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.

More than just nostalgia keeps the video monster growing, Bloblike, in Tom Smith's home office. It looms across one entire wall, dominating the room with shelf after shelf of tapes. God only knows what kind of magnetic field the thing puts out -- or what it's done to Smith's mind.

Smith -- and many others like him, to judge from the success of specialty mail-order outlets such as The Fang in Floral Park, New York, Sinister in Medford, Oregon, and Seattle's Something Weird -- genuinely enjoys the time he spends in the twisted half-world of exploitation film. He finds a truth there, he says, that's just not available from Hollywood's homogenized, Blockbuster-bowdlerized products. And he loves the thrill of excavation, of exhuming forgotten history. "It's like we're doing archaeology," he says of his sexploitation studies, speaking with all the intensity of Howard Carter announcing to the world he'd discovered King Tut's tomb. "By most conservative estimates, more than 1600 of these were made between 1961 and 1969, before porno destroyed them. I mean, that's a lot of movies. That's an entire genre, buried. So now that it's all coming out, we're very excited. Every time there's a new release catalogue, especially from Something Weird, we start salivating, because we want to know what's it gonna be this time? Are they finally gonna find Spree with Jayne Mansfield? That's like a really rare one everybody's been waiting to find. Are they gonna find The Hand of Death with John Agar, which supposedly Stan Lee from Marvel Comics destroyed all the prints of because the character resembled the Thing too much? I'm serious. It's like every month -- What are they gonna find next in some old carny's attic?"

Smith isn't satisfied just to study the glories of classic gore and sexploitation. He's guest-curating a Doris Wishman series at Harvard University this summer, and acting in Wishman's latest project, Dildo Heaven (somebody came through with the money and the title is no secret now). And he wants to make his own Florida exploitation movies -- although the material Smith plans to use is a far cry from nudist camps and cannibal caterers. "I'm doing a film based on [radical feminist] Andrea Dworkin's book Intercourse," he says. "I mean it's so scabrous and insane. It's extreme. I guess more than anything that's why I like these films. They're extreme."

Don't expect to find such cinematic extremes at Blockbuster. For that matter, don't count on finding most of the films mentioned here at H. Wayne Huizenga's morally correct mega-movie emporium. With the consolidation of the video-rental business, true trash -- for years a staple of mom-and-pop video stores -- has been driven back below the surface. A resistance movement of sorts has sprung up in reaction to the Huizenga hegemony, researching and copying and networking. Tom Smith calls it the "video underground," where film trash flourishes, infecting more minds today than at any time since the Sixties. It's oddly apropos that after languishing in the permissive climate of the late Seventies and early Eighties, exploitation film should need a bit of repression to bring it back.

Of course, that was the appeal all along -- the thrill of forbidden fruit, of seeing something you weren't supposed to. Of skipping school and sneaking off to the carnival to watch the geeks and the freaks and the half-naked ladies.

Of lighting out for the Bad Taste Frontier.
And what could be more American -- and more Floridian -- than that?

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