim (Cowboy even won Best Picture,) while pushing cinematic boundaries at the same time.
At the same time, some filmmakers discovered that you could make a hell of a lot of money by simply throwing ridiculous amounts of blood, nudity and lurid subject matter up on the screen. Some of our greatest cinematic achievements (and some very good filmmakers) have been influenced by these sick, exploitative sort-of masterpieces; here are ten notable for their reach and notoriety.
10. Blood Feast
Schlock director Herschell Gordon Lewis was among the first to seriously challenge the Hays Code conventions, and with a vengeance. His 1963 splatter film Blood Feast, about a murderous caterer who serves his victims to his customers to appease an Egyptian goddess, gleefully gave the middle finger to every cinematic taboo about violence – people dying with their eyes open, copious amounts of blood and gore, and loving onscreen depictions of gruesome murders.
Despite being savaged by critics (even today, the film holds a 36% Rotten Tomatoes rating), the film is beloved by fans of gore for being the first to go all the way, ushering in a new era of films unafraid to do the same. Several of these would also be made by Lewis, who said of his film, “I’ve often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It’s no good, but it was the first of its type.”
9. Death Wish
1974’s Death Wish offered a grim vision of New York City, every citizen’s fears taken to their extreme. It was a time of extreme unease over proliferating street gangs and crime in the city, and the movie’s world was an almost comically dangerous one, with a comically simple solution: a citizen who isn’t afraid to shoot back.
Already pigeonholed as a tough guy, the film made sure Charles Bronson would wield a large gun in all future roles, as his iconic turn as ordinary-guy-turned-vigilante Paul Kersey resonated deeply with audiences. The film was based on a best-selling novel and while skillfully made, reviews were mixed; the great Roger Ebert opined that it held “an eerie fascination,” while his contemporary Vincent Canby labeled it “a despicable movie.” But it was immensely successful- enough to spawn several sequels and jump-start an entire sub-genre of vigilante-themed exploitation movies.
8. I Spit On Your Grave
Once again we turn to Mr. Ebert to sum up Day of the Woman, better known by its slightly more catchy international release title, I Spit On Your Grave. Famously unafraid to be blunt in his appraisal of bad films, Ebert’s review of this film may be the most caustic review of any film, ever: “It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters … but it is. Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.”
Day of the Woman is brutally simple: a vacationing female writer is raped repeatedly by four local men (in appalling detail). After cleaning up, going to a church and asking forgiveness for what she is about to do, she tracks down and mercilessly dispatches them all. How mercilessly? One man is castrated in a bathtub and left to bleed to death. So, that mercilessly
While some – including its director, Meir Zarachi – consider it a misunderstood feminist film, the movie is notorious for a reason. Its unblinking depiction of sexual violence was unprecedented, which Zarachi says was necessary to tell his story.
7. Walking Tall
Another prototype revenge film, 1973’s Walking Tall is notable for being based on a true story and a real-life individual- Sheriff Buford T. Pusser, a Tennessee lawman who took on corruption in his town, resulting in his wife’s murder by thugs during an attack on the couple while in Pusser’s squad car. The film starred the hulking Joe Don Baker as Pusser, and was a moderate commercial and critical success.
Contemporary reviews called the film “relentlessly violent,” if very well-acted. In real life, Pusser never brought to justice any of the four men involved in his wife’s murder to justice- though he was suspected of hunting down and killing three of them, and another went to prison for the rest of his life on unrelated charges. In the film’s climax, Pusser – still in a neck brace from the attack – drives his car through the front of a saloon, killing two of his would-be killers, which we must admit makes for a bit of a tidier ending.
6. Blood Sucking Freaks
The 1976 flick is notable for a couple of reasons – its insanely over-the-top violence, and its theatrical re-release by notorious schlockhouse Troma. Freaks is that rare film whose off-putting title is matched only by its even worse working titles; during filming, it was known as Sardu: Master of the Screaming Virgins. During its theatrical run, it was known as The Incredible Torture Show.
The film’s plot concerns a Grand Guignol-style cabaret show where innocent victims are put to death before an audience, who think it’s all acting and special effects. So, how over-the top can the violence really be? The film’s centerpiece features brains getting sucked through a straw from a hole drilled in someone’s skull, that’s how. The MPAA refused to rate the film (effectively banning it,) so Troma cut down some of the violence to obtain an R – and then promptly shipped the unrated version to theaters, resulting in a lawsuit over improper use of the “R” logo.
