Miami Movie Mayhem!

The works of B-movie moguls like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman are so bad they're good. And they've become a permanent part of Florida film lore.

Sitting in the South Beach apartment he shares with his wife and 4000 videotapes, Smith projects an outward impression of semi-normality. Sure, his hair color is just a shade off natural, and there's a certain odd light to his eyes, but nothing too far out of the ordinary. Nothing to indicate that at the tender age of eleven he turned his first movie guidebook into a trash movie guide, going through it and underlining every film he could find that got less than two stars. Nothing to hint at a childhood history of hundreds of terror-filled hours in front of the television, hypnotized by the weekend creature feature. Nothing, that is, to reveal that Tom Smith -- now a 38-year-old graduate student, bartender, and musician -- has spent a truly unhealthy portion of his life immersed in the dark mysteries of the cinematic underworld. He's taught classes on the subject at Miami-Dade Community College; at the moment he's running a Tuesday-night film series he calls "Sick Sinema" in Miami Beach. And as far as he's concerned, when it comes to gore, Blood Feast is it.

"That's where it all begins," Smith says. "Everything came together at the right time -- as David or Herschell will tell you, it just happened perfectly. When David just says the words Blood Feast, you can tell he knows this is the international definition of gore film. You don't think of any other slasher films; you think of Blood Feast."

Granted his fondest wish, Smith would hop a time machine back to the days when "David" and "Herschell" -- David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, to the uninitiated -- made their movies in Miami. Those were the go-go years for Miami Beach, the heyday of the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc. Would-be beach bunnies from Detroit to Newark were willing to do anything to escape the frozen Rust Belt and winter over in America's hottest resort -- up to and including taking off their clothes for the camera.

In 1957 the New York Supreme Court had unintentionally sparked an explosion of on-screen nakedness when it allowed a German filmmaker to legally exhibit his nudist-colony "documentary," Garden of Eden, in the lucrative New York market. Filmed near Tampa, the 65-minute Eden was the first American nudist flick to be shot in color; by most accounts it was also excruciatingly boring, with absolutely zero erotic content. But it did feature perhaps a total of twenty minutes of unclothed abandon, and that was novelty enough to steam up the glasses of sex-starved Eisenhower America. Stripped of the restrictions of censorship, filmmakers rushed to jump on the bare-skin bandwagon. More often than not it took them to Miami, to nudist camps like that run by "Miss Zelda, Queen of the Nudists" and Freddy Gordon's Spartans Camp. There the nudie-makers ground out reel after reel of what they called "volleyball epics": stupefyingly dull films of naked bodies -- many of them recruited outside the camps to beautify an otherwise all-too-realistic fleshscape -- innocently cavorting in the Florida sun.

It was into this Eden that Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman descended in 1963, ostensibly to make a nudie called Bell, Bare and Beautiful, but with an additional, far more sinister scheme lurking in the backs of their minds. Partners for three years in a Chicago-based outfit called Mid-Continent Films, the two profitably combined widely divergent backgrounds. The erudite Lewis had earned a Ph.D. in English, taught at Mississippi State, studied hypnotism, made commercial and industrial films in Chicago, and at the time had a straight job running his own advertising agency. Street-smart Friedman, a native of Alabama, spent his formative years on the road with one carnival or another, picked up an electrical engineering degree from Cornell, shot craps, did PR for Paramount Pictures, and worked with exploitation pioneer Howard "Kroger" Babb.

Together Lewis and Friedman operated as a self-contained filmmaking unit -- Lewis as director and cameraman and Friedman as soundman and producer. The two had done well with made-in-Miami nudies such as Daughter of the Sun and Nature's Playmates, but were beginning to tire of the genre. Pressured by increasing competition, less than enthusiastic about the nudies' increasingly explicit content, and looking for an excuse to get out of wintertime Chicago, Lewis and Friedman began casting about for greener pastures. When Miami burlesque mogul Leroy Griffith and a man from Cincinnati named Eli Jackson asked them to make a film called Bell, Bare and Beautiful (starring the 48-inch bust of Jackson's stripper wife, Virginia "Ding-Dong" Bell), they saw their chance. They would go to Miami (quickly, because Bell was pregnant and about to lose her figure) and spend four days making one more nudie. Then they would turn around and crank out their own project A the nature of which they had already determined. In a moment of marketing genius, they had decided to exploit the money-making potential of graphic mayhem, a potential created by sex-obsessed censorship codes that had next to nothing to say about violence.

"One fateful day Dave and I sat down to decide what kind of movies we could make that the major companies either would not make or could not make, and there weren't a lot of choices," Lewis recalls. "One was hard sex, and it was much too early in the cycle to risk that A today it means nothing. Another was gore. Nobody was making movies with gore. I thought we could make a film that had no curse words and no nudity but go far beyond what any major company would want to risk. And that was the genesis of Blood Feast."

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