All movies are exploitation movies, if you really think about it. Each one seeks to elicit interest from viewers, attempts to exploit something in them that will cause them to take time out of their busy schedules and consume whatever visual story has been conceived by the filmmakers.
However, generally when people call something an “exploitation movie”, the implication is that the producers are cynically trying to entice audiences with the promise of sex, blood, and sheer tastelessness.
Such assumptions aren’t entirely groundless, and more than one movie mogul (Roger Corman, for example, who appears on the following list no fewer than three times) has made a living playing to the public’s baser instincts. But that doesn’t mean that the final product can’t be a blast to watch, or can’t be as respectable, in it’s own way, as any A-list picture.
At the very least, many exploitation films, whether objectively good or bad, provide a kind of entertainment that is direct, unvarnished, and specifically calculated to please. The list you are about to read gives a rough outline of exploitation movies that might be lesser-known in many cases, but are no less worth the investment of time it takes to watch them for people who like their fun visceral and uncompromising.
1. Turkey Shoot aka Escape 2000
This Australian title is one of the greatest exploitation films ever made, if for no other reason that it has a man driving a dune buggy with a front loader, accompanied by his half-man/half-ape pro-wrestler friend. In a dystopian future, political dissidents are sent to a prison camp where the warden allows them to be hunted for sport by wealthy degenerates, which also makes Turkey Shoot the greatest remake of The Most Dangerous Game ever.
Violent and action-packed, as well as decidedly bizarre, anyone who enjoys the sublime weirdness of unselfconscious trash should rush to see this as quickly as possible.
2. Lone Wolf and Cub
This is a series of six films, but they’re all portions of the same story, so we are going to treat them like they’re one movie. Based on the long-running manga series by Kazuo Koike, the story concerns Ogami Itto, a former samurai and executioner for the Shogun who roams the countryside pushing his toddler ahead of him in a bamboo stroller rigged with traps and weapons, hiring out his expertise as a swordsman to whoever can pay him five-hundred gold pieces.
He has sworn to kill the Yagyu, a clan of assassins who murdered his wife and trashed his reputation in order to curry favor with the Shogunate.
The first in the series, Sword of Vengeance, is the slowest, because most superhero origin stories tend to drag. Things really take off with Baby Cart At The River Styx, a thrilling and funny orgy of limbs and geysering blood that was clearly a major influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. he sampled a portion of the audio track from the English-language dub, Shogun Assassin, in Vol. 2.
The rest of the series maintains the same bloody and bizarre tone, all of it terrifically shot and accompanied by a funky-ass fusion jazz score. The basic story has been reworked many times in other films, a recent example being Tom Hanks’ Road to Perdition.
Any movie that opens with a little kid murdering his abusive mom with an axe and cutting her up with a saw is definitely not messing around, and yet with the obvious level of onscreen brutality throughout, Pieces still comes off as goofball fun, an entry in the hyper-productive slasher sweepstakes of the ’80’s that is engrossing, silly, and very bloody.
Of Spanish origin, it plays a lot like an Italian giallo with overt American slasher film overtones (the killer favors a chainsaw he keeps borrowing from an always-furious groundskeeper), and won’t disappoint fans of vintage gore through its frequent display of hacked limbs and mutilated bodies.
Also worth mentioning are two of the most WTF scenes in slasher movie history: a martial arts instructor jumps out of nowhere to do a series of kung fu moves for no reason whatsoever, blaming his behavior on some “bad chop suey”; and a nonsensical ending where (spoiler alert) a man has his testicles ripped off by a reanimated corpse (his agonized expression is literally the last shot of the movie).
4. The Sentinel
Director Michael Winner, mostly known for the Death Wish films, helmed this 1977 horror melodrama about an actress/model who moves into an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, only to find it populated by a strange blind priest (John Carradine) and a bunch of scary weirdos (a cat-loving Burgess Meredith and an openly masturbating Beverly D’ Angelo among them).