5. Two Thousand Maniacs!
Herschell Gordon Lewis’ follow-up to Blood Feast upped the ante by featuring not just one maniac, or even two, but- you guessed it- two damn thousand of them. When six unlucky tourists from the North find themselves in a town full of vengeful Southerners – a town that had been destroyed by the Union army during the Civil War – they’re made to think they’re going to be the guests of honor at the 100-year anniversary celebration of their town’s demise. You can probably imagine what that involves.
In the film’s most famous and excruciating sequence, a man’s limbs are tied to four horses, who then- yeah, we don’t even want to finish typing that sentence. In another, citizens drive dozens of nails into a barrel, force a man to get inside and- nope, not going to finish that one either, here’s our source if you truly want to find out what happens. The movie was more well-received than Blood Feast, and set a city-folk-murdered-by-rednecks template that would be continued with Deliverance in 1972 and Texas Chainsaw Massacre in ’74, ten full years after Maniacs.
4. Ms. 45
Director Abel Ferrara would one day break through with 1990’s King Of New York and direct Harvey Keitel’s ferocious performance in 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, but first had to slog through a string of low-budget efforts during the ’80s. He probably didn’t do himself any favors with the titles alone of his first two films- 1979’s The Driller Killer and 1981’s Ms. 45.
Ms. 45, starring Zoe Lund (who would co-write the screenplay for Bad Lieutenant,) was a rape-revenge thriller in the mold of Death Wish, famous for its precipitous body count. After being sexually assaulted twice within the first ten minutes or so, Lund’s meek, mute seamstress Thana beats her second attacker to death with an iron, keeping his .45 pistol, which she proceeds to make extensive use of. Contemporary reviews noted the stylish direction while blasting the schlocky subject matter, which we opine is kind of to be expected from a film called Ms. 45.
3. Massacre at Central High
Originally titled Blackboard Massacre, this 1976 effort was unfortunately stuck with the title of a slasher movie, which it in no way is. In fact, it seems weirdly prescient in a number of ways; it can be seen as predictive of horrible events like the Columbine school shooting (despite not containing an actual massacre), and several elements of its plot were recycled for the 1988 classic Heathers.
The film’s main character, David, becomes disillusioned with his preppy social group’s victimization of the social outcasts. Of course, killing several of the oppressors is the logical answer, but when the outcasts take over the school, THEY become the oppressors- leading to David’s similarly logical decision to just kill everybody with a bomb planted at the school. The film is pretty heavy-handed political allegory, amid all the topless teenagers and death scenes.
Urban legends have persisted for decades about snuff films (cheaply made movies that depict actual death on camera,) though not one actual snuff film has ever turned up. One reason for the legend’s veracity is almost certainly this 1976 movie, because its makers actually advertised it as such.
Oddly, the film was shot and briefly released in 1971 under the title Slaughter, a cheap cash-in on the recent Manson murders. Film producer Allan Shackleton was inspired to tack on a new ending, supposedly a “real” murder committed for the film, after one of his employees saw the original version and somehow found it convincingly realistic. Despite the result being quite less-than-convincing, the marketing tactic worked, resulting in angry picketers, free publicity and a forced disclaimer stating that nobody had been harmed in the making of the film (which Shackleton agreed to grudgingly, still saying audiences should decide if the film was authentic or not). The whole thing eventually led to a Los Angeles Police investigation into the existence of snuff films, which of course reached the conclusion that they do not exist.
1. Cannibal Holocaust
Finally, we have the most notorious exploitation film of all time, one so violent there’re literally no images from it that we can display. Unlike Snuff, this movie which DOES feature actual onscreen deaths (of animals), and is among the very first to be filmed partially in the “found footage” style which we are now all accustomed to, but which nobody had seen before in 1980. The surprisingly good gore effects, combined with the notion that this was real footage recovered from the filmmakers, give this film its deserved reputation- and forced its director into an Italian court to prove that his actors were still alive.
Ruggero Deodato not only had to produce the four actors shown to have “died” in the film, but also to demonstrate how he had created the infamous impalement effect. While he was of course cleared of murder, he was convicted of obscenity and given a four-month suspended sentence. The film was banned in Italy, and many other countries, for years because of the animal violence, which is the only part Deodato says he regrets. The film’s reputation has endured to this day, and it’s freely available to watch on the Internet, though we can’t say we recommend it.