Remembering Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1929-2016

By Keri O’Shea & Nia Edwards-Behi

Keri: It’s no great surprise that Herschell Gordon Lewis, pioneer of so many infamous gore and exploitation movies, sustained another life as an advertising guru both before and after the 1960s heyday of his filmmaking career. In a number of ways, his films probably had a similar impact to his direct marketing strategies down through the years. Direct marketing has to land an immediate impact on the potential client, or else it’ll be ignored; it has to stand out against a raft of competition, but if it’s successful, then even a modest hit can pay serious dividends. On the flip side of all that, of course, this kind of tactic can irritate or even infuriate the people on the receiving end, who may not enjoy having their attention diverted by something quite so in-your-face and crass…

For HGL, the parallel must have been clear and intuitive, and so he made the best of both worlds throughout his lengthy career – sometimes landing a hit, sometimes not, but always keen to move on to the next thing, the next possible big break. Perhaps being born right at the start of the Great Depression would have taught him that you just worked at whatever presented itself in order to survive: this he did, and his entry into the shady world of low-budget cinema simply came about because it was the right move at the right time. HGL, by now working with legendary huckster David F. Friedman, first turned his hand to a number of softcore nudism movies (the only way to get that much flesh past the censors in those days) and these made back more than he’d spent; so far, so good, but when this all started to seem a little tame for audiences, HGL decided to move into horror.

Of course, he kept all avenues open, continuing to make sexploitation and even kids’ films during his career, but seeing a gap in the market for shock, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, released in 1963, is widely-credited with being the first true ‘gore’ movie. Whilst those of us who grew up decades later may be well-used to splatter, indifferent to it even, back in the mid-sixties this was something radical – and, judging by the rise and rise of gore and mondo cinema in this era, people soon had the taste for it. Keen to deliver while the going was good, HGL stuck with the gore and churned out several more titles such as Color Me Blood Red and The Gruesome Twosome. The powers-that-be were, of course, dismayed at all of this censor-baiting, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity when you’re trying to make a living from film.

It is largely thanks to the DVD renaissance of the 1990s and in particular the likes of Something Weird Video, who have made it their business to bring us a whole host of otherwise lost lowbrow movies from the 20th Century, that we can now acknowledge HGL as the ‘Godfather of Gore’. Around half a century since they were made, his gore movies are still gloriously good fun – grisly, inventive, but also wryly humorous and self-aware. It meant that I, years after first seeing a still from The Gore Gore Girls in a copy of The Dark Side magazine, got to see the films in motion – and it turns out, they’re as zany and bold as you’d hope from such titles. If ever you ask yourself ‘Should I be laughing at this?’ whilst watching a HGL movie, then the answer is almost certainly ‘Yes!’: HGL never set out to make Doctor Zhivago, and he wanted us to have fun. And as we do so, we can also take in the ingenuity which delivered special effects clearly far before their time.

It was after a lengthy hiatus of thirty years (!) that Herschell Gordon Lewis, by now a marketing executive again, was tempted back to cinema, releasing a sequel to Blood Feast and making a few cameos in new films made by a new generation of fans. Then, in 2009, it was announced that HGL had made a brand new film of his own – and it would be premiering at Abertoir, Aberystwyth’s yearly horror film festival, with the man himself in attendance. The Uh-Oh Show, a bloodthirsty skit on the reality TV shows which had sprung up as the new face of exploitation during HGL’s absence, was so new at this screening that all the TV screens and monitors in shot were still in green-screen. As for the guest of honour Herschell Gordon Lewis, who did a Q&A after the film, he was everything I’d hoped he’d be: a realist, affable, good-natured and modestly proud of his lengthy career. Ever the pro, when asked by an audience member about what to do if you wanted to sell a film that had languished for years, his advice was straightforward: “Tell them you just wrapped!” It was a real pleasure to hear him speak, and over the next few days of the festival the shine never went off the fact that The Godfather of Gore was just walking around, Mrs Gordon Lewis in tow, happily mingling and chatting with his fans.

HGL had a long, industrious and remarkable life. He saw a lot of changes, and he drove a lot of them too. Without meaning to revolutionise low-budget cinema, he still did it, and the resulting films have lost nothing of their power to entertain during the intervening years. He will be greatly missed, but he will always keep that moniker, ‘The Godfather of Gore’, which he wore so well and with such reserves of natural charm.

HGL with Abertoir director Gaz Bailey, 2009
HGL with Abertoir director Gaz Bailey, 2009

Nia: I have great memories of Herschell Gordon Lewis attending Abertoir Horror Festival in 2009, back when I was only setting out on helping out with the festival after being a dedicated attendee since its beginning in 2006. Lewis was an absolutely charming guest – happy to talk to attendees, sign DVDs and posters, and just generally attend the festival, enjoying the films and events as much as anyone. That year there were old trailers programmed in front of features and naturally several trailers for Lewis’ films were included. I fondly remember being sat near Lewis as he exclaimed at one of the trailers ‘is that really one of mine?!’ I wish I could remember which particular trailer that related to! He gave a talk on his career, a filmmaking masterclass, and it was so full that people were having to stand at the back – and this in small-town Wales! I can only imagine the sorts of home-crowds he could draw. Like so many gore-meisters, in real life Lewis was an absolute delight.

One of my favourite things I’ve read about H G Lewis is in Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s book Sleazoid Express, wherein they note that one of the few early, exploitation gore filmmakers to emerge the other side relatively successful and happy was Lewis, having left the filmmaking career behind him for a career in marketing. Even so, it seems obvious that, even though he seemingly left exploitation behind him, he never resented those films nor the people who still enjoy them to this day; indeed, he really revelled in it. He will be sorely missed.