Cinema #19: 1970s Grindhouse: You Can't Go Home Again

10-18-2010 10-32-36 AM

If, like me, you read horror blogs, listen to horror podcasts, and read horror magazines, you hear a lot of the same thing: namely, "we hate remakes and lightweight PG-13 horror movies".  In other words, everyone in the horror community seems to be saying in unison that the horror movies released in mainstream theaters are sugary paint-by-numbers; they lack the raunch and nihilism of films from the seventies.  Your average PG-13 horror movie is the cinematic equivalent of a Twinkie; whereas, the exploitation films of the seventies are raw sinewy meat.

Well, I have bad news.  It's over.... and it ain't coming back.

Why do I say this? The evidence.  Any exploitation endeavor of late has failed miserably. For instance, Piranha 3D had all the elements of a good old fashioned grindhouse flick: tons of gore, a senseless plot, huge helpings of gratuitous nudity, and cheap 3D thrills.   And yet, its box office gross was less than impressive.

Take another example: Machete.  If ever there was a modern movie cut from the same cloth as seventies exploitation, this is it.  Rodriguez followed every grindhouse trope imaginable, and yet it too tanked at the box office.

And my understanding is that Drive Angry starring Nicholas Cage is yet another faithful attempt at exploitation, with senseless violence and gratuitous nudity filled to the brim.... and this film is a disaster.  I haven't seen it, but it's enough to sense a pattern here: exploitation cinema is fondly remembered by us geezers, and is worshiped by genre fans, but will never ever never be a box office success.

Cannibal Girls

Before I end this post, let me counter one argument I can see coming.  "Exploitation cinema has always been a fringe entertainment.  Even in the seventies, the lines at I Spit on Your Grave were nothing compared to mainstream Hollywood."  I call BS on that.

Many of the big box office hits of the seventies were every bit as brutal and exploitive as the gutter garbage shown on 42nd Street.  The Exorcist, Deliverance, The Omen, White Lightning, Dirty Harry, etc.  Also, given the sheer volume of cinematic trash spewed out during that decade, it's awfully hard to argue the point that exploitation cinema wasn't reaching a wide audience.

So, with Machete, Piranha 3D, and Drive Angry tanking at the box office, can anyone out there deny that the public at large does not want this kind of smut? Don't blame Hollywood. When it's offered in the theaters, no one goes to see it.  It's a sad example of how you may want things to be as they were, but you can never go home again.

Well, I don't like to leave you on a down note.  Let's have a glance at some good old fashioned grindhouse style adverts.  Enjoy.

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12-07-72 Bangor Daily News

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10-19-2010 11-25-04 AM


  1. I feel kind of bad because me and some of my friends tried to watch "Cannibal Holocaust" and I just could not get through it, it was too horrible and I do want to get into the older horror movies and grindhouse but some of it, like the raping and sleaze I just don't like or enjoy. I don't know. :/

  2. The Exorcist and Deliverance were well received novels first, and the other films listed as having strong ticket sales included huge star draw power. The grindhouse films of today that have shown poorly have not had star draw power, nor were they well written. Nick Cage is well known for his dawg-movies, so people don't bother to show just because he's the star.
    It is Hollywood to blame, because they can't distinguish between good writing and bad, and when they can, they won't pay for it. Business is business, and that's the problem. In a movie, the content creation starts long before a director and actors are cast. And those creators are not being compensated. Solve that, and not only will you get better movies, but the solution should carry over to music as well.

  3. I think it's due to the "forbidden fruit" aspect of 70's fare. There's not much that's being held back, even from young viewers. Pre-teens have seen the slasher flicks, have easy access to what was once considered taboo material for their age (they can easily quote Family Guy & South Park).

    The 70's filmmakers were challenging the status quo. What would now "shock" and question current values. "They Walked up to the Drive-thru window!" "They didn't shop at the mall!" "They researched information in a book!"

    There's also over-production - there was a certain campy charm to the low-budget fare.

  4. Thanks, Retro. The way in which people went to these films - in public, at drive-ins, in actual "grindhouses" downtown, contributed to their allure. Easy access to any flavor and budget level online, on dvd, and through mail, have also diminished the "need" and desire to find this stuff, enjoy it on its own terms, and maybe find a gem.

    There are no pleasant (or unpleasant) surprises anymore. Yes it's over. I had a good time myself. Having Tarantino spend $80m+ for "Grindhouse" isn't exactly the same thing.

    Cheers, R

  5. I would argue that even though the horror genre in films seems to be evergreen, the "horror community," as you put it, is rather small. Most everyone likes a little scare now and again, but the relentless, graphic ugliness of the 1970s films is not what most people are looking for. At least, not very often. And when they do want that, they just go to the "classics," of which there are plenty.

  6. Oddly enough, I was never into the slice and dice films, even at the time they were being made. I was teenage male; pretty much the target audience for those films, but they always left me cold. I was much more partial to the Hammer Studios films coming out of England at the time. I thought they were a lot more fun. "Dr.Jekyll--Sister Hyde" in which the good doctor turns in to a murderous, nymphomaniac female, was more my speed...:)

  7. I guess nowadays, there's just too much humor and camp in this genre of film. Although sometimes, they still seem to strike that genuine chord. I saw this trailer the other day on somebody's blog and it reminded me of exactly what you're mentioning here:


    It's not going to be as good as anything from the 70's, but it looks good enough to give it an "E" for effort.

  8. Another great post, this time a real trip down memory lane for me as I remember the newspaper ads for grindhouse theaters in Cleveland.

    You inspired me to write a bit about my own experiences with grindhouse films as an adult on my WIWLN blog: http://wiwln.blogspot.com/2011/04/grindhouse.html

    Thanks again for your post!

  9. My favorite moment in grindhouse theaters as a child was when the entire audience erupted into protest, throwing beer bottles etc. at a screening of TIDAL WAVE starring Lorne Green. The movie was so awful, so full of stock footage, and the disaster so tepid and unconvincing that this southern audience rebelled by chanting "R.O. Rip Off"! One of the things we miss today was the communal, "interactive" aspect to going to such films.

  10. The best print ad campaign I recall from the hey-days of horror was for The Last House On The Left, Wes Cravin's 1972 master. I saw the film a few years later on a triple bill at a local drive-in, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and TLHOTL, talk about a real grindhouse evening !


  11. Sadly I was not even born when most of these adds were out. I'm an 80's baby and all I can think is how I would have had the time of my life being able to go see all these classic films on a huge screen back in the day. Life seemed so much more simple and entertaining back then. Now in 2014, every moron is obsessed with their phone, like a nation of zombies and everything that comes out in theatres sucks.