Bring On The Blood! H.G. Lewis’s ‘Blood Feast’ (1963)

“I’ve often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It’s no good, but it was the first of its type.”
–Herschell Gordon Lewis on Blood Feast.

In 1963, director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman changed the face of horror with the release of Blood Feast. A film dedicated to showing you the red stuff, Blood Feast ushered in a new era for horror and lubed up the film world for the creation of the splatter genre.

Lewis got his start in the film industry as a producer on a 1959 film called The Prime Time, the first film shot in Chicago since the 1910’s. Next up was his first directorial effort, Living Venus (1961). This also marked his first collaboration with producer David F. Friedman. This collaboration would last until 1965. The duo produced several nudie-cuties such as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Daughter of the Sun. Many of these films Lewis directed under the name “Lewis H. Gordon.” As the nudie-cutie market began to wane, Lewis and Friedman began thinking of another successful film venture, something that hadn’t been seen before yet would generate huge profits. According to Lewis, one day he was watching an old silent film. During a scene when a man is gunned down with a Tommy gun that’s completely devoid of any bloodshed, an idea hit Lewis: gore.

Knowing that they had a sure-fire moneymaker for the drive-in circuits, Lewis set about compiling a screenplay – which totaled a mere 14-pages after dictating it to, and transcribing it with Louise Downe, Lewis’s secretary. The story of Blood Feast concerns a caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who wants to bring life to a dormant Egyptian goddess, Ishtar. In order to do so, Ramses must procure the body parts of various young women. Ramses also uses these women’s body parts in the meals for his catering service. A couple of cops are trying to track him down and stop him. Obviously, the story is nothing more than an excuse to tack together a bunch of gory set pieces. But then, that’s what quality exploitation is all about, isn’t it?

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Blood Feast was shot in four days (some sources list six or nine days) in Miami with a budget of $24,000. Connie Mason, Playboy Playmate of the Month for June 1963, plays the female lead, Suzette. According to Lewis, Mason was a terrible actress, which led Lewis and Friedman to dub her “Friedman’s Folly.” Of course, the real star of Blood Feast was the blood and gore which, for the time anyways, the film lays on thickly. Stage blood didn’t suit Lewis as it was too purplish. So Lewis struck a deal with a cosmetics company to mix his own concoction with one ingredient being Kaopectate. No idea what that is? It’s an anti-diarrhea medication. Fitting.

The film’s most infamous scene has Ramses tearing out the tongue of a female victim, played by Astrid Olson. To achieve this, Lewis used a sheep’s tongue that he had flown in from Tampa. Before the scene could be filmed, however, a power outage occurred at the Suez Motel (which provided the Sphinx shown in the opening and closing credits) where Lewis and Friedman were staying. The tongue had begun to spoil, so it had to be doused in Pine-Sol and covered in cranberry sauce. Sounds delicious.

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Blood Feast was released July 6th, 1963, and proved to be a commercial success, grossing over $4,000,000. Naturally, the film was critically slandered with every aspect of the production being considered inept, unprofessional, shoddy, crude, and so on. Yes, Blood Feast is all these things. But Lewis and Friedman never set out to make a work of art: they set out to make a profit by delivering something audiences hadn’t seen before. In this, they succeeded.

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The men responsible: H.G. Lewis and David F. Friedman.

In the eighties, Blood Feast attained more notoriety by being included on the Video Nasty’s list, the oldest film to attain such a distinction. It says a lot about a film when its ability to shock and sicken can still be felt in a decade that gave us Cannibal HolocaustThe Evil Dead, and Cannibal Ferox. The film was finally passed uncut in 2005.

After Blood Feast, Friedman and Lewis would work together on two more splatter films: Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red. These, along with Blood Feast, form the unofficial “Blood Trilogy.” After Color Me Blood Red, Friedman and Lewis parted ways. Friedman continued producing films, mostly low-budget exploitation, until his death in 2011. Lewis continued making movies – violent exploitation films of course! After 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, Lewis retired from directing for thirty years, finally returning in 2002 for Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat.

Blood Feast kick-started the splatter film genre and has attained cult status over the years. Despite its ineptitude, Blood Feast proved influential to filmmakers such as George A. Romero and John Waters, as well as special effects artists such as Tom Savini. To this day, over fifty years after its release, Blood Feast is still influencing filmmakers by showing that with little more than a dollar store budget one can achieve, if not greatness, at least a bit of notoriety. And, maybe, a couple nickels for their pocketbook.

About Evan Romero

Evan Romero has been a horror fan since watching “Leprechaun” at the age of five. Aside from watching and writing about horror flicks, he delights in torturing friends with Z-grade movies. He’s also an unabashed Andy Milligan fan, God help him.

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