By Ray Schultz
I recently had breakfast with a filmmaker whose masterworks include 2000 Maniacs, The Gore Gore Girls, and Blood Feast, the first movie in which “people died with their eyes open.”
The producer of those splatter classics, now eating yogurt and cereal in a hotel coffee shop, was Herschell Gordon Lewis, a direct mail copywriter and an inspiration to anyone who wants to have fun as well as make a living.
“The technique I learned of how to cause an unsuspecting yokel to come into a theater has served me well in my dotage years in direct marketing,” he confessed.
I couldn’t resist asking how a person goes from being a footnote in movie history to a junk mail legend. Herschell had already worked as an English professor, a disk jockey, and a general ad person, when he started making low-budget gore flicks in Chicago in the 1960s (he just happened to own a half interest in a studio that did commercials and government training films). His first was Blood Feast, which was also the first movie in which fiends “reached in a girl’s mouth and pulled out her tongue.”
Hard to top, wouldn’t you say? But he tried, in follow-up blood fests like Color Me Blood Red and She Devils on Wheels. Men were sliced and diced, white-mini-skirted women were crucified (literally), and Lewis won himself a loyal cult following. A year or two ago, he showed up at a horror film festival in Milan to find the audience singing along—in English–with the opening song for 2,000 Maniacs:
There a story you should know
From a hundred years ago
And a hundred years we waited now to tell
Now them Yankees come along and they’ll listen to this song
They’ll quake in fear to hear this rebel yell
Herschell wrote and sang the soundtrack song himself, and still gets a small royalty– “about $30 every six months, a symbol of what I call the Schlock That Wouldn’t Die.”
Unfortunately, Herschell’s film career faded as distributors went bankrupt and the big studios came in with “more advanced skills in killing people onscreen.” (They didn’t have to splatter ketchup on the walls). And his advertising business took a nose-dive when a client went belly-up owing six figures.
Reduced to arguing with schlemiels about $40 typesetting charges, Herschel was ready to listen when asked to write a direct mail package for the Women of the Century series of collector plates from the Bradford Exchange.
Talk about landing on your feet: He showed a knack for selling collector’s items, and was soon given other assignments by Bradford. By this time, Herschell had gotten another break (the most important one of his life): his marriage to Margot, an agency colleague, who now became his partner in charge of the business end.
The pair moved on to the Calhoun Collector’s Society, where their projects included The Creation, a 12-plate series telling the Genesis story, and the Bethlehem Christmas Plate, which has to rank somewhere near Blood Feast in the Lewis canon.
To get the Bethlehem plate off the ground, Margot found a porcelain factory in Israel near the Lebanese border, then tried to find someone to authenticate the plate. But the best she could do was the Archimandrite Gregorious, an Orthodox prelate whose role in life appeared to be greeting the tour busses and asking for money. His picture, complete with black robe and hat, appeared on the plates, although “we had to airbrush the sunglasses,” Herschell says.
But it sold. “After two years, the Archimandrite was recalled or fired or what I don’t know. But we kept using his name, and he was immortalized. Right now, as we talk, he is hanging on somebody’s wall.”
Herschell confessed that “it’s possible to develop cynicism based on some of the things we market successfully. But there’s a big difference between cynicism and contempt.” One thing that appalls him is when he sees copywriters treating financial offers “in a light-hearted manner. I say, ‘Hold it there, fella, people take their investments seriously. When you make a joke out of it, you make a joke out of your proposition.’”
POSTSCRIPT: Herschell returned to filmmaking late in his career. Whatever he did, he was first to admit that none of it would have been possible without Margot. Now there’s an enduring marriage.