Exploitation films have always been seen as the sleazy underbelly of cinema. They have been looked down upon by critics and have never received the recognition they deserve. They are undervalued for the major role they have played in influencing and changing modern cinema.
The Motion Picture Production Code was set in 1930 and gave Hollywood moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of films released by the studios. In 1968 the code was abandoned and censorship rating were introduced. Exploitation cinema grew and flourished under this new found freedom. Exploitation films were usually cheaply produced, and designed to create a quick profit. The films get their name from the fact that they exploit certain aspects of a film for profit.
These aspects usually involve sex or violence. Early exploitation films, pre 1968, claimed to warn viewers about the consequences of these problems, but in most cases they exploited the problem, more than critiquing it. The later films, post 1968, had no such pretence. They revelled in their lurid subject matter, which included explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, freaks and gore.
The films were always low-budget productions, and very little emphasise was put on quality. Most of them were highly formulaic and featured poor production values. A quick turnaround and the inclusion of sensational elements, were the fundamentals of the industry. Small Independent studios couldn’t compete with Hollywood in terms of budget and quality, so they decided to do what the major studios couldn’t or wouldn’t dare to. Numerous sub-genres sprang up, each one exploiting a different social anxiety. They included: biker films, blacksploitation, carsploitation, gore films, nazisploitation and sexploitation.
Due to exploitation films outrageous subject matter and horrid production values, the vast majority of modern audiences watch the films for amusement, rather than shock value. Today the films are often parodied and mocked, in film such as, ”Machete”(2010) and “Black Dynamite”(2009). Most people don’t rate exploitation cinema very highly.
What they might not realise is that many classics started out as exploitation films. Some have gone on to become all time genre classics and have been able to shrug off the label of being an exploitation film. Some have kept the label but have been seen in a new light and rediscovered by a new generation of fans.
Exploitation filmmaking was a fertile breeding ground for new talent. The small budgets and high turnaround of productions, gave young filmmakers an opportunity to get behind the camera that they probably would have never been given in the studio system. In many ways filmmakers had more freedom to express themselves than they did in conventional cinema, as long as the film came in on time, budget, and included the required amount of titillation and violence.
This led to filmmakers taking risks and finding new and innovative ways to tell stories. They pushed and broke the boundaries of cinema. Many of the most successful and influential filmmakers of the past forty years, got their start in exploitation cinema.
15. The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Lucio Fulci was one of the forefathers of the Italian giallo genre. His psychedelic, mind trip of a film, “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) was a seminal work in the genre. He later went on to focus more on grizzly nightmarish horror, and became known as the Godfather of Gore. “The Beyond” is probably this best loved and most highly regarded work.
It centres on Liza, a young woman from New York who inherits a remote hotel. It turns out the hotel is cursed, and built over the seven gateways to hell. Liz is plagued by gruesome visions and the hotel begins to devour the bodies and souls of all who enter it. A graphic frenzy of nightmarishly gory deaths follow. The film has been criticised for not having much of a plot. This might be true, but it has very little to do with why the film is considered a horror masterpiece.
The true star of the film is its atmosphere. A sense of pure evil saturates everything on screen. It’s as if you can feel the gates of hell slowly sucking everything into a vortex. The film is visually stunning and has a unique surreal nightmarish tone. It was generally ignored or dismissed by the mainstream critical establishment for many years, who regarded it as pure exploitation.
However, the film has slowly built a dedicated cult following. In 1998 long-time fan Quentin Tarantino and his distribution company re-released the film in theatres. The film gained a new legion of followers. It was also re-evaluated by film by critics and is now considered a classic of horror cinema.
14. Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)
John Waters shocked the world back in 1972 with this celebration of bad taste. He exercised full creative control as he wrote, directed, produced, edited and scored the film. This allowed him to create a completely unique and detestable world. The film is still considered one of the most notorious ever made. It was made on a meagre budget of $10,000.
The jet black comedy revolves around transvestite performer, Babs Johnson (Divine), a flashy criminal on the run, hiding out in a trailer that she shares with her obese dim-witted mother, her delinquent son, and her double-dealing traveling companion. After learning that Babs has been named “the filthiest person alive” by a tabloid newspaper, her jealous rivals set out to steal the title from her.
The film found an audience among the grindhouse and midnight movie scenes that were gaining popularity at the time. It quickly amassed a huge cult following and turned Waters into a cultural icon. “Pink Flamingos” is still regarded to this day, to be one of the most cogently transgressive and anarchic films ever made.
The film was designed to exploit and shock. But it had far more than that going for it. It was an all-out satiric assault on middle class values. But what made Waters unique was the joyous quality of his work, the wicked delight he took in trashy obscenity. In 1997, for the 25th anniversary, the film was re-released. An honour rarely reserved for a micro budget exploitation film.
13. Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977)
“Rolling Thunder” has a pedigree that instantly elevates above most exploitation fare: It has a screenplay co-written by screenwriting legend Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, 1976). Director John Flynn had experience directing a successful thriller for a major studio (The Outfit, 1973). The film also had an impressive cast, including future academy award winner, Tommy Lee Jones.
The film was originally produced and scheduled for release by Twentieth Century-Fox. However, test screening audiences were shocked and appalled by the level of violence in the film. Fox insisted severe cuts be made to the film. Producer Lawrence Gordon refused, and the film ended up being distributed by exploitation specialists American International Pictures.
