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
The spaghetti western genre can be a truly grim affair, from the shifty characters to the unflinching violence right to the decrepit towns. Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 Keoma is no different. Keoma goes a step further and early on establishes an apocalyptic atmosphere with barely any hope in sight. Despite the doom and gloom, Keoma is one of the most scenic spaghetti westerns I have seen, one that has obviously been treated with care since its release and embraces any opportunity to show off the mountainous landscape. Keoma is a must-see spaghetti western for two other unique approaches. The film is narrated almost like a Greek tragedy, the story guided along by a male and female singer that provides us with our hero Keoma’s inner thoughts and several nifty slow-motion shootouts, slowed down so we can see the victims doing a dance of death right before they hit the ground. They are vaguely evocative of the shootouts in The Wild Bunch and Thriller: A Cruel Picture in their splendor and horror.
Keoma follows a half-breed gunslinger named Keoma (Played by Franco Nero) who returns to his plague-ridden hometown after service in the Civil War. After saving a sick woman named Lisa (Played by Olga Karlatos) from a group of brutal gunslingers who are rounding up plague victims, Keoma learns that his hometown is in control of a brutal landlord named Caldwell (Played by Donald O’Brien). Making things worse, Keoma’s three brothers are looking to join forces with Caldwell and they wish to do away with Keoma. Teaming up with his father, William Shannon (Played by William Berger), and their ex-slave and servant George (Played by Woody Strode), Keoma begins trying to help the plague victims of the town, bringing in medicine, food, and a Marshall to bring law and order to the community. In the meantime, Keoma has to stand up to Caldwell and finds himself hopelessly outgunned.
Unlike other spaghetti westerns, where the characters sit around and stare at each other and mumble little snippets of dialogue (don’t take that as negative criticism, I absolutely love westerns like that), Keoma is a chattier experience and one that is much more action packed than other entries. In fact, I was truly taken aback by the extended gunfight at the climax of the film, one that lasts about twenty minutes. This is a film that is galloping along right from the windy opening scene. In such films like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Django or even the films of Sergio Leone, the violence was sudden and short, startling the viewer with how quickly it started and how fast it ended. Keoma draws these sequences out and then proceeds to slow the violence down, exploiting it just like a good sleaze picture should. The end shoot out is at times redolent of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch crossed with Bo Arne Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the camera glued to the waving ribbons of gore spilling out of the bullet holes of the dead. I was also impressed with the way the film has held up all these years, a clear picture, timeless acting, and expert dubbing (I point this out because these films are usually poor in the dubbing department).
Keoma packs a steely-eyed performance from the gruff Franco Nero as Keoma. Imagine if Johnny Depp had time traveled back to the 1970s, grew a thick beard, and dawned a cowboy hat. If you can make a mental image of that (I doubt that is very difficult), you have Nero’s Keoma. Keoma isn’t a man interested in money or wealth. He only sets his sights on bringing law and order to a town without any and in the process, protecting those who can’t protect themselves. He’s a far throw from Eastwood’s The Man with No Name when it comes to his morals but he is still a man who doesn’t have infinite amounts to say. Sure he speaks more than The Man with No Name, but he hates scum that has too much to say. Those who do end up meeting the blast of his double barrel shotgun. Another standout in Keoma is Woody Strode as George; a pitiful ex-slave with petrified eyes and who is consistently enduring malicious racial slurs spit at him by Caldwell’s men. He is a man who was once honorable, a man who Keoma looked up to when he was just a boy. When we meet him, he is a slouchy drinker who doesn’t stand up for himself. Your heart will break when one of Caldwell’s men walks up to him and urinates on his boots, making a fool of George even though he was just trying to do the right thing. When George finally picks up a gun (and crossbow) and joins Keoma to defend the town, you will want to stand up and cheer.
Director Castellari makes Keoma a standout with some inventive camera angles that makes the film an artful journey into the west. The opening scene has the camera sitting stationary inside an abandoned structure, mostly in the dark except for the light streaming in from a slamming screen door where we can faintly see Keoma ridding through a ghost town. The door is to the right if the screen, the camera almost trying to remain elusive and reluctant to enter the ailing world. Another scene finds the camera placed behind a piece of wood that Keoma and his father are using as target practice, the picture slowly being revealed from the holes shot into the wood. Castellari compliments that unique camerawork with a shrieking score that is the furthest thing from the jangly Ennio Morricone scores that were so popular in these films. The score is used to allow us to hear the thoughts of the characters and sometimes acts as our own inner advice to the characters. It suggests that Keoma should run away with Lisa and start a new life, fleeing the danger that is slowly closing in around them. It also narrates the tension between Keoma and his three nasty brothers, their fractured relationship told in both the score and in flashbacks that play out right before the eyes of the adult Keoma.
For fans of the spaghetti western, Keoma is a must-see for its hasty pace, drawn out action, and doomed love story all told on an apocalyptic stage. At times, the score can get a bit distracting, a nice and inimitable idea but not always as harmonizing as it should be. Another small gripe I had with the film is that the villain Caldwell is slightly brushed over and left underdeveloped. Overall, I had fun with the tragedy that is Keoma and I loved the way the film embraced rollicking action sequences. Next to Leone’s work, Keoma has aged remarkably and is easily accessible to those who are usually put off by older films like this. If you love your westerns with an unconventional touch, seek out Keoma immediately. You will not be disappointed.
Keoma is available on DVD.