By Chuck Strouse
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"'Well, when do I shoot the rest? Where is my dialogue?'
"'Well, for this scene your tongue is gone.'"
The "tongue scene" is the most important moment in the movie -- the instant that tells the audience all bets are off, that anything can happen and the camera will not look away, no matter how shocking and disgusting the images it records. Suddenly you realize you have no idea what's coming next A and you're not sure you can take it. It's the original slasher gross-out, destined to be restaged again and again in different movies with different body parts, or as in the case of John Waters's Serial Mom, actually replayed on video to the delight of psycho-killer Kathleen Turner (Waters calls Blood Feast "the Citizen Kane of gore films.") Today -- even after innumerable Friday the Thirteenths and Nightmare on Elm Streets -- it still has a kind of rude power.
Along with another scene from Blood Feast -- a messy debraining on the beach behind the Suez (the motel owner, incredibly, invited his guests to come down and watch it being filmed) A the tongue scene gave pause even to some of those involved in making the movie. "The kid that cut Blood Feast is a kid named Bob Sinise," Friedman says. "Bob, while he's cutting this thing, says, 'Who's gonna play this [at a theater]?' And I said, 'Well, that's where I come in.'"
Pushing his sideshow-spawned promotional skills to the limit, Friedman threw together a set of ultra-lurid ads and printed up Blood Feast "vomit bags" just in time for the film's opening at the Bel Air drive-in in Peoria (yes, Peoria), Illinois. (The theater was owned by one of the film's backers, Stan Kohlberg; Friedman says he and Lewis "knew that Kohlberg would play anything.") With some trepidation, the two filmmakers drove down with their wives from Chicago for opening night, only to find themselves marooned in a traffic jam three miles from the drive-in. Slowly comprehension dawned, and with it a kind of awe: They had created a monster.
"The joint was full," Friedman recalls. "They filled up twice on opening night and history was made." Escorted into the drive-in by a state trooper, Friedman wandered the grounds, watching his audience and pondering what he had wrought. "I was walking around," he says, "and there's some old country boy there in overalls with a white shirt buttoned at the top with no tie, and he's looking at this saying, 'Man, they sure do make it look real, don't they?' 'Yeah,' I said, 'you know those Hollywood folks. I'm not so sure it ain't real.' He said, 'You think they'd do something like that?'"
Not everybody found Blood Feast so thrilling. Friedman and Lewis might have blindsided the censors, but other guardians of America's public morals quickly attacked. In town after town, clergymen campaigned against the film, sometimes succeeding in forcing it to the unhallowed ground of drive-ins just outside city limits. Still, theirs was a limited war, constrained by legal weapons designed for use against sex, not violence. ("In the United States," David Friedman used to say, "God forbid that you show a man caressing a woman's breast. But it's okay to cut it off with a hacksaw.") And as often as not, the legions of decency saw their efforts backfire. Like some bug-eyed, radiation-eating spawn of the Bomb, Blood Feast grew stronger with each new assault. It thrived on the publicity generated by condemnation.
"I know in Tampa the ministerial association [protested], so the theater manager said okay, any child that wants to attend must bring a note from his parents," Friedman recalls. "And 600 kids showed up the same day. All of 'em had a note, most of them they had written themselves, and that was a front-page story. It was a great picture to exploit: Please, stop me from showing it. The newspapers would pick it up and people broke the doors down to get in."
Lewis remembers the first concerted opposition to Blood Feast wryly. "When we first started with this, we opened Blood Feast in San Diego and I got an organized -- an organized -- group of objections by mail," he says. "The reason I knew it was organized is because all the letters were the same; they referred to 'you reckless men' and they spelled 'reckless' -- 'wreckless.' I never worry about illiterate criticism."
In a more serious vein, Lewis addresses with some care his responsibility for today's flood of on-screen gore. "I don't question the credit or accusation, depending on who's making the statement, that we started this attention to violence A that is, in closeups," he says, drawing a distinction between the intensive violence of his gore films and the extensive violence of Western, war, and gangster movies. But violence, Lewis contends, has a long history in movies, not to mention art as a whole. "It's always been there," he notes, "ever since The Great Train Robbery and Birth of a Nation. It's one of the elements of drama, and it goes way, way back to Aeschylus and Sophocles. If you look at stories like [that of] Medusa, if you look at stories like Oedipus -- they're horribly violent."