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.

"So I lay down next to this alligator. I put my arm in [the hole], and this damn alligator rolls on top of me and starts pounding me with his tail. And I've got him and I'm wrasslin' and Frank Weed dives in and by now the actress is about a hundred yards away running like hell. And so I'm up and I'm cussing out this Frank Weed.

"He said, 'Well, Bill, all the ones I had were little guys and you said you wanted a big one. So I went out and caught this alligator last night.' He'd brought us a hot alligator, right out of the Glades, man."

Alligators aren't the only monsters Grefe has wrestled with. In the 33 years since he directed his first movie, Checkered Flag, at Sebring, the Florida native has handled everything from rattlesnakes to tiger sharks -- which Grefe's crew filmed off Bimini for Mako, Jaws of Death sans protective cages. As chief operations officer and head of production for the Ivan Tors Studio in North Miami, Grefe also associated with amicable animals such as Flipper and Gentle Ben, kid-friendly creations for prime-time TV. But his heart is still with the sharp-toothed beasts that dominated the pictures he made on his own -- like the snakes from 1972's Stanley, which he cites as one of the best examples of how an inexpensive, quickly made exploitation film can turn a fast buck on a trend.

"I was in California on [Tors] studio business, and Variety comes out and there was a picture called Willard, which was the first animal-suspense film," Grefe says. "It was about a guy with rats. This was a gigantic grosser. I don't know what I ate that night, but I went to sleep and I dreamt this whole movie. It was just like I went to the movie, saw the whole thing."

The next morning Grefe visited a distributor he knew named Red Jacobs. In ten minutes, he pitched his dream -- Willard with snakes, in South Florida -- while Jacobs puffed on a huge cigar. A few minutes later Grefe had $250,000 for his movie and an eighteen-week deadline. Still trying to figure out how he would juggle his studio responsibilities and make a film that didn't even have a script yet, he called a writer he thought would be perfect for the job. "The first time I met him he came up to my hotel to show me some scripts," Grefe says. "The guy walks in, this meek little guy, and he opens his briefcase and he's got a .45 automatic, he's got a dagger, he's got all these pills. He's got all these pills and all A he's a pill-popper! So I thought, Yeah, yeah, that's the guy to write the script."

Grefe met the speedy scriptwriter at the L.A. airport that night and outlined every scene for him on a yellow legal pad before boarding his plane back to Florida. Three days later the script arrived -- and a week later Grefe was shooting Stanley, the disturbing story of a viper-loving Vietnam vet who uses snakes to strike down his enemies. When the director's deadline arrived -- April 15, 1972 -- Stanley was ready. "We opened the first day The Godfather -- the original Godfather -- opened," Grefe says proudly. "The original Godfather cost fifteen million. And in Los Angeles The Godfather grossed $181,000 and Stanley grossed $175,000. That was a $250,000 picture against a $15 million picture, and we were only $6000 short of the gross there."

Grefe still lives not far from many of the locations where he used to shoot movies. Most of those places are now changed beyond recognition. Death Curse of Tartu's "ancient Indian burial ground," just off Flamingo Road, has been turned into a sprawling subdivision. Condos dominate another location from that film, a lake off State Road 84, as well as the land at 199th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. The wild frontier days for South Florida real estate, it seems, were ending about the same time as those of its movie industry -- roughly twenty years ago.

But Grefe continues to make films. After shooting the shark sequences for Live and Let Die (also in Bimini, to take advantage of the island's clear water and easily available sharks), he moved up a notch to more sophisticated productions with higher budgets -- mainstream movies such as 1985's Cease Fire with Don Johnson. And these days -- in South Florida's overheated film climate -- he's certainly not short of work. After doing a budget breakdown for a California company hoping to film here, he's been asked to produce a movie; ironically, he may wind up making that picture in Toronto because it's being funded by Canadians. He's also hunting talent for a French company that wants to shoot a film in Miami. To judge from his apparent vitality at age 64, and his evident (if laid-back) enthusiasm for making movies, Bill Grefe is going to be in the business for a while yet.

It strikes him as funny that his long-ago days of shoestring productions and seven-day shoots should have produced movies that are still showing on late-night television, decades after they closed in the theaters. (Elvira, the syndicated TV horror hostess, has a thing for Death Curse of Tartu.) And he seems mystified by his status as a cult hero. "I was up at Disney -- they have an editing suite there," he says, remembering one recent encounter with a fan. "They're very strict. Any tape or film you're bringing you've got to register. There's this young guy, maybe 20, 21 years old, he was the guy that checked you in. So I handed him my film, which I had to have transferred to tape, signed the chit, and this guy says" -- Grefe imitates him, eyes widening and voice rising in awe -- "'Wow! You're Bill Grefe!' And he rattled off all my pictures and all this. It just amazes me, because those pictures, when you made 'em you thought, well, they're okay, but not that they were gonna have cult followings today. I mean, now they spend so much money on the special effects and so on A maybe young people like nostalgia, seeing these old things we made with chewing gum and spit."

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