Notes on Exploitation Cinema

Cumulatively, the period that began in the late 1940s and proceeded all throughout the ’50s and ’60s was one of unprecedented legal, industrial, ideological, methodological and artistic upheaval for the movie-making industry in the United States. Not since the very dawn of industrialized movie making and the subsequent birth of the major studios (RKO, Universal, Warner Brothers, United Artists and so on) had so much suddenly seemed both so tangible and so possible to so many, particularly those who had previously been shut out of the business by the big hitters. Kevin Heffernan, in his terrifyingly comprehensive article Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968), describes the period as one “during which issues of audience, text, and industrial context intersected.” (p. 75)

The Paramount Decision (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 US 131) of 1948 played no small part in this aforementioned upheaval, as Bill Osgerby indicates at length in his article, Sleazy Riders: Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie. Specifically, he writes that the Paramount Decision smashed the majors’ “”vertical” monopoly of distribution and exhibition” by ruling against “the major studios’ ownership of cinema chains” (p. 2). This wide-reaching decree birthed the possibility of independent production and distribution without reference to, or prerequisite involvement in, the pre-existing and entirely monolithic studio system. Osgerby singles out the independent production house American International Pictures, formed in 1956, because AIP is nothing if not the perfect poster-boy for the diametrically opposed industrial ideology behind ‘indie’ cinema in the ’50s and early ’60s. Osgerby points out that “the majors sought to maintain their appeal through the production of spectacular “blockbusters””, but that the colossal budgetary requirements of such films reduced overall output, creating a “gap in the market that the independents could exploit”.

In practice, what this means is that, in combination with changing audience desires, demands and socio-economic makeup (to be discussed later), AIP flourished as a result of producing reams of films with miniscule shooting schedules, low production values and relatively infinitesimal production budgets. This was by and large the by-product of AIP’s retaining of cinematic powerhouse Roger Corman, whose truly vast output during the period preceding and subsequently throughout the New Hollywood era is a perfect example of the eventual de facto industrial ideology behind the so-called ‘exploitation’ film.

To talk about exploitation film, one must first firmly define the terms on which discussion is intended. Exploitation films did already exist in no uncertain terms during the hey-day of the Production Code and well before the Paramount Decision of ’48 – notorious director Dwain Esper alone can be credited with the production and/or direction of some of the most famous early exploitation films, such as Maniac (1934), Reefer Madness (1936), Sex Madness (1938), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937) and perhaps most incredibly, The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler (1948) – and, as well as sharing specific Code-era traits, these films shared a distribution circuit, a prototypical version of what David Andrews, in Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife (2006), calls the “decentralized circuit of drive-ins, grind houses, and art houses” that “evolved outside the aegis of classical Hollywood” (p. 62) and eventually became the de rigueur places to view ’50s and ’60s exploitation cinema.

Again, what they primarily shared besides places of exhibition was content, however retrospectively tame that content may seem, as seen through the gore-tinted, highly sexualized, post-modern lens we use to inspect the cinematic past: ‘exploitation’ cinema classically came out of a desire to experience, at a distance, transgressive behaviour or narrative material, and is united as an industrial and artistic genre by its focus on lurid (often violent or ‘ultra-violent’, socially taboo, ribald or sexually explicit in nature, either objectively or relative to the ‘mainstream’ cinema of the period) subject matter. For instance, and seemingly describing Esper’s highly indicative body of work to a tee, Eric Schaefer, in Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature (2002), talks of classical exploitation films couching themselves as morality plays and exposes on social ills, and subsequently “[offering] U.S. audiences sights forbidden by the Production Code as well as by many state and local censorship bodies” by “including moments of spectacle unlike anything seen in mainstream movies: scenes set in nudist camps, shots of striptease dances, and footage of childbirth, victims of venereal disease, and people engaging in a range of vices” (p. 5).

What changed between Esper’s hey-day and the late nineteen fifties/early sixties that produced such a definitive delineation between pre- and post-Decision exploitation cinema? In a word: audiences. Kevin Heffernan, standing on the shoulders of Thomas Doherty and William Paul, points out that ”the target audience for the horror film, like the movie audience generally, had drastically declined in age since the 1950s” (p. 65), a subject on which Doherty himself elaborates in THE EXPLOITATION FILM AS HISTORY: Wild in the Streets, “In the 1950s teen-age Americans, with more leisure time and discretionary spending power than ever before, coalesced into something approaching a distinct group… Television and the acquisitive life made it difficult for Hollywood to lure an adult audience into the theatres”.

