Gore Scores

The return of the eye-popping sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis

Lewis could afford to pay only paltry salaries to a few musicians. "And I rented some kettle drums from a place in Chicago called Frank's Drum Shop, but I had neglected to hire a kettle drummer -- it just never even occurred to me. So in addition to scoring, I played the kettle drums, and it worked out. That released me from any inhibitions I had had about writing music. I felt any damn fool could do it, and I proved that."

In 2000 Maniacs, Lewis proved it again. In one scene, he recalls, "there's a harmonica playing 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home,' and I'm playing the harmonica! I didn't regard that as anything that required a member of the musician's union!" For that film, Lewis and Friedman invented a fake Florida town populated by Yankee-despising serial killers. Unfortunate Northern tourists happen by and are hacked to pieces and roasted, a large boulder is rolled atop a woman, and, most grotesquely, a man is placed into a wooden barrel studded with nails and tossed down a hill. The soundtrack is a silly amalgamation of rural folk pickin' and grinnin'. The name Lewis gave to the bluegrassians -- the Pleasant Valley Boys -- was later echoed by the Soggy Bottom Boys in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? And Deliverance, which debuted in 1970, engaged in the wholesale theft of the concept of vacationers done wrong with "Dueling Banjos" replacing "The South's Gonna Rise Again," Lewis's original 2000 Maniacs theme.

"It begins with this little sing-song," says Lewis, obligingly slipping into his rumbling baritone: "There's a story you should know/From a hundred years ago...."

Herschell Gordon Lewis plans another director's cut
Herschell Gordon Lewis plans another director's cut

Up at a small film studio in Orlando, Lewis brought in a local group to record the tune. But this singer came in and -- "There's a story you should know/From a hundred years ago...." Lewis repeats, this time in falsetto. His Brezhnevian brows raise at the memory. "I said, 'Wait a minute.' I had the deepest voice in the room, and obviously I knew the words. So it's my voice you hear on 2000 Maniacs, and I've never regretted that."

By the time Lewis quit making movies in 1972, he had acquired a library of strange background music to suit his work. But whenever he could, he wanted music that he felt lifted his movies above the level of many of the cheap independent films of the day. In fact after 1965's Color Me Blood Red, Lewis and Friedman split up due to the latter's decision to saddle the picture with a canned soundtrack.

"In my opinion, the difference is profound," Lewis scowls. "It doesn't have anywhere near the impact that customized music might have."

But it was never Lewis's intention to seek fame as a composer -- hence, he used pen names like Sheldon Seymour to disguise his role. In fact during the mid-Seventies limbo years, before he found his marketing muse, he'd written off his films and music. He gave up the rights to his pictures (they'd been put up as collateral for a failed bank loan), most of which have now resurfaced in some form or another, with the exception of This Stuff'll Kill Ya! (1971) and Year of the Yahoo! (1972). By the early 1990s, a young entrepreneur named Jimmy Maslin had made a career out of buying up the rights to about 30 of the old films and releasing them via his Seattle-based company, Something Weird Video. And that's how Lewis was reminded of his old bloodletting soundtracks.

"One day in, oh, about 1985 or 1986 or maybe later than that, Maslin called me in a panic and said, 'Are you a member of ASCAP or BMI?' I said, 'Why should I be?' And he said, 'Because John Waters is making a movie called Serial Mom. He wants to use the opening of Blood Feast in that movie, and he needs the music rights.'

"So I said, 'Well, give them to him.'

"He said, 'I don't own 'em -- you do.' Which was a big mistake on his part, I felt."

After Lewis signed on with Broadcast Music Inc., he received a $500 check, he recalls. "I get a royalty twice a year from it. It doesn't come to much, just cigar money. A strange company called Rhino Records put out a recording -- in those days, it wasn't a CD; it was a 33 RPM record -- and it was music from Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs, and they fleshed it out with screams from the two movies."

Just last month, Birdman Records of Burbank bettered the out-of-print Rhino release by releasing the 74-minute Eye-Popping Sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The Blood Feast and Maniacs splatterings are still here, with the original radio spots and official preshow voice-over announcements: "A nurse will be on duty during the showing of this picture not as an advertising gimmick but because she very well may be needed."

A previously unavailable Lewis-penned highlight comes from 1968's She-Devils on Wheels, which was originally performed by his teenage son and his friends. ("When he went to high school, everybody had a rock group," laughs Dad.) Titled "Get Off the Road," it featured a snarling chorus of girls sneering, "We're the hellcats nobody likes/Man-eaters on motorbikes."

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