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."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Kelly