Osgerby even finds that his “biker movies”, directly came about as a result of the “cycle of teen exploitation films that rolled out of Hollywood as the film industry responded to the decline in adult cinema audiences” (p. 1) Horror films were, however, the major draw card for young audiences in the period under discussion (David Bordwell in his staple text Film Art briefly concurs, p. 122), leading to the creation of what Heffernan calls the “kiddie-horror matinee” (p. 73), where in (using Heffernan’s examples) films such as Blood of Dracula (1958) and Captain Sinbad’s Magic Voyage (1963) were bundled together to provide a full afternoon’s entertainment. Teens, however, were not the only new demographic to come under the watchful eye of the film industry: African Americans, sensing the first inklings of serious social empowerment, were making a major impact on audience numbers.

In what remains a truly awe-inspiring statistic, Heffernan states: “by 1967, Variety estimated that black moviegoers represented 30 percent of first-run movie patrons while numbering only 10 to 15 percent of the general population.” (p. 62) As such, adult audiences were often treated to the bundling together of racial-drama features such as Black Like Me (1964) and classic horror flicks like Mad Love (1935) (p. 67, Heffernan, here, is again invaluable in the provision of real-world examples of matinee bundling), and it was into this new and strange arena that George Romero’s 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead was delivered (proving Heffernan’s point, the film “played its first-run engagement with the Poitier prestige drama For the Love of Ivy ([1968]…this combination showed up the following week at the Nixon and the Eric Terminal, at 69th and Market” [p. 74]).

In American Horrors, a 1987 Gregory Walled-edited collection of essays on the horror genre as it relates to the United States, it is stated that “1968 could be said to inaugurate the modern era of horror”, (p. 5) the “modern horror film” being “at once business, art and purveyor of entertainment and ideology” (p. 1). It keyed into the desires of the key demographics listed above by combining a (for the time) amazingly capable African American hero (personally, it is my suspicion that we don’t see such a by-and-large successful black protagonist in the independent cinema [barring the character’s untimely death] again until the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song [1971]) with the trappings of the horror genre, and ladling on the Vietnam-centric social commentary for a newly socially conscious audience. Off the back of the introduction in that same year of the R-rating into the cinema, Night of the Living Dead reinvigorated the exploitation film not only with its vitriolic bleakness but its visual viciousness.

Like Rosemary’s Baby (also 1968), Night of the Living Dead brings to the screen a visual and thematic frankness hitherto not often seen in the afternoon matinee spot: its cannibalistic scenes share fragments of an aesthetic with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ lusciously enthusiastic Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964). Indeed, it was in this capacity that Roger Ebert first ‘reviewed’ Night of the Living Dead, describing in his article the subsequently oft-reported traumatizing effect the film had on its remarkably youthful daytime audience, “The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.”

Unlike Reefer Madness, for instance, no dollars were being made off the back of cheap laughs to be had at the expense of the film’s material or the paucity of the so-called horrific elements on display, which is amazing considering the film’s independent origins and the competition to be had from the early ‘blockbusters’, films made with almost unlimited access to resources and big-name stars, both things Night of the Living Dead lacks almost entirely. Night of the Living Dead brought about a turning point in the perception, appreciation and distribution of the exploitation film, serving as a amazingly stable bridge between the Corman-styled purely industrial money-spinners of the ‘50s (shot using black and white 35mm film stock, constrained within a single house, utilizing small numbers of actors and sparing special effects shots, Night of the Living Dead is the definitive example of a workably low film budget in practice) and the artistically ‘valid’ works of the New Hollywood, even then percolating in Californian film schools and on studio backlots.

Works Cited

Andrews, David. “Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife: The Softcore Thriller in Its Contexts.” Cinema Journal 45 (2006): 59-89. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art and Free Film Viewer’s Guide. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages, 2000.

Doherty, Thomas. “THE EXPLOITATION FILM AS HISTORY: Wild in the Streets.” Literature/Film Quarterly 12 (1984): 186-95. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Ebert, Roger. “The Night of the Living Dead.” Chicago Sun-Times. 5 Jan. 1967. Chicago Sun-Times. <;.

Heffernan, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film:  Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Cinema Journal 41 (2002): 59-77. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Jancovich, Mark. Horror. London: B.T Batsford, 1992.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman. 1968.

Osgerby, Bill. “SLEAZY RIDERS: Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 31 (2003): 98. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Schaefer, Eric. “Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature.” Cinema Journal 41 (2002): 3-26. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Waller, Gregory A., ed. American Horrors : Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. New York: University of Illinois P, 1987.


~ by Martin Kingsley on July 16, 2010.

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