by Steve Habrat
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez introduced mainstream audiences to exploitation cinema or “grindhouse” cinema with their sleazy double-feature experiment Grindhouse. Their experiment failed to resonate with audiences, at least at first, but in the wake of Grindhouse, there was a growing interest in exploitation cinema from the mid 1960s until the mid 80s. Glorifying sex, violence, and depravity, “grindhouse” movies were “ground out” in dingy old movie palaces or rickety drive-in theaters while a wide range of colorful audience members smoked dope, pleasured themselves, mugged other audience members, heckled the screen, and relieved themselves in soda cups to avoid a trip to the creepy bathrooms. Ranging from spaghetti westerns to European zombie movies to cannibal films to blaxploitation flicks to all out pornography, exploitation had many forms and a good majority of them were absolutely awful. However, there were more than a few stand outs that managed to hold up over the years and earn respectable cult followings. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s ten best grindhouse films of all time. Take comfort in the fact that you can watch them in your own home, far away from the junkies of 42nd Street!
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES
10.) I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Israeli director Meir Zarchi’s stunningly graphic rape/revenge flick has become one of the most infamous grindhouse films ever made. The film notoriously enraged critics upon its release and even caused Roger Ebert to write one of the most scathing film reviews of his career. I Spit on Your Grave is trashy, sleazy, mean, brutal, and harrowing, with plenty of sex and violence to fuel a dozen exploitation pictures. So what makes it so awesome? Folks, when this poor woman unleashes her fury, it will have you simultaneously cheering her on while covering your eyes and reaching for the barf bag. I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, but the polished presentation and evidence of a studio budget failed to pack the punch of the gritty original.
9.) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one seriously scary movie. Believe me, folks. It may also make you want to take a shower, become a vegetarian, and never go anywhere near the Texas border. Wielding a nerve-frying sense of realism, this grim and grimy tale about a group of young friends who come face to face with a family of murderous cannibals led by Leatherface was inspired by the heinous crimes of real life serial killer Ed Gein and famously spooked the horror-hating critic Rex Reed. Surprisingly, Hooper adds little gore to the mayhem and instead relies on the thick Texas heat, dilapidated brans, abandoned meat packing factories, and rusty family-owned gas stations to keep us on our toes. Wait for the final fifteen minuets, with a gut-churning family dinner, star Marilyn Burns screaming herself horse, and Leatherface doing a dance of death in the middle of a highway.
8.) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
Sexploitation king Russ Meyer’s snarling Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of the funkiest films you are ever likely to see. It has just about everything an exploitation fan could want: ass-kicking go-go dancers, drag races, fist fights, big breasts, sadistic backwoods males, and switchblades. It is like a living, berating cartoon that wouldn’t hesitate to rip your throat out. It is precisely this pulpy, comic book touch that makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! such an essential grindhouse thrill ride. The action is breakneck, the fights are bone-snapping, the races are smoking, and the go-go dances will have the male viewers hot under the collar. The middle section of the film begins to sag, that I will admit, but the curvy Varla and her no-nonsense attitude keeps the entertainment level as high as it will go.
7.) El Topo (1970)
The film that started the midnight movie craze, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is a work that you can’t even begin to fully understand or truly put in words. It’s a spaghetti western that really isn’t a western at all. At times spiritual, at times existential, at times beautiful, but almost always brutal beyond belief, El Topo follows a lone gunslinger named El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) on his quest to confront a handful of cunning warriors lurking out in the desert. At the time of its release, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were very vocal about their love for El Topo, and over the years, it has caught the attention of David Lynch, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Marilyn Manson, and Bob Dylan. There is no doubt that El Topo will shock, swoon, and appall all who see it, sending the viewers away to discuss and debate the surreal string of images that Jodorowsky springs on them. You truly won’t believe your eyes.
