15 Great Exploitation Films That Transcended The Genre

8. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)


Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, helped invent the giallo film genre and in the process established himself as the king of Italian exploitation cinema. With this film he deviates slightly from his usual giallo formula. “Suspiria” is more of a wickedly dark fairy tale. A surreal, waking nightmare of a film.

Suzy, an American ballet-dancer travels to Germany to attend the prestigious Tans Academy. She soon begins to sense that something evil lurks within the walls of the old institution. Her fears are confirmed when her fellow students start being brutally murdered. The film is notable for its skilful use of unsettling, intense colour and stunning set design. The use of vivid primary colours, predominantly red, and a pounding rock soundtrack, create a uniquely nightmarish tone.

The film was criticised by some for having a weak plot and characters. Argento had reached a point in his career, where plot and character had become completely subservient to music, visuals and atmosphere. The film has been described as a semi-surreal work of art. It features an excessive amount of blood and gore, as exploitations audience had come to expect.

The combination of beautifully artistic visuals, and explicit gore made the film one of a kind. The film has always had a strong cult following. Over the decades it has received more mainstream acclaim and praise. The film is now generally regarded by critics as one of the best horror films of all time.


7. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

Assault on Precinct 13

Visionary auteur John Carpenter, wrote, directed, edited and scored this suspenseful thriller. After the success of his micro-budgeted debut feature “Dark Star” (1974), Carpenter was given a slightly bigger budget and asked to make an exploitation film, of which he would be given complete creative control.

The film is a tightly wound, nail biting thriller about a rundown police station that is soon to be shut down. A notorious criminal is forced to stay the night in one of the prison cells. A small group of people find themselves besieged in the police station over night as a gang of deadly criminals try to invade the station. The film tone is similar to that of a tense zombie film, as the gang members outside appear to be as motiveless and relentless as the walking dead.

The film almost received an X rating. A scene involving a young girl getting shot in front of an ice cream truck was ordered to be cut. Carpenter gave the appearance of complying by cutting the scene from the copy he gave to the censors, but he distributed the film with the scene intact, a common practice among exploitation films at the time.

The film was initially released to mixed reviews and underwhelming box office takings. It was only when the film screened at The Cannes Film Festival the following year that it began to receive critical praise, mainly from British critics. Carpenter would go on to become one of the most successful and influential genre filmmakers of all time. Subsequently, “Assault on Precinct 13” has been reassessed by American critics and audiences, and it is now generally considered one of the best action films of the seventies. The film received a tepid remake in 2005.


6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

the texas chainsaw massacre

When this horror classic was originally released in 1974, it caught audiences completely by surprise. No one was prepared for the films raw visceral power. It depicts the backwoods of the American South as a futile wasteland filled with grime, dread, and death. The film revolves around a group of students on a road trip across America. When in Texas they stop off at an abandoned farm and encounter a family of murderous cannibals. The family were once abattoir workers, and the decay of the Southern rural economy has left them unemployed, they now use their unneeded butchering skills on passing tourists.

The film has been seen by some as an attack on capitalism. The family are seen as victims of industrial capitalism, their jobs as slaughterhouse workers having been rendered obsolete by technological advances. And the bloodshed that follows a result of such actions. The film was ground-breaking in its use of documentary style filmmaking techniques, which gave the film a chilling realism. It set the bar in terms of how harrowing the horror genre could get, and you could argue that it still hasn’t been topped.

One of the major strength of the film is the fact that it doesn’t show that much onscreen gore. The film isn’t reliant on what we see, but what we don’t see, leaving the audience to imagine the horrid details. Almost unbelievably, Hooper hoped to gain a PG rating for the film due to its minimal use of onscreen gore. Instead, it was slapped with an X rating, when it was first released. After cutting several minutes of footage, the film received an R rating.

