Seeing how the ambitious project that was GRINDHOUSE has officially and oh so undeservedly tanked at the box office, I thought it would be a good time to steer you toward some of the classics of the genre and ambiance it sought to recapture. Those films strove for nothing more than to entertain the audience with sleazy, lowbrow thrills that just might have some evidence of directorial craft thrown in for good measure, and the films that follow are prime examples of what I’m going on about. They aren’t for all tastes by any means, but they're each worth a look for reasons that will be made readily apparent. In no particular order:
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE (1977)
Hands down the most incendiary of the race hate genre — well, maybe not; keep reading — this flick is a textbook example of just what an exploitation film should be; three psychos escape from prison and subject a family of devout Black Christians — dad’s even a preacher — to a home invasion that could only be made worse by including torture with a blowtorch. FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE is very strong and offensive stuff, and would have gone down in grindhouse history anyway for the shameless manipulation of audience emotions and for being a “kill Whitey” movie that actually delivers what it promised, but the thing that truly made it a classic is William Sandersen’s balls-out performance as Jesse Lee Kane, easily the single most racist piece of shit ever to grace the screen and wind up Black moviegoers into a berserker rage, a state of apoplexy stoked by the fact that the guy’s a scrawny, inbred runt who’d be getting his ass handed to him in two seconds by everyone in sight if he didn’t have a gun pointed at their heads, even a baby in a fucking highchair! (SEE BELOW)
Kane hurls endless physical and verbal abuse upon the family — including a wheelchair-bound grandma, a sweet pre-teen boy, and his beautiful sister (you can guess where that leads) — and if you need a refresher course on ethnic slurs, I urge you to have your notebook at the ready. The torment escalates to ludicrous levels, and by the time Kane forces dad to tap dance and sing spirituals at gunpoint, the characters and the audience are more than ready to kick the living shit out of the guy, take a big, greasy dump down his neck so he’d once more be filled to the brim with shit, and then kick said shit out of him once again. When the payback happens, even the Caucasians in the audience will be ready to kill redneck trash with impunity and join their highly rhythmic brethren in rioting in the streets. Sandersen’s performance is nothing short of masterful, and serves as a pointed contrast to his real personality and later roles in BLADE RUNNER, NEWHART, and DEADWOOD, so much so that he’s very uncomfortable discussing the flick for fear that people will think he’s really like the character he played, and even declined to participate on the commentary for the DVD release. And as if the film itself didn’t shamelessly play the race card, the filmmakers even prepared two different trailers, one geared toward general audiences, and an hilariously over-the-top version aimed at inner city audiences that highlighted the violence and proclaimed, ”This film will make you stand up and shout I AM PROUD TO BE A BLACK MAN!!!” I didn't echo that sentiment, but the movie is definitely not for pussies and shouldn't be missed by lovers of sleazy, offensive trash.
MAD MAX (1979)
Now rightly enshrined as one of the milestones of the action genre along with its sequel, THE ROAD WARRIOR, aka MAD MAX 2 (1982), its grindhouse origins have been pretty much forgotten these days. Sort of the flipside of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, MAD MAX depicts a dystopian near-future Australia fraught with cruelty, lawlessness, and tribal mentalities from the point of view of the police, themselves a clan of borderline-homoerotic leather boys in skin-tight fetish gear. The only thing these adrenaline junkies love more than each other is their souped-up vehicles, fuel-injected chariots that have less to do with apprehending offenders than blowing them off the road in what amounts to territorial pissing combined with aggravated assault. A young Mel “Sugartits” Gibson achieved overnight stardom here as Max, a cop who has wearied of his violent vocation, realizing he’s almost as bad as the psychos he pursues after run-ins with the Toecutter and his flamboyant gang of biker scum, themselves disciples of the Night Rider, a homicidal joyrider relegated to death in a sepulcher of twisted, flaming metal by Max. From that point on, it’s a symphony of sadistic and spectacular vehicular one-upmanship that builds to a tragic crescendo for Max and his family, causing him to go mad and settle the score with his enemies as decisively and violently as humanly possible. It’s a great slow-burning revenge film that paradoxically moves at a near-dizzying pace, stopping for breath only for the brief character bits before once more taking to the highway in an orgy of beautifully edited high speed violence. Far artier than it has any right to be, I take MAD MAX over its more popular follow-up for its not-quite-as-fantastic setting, characters, and sights, as opposed to Max being allowed to roam in a post-apocalyptic barbarian wasteland that drips with mythic intent and references; THE ROAD WARRIOR may be a fucking great movie, but it just isn’t as intimate in its simplicity as this first of an eventual trilogy, soon to be a quadrology (?) with the recently-announced MAD MAX: ROAD OF FURY, although it remains to be seen if Sugartits will return to the role.
SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980)
Seamlessly edited together from parts of the first two LONE WOLF & CUB movies, this flick occupies the number two spot on my list of all-time favorite films. Reducing two plot-heavy samurai films to barely ninety minutes of wall-to-wall, exquisitely choreographed, ultra-gory sword fighting violence and have it actually end up compelling, visually stunning, and coherent is nothing short of a miracle, and SHOGUN ASSASSIN sure as shit made a believer out of me when I first saw it twenty-two years ago. Tomisaburo Wakayama’s portrayal of former-imperial-headsman-turned-wandering-assassin Itto Ogami is a classic, as is his relationship with his toddler son, an adorable tyke who rides about in a lethally tricked-out baby carriage and provides matter-of-fact narration via voiceover. The cut and paste version of the story has Ogami and his son on the run from the pissed off shogun, a major asshole who, for reasons that remain obscure in this version, frames Ogami for treason. Wrongly disgraced, Ogami renames himself Lone Wolf and sets out on the road to Hell, losing himself on his odyssey of carnage and becoming demonic in his ferocity. The guy’s killing skills are formidable on superhuman levels, and that point is proven again and again in battles against scores of ninja — both male and female — and the three-way threat of the Masters of Death, with severed body parts littering the proceedings and things getting so sanguine that blood flies as though from a garden hose, even splashing onto the fucking camera (seriously!).
Those used to Kurosawa’s more restrained bushido opuses are in for quite a surprise when sitting through this, the chambara genre’s most succulent offering to the gorehound, so if you can’t take blood by the literal bucketful I suggest you stick with BEACHES. You fucking pussy.
GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972)
This whole film’s pretty good, if dated, but the thing that sets this one squarely in the exploitation firmament is the still-shocking setup: a young couple’s choice for lover’s lane action proves disastrous when they park in a graveyard and a hungry vampires rises from the earth in search of sustenance. The vamp kills and drains the boyfriend while the horrified girl screams in terror, but her day gets worse when the undead murderer drags her into the open grave and rapes her (thankfully off-camera, allowing our imaginations to conjure up something far worse than what could have been presented directly). She survives the ordeal, considerably less sane for her trouble, and gives birth to a pale baby boy who won’t breastfeed. When mum accidentally cuts her finger with a knife and her blood falls onto the babe’s lips, he laps up the red stuff with gusto and his mother immediately begins lacerating her breasts to feed her little one. As the years go by mom perishes from blood loss, and the half-nosferatu child grows up into hulking biker film mainstay William Smith who sets out to take vengeance against his father. In a novel twist, dad is a professor of legends and mythology at a university’s night school, and as he begins preying upon the student body his son signs up for a night course. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that erupts into a knock-down, drag-out ass-whuppin’ of a showdown from which only one can walk away, and while I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, there is no happy ending…
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985)
Eighties to the core and an hilarious counterpoint to SHOGUN ASSASSIN’s artful cut-and-paste construction, this flick takes footage from an unfinished film and two bizarre extant releases, sets them lose amidst a framing device that features God and Satan (SEE BELOW)
reviewing the footage as the stories of people who will be sent to either Heaven or Hell when their sordid tales play out, sprinkles in an interminable and horrendous party of FLASHDANCE/FOOTLOOSE rejects breakdancing and singing the ironic “Everybody’s Got Somethin’ To Do (everybody But You),” (the douchebags in question are seen below)
and drops the whole mess aboard the titular locomotive as it whizzes its way to an inevitable crash. The stories themselves are all over the map, as would be expected from what amounts to FOUND FOOTAGE: THE MOVIE, but we get a gory yarn about a guy who gets brainwashed and for no adequately explained reason dismembers women for a questionable hospital, a digest version of the incomprehensibly strange DEATH WISH CLUB (1983) in which assorted morons join a club that allows them exotic ways to off themselves, and finally a truncated version of the not bad demon flick CATACLYSM, aka THE NIGHTMARE NEVER ENDS (1980). Loaded with gore, nudity, a couple of sub-LAND OF THE LOST animated critters, a guy who looks like a fey version of Jimi Hendrix whose head melts, a Hoppity-Hop bouncing toy spray-painted (unsuccessfully) to resemble a wrecking ball that squashes a guy’s skull, and a FLASHDANCE-esque male dancer who you’ll instantly want to punch right in the face, this rock-bottom horror anthology is cheap, stupid, hilarious, and at times so mired in its decade of birth that it’s painful to watch, but it’s far more entertaining than the similar NIGHTMARES (1983).
SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975)
Originally released as THE JEZEBELS and second only to the immortal FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! as the greatest “bad girls” movie of all time, this rollercoaster of exploitation gold has it all: terrible acting/dialogue, characters straight out of a comic book, violence, nudity, drunken parents, delinquent teens who couldn’t be a day younger than twenty-five, Black militant lesbians who storm the neighborhood in a homemade tank (!!!), eye-wiltingly-ugly bell bottoms, and even an obligatory women in prison sequence, all brought to you by one of the undisputed masters of the genre, Jack Hill. No bullshit, run out and rent this right now and be prepared to laugh your ass off with a classic of unrepentant, sleazy entertainment (believe me, Hill knew exactly what he was doing).
HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1981)
Did you ever wonder what monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon did with the human women they abducted? This movie answers that burning question in amazingly tasteless and gory fashion when a bunch of horny fish men start graphically raping the living shit out of bikini-clad (or not) victims — though we don’t see the monsters’ dicks —
and dismembering all who would put a stop to such shenanigans. Almost uncomfortably sleazy and prurient, HUMANOIDS is so questionable that you just have to laugh at its excesses, but keep in mind that this is definitely NOT a date movie, and under no circumstances should the final scene be witnessed by pregnant women. (SEE BELOW)
CLASS OF 1984 (1982)
Sort of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE meets BOSTON PUBLIC, this gem of steadily-building-tension-headed-toward-well-earned-retribution is easily the best of the post-punk, 1980’s delinquency flicks that feature gangs of wispy kids in “new wave” gear and haircuts causing mayhem that would not only have gotten their asses kicked by the general public, but would also have landed them under the jail. Perry (MANDINGO) King stars as a music teacher assigned to the worst high school imaginable, only with the added sci-fi twist of all the worst delinquents being white. The malevolent Stegman (Vince Van Patten) looks like the wimpiest thug in the world, but with his gang of enforcers he keeps the entire school in a tight grip of fear. The gang’s activities include tormenting the staff just because they can, shaking down underclassmen for their lunch money, holding open auditions for their on-campus prostitution ring, preventing students from learning, and just generally being vile, so King’s teacher must naturally take a stand against them. Not a good idea, because the enmity between teacher and gang escalates in some truly nasty ways — did I mention that the teacher has a pregnant wife? — even driving meek science professor Roddy MacDowall to snap and hold his class at gunpoint after he discovers his beloved rabbits flayed and strewn about the science lab. The final showdown between King and the gang is harrowing stuff, particularly a gag involving a table saw, so get beady for it, along with an early role by a pudgy, pre-FAMILY TIES Michael J. Fox, whose character gets stabbed in the middle of the crowded lunchroom.
GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1972)
There are some who say that the legendary ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS holds the crown for most morally bankrupt exploitation film ever made, but they are dead wrong. Totally out of its mind in terms of both concept and content, the Italian-made GOODBYE UNCLE TOM —aka FAREWELL UNCLE TOM — is a fake documentary, complete with interviews of the subjects, on the horrors of the slave era Old South as filmed by a helicopter camera crew who somehow turned up there with absolutely no attempt at an explanation. Beyond tasteless and offensive, the flick wallows in as much rape, torture, cruelty, nudity, relentlessly depressing imagery, and general degradation of the human spirit as can possibly be crammed into one feature, and even by the standards of this hardened exploitation movie fan the flick is some seriously hard shit to take. But what blows my mind most about it is how it has come to be embraced by many Black militant and activist groups as one of a handful of films — among them my beloved MANDINGO — that “tell it like it was” in regards to slavery and should be taught in public schools, despite the blatant intent of the filmmakers to exploit such misery for all it’s worth. I may not be able to support it, but it is certainly a one-of-a-kind film, and every serious student of the grindhouse genre should eventually witness its finger-down-your-throat evil for themselves.
To some the most beloved of Russ Meyer’s boobs-and-bad-gals sagas, VIXEN! Is nothing more than a feature length excuse to have star Erica Gavin’s ultra-slutty bitch of a sex fiend fuck the crap out of nearly every other character in the entire film, regardless of gender or genetic ties (she fucks her biker brother). There’s virtually no plot, just Vixen getting it on with whatever sentient life forms happen to be available, just after showering them with scathing verbal abuse that clearly influenced John Waters’ script writing chops, and then a ridiculously overacted “Irish” character shows up to hijack Vixen’s husband’s charter plane from British Columbia to Cuba. The guy’s a rabid commie, and once he shows up you can kiss the sex and nudity goodbye as he attempts to sway the lone Black character to Castro’s point of view, a rant in which I guess Meyer intended to point out his own opinions on the madness of communism because the Irish guy is obviously a loony. The sex would probably qualify for a “soft” R these days — no genitals are seen — but the women on display are pretty tasty (provided you can overlook Gavin’s aggressively-penciled-on Sub-Mariner eyebrows) and natural (read deliciously fleshy and silicone-free), as you’d expect from Uncle Russ.
It’s even acceptable as a date movie because your girlfriend will probably laugh her ass off at the ludicrous dialogue, and maybe even buy into the film’s purported feminist subtext (yeah, right).
So, what do you readers have to add to this scholarly discussion? WRITE IN, DAMN YOUR EYES!!!