6.) The Streetfighter (1974)
You can’t have a list of the best grindhouse films of all time without including this wickedly savage Sonny Chiba classic. The Streetfighter is a mess in the plot department, but you’re not here to for a mind bending story. No, you’re here to watch Sonny Chiba, who seriously makes the best facial expression ever while throwing down with a sea of bad guys, rip some guys balls off, rip another dude’s vocal cords out, and sock a guy in the gut so hard that he barfs (trust me, there is a hell of a lot more). It’s great and it is even better if you watch it with a group of friends that howl every time someone memorably bites the dust. The Streetfighter ended up being the first film ever to receive an “X” rating for violence and even by today’s standards, it would make most splatter directors blush. It stands proudly as one of the greatest kung-fu films ever made.
5.) Halloween (1978)
Believe it or not, John Carpenter’s icy tale of the Boogeyman in suburbia was indeed a grindhouse movie. Made by an independent studio and on a shoestring budget of $325,000, this terrifying slasher pic is widely considered to be the most successful independent feature of all time. Halloween is the ultimate example of less-is-more and it inspired a slew of holiday-themed slashers that emerged in the wake of its popularity. There is so much to love here, from the spine-tingling score to the seemingly supernatural Michael Meyers, and plenty to give the viewer nightmares for a week. Halloween was followed by a number of sequels, two of which are worth checking out, and a gritty, ultra-gory remake in 2007 by shock rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie. There have been countless imitators, but the original Halloween remains the scariest slasher film ever made.
4.) Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)
One of the more extreme and sexually graphic films on this list, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, was one of the original women-in-prison grindhouse films. Directed by Don Edmonds and shot on the leftover sets of Hogan’s Heroes, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS has earned its reputation through its borderline pornographic sex scenes, prolonged sequences of torture, its surprisingly serious approach to the silly material, the grim ending, and Dyanne Thorne as the sadistic Ilsa. Seriously, wait until you get a load of Thorne’s Ilsa. If taken for what it is, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is pretty entertaining even if you’re constantly closing your eyes or watching with your jaw on the floor. In October, I actually had the pleasure of meeting Dyanne Thorne and she was a gigantic sweetheart even if she was dressed in her Nazi uniform. For those looking to cut their teeth on the savage stuff, make sure you get ahold of the blood-splattered Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. It is the real deal.
3.) Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)
Would you believe that director Bo Arne Vibenius, the man behind Thriller: A Cruel Picture, once worked with Swedish art house director Ingmar Bergman? If you’ve seen Thriller: A Cruel Picture, you probably can’t. The ultimate rape/revenge film, Thriller would chew I Spit on Your Grave up and then spit it out, place a double barrel shotgun to its head, and then blow its brains clean out. The tagline warned viewers that Thriller was “the movie that has no limits of evil” and it really meant it. Following the beautiful young Frigga (played by bombshell Christina Lindberg), who is abducted and forced into a life of drug addiction and prostitution before she snaps and goes on a killing spree, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is about as rough and tough as a motion picture can be. Vibenius unleashes graphic sequences of sexual intercourse (complimented by a shrill static sound effect to make the viewer cringe) and slow-motion shots of Frigga’s tormentors tumbling through the air while gore spills from the bullet wounds. He also gouges the eye ball out of a real corpse. So, do you think you have the stones to go up against Thriller: A Cruel Picture?
2.) Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato’s “found footage” gross-out Cannibal Holocaust was so realistic, that when the film premiered in Milan, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. Certainly not for everyone, Cannibal Holocaust has become the most controversial movie ever made and it lives up to its reputation. Featuring strings of unblinking violence with barely a cut to be found, real footage of animals being killed (this aspect of the film particularly disturbed me), and the most repulsive sex/rape scenes every filmed, Cannibal Holocaust is the film that goes all the way and doesn’t even consider looking back. Believe it or not, Cannibal Holocaust is a shocking reflection of the violence lurking in even the most “civilized” human beings, something you’d never expect from a film that seems content to wallow in depravity. The film sparked a number of copy cat cannibal films that emerged out of Italy throughout the 80s, but none could match what Deodato created. Deodato has since stated his regret in making the film, but Cannibal Holocaust has earned a fairly respectable cult following. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.