The film was banned outright in several countries, and many theatres stopped showing the film in response to complaints about its violence. However, it was still extremely profitable, grossing over $30 million at the domestic box office. Director Tobe Hooper made the film on a low-budget with a cast of unknowns, making the film the most successful Independent film of the time.

Critics gave the film a mixed reception upon its initial release. But it is now considered one of the most acclaimed and influential horror films of all time. The film has gone on to create an entirely new sub-genre of horror, as well as a number of sequels and remakes.


5. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

Mad Max (1979)

In the early seventies Australia created its own exploitation film industry, that became known as Ozploitation. It functioned on the same principles as the American and European exploitation industries. Low-budget productions featuring car wreaks, gore and sex.

“Mad Max” is set in a dystopian future Australia where law and order are a thing of the past. The barren countryside is terrorized by marauding motorcycle gangs, who create mayhem on the roads. A crack police force tries to keep these gangs under control. Max is the fastest and most ruthless of these cops. He quits the force to take a vacation with his wife and baby. But when a biker gang kills his wife and child, he dons his leather uniform again and seeks bloody vengeance.

Mel Gibson became a star off the back of the film’s success. But the true star of the film are the cars and the spectacular crashes. Of course the stunts would be nothing without a filmmaker behind the camera, George Miller showed a real talent for directing action and carnage.  The film has a raw visceral quality to it, perhaps helped by its low-budget, which makes the action feel real and intensely dangerous.

The film was distributed in the United States by exploitation specialists: American International Pictures. The original Australian dialogue was dubbed over by American actors. Most of the Australian slang in the film was replaced with American colloquialisms. “Mad Max” would rise up from its humbled origins and become an international phenomenon.

The film became the all-time top grossing Australian film. Due to the films miniscule budget, it also became percentage wise, the most profitable film of all-time, a title it held onto for several decades. The film gave rise to several successful sequels that helped put Australian cinema on the map.


4. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)


George A. Romero’s classic virtually invented the zombie film genre as we know it today. The film introduced the concept of zombies as reanimated, flesh-eating cannibals. Previously, zombie films featured living people enslaved by a Voodoo curse. Events start with a jolt. An unprovoked attack in a cemetery by a walking corpse.

The film then descends into frantic terror as a group of desperate survivors take fragile shelter in an isolated farmhouse to fight off a crowd of cannibalistic zombies. The films bleak black-and-white documentary style creates a visceral and terrifying atmosphere.

Casting an African-American as the films sole hero, Ben, spoke volumes at the time. Although no mention of Ben’s race implied or otherwise, is made. He is portrayed as the sensible guy who keeps his head screwed on straight in a crisis. In 1968, the fact a movie would present a black hero without comment is notable in of itself. Romero’s film revolutionised the horror film genre. Prior to this most horror films were stuffy period pieces, featuring old castles and mysterious figures lurking in the shadows.

The film revealed the power behind exploitation and setting horror in ordinary, unremarkable locations, and offered a template for making effective low-budget horror. The film was produced on a small budget $114,000. It initially struggled to find an audience, and the only attention it got from critics, was criticism of its graphic violence. It eventually found an audience in grindhouse cinemas and at midnight screenings.

Within a couple of years the film went on to become the most successful horror film up until that point. Critics also reappraised the film and now hail it as one of the most influential of the sixties.


3. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

halloween laurie

John Carpenter’s classic established most of the tropes for the modern slasher film. It has arguably become the most widely imitated horror film of all time. A masked homicidal maniac stalks a group of sexually promiscuous teenagers, a maniac that is slow and lumbering but always seems to outrun his prey, and a final girl surviving.

The “Friday the 13th” franchise copied these elements, and helped turn them into horror clichés. The self-referential horror film “Scream” (1996), actually quotes “Halloween” as its inspiration. The story revolves around a young boy who kills his sister on Halloween in 1963. He is confined to a mental hospital. 15 years later he escapes and returns to his home town to stalk and murder its young women.

