Throughout the 1960s, Herschell Gordon Lewis was a prolific filmmaker who worked across several genres in the arena of low-budget filmmaking, but he’s most widely known for his work in horror. He’s particularly noted for pushing the limits of gore in films such as Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), The Gruesome Twosome (1967) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). These films helped pave the way for more explicit depictions of violence in mainstream films.
After 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, he retired from show business to concentrate on a career in advertising. He returned in 2002 with Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. His latest film, The Uh-Oh! Show, was released on DVD this summer and is available for purchase through outlets such as Amazon. (It is, unfortunately, not available through Netflix.) He’s the subject of Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore, a biodoc by Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter and released by Something Weird Video (which was named after one of Mr. Lewis’s movies). He also remains active in the field of advertising, operating his own marketing firm and having written numerous books on the subject.
The Wizard of Gore was screened at this year’s Music Box Massacre, and Mr. Lewis attended as a special guest. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to interview him at the Massacre, but a few days later I contacted him by email and he graciously consented to answer a few questions.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
I was teaching English Literature at Mississippi State. Probably because I had no Southern accent, they added “Director of Broadcasting” to my job list. That eventually led to positions within the broadcasting world, and ultimately I was television director of a Chicago advertising agency. We were shooting commercials at a small studio. The owner, Martin Schmidhofer, told me he desperately needed a businesslike partner…and in a moment of insanity I bought a half interest. We called the company Lewis & Martin Films.
How has your experience in advertising influenced you as a filmmaker?
Both fields demand attention to what the recipient of a message wants to see and/or hear. Many parallels exist.
What attracts you to horror as a genre?
Horror is one of a few categories in which the enterprising independent film-maker can compete, because emphasis can be centered on the effects and action rather than star names.
You retired from filmmaking in the early ’70s–why?
The major film studios began to make “my” kind of movies. They had three assets I didn’t–budget, semi-name stars, and implicit distribution. My other career, in marketing, was flourishing, and I felt it was time to get out.
And why did you return to filmmaking in the early 2000s with Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat?
A producer named Jacky Morgan had a “deal” totally lined up, except for a director. He literally hired me to direct that movie. I’ll never say no to such an offer.
What can you tell us about your latest movie, The Uh-Oh! Show?
This movie welds the conventional splatter film to outrageous comedy. Viewers will know at once that the entire experience is a joke. In these early days, I’m disappointed by the distribution arrangements the producer has set up.
You’re often credited as one of the first directors (if not the first) to depict victims dying with their eyes open; was that a deliberate choice?
How do you feel about being known as “The Godfather of Gore?”
I don’t want it on my tombstone, but I’m delighted to have even that peculiar stamp of recognition.
Do you feel you’ve been influential as a filmmaker?
That conclusion isn’t mine to determine. Many others tell me I’ve been influential. The type of influence may be questionable.
Of all the films you’ve made, which is your favorite?
Two Thousand Maniacs.
Thanks very much, Mr. Lewis!