Miami Movie Mayhem!
You know the girl is dead meat as soon as she shows up on-screen. Even before the swarthy killer's ominous theme music kicks in, before he skulks (dragging his bad leg) into his victim's cheap Miami Beach motel room, before she starts to scream and he falls on top of her in the bed. You know what happens to women in these movies: bad things, bloody things. But you're pretty sure you can take whatever's coming next. This is a 30-year-old flick, after all, a piece of bad-film history, more hilarious than horrifying by today's standards. You're certainly not expecting to be shocked.
Then he rips out her tongue.
And as the camera cuts from a closeup of the freshly plucked, oozing-red organ to the dying girl's face (wide-open blue eyes staring under platinum bouffant, blood overflowing from her tongueless mouth), you know something else: You're going to be sick, very sick.
Blood Feast -- the tale of a crazed Egyptian caterer's gory quest for the ingredients of a 5000-year-old recipe, the hokey, hoary progenitor of the slasher genre, the movie that perhaps made Miami's most significant contribution to cinematic culture A has claimed yet another victim. Like the young women of the film who involuntarily donate their body parts to the flesh-frenzied "Fuad Ramses," you've made your offering to an ancient horror -- in this case, the unnatural offspring of a couple of nudie-movie hustlers from Chicago and the concrete sphinx outside Collins Avenue's Suez Motel, hatched in the glory days of South Florida's first movie boom.
Three decades before The Specialist, True Lies, and Drop Zone brought big-budget Hollywood to the Magic City, Miami was known for a different sort of cinema altogether. In drive-ins, grind houses, and small-town picture shows across 1960s America, the phrase "Florida movie" conveyed a peculiar distinction -- an unsavory combination of low budgets, lurid plots, lack of clothing, and an unflinching commitment to bad taste in the service of commerce. To judge from films such as She-Devils on Wheels, Hideout in the Sun, 2000 Maniacs, and Sting of Death, Florida was an anarchic frontier overrun by drug-addled bikers, uninhibited nudists, redneck cannibals, and Creatures That Time Forgot. Voracious sharks and giant man-of-wars lurked just offshore, awaiting unwary beachgoers; deep in the Everglades, the unquiet spirits of Indian medicine men possessed the bodies of wild animals, seeking vengeance on those who would disturb their graves. Sex and violence were everywhere, in equal overabundance.
That was the legend, at least. But the real story of South Florida's Grade-Z movie industry is at least as fascinating and twisted as the mythos it produced. Borrowing the con-artist spirit of pre-Disney Florida's carnivals and roadside attractions, the profiteers of exploitation film promised to show their audiences the bizarre, the forbidden, and the disgusting: living bodies used for the most vile experiments ever devised, madness incarnate, ghastly beyond belief. What they delivered was something else: over-the-hill actors stumbling zombielike through pathetic attempts to resurrect their careers, naked women playing endless games of volleyball, sheep entrails soaked in stage blood and slathered haphazardly over department-store mannequins. It was a rip-off, all right -- that's why they called it exploitation film -- but it was also a whole lot of fun.
And as any carny can tell you, if it's fun for the suckers, it's a hell of a lot more fun for the people in on the game A people like Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman, the masterminds behind Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red. Like Doris Wishman, creator of Nude on the Moon, the first (and possibly only) science-fiction nudie. And like Bill Grefe, who ascended into respectability after cutting his teeth on pictures such as Mako, Jaws of Death, and Death Curse of Tartu. With their films enjoying a second coming on videotape -- enshrined as cult objects by the video underground -- they have themselves become cult celebrities, sought out by fans who want to know how it was in the bad old days. The stories they tell recall a world almost as wild as their films A a South Florida that exists today mostly as a homogenized, Disneyfied shadow of its garish past. It was the Bad Taste Frontier, a place where anything could happen.
Tom Smith remembers his first encounter with Blood Feast the way some people remember their first kiss. "I grew up in a small town in Georgia called Adel, about 4000 people," he says, his oh-so-ironic tone belied by the smile of reminiscent pleasure slowly spreading across his broad face. "There was a walk-in and a drive-in. My cousin was two years older than I -- that makes him about eight -- and his best friend was about ten, and they both went to see Blood Feast. I was too young, way too young to go. And they came back horrified but filled with happiness. They told me about all the great scenes -- you know, the woman having her tongue pulled out and the evil guy being crushed by the garbage-truck crusher at the end -- and it just sounded perfect."
