Herschell Gordon Lewis, the so-called “Godfather of Gore” who is widely credited with inventing the “splatter” sub-genre, has died. He was 87. During his brief career as a writer, director and producer of low-budget exploitation films, Lewis achieved infamy with titles like Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs! and The Wizard of Gore, the first of which is generally considered the first “splatter” film and was so reviled by critics on release in 1963 that Variety deemed it “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences.” Nonetheless, the film’s boundary-pushing nature made it a huge hit with audiences, leading to a new acceptance of onscreen gore and paving the way for more artful filmmakers like Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson.
Born June 15, 1929 in Pittsburgh, Lewis earned a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University and had a varied early career, working alternately as a college professor, TV commercial director and voiceover artist. He produced his first narrative feature in 1960 with the “juvenile delinquent” film Prime Time — about a teenage girl who essentially raises hell wherever she goes — before becoming a writer/director with Living Venus, a softcore “nudie” flick loosely based on the rise of Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine.
Lewis and his sometime producing partner David F. Friedman — who took a page out of William Castle’s playbook by offering “vomit bags” at early screenings of Blood Feast — were unapologetic about the amateurish quality of their films together, with the latter once reportedly deadpanning: “I have to admit I’ve made a pretty good living exploiting the lust, greed, and ignorance of the American public.” With Blood Feast‘s financial success, the duo went on to release two more films in their so-called “Blood Trilogy” — Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red — before ultimately parting ways.
Undaunted by the split, Lewis continued cranking out exploitation films in various genres into the 1970s, with some of his more popular efforts including 1965’s sci-fi-tinged Monster a-Go Go, 1970’s The Wizard of Gore (remade in 2007) and 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, his final film for nearly three decades. After throwing in the towel as a filmmaker, Lewis returned to the world of advertising and published scores of books on the topic during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s before founding his own advertising firm, Communicorp, based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After being absent from the game for 30 years, Lewis made a somewhat-unceremonious return to filmmaking in 2002 with the belated sequel Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, which featured cameos from Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman as well as one of Lewis’s least-surprising celebrity adherents: grossout filmmaker John Waters. His last film as director was 2009’s The Uh-Oh Show, about a popular televised competition in which participants literally risk losing their limbs. It’s somehow fitting that this was Lewis’ swan song, as one of that film’s characters, the ratings-obsessed game show producer Fred Finagler, may have in some ways been a stand-in for the “Godfather of Gore” himself. Indeed, as the filmmaker himself is said to have put it: “I see filmmaking as a business, and pity anyone who regards it as an art form.”