Carpenter’s displays an almost faultless understanding of the mechanics of classical suspense. He demonstrates a remarkable amount of restraint. This was probably due to budget restraints, but it definitely works in the films favour. “Halloween” is an unstoppable force of dread and suspense that culminates into a cat and mouse battle that still sets the standard for slasher films and horror in general.

The film was produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossed $70 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films ever. It has stood the test of time mainly due to the remarkable sense of mood and atmosphere that Carpenter is able to create through the use of lighting, camera angles, and especially his infamous score. The film changed the horror genre forever. It also spawned seven sequels, and a 2007 remake.


2. Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1984)

Blood Simple

The Coen Brother classic neo-noir is not often thought of as an exploitation film. However, it exhibits all the trademarks of one. A shoestring budget, graphic violence, and a black twisted sense of humour. When the film was initially released critics found it hard to characterise, it was claimed that it was too arty to be an exploitation film, but too gory to be an art film and although funny, not funny enough to be a comedy.

The Coen Brothers raised the entire budget through approaching 168 small investors. The brothers took their meagre budget and reinvented film noir for the eighties. They created a lean mean thriller, filled with deliciously perverse characters, brutal violence, and a masterfully constructed narrative.

A sleazy bar owner discovers his wife is having an affair with the barman. He hires a low-life private eye to kill the indiscreet couple. The private eye deviates from the plan and the complications and bodies soon pile up. The film is infused with intelligence and wit that helps it rise above other violent exploitation thrillers.

The Coen’s would go on to become masters of the dark twisted thriller, “Fargo” (1996), and “No Country for Old Men” (2007), being the finest examples. The Coen’s debut feature was arguably the most influential noir since “Chinatown” (1974).The film gave a highly stylised form of cinema an ironic honky-tonk spin. It also set a precedent for what independent filmmakers could achieve in the genre.

The movie has become one of the most influential films of the eighties and a cultural landmark. A director’s cut was released in 2001, what was unusually 3 minutes shorter than the original. The film has also received a Chinese remake, “A Simple Noodle Story” (2009).


1.The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)


“The Terminator” might be an all-time classic of action and science fiction cinema, but before it hit the screens back in 1984, it looked like it was going to be just another forgettable exploitation film. It had a relatively small budget for an action/sci-fi film, of $6.4 million, it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, who most people thought couldn’t speak English at the time and its director only had one credit to his name, which was “Piranha 2: The Spawning” (1981) (an unimpressive exploitation film from which he had been fired from halfway through production).

Director James Cameron had learnt his craft working for exploitation king Roger Corman, as a special effects expert and production designer. Cameron used all the skills he had learnt on these exploitation films and raised them up to another level with his virtuoso filmmaking ability. The film centres on a cyborg that is sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future to kill the mother of an unborn resistance leader.

The film initially opened to mixed reviews. Many critics criticised the films level of violence. However, it was championed by other critics, most notably “Time Magazine” who included it in their list of the ten best films of 1984. The film was a moderate box office hit. But it found its sizable audience on video and went on to spark Arnold Schwarzenegger’s superstar status.

Much praise has been given to the films taut action sequences and astute use of special effects. But the human story at the heart of the film is just as impressive. The love story between the Terminator’s intended target, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and the soldier sent back in time to protect her, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), is both believable and heart wrenching.

The film was a showcase for James Cameron’s talent as a both a writer and director. The screenplay doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it, and the films action sequences set a new standard in Hollywood filmmaking. Cameron would go on to redefine both action and science fiction cinema, with films like “Aliens” (1986) and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).

He would also go on to become one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of all-time, producing the two highest grossing film in history, “Titanic” (1997) and “Avatar” (2009). “The Terminator” is now officially a classic, in 2008 it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The film also spawned two sequels, two reboots and a television series.

Author Bio: Dean Hesom is a screenwriter based in London, England. He has a passion for horror, film noir and exploitation cinema. He studied Film and Video Production at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design. He also works in live interactive television production.