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."
Now an eerily well-preserved 68 years old and living in Plantation, Lewis looks perfectly at home talking carnage and cannibalism over lunch at the Fort Lauderdale Country Club. One has to wonder what his pastel-clad fellow members would think if they had seen him in his movie days, setting out from Chicago in a little VW bus crammed with cameras and gear, bound for Miami and new realms of unparalleled depravity. For his part, Lewis seems to enjoy his role as ghoul emeritus. He recounts his exploits with some relish, in the same broadcast-quality voice he uses for his Curmudgeon at Large commentaries on WFTL-AM (1400) in Fort Lauderdale.
"We were staying at a place in the north Beach called the Suez Motel," Lewis says. "I still know the address -- 18215 Collins Avenue. Outside the Suez Motel is a fake sphinx. It was only about six or seven feet high, but if you shoot it from the right angle, it looks like the [real] sphinx. After all, if you're shooting against the sky, size is of no consequence. And that, I will tell you, became the icon, the rationale, the whole motif behind Blood Feast -- which is about an ancient Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses, who wants to have" -- Lewis pauses to assume a solemn expression and an exaggerated Middle Eastern accent -- "an Egyptian feast."
Then, in the middle of the Fort Lauderdale Country Club, in between sips of iced tea, Lewis becomes his villain. With piercing stares and a sinister voice he replays Fuad Ramses's sales pitch to a housewife searching for a caterer with that extra-special something for a birthday party:
"Madam, have you ever had an Egyptian feast?"
"No, but has there been a party like that?"
"Not for 5000 years!"
"It turns out that an Egyptian feast is the parts of young girls cut up and cooked," Lewis says, returning to his customary cheerful demeanor. "And that is really the total plot line of Blood Feast."
The recipe was simple: Take gallons and gallons of custom-mixed stage blood from a cosmetics firm in Coral Gables; add sheep organs (kept in a small refrigerator in Lewis's room at the Suez) and a rented boa constrictor (one-time carny Friedman rode herd on the snake, which made the most of its film debut by escaping); throw in numerous voluptuous victims (sliced, diced, and chopped) and one garish silver statue of the bloodthirsty goddess "Ishtar" (not exactly Egyptian, but who'd know that at the drive-in?). Grind the whole thing up in an old 35mm Mitchell camera, and garnish with one more ingredient -- the smallest pinch of acting talent, the kind, Lewis likes to say, you found "under a rock." Total cost: $24,000.
Leading man Bill Kerwin was probably the most professional cast member. He hid behind the alias "Thomas Wood" to preserve his union status while starring in a number of Lewis and Friedman's decidedly nonunion pictures. Lewis prized Kerwin for a most unactorlike willingness to lend a hand when he wasn't in front of the camera. Kerwin's co-star, Connie Mason ("YOU READ ABOUT HER IN PLAYBOY," leered the posters), lacked his helpful nature, not to mention the ability to remember her lines. David Friedman's old Venice carnival buddy Scott Hall also had trouble with his lines, but that was understandable. Hall, a crew member with no acting experience, pitched in to play a police captain when the man hired for the job didn't show. His occasional glances at script notes hidden on his desk hardly hurt his performance at all.
And then there was Astrid Olsen, the girl with the tongue of a sheep. "That tongue scene in Blood Feast is a watershed scene," Lewis says. "The night before, we didn't have anybody to do that with. Dave went down to the Playboy Club with the instruction to find us a girl whose mouth is big enough to take that sheep's tongue. That was the sole casting requirement. That was her whole part. [He came back with] a girl named Astrid Olsen who was able to get that tongue in her mouth along with her own."
When David Friedman recalls the girl he brought back to have a bloody sheep's tongue "ripped" from her mouth, a tone of unholy glee creeps into his voice. "She shows up with her boyfriend, who was some Neanderthal type. He thought that this was gonna be a big starring part in a big Paramount picture, and it was one day's work!" he says, laughing over the phone from his hometown of Anniston, Alabama. (Friedman retired to Anniston after an illustrious career whose post-Blood Feast achievements included developing one of the top porn-distribution companies on the West Coast, movies such as Trader Hornee and The Erotic Adventures of Zorro, and a stint as president of the Adult Film Association of America.)
Friedman had a nonspeaking role as Olsen's drunken boyfriend, who returns with her to her room at the Suez. "I pantomime that I've gotta go get more whiskey, and then of course Fuad Ramses comes in and rips her tongue out. And then we said, 'Well, okay honey, we'll be in touch.'