The film is a taut revenge thriller about returning Vietnam veteran Rane, who is given a cache of silver coins from the local town folk as a welcome home gift. A gang of murderous thieves break into his house looking for the coins. In the process they murder Rane’s family, then torture and disfigure him. Rane swears vengeance and heads to Mexico to find the fleeing thieves.
The film received positive reviews upon its release and has steadily built a strong cult following over the years. Quentin Tarantino has stated the film is one of his all-time favourites. Tarantino even named his distribution company, “Rolling Thunder Pictures”, after the film. This endorsement brought the film back to prominence in the mid-nineties and exposed it to a new generation of fans.
12. Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975)
Director David Cronenberg’s debut feature offers an unsettling look at modern isolationist society with a parasitic twist. The film revolves around a slug like parasite that sneaks inside people and turns them into sexually depraved maniacs. The outbreak is confined to ultra-modern and exclusive high-rise apartment building.
The film is one in the first notable entries into the horror sub-genre: body horror. This deals with horror derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Cronenberg would continue to explore this theme in many of this later works. “Shivers” is far more than just a straight horror. It could be seen as an allegory about sexually transmitted diseases. However, the film was made before the AIDS pandemic and is more about the anxieties and consequences of the sexual revolution, and the ruminations of lust.
The film caused controversy when it was released in Canada, as it was partly funded by the tax-payer-funded Canadian Film Development Corporation. The public were horrified to discover they had helped fund an exploitation film. A local newspaper claimed the film was “crammed with blood, violence and depraved sex” and “the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen.”
Cronenberg was even evicted from his apartment due to his landlord’s inclusion of a “morality clause” in the lease. However, the film was a critical and financial success in the United States. David Cronenberg would go on to become one of the most influential directors of his generation, therefore the film has always benefited from a strong cult following.
11. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
The second film in George A. Romero’s Living Dead series. The first being the 1968 seminal “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), which dealt with flesh-eating reanimated corpses attacking a group of people in a rural farm house. The sequel broadens the scope significantly. The plague, which turns the dead and living into zombies, has spread across America.
The entire country is overrun with cabalistic walking corpses. A group of survivors decide to fortify a shopping mall and hole up in it until the crisis ends. However, the undead have other plans and gory bloody mayhem ensues. The inspired combination of zombies in a shopping mall, holds up a mirror to our own consumerist society. The film is a darkly satirical assault on the bourgeois and rampant consumerism.
George A. Romero enjoyed great success, financially and critically, with the films predecessor “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), which became an exploitation classic. He then followed that up with several critically acclaimed films, including: The Crazies (1973) and Martin (1977). But none of these were financially successful. Romero then returned to the zombie genre with “Dawn of the Dead” (1978).
The film was produced on a budget of $650.000, and went on to earn over $55 million. It received heavy critical praise, which was highly unusual for a gory exploitation film. Although, not all reviews were positive. The film had its fair share of detractors, whose main grievance was the large amount of gore and graphic violence shown on screen. The film has only grown in popularity and critical acclaim over the years and today is an established classic. The film has spawned countless imitations and a 2004 remake.
10. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
A group of five college students head out to a remote cabin in the woods. They discover a book that opens the gates of hell and brings forth demonic spirits that possess some of the students, turning them into bloodthirsty supernatural zombies. It was made on a shoestring budget by an inexperienced crew.
Director Sam Raimi’s talent for mixing horror with dark macabre humour shone through. The film is made with energy and invention, and features gallons of blood, spewing goo and dismembered body parts. The film has an uncanny ability to suggest the presence of unimaginable evil with little resources. Parts of the film are horrifically intense and other are deadpan silly. This unique mixture makes the film a true original.
The film’s initial release was surrounded with controversy. The films gruesome and over the top violence led to it getting an X rating. A rating usually reserved for pornographic films. While the film contained no pornography, it was considered one of the most violent films of its time. This meant the film was relegated to mainly showing at grindhouse cinemas and midnight screenings. Because of this, the film was only a moderate successes upon its initial release.
However, the film found its true audience when it was released on video. Since then it has established itself as one of the most loved and influential horror films of all time. The original film was restored from its negatives and re-issued on DVD in 1999.The film spawned two sequels and a remake. The original and its sequels have become one of the most popular cult trilogies in history of cinema.
9. Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981)
“Ms. 45” is made in the tradition of the exploitation sub-genre of “Rape and Revenge Films”. The films always feature a woman who is raped, left for dead, recovers and then exacts a graphic and gory revenge against her attackers. The best known film of this genre is “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978).
“Ms. 45” is about a young mute woman, Thana, who by a horrible twist of fate is raped twice in one day, by two different perpetrators. She is able to fight off her second attacker, kill him, and take his .45 caliber pistol. Thana slowly begins to lose her grip on reality and becomes a one woman killing machine. She sets out on a vengeful rampage against the entire male population of New York City.
The film’s director, Abel Ferrara, started his career in the gutter, with films like “Driller Killer” (1979). He would later move away from exploitation, towards art-house cinema. He went onto great critical acclaim with films like, “The Bad Lieutenant” (1992) and “The Addiction” (1995). Signs of things to come can be seen in “Ms. 45”. Although the plot of the film is pretty thin, Ferrara plays on urban paranoia and creates a New York City thick of atmosphere and full of dread.
The film also explores the darker side of revenge and vigilantism. Not all of Thana’s victims are evil thugs, some of them are just normal men. Ferrara’s gritty and powerful style brings the city to life. His use of music, instinctive camera techniques, and dark humour make this film rise above its low-budget and exploitation trappings. The film was maligned upon its initial release and it has since been re-evaluated and is now considered a classic of underground and independent cinema.