1.) Zombie (1979)
Legendary Italian horror director Lucio Fulci has been widely considered to be the “Godfather of Gore” and he certainly lives up to that reputation with Zombie. Released in 1979 and marketed as the sequel to George A. Romero’s zombie epic Dawn of the Dead (the films have no connection), Zombie is about as fun and icky as a zombie film can get. It is gratuitous with its blood and guts as well with its nudity (breasts are flashed for seemingly no reason at all). Zombie certainly lacks the sophistication of a Romero zombie film and absolutely no one expects it to make a profound statement about society, but it does get the zombie action right. Rotten corpses claw out of the grave, freshly infected shuffle through rickety tropical ghost towns looking for victims, a zombie battles a shark (yes, you read that correctly) and ghouls rally together at the climax to infiltrate a bordered up makeshift hospital. And boy, does it feature some nasty looking zombies. A midnight movie of the highest order, Zombie is balls to the wall insanity. Fun Fact: Zombie‘s trailer promised queasy viewers a barf bag with their ticket!
by Steve Habrat
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Although it is not technically a genre of cinema, the “grind house” film has become something of it’s own breed. I don’t mean the recent underground fascination with them. The fascination with this trashy form of film sparked out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult hit Grindhouse and 2010’s follow up Machete. Or how about this year’s Hobo with a Shotgun? I’m also fairly convinced you’ve seen the commercials for recent video game House of the Dead, which oozes with sleaze and depravity, the type that ran rampant in grind house theaters. The influence from those down and dirty pictures from the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s is everywhere and some do not even realize it. One of the most notorious films that played in “grind houses” was the unflinchingly graphic rape/revenge romp I Spit on Your Grave, a film that is the true definition of the word vile. And yet in a way it’s hard to totally dismiss the film because it puts in overtime to earn the reputation that it has. Released in 1978 and the brainchild of Israeli director Meir Zarchi, I Spit on Your Grave can be viewed from many different angles. It could be seen as a female empowerment flick, a criticism of masculinity, or just gleefully exploitative. Stemming from a movement in cinema that I absolutely love, I Spit on Your Grave was one of the toughest films to get through, featuring a gang rape sequence that is agonizingly long and revealing. It pushes the viewers buttons and after witnessing what our delicate protagonist goes through at the hands of four animalistic hillbillies, you can’t help yourself but root for her to exact revenge on her tormentors. You’ll feel this way even if you loathe the film.
Jennifer Hills (Played by Camille Keaton) is a short story writer who ventures to the country to shack up in an isolated lakefront home to work on her first novel. Jennifer appears to be a much more liberal woman, sporting silky, transparent sundresses that illuminate her near perfect figure, also showing the viewer she is not wearing underwear. She stops off at a rundown gas station and meets three local males. She chats innocently enough with the gas station attendant Johnny (Played by Eron Tabor). She also meets the shirtless duo that is Stanley (Played by Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Played by Gunter Kleemann). After arriving at her secluded getaway, she is greeted by the mentally challenged grocery store delivery boy Matthew (Played by Richard Pace), who is an innocent, friendly virgin. Matthew takes a liking to the flirty Jennifer and he runs off to tell his savage pal Johnny, who encourages Matthew to pursue Jennifer. When Matthew doesn’t, Stanley and Andy pluck her from her home while she sunbathes, drag her out into the woods, and proceed to gang rape and beat her. They then tell Matthew to kill Jennifer. Matthew shakily fakes her death and several weeks later, Jennifer heals and returns to exact revenge on the savages who violated her and terrorized without mercy.