The look and pacing of the film is a lot like made-for-TV movies of the same period, punctuated by bizarre R-rated moments—the aforementioned exhibitionism of Ms. D’ Angelo; a creepy orgy between a scrawny old man, two chubby prostitutes, and some cake; a gory stabbing; and most famously, a finale in which the denizens of Hell, played by actors with real physical deformities, attempt to overwhelm the beleaguered heroine.
An interesting artifact of its time. Keep an eye out for a pre-stardom Jeff Goldblum as a fashion photographer, Christopher Walken as a police detective, the late Jerry Orbach (from the original Law & Order) and a young Tom Berenger. A part of me wonders if Stanley Kubrick wasn’t in some way marginally influenced by this film—it has many visual and music cues in common with The Shining.
5. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
An ambitious—and slightly crazy—surgeon who performs experiments in limb transplantation in his spare time crashes his car, resulting in the decapitation of his fiancée. What else to do but place the head in a pan full of blood and keep it alive with some sciency-looking equipment while the doctor looks for a stripper to kill so he can graft his beloved’s head to her body? While he’s gone, the head strikes up a friendship with the hideous giant mutant the doctor keeps locked in a closet in his lab.
What sounds like the usual hokey drive-in fare of bygone days crosses the line into exploitation territory in a couple of ways. There’s a racy stripper-fight (brought on by the doctor’s devious flirting) and a surprising amount of blood for the time (the movie was finished in 1959 but not released until 1962). All very funny, of course, but there’s nothing boring about a talking severed head and a mutant giant who looks like a melted Zippy the Pinhead.
6. Ms. 45 aka Angel of Vengeance
A fresh and stylish take on the rape/revenge genre that draws its inspiration from Death Wish, Ms. 45 is the story of a mute seamstress (Zoe Tamerlis) in Manhattan’s garment district who is raped twice in the same day by completely separate attackers.
She bludgeons the second assailant to death with an iron, dismembering the body and surreptitiously tossing the parts in the trash. She later stalks the city with his .45 pistol, blowing away offensive jerks and any man who so much as looks at her the wrong way.
Lurid subject matter aside, the film is well-made and pretty tastefully done, with decent performances and a memorable ending at a Halloween party. Woven through the narrative are thoughtful commentaries on the challenges faced by women living in a culture where sexual harassment and male insensitivity are taken as givens, as they certainly were in early ’80’s America. Directed by Abel Ferarra, who directed Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel a decade later.
7. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice
Some people insist that Japanese culture is nuts, and would probably hold up a film such as this as Exhibit A. The Razor is a badass samurai cop who fights corruption while inflicting masochistic tortures on himself and occasionally interrogating female suspects with his famously huge penis, which he trains by screwing bags of rice and hitting it with a stick.
Very politically incorrect, this film might be considered offensive if it weren’t impossible to take seriously (the jazzy, orchestral cop-movie score is a brilliant touch).
Hanzo is played by Shintaro Katsu, best known as the star of the long-running Zatoichi series of films, and was made by his company Katsu Productions, which also produced the somewhat similar Lone Wolf and Cub series, starring his older brother Tomisaburo Wakayama. Sword of Justice is the first of a trilogy that includes The Snare and Who’s Got the Gold.
8. Alien Contamination
Yet another example of the shameless ripoff genre of exploitation, this Italian Alien imitation takes a central image from Ridley Scott’s film and runs with it. It’s as if the producers said, “You know that movie that made a ton of money, the one with the big worm exploding out of a guy’s chest?
Let’s make a movie that has a hundred times that, plus coffee.” Eggs from Mars arrive in New York on a ship loaded with Columbian coffee beans, and when they spray goop on people, their torsos explode in a bloody blast of guts.
This ridiculous concept serves as nothing more than an excuse for gratuitious, cheap-looking gore, and as such, it works very well. One of the best shots shows a lab rat exploding in slow-motion in a cage. Great nonsense ideal for fans of good-bad cinema.