"'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."
That said, he's careful to distinguish Blood Feast, which he calls "total fantasy," from the "total reality" of a movie like Scarface. Rejecting the notion that his creation launched us down a blood-stained slippery slope toward thugs with murderous chainsaws, Lewis looks past what the two films obviously share A death and dismemberment in Miami Beach A to make a point worthy of a former English professor. "There's no relationship between Scarface and Blood Feast," he asserts. "Scarface is dedicated to the proposition that using violence for drama is parallel to entertainment. Blood Feast is dedicated to the proposition that far-out, fantasy violence is, in fact, a facet of entertainment."
Lewis pursued his version of fantasy through more than 40 films, then vanished from the movie world in 1972 after directing The Gore-Gore Girls, a spoof on the genre. In his absence, wild rumors about his death or incarceration flourished, fed by a federal fraud investigation of one of his businesses. "I've heard that I was on a chain gang in Georgia or some darn thing," says Lewis, who is now enjoying a second successful career as a direct-mail-marketing guru.
A woman is taking off her clothes in black and white on Tom Smith's TV screen, shedding mesh-and-wire lingerie while an invisible band plays an out-of-context bossa nova in the background. Smith is talking about the woman's body, how she lacks the plastic perfection of naked women in movies today, idealized out of all sexual appeal. This is a real woman, Smith says, with pimples on her butt. This is what turns him on. "All Doris's women look like my ex-girlfriends from the University of Georgia," he says with a laugh.
"Doris" is Doris Wishman, the woman who made this film, Indecent Desire, and 24 others like it, the woman Smith seems to spend more time thinking about than any other, with the possible exception of his wife Angela. He stumbled across the sixtysomething Wishman behind the counter of the Pink Pussycat Boutique in Coconut Grove, selling sex toys more explicit than anything in the movies she makes.
As Wishman tells it, Smith practically passed out when he realized who she was. "He walked up and said, 'My God, you're Doris Wishman! You're a genius!'" she says in her New York-grandmother voice, leaning on a case displaying (among other things) glow-in-the-dark condoms. "He went hysterical. I swear to you -- he went hysterical."
Smith doesn't remember it quite that way; he says he's not so easily starstruck. Then again, it's hard to see how he could have maintained all his cool. In the universe of exploitation film, Doris Wishman is more than just a star. A pioneer woman filmmaker, she thrived in one of the toughest territories in filmdom. With titles such as Sex Perils of Paulette, Bad Girls Go to Hell, Nature Camp Confidential, and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, Wishman kept her quirky movies playing in grind houses and drive-ins for nearly two decades, until porno destroyed sexploitation and a film-lab disaster ruined A Night to Dismember, her 1983 attempt to jump genres into horror.
Wishman's idiosyncratic style (compared by at least one critic to that of Jean-Luc Godard in its "indifference to composition and framing") and taste for bizarre themes (more titles: The Amazing Transplant, Let Me Die a Woman) combined to create a world as weird as any recorded on film. That weirdness, she says, was a product of the exploitation environment A although given some examples of her work and a little conversation with the director, it's hard to deny that the Wishman world-view is more than just a little bit out of the mainstream. "When you don't have too much money, you have to have a gimmick," she says by way of explaining Double Agent 73, a 1974 vehicle for Chesty Morgan's 73-inch breasts. "So I always managed to have a gimmick. With Chesty Morgan, one gimmick was that she smothers her enemies with her bosom. In Double Agent, she has a camera implanted in her breast."
A spy camera implanted in her breast? Strange as it sounds, there it is -- in her left breast, to be precise, placed there to record the identities of her victims post-bosom-smothering, and not coincidentally to provide an excuse for the repeated exposure of her natural assets. (Chesty and her chest-cam also turn up in Serial Mom; John Waters is a big Doris Wishman fan.) "So you get these awful, pendulous, dreadful-looking humongous tits like every five seconds," Tom Smith says admiringly. "That's classic exploitation. I mean, it really is brilliant. Big, huge, humongous spy tits is something they just weren't doing at Paramount."
No argument there. You've got to wonder, though, what sort of mind could produce the concept of a tit camera. It's unconventional, to say the least; but then, if Wishman had been satisfied with the conventional, she'd never have begun making movies. "There are certain things I don't want to talk about," she says regarding her start in the nudie-movie business. Three decades later it's clear she still feels pain from the event that transformed her life: the death of her first husband four months after they arrived in Miami. Following that tragedy, she says, "I wanted something that would really keep me busy."