I Spit on Your Grave has to be one of the most hated films ever made, one that enraged critics and audiences upon its release (For a good seething review, check out Roger Ebert’s famous take on the film) and one that still upsets to this day. It stuns me that this film is sold at Best Buy where a younger viewer can easily obtain it. In an interview on the DVD, Zarchi says he was inspired to make this film after his real life experience of stumbling upon a woman who had been raped and aided her in getting help. It’s good to know this tidbit of information, partly because it relieves the viewer of the suspicion that this film was made out of some sick fantasy. Zarchi’s camera does seem infatuated with Keaton’s physique. He shows every angle of every unmentionable; giving the film it’s exploitative ambiance. Any excuse to get her in the nude is fully embraced here. The grind house films were heavily interested in gratuitous nudity and explicit sex, some of these films branded with an X rating. And just like the multiple grind house films before it, it brings along its fair share of gore and voyeuristic violence. One misconception of grind house cinema is that all of these films were hyper violent. This is true to an extent, as some boasted jazzy, hardcore titles that made lots of promises but never really delivered the gore that audience’s lusted for. Two prime examples would be 1978’s Halloween, which was a grind house slasher film that lacked little to no gore and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which contained very little of the red stuff. I Spit on Your Grave has plenty to satisfy the gore hounds.
Weighed down by infinite amounts of hammy acting, mostly from its male players, Keaton is the one that really brings the fire. She does her best to avoid being reduced to a hot piece of flesh. She’s a broken ass kicker that is ready to bring the wrath of God upon the monsters that crossed her. Her crowning moment comes during the shocking castration scene, where she lures one of the men into a bath with her and while fooling around, she reaches under the bathmat and pulls out a hulking blade and, with one clean cut, severs the man’s own weapon. She then gets out of the tub and leaves the bathroom, locking the door from the outside as he shrieks in pain and at the act done upon him. She then puts on a classical record, sits down and relishes in the agony just behind the bathroom door. She stares off just past the camera, her eyes conveying a cracked soul yet illuminated with the burning flame of revenge. Who could blame her? Later, she burns the man’s clothes and as she does, she is illuminated in red, a color that engulfs the entire project. Dark red has been said to symbolize rage, determination, and wrath, all which Jennifer brings down on the men. Earlier in the film, light red and some pinks dominate, which symbolize friendship, passiveness, and love, which all radiate from Jennifer. The color scheme is very film school, something that would seem at home in a student film, yet it is probably one of the artist qualities that I Spit on Your Grave has.
The men of I Spit on Your Grave are the scum of the earth, even the mentally challenged Matthew. It is revealed that Johnny has a wife and two children, which makes his act even more disgusting than it already was. Even the men that seem honest and true are animals and capable of inflicting horrible acts. Andy and Stanley both leap around the woods like primates, hooting and hollering with glee in their wanton dance. Yet when Jennifer bears down on them, wielding an axe, they both quiver and cry, stammering, “It wasn’t my idea! Johnny made me do it!” The “It wasn’t my idea!” is an excuse thrown around quite a bit in I Spit on Your Grave, saying that men never truly want to own up to their actions. Matthew’s death is the only one leaving us feeling disheartened, as he is a character who is somewhat unaware of his actions and who tried to do the right thing when the gang rape was taking place. It does not excuse all of his behavior, as he stills has blood on his hands too.
I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, further driving the underground fixation with genre trash. The remake of the film never shook me up and was a largely overlooked upon release. A sign of the times if I have ever seen one, highlighting the desensitized attitude that has been driven into American audiences. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is still a much more shocking film, partly because the remake has echoes of torture porn and Saw coursing through its dirt caked veins. Love it or hate it, it still marks the viewer, never allowing them to forget what they have seen. I found the film had a major artistic handicap, resorting to said film school techniques, all which prance around and bellow thoughtful. It’s definitely an empowering film to women, even if the excessive violence is up for debate. As a piece of grind house cinema, it ranks among the best of them, wallowing in all the filth that made this genre what it is today.
I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.