Horror History: Low Budget, Gratuitous Sex, and Violence
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
Horror has been breaking down boundaries for decades. And exploitation horror has led the charge. Join us for our five-part series “Horror History”, where we look at how the genre went from being a bump in the night to slaying at the box office! In this episode, we look at how exploitation films put blood, gore, and sex front and center. From George A. Romero to Eli Roth, it's a legacy that lives on in horror today!
Horror has been breaking down boundaries for decades. And exploitation horror has led the charge.
Welcome to WatchMojo’s series Horror History, where we look at how the genre went from being a bump in the night to shaking down the box office!
The term “exploitation film” is a difficult one to nail down. For many, it evokes images of New York City in the 1960s and 70s, specifically the Times Square district and its blocks of "grindhouse" theaters. Think bold theater marquees and salacious radio ads, teasing forbidden sights and sounds lurking just beyond the theater doors.
In essence though, an “exploitation film” is one that exploits trends, or taboo topics, often made on a low-budget and packed with gratuitous sex and violence. There's a "-sploitation" suffix for nearly any genre you can imagine, from Blaxploitation classics like "Shaft" and "Foxy Brown", to softcore Sexploitation fare like the "Emmanuelle" series. There's even "Nunsploitation" cinema, if you can believe it. These films pushed the envelope, and it was an international business, with grindhouses importing films from around the world to shock audiences in the States.
It was an era before home video, where films often remained in theatres for months due to their immense popularity. Movies with titles like “Blacula", “Thriller: A Cruel Picture” aka "They Call Her One Eye", and "Zombi 2” put butts in seats thanks to generous helpings of action, sex, and violence. A thriving scene of dub actors helped movies from countries like Italy, Spain and France, thrill audiences alongside homegrown efforts in the US. And it wasn't only in New York City. Exploitation was everywhere, from the Combat Zone in Boston to the streets of Toronto, Canada.
After all, this is a period after the "Free Love" 1960s, firmly entrenched in a 1970s "Me Decade" culture. It’s a time when society was increasingly open to boundaries being pushed - and taboos being broken. Movies could show more than ever before - and show they did!
Exploitation horror was made up by a variety of subgenres. There were creature features. There were slashers, like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. And revenge flicks, like 1978’s “I Spit on Your Grave” . And there were splatter films, focusing on gore and violence. The first splatter film is generally considered to be Herschell Gordon Lewis’ “Blood Feast”, about a psychopathic food caterer. But it was George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” that really gave the genre momentum, while also establishing the framework for modern zombie movies. In fact, Romero was actually the one who came up with the “splatter” label, when describing the sequel “Dawn of the Dead”.
There was significant crossover not only between these subgenres, but also between exploitation genres in general. This was especially true when it came to exploitation horror and sexploitation. It's no secret that horror and adult films are some of the movie industry's biggest moneymakers, often used to bankroll other, more mainstream films. Both genres were popular during the exploitation heyday, with the adult films of the era often being just that: actual films, with stories to tell, built around explicit scenes. This led to sexploitation horror movies like “Vampyres” and “Nude for Satan”.
Such crossovers also occurred behind-the-scenes, as in the case of horror icon Wes Craven, who actually got his start working on adult films under the pseudonym “Abe Snake”. Similarly William Lustig worked on adult films before directing some classic examples of '80s horror , including the Times Square staple "Maniac."
Craven’s directorial debut, the exploitation horror film “The Last House on the Left", even included adult film actor Fred Lincoln in the cast. Before filming, Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham, who would go to on to direct "Friday the 13th", had actually planned for it to be a hardcore film, although the idea was later dropped. Still, it shows how porous and permissive the boundaries were - a point demonstrated again a few years later when adult actress Marilyn Chambers scored the lead in David Cronenberg's horror classic "Rabid".
Sex sells, but the element to be “exploited” could really be just about anything. Italy had a wild run of cannibal films that exploited the gory special effects market throughout the late 70s into the 80s, with "Cannibal Holocaust" and "Cannibal Ferox" aka "Make Them Die Slowly" enjoying a tremendously successful run in US theaters. “Cannibal Holocaust” has been recognized as a pioneer of the "found footage" genre, two decades before "The Blair Witch Project" revitalized the genre in 1999.
The flexible nature of these films went hand-in-hand with the fact that often, exploitation producers would offer rookie directors plenty of creative freedom … so long as the required exploitable element was there in the final product. This was especially true of films released by producer Roger Corman. Corman gave many future Hollywood A-listers their start in the business, including Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante with "Piranha", and composer James Horner, who wrote the score for the gloriously trashy monster romp "Humanoids from the Deep." Corman's empire was an assembly line of movies meant for the grindhouse and drive-in markets.
This idea of quick and cheap never went away, and exploitation cinema continues to influence modern directors. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s 2007 double feature “Grindhouse”, combining “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof”, is a love letter to exploitation cinema. So are the fake trailers from directors Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Jason Eisener. Roth's "The Green Inferno" is similarly an homage to Italian cannibal films.
Filmmakers like Roth are also connected to the "torture porn" genre, the modern day term for “splatter films”. Together with directors like Rodriguez, Zombie, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Roth is part of the “Splat Pack”, whose films are often shot on low budgets and feature ultra-violence. Movies like Wan and Whannell’s "Saw" are still selling shock, and audiences are only too happy to oblige. Since the first “Saw” film was released in 2004, the franchise has grown to nine installments.
Meanwhile, the business model of production companies such as Blumhouse hearkens back to that exploitation philosophy of keeping budgets low and profits high. For every "Fantasy Island" that might under-perform, there are entries like "Happy Death Day" or "The Invisible Man" that get positive attention from fans and critics.
At the heart of exploitation horror is a delicate balance between art and commerce. It's a world that's full of talented dreamers and shameless hucksters, of businessmen and artists. There's always something for sale and a product to be made. At the same time, however, this world brought us some of the most daring, shocking and, yes, entertaining films of all time.