Herschell Gordon Lewis (June 15, 1929 – September 26, 2016) was an American filmmaker, best known for creating the “splatter” subgenre of horror films.
He is often referred to as the “Godfather of Gore”, though his film career has included works in a range of exploitation film genres including juvenile delinquent films, nudie-cuties, two children’s films and at least one rural comedy.
Herschell Gordon Lewis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1929. His father died when he was six years old. His mother never remarried; and his family then moved to Chicago.
After graduating from high school, Lewis received a master’s degree in Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. A few years later, he became a professor of English literature at Mississippi State University.
In 1953, Lewis began working for a friend’s advertising agency in Chicago while teaching graduate advertising courses at night at Roosevelt University. He began directing TV commercial advertisements.
Lewis served as producer on his first film venture, The Prime Time (1959). He would assume directing duties on nearly all of his films from then on. His first in a lengthy series of collaborations with exploitation producer David F. Friedman, Living Venus (1961), was a fictitious account based on the story of Hugh Hefner and the beginnings of Playboy.
The two continued with a series of erotic films in the early 1960s. Typical of these nudies were the comedies Boin-n-g! (1963) and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961).
With the nudie market beginning to wane, Lewis and Friedman entered into uncharted territory with 1963’s seminal Blood Feast, considered by most critics to be the first “gore” film.
Incredibly cheap and cheesy, the film nonetheless stunning audiences with the jaw-dropping gore on display. They formed queues at drive-ins to see it. The splatter sub-genre was born!
The far superior Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) followed, with a whole town getting in on the mayhem. And this one included great singalong ditty ‘The South’s Gonna Rise Again’
Color Me Blood Red (1965) followed the same formula but was about a deranged artist and more low key. Still, the full-color gore on display in these films caused a sensation, with horror film-makers throughout the world gradually saturating their productions with similarly shocking visual effects.
Outside the gore sub-genre, Lewis pursued a wide gamut of other exploitation avenues. Some of the subjects he explored include juvenile delinquency (Just for the Hell of It, 1968), wife swapping (Suburban Roulette, 1968), the corruption of the music industry (Blast-Off Girls, 1967), and birth control (The Girl, the Body, and the Pill, 1967).
He was also not above tapping the children’s market, as with Jimmy the Boy Wonder (1966) and The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967), which were padded out to feature film length by incorporating long foreign-made cartoons.
Lewis financed and produced nearly all of his own movies with funds he made from his successful advertising firm based in Chicago. Always resourceful despite the low budgets he worked with, Lewis purchased the rights to an unfinished Bill Rebane film and completed it himself, re-titling the film Monster a Go-Go (1965). This approach demonstrated Lewis’s business savvy; by owning the rights to both features, he knew he would not get fleeced by theaters juggling the box office returns, a common practice at that time.
Lewis’s third gore phase served to push the genre into even more outrageous shock territory. Starting with The Gruesome Twosome (1967), he went onto The Wizard of Gore (1968, released 1970) featured a stage magician who would mutilate his volunteers severely through a series of merciless routines.
By The Gore Gore Girls (1972) he had begun to lampoon himself and this last dark comedy would mark his semi-retirement from film altogether. He decided to leave the filmmaking industry to work in copywriting and direct marketing, a subject on which he published several books in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, interest in his splatter movies continued to grow as more and more horror fans began to appreciate the naive charm of his outlandish oeuvre. Sequels to Two Thousand Maniacs! and a remake of The Wizard of Gore proved that Lewis’ lasting influence on the horror genre had been firmly established.
In 2002, Lewis himself was finally drawn back into the film world, released his first film in thirty years, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, a sequel to the first film. It featured a cameo appearance by John Waters, a devotee of Lewis’ work.
In 2016, he proved to still be a draw as Canadian anthology movie Herschell Gordon Lewis’ BloodMania was filmed with his name as part of the title. The same year, Blood Feast was remade in France with a small cameo role for Lewis. He was still enjoying being the Godfather of Gore!