Armed with a $10,000 loan from her sister, experience in film distribution, and the conviction that producing a decent nudie couldn't be that difficult, Wishman jumped into filmmaking with an auteur's self-confidence -- she produced, wrote, and directed all her films. Her first results were not promising: "I shot a few days and I saw what I had and I said, 'Oh my God.' Everyone said [to my sister], 'Are you crazy, giving her $10,000?' And my sister said, 'If it's therapy for Doris....' And it was therapy. Not that I was sick or anything, but I was very upset because I had a guilt complex -- stuff I shouldn't have had but I did have. Now I knew what I had to do."
With the financial support of her sister, some friends, and her own money, Wishman persisted, despite her initial discomfort with nudity. There were, for example, certain lines she just would not cross. "The woman who ran the camp [Zelda Briggs] said that everybody in the crew had to be nude, and I said, 'Under no circumstances,'" Wishman recalls. Clothed, Wishman and her crew filmed Hideout in the Sun (about a couple of bank robbers who take refuge in a nudist colony, only to come to a bad end at the old Serpentarium) and Nude on the Moon (astronauts landing on the moon -- actually the Coral Castle in Homestead -- discover the place is populated by humanoid nudists).
Taken as a whole, Wishman's work reveals a poignancy lacking in most exploitation film. "There's a certain character that her women display," Tom Smith says as his television screen fills with a lecherous ne'er-do-well who uses a voodoo doll to feel up Indecent Desire's heroine from a distance. "Almost to a woman they're hungry for love, they're searching for someone to make them feel whole. That keeps sucking them into these dreadful situations where men take advantage of them." And it seems there's more than a little of Wishman in her women. She blames herself for the failure of her second marriage; her work was more important to her than her husband. "Which is wrong and I know it," she says. "I wanted to work. I loved it, it was a challenge, and he was intensely jealous." Perhaps it's this personal element A so different from the cynical detachment of Lewis and Friedman A that gives Wishman's films their odd resonance.
Wishman now shares a Coral Gables apartment with her sister, and remains an economic refugee from the disaster of her last film. Her job at the Pink Pussycat helps pay the bills, but she'll never make enough selling Tie-Ups brand handcuffs to pay for another picture. Still, she reads scripts -- she's seen some "fantastic" ones, she says -- and keeps a lookout for possible backers for her next project. All she needs is $50,000 to shoot a film on video. She has a title but won't let it be printed for fear somebody might steal it. "You hear of any investors?" she asks. "Let me tell you something, there's a lot of money in this video business."
Of all the filmmakers active in Florida during the exploitation boom of the Sixties and early Seventies, only one -- Bill Grefe -- survives in the movie business today. A few years ago Tom Smith had Grefe come and speak about low-budget filmmaking to his "Cinema Depreciation" class at Miami-Dade Community College. "We had a really great class," Smith says sarcastically, "because about nine or ten of the different humanities classes came down and proceeded to assail him with the most stupid fucking questions -- you know, 'What about Fellini?'" Fellini is not what you ask Bill Grefe about; better you should ask him about the alligator that nearly ended his career.
It happened in 1967, on the hurry-up shoot for Death Curse of Tartu. Grefe had contracted to provide the film -- about an Indian medicine man's vengeance from beyond the grave -- for a distributor who needed the second half of a double feature quickly, in time to make the summer horror market. Grefe wrote the script in 24 hours, then set off for a week of shooting in the Everglades. Things were going pretty smoothly until he got ready to film a scene in which an alligator grabs a girl by the arm. The arm in the gator's wired-shut mouth was to be made of rubber, but the scene would still require the actress to lie next to the reptile with her arm in a hole in the ground, to simulate imminent amputation.
"So I told this Frank Weed, who was my crazy guy who lived out in the Glades and handled the animals, I said, you know, bring me a docile alligator," Grefe says in his soft, slow voice while relaxing in the two-story living room of his West Broward A-frame. "He comes in the morning and he had the biggest damn alligator I've ever seen. I mean this thing wouldn't even fit in his pickup truck. He gets this alligator out and this actress says, 'No way Jose, I mean I'm not laying next to this alligator.' This alligator, we had his mouth wired shut, and so I told the actress, I said, 'Look, there's nothing to it, he's calm, let me show you.'
"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."
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?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.