We have genre-loving filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to thank for bringing grindhouse cinema to the mainstream. Their collaborative double feature, Grindhouse, has since spawned two full-length films based on the fake trailers in the movie: Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun (and Eli Roth is still entertaining a Thanksgiving movie). This weekend, Rodriguez’s sequel to his Mexploitation action flick, Machete Kills — starring Danny Trejo as an ex-Federale, this time fighting crime for the U.S. government — opens in theaters. We’ve selected some of the greatest grindhouse features to get you in the mood for machine gun bras and eccentric billionaire terrorists (played by… Mel Gibson). Travel back in time to sleazy 42nd Street for a 15-film bill of grindhouse’s greatest.
Using the set of Hogan’s Heroes as its backdrop, Don Edmonds’ Nazi sexploitation favorite, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, finds Dyanne Thorne’s evil commandant at a medical camp experimenting on prisoners in order to prove that women can endure more pain than men. When she’s not playing doctor, Ilsa likes to torture her workers and satisfy her kinky sexual appetite by any means necessary. Men that fail to please her wind up as half a man, to put it mildly. There’s gore, nudity, and twisted humor galore — but Ilsa’s idea of a good time isn’t for the faint of heart. For more of the sadistic Ilsa, grab a copy of Ilsa: The Wicked Warden , Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks , and Ilsa: The Tigress of Siberia .
Before Pam Grier was headlining Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, she was a grindhouse goddess in Jack Hill’s blaxploitation classic, Coffy. Nurse by day, avenging angel after dark, Grier’s character fights pimps, pushers, corrupt cops, and mobsters — and she’s totally believable while duking it out with a sawed-off shotgun in her hand and a set of razor blades tucked inside her afro. Grier exudes sex appeal, but she’s a badass through and through. Where other exploitation films use women as mere window dressing, Grier performs her own stunts and has genuine acting talent.
Master of the Flying Guillotine features perhaps the coolest weapon in kung fu cinema: a “flying” guillotine on a chain that decapitates people (which looks like a hat with a bladed rim). It’s wielded by a blind assassin (of course), and the film is populated with one-armed men — minus an Indian fighter whose arms hilariously stretch to twice their length. If you need an additional endorsement, Tarantino idolizes the film for its action-based insanity and bizarre characters.
Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left earned its place in the annals of grindhouse infamy. Novice audiences should brace for brutal violence, disturbing subject matter, and sickening sleaze — but if you’re looking for more in-depth subtext, Craven delivers in his meditation on the evil inherent in all of humanity. (First-timers: it may be hard to see through the repugnant exterior, but it’s there.) An unrelentingly cruel trio of thugs assault two girls out for an evening of fun. There’s not much more to the movie in terms of plot (apart from a few moments of unintentional comedy), but Craven didn’t set out to glamorize violence. The unsettling tale is shot like a documentary, which adds a terrifying realism to Craven’s debut work (inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring).
Five Fingers of Death, about a showdown between rival martial arts schools, is responsible for the North American kung-fu craze of the 1970s — alongside Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. You’ll recognize the film’s influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill (the 1972 film ranks as one of his favorites), particularly in the soundtrack and excellent fight choreography.
If you want to see what Taxi Driver‘s Paul Schrader was up to before he teamed up with Lindsay Lohan for The Canyons, check out 1977’s Rolling Thunder (scripted by Schrader). The film stars a young Tommy Lee Jones and William Devane as POWs on the warpath against a gang of murderous thugs. Rolling Thunder is set in the post-Vietnam era and offers plenty of intense violence, but it’s not the typical grindhouse flick, boasting strong writing, directing, and acting.
Part occult horror flick, part car chase action saga, this is the movie to watch if you want to see Peter Fonda stalked by a vicious cult of satanic motorcyclists after witnessing their human sacrifice.
Russ Meyer’s girl gang classic is the most recognizable film on our list and probably features the most memorable cast — three go-go dancers turned ultraviolent vixens who kidnap, kill, and lustily lure men to an early grave. “Take away all the jokes, the elaborate camera angles, the violence, the action and the sex, and what remains is the quintessential Russ Meyer image: a towering woman with enormous breasts, who dominates all the men around her, demands sexual satisfaction and casts off men in the same way that, in mainstream sexual fantasies, men cast aside women,” Meyer’s pal Roger Ebert said of the movie.
Tarantino struck again with Kill Bill‘s homage to Noribumi Suzuki’s Sex & Fury (see: the final sword fight between The Bride and O-Ren). Where most sexploitation films of the 1970s were led by a male cast, Sex & Fury features a female protagonist (who, yes, sometimes fights topless) hunting a group of criminals.
Controversial for the on-screen killings of animals (something the director has since expressed regret over), Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is probably the only film you can believe the “Most Controversial Movie Ever Made!” hype. The notorious grindhouse shocker, about a group of documentary filmmakers who disappear into the Amazon and the professor who investigates what atrocities occurred, is ham-fisted as far as any social commentary is concerned, but Deodato makes us briefly wonder who the real monsters are: us or the cannibals. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are a stomach-churning exercise in extreme Italian horror, which found the filmmaker on trial since the courts were convinced they were watching an actual snuff film. Do not venture into the jungle unprepared. Cannibal Holocaust is not for the uninitiated.
Lucio Fulci’s films were made for grindhouse theaters. Gory, gritty, and sleazy as hell, Fulci’s New York Ripper even featured scenes in darkened movie houses where porn flickered on the big screen. The Beyond takes place in a New Orleans hotel, built on top of one of the seven gates of Hell. Over-the-top insanity ensues: death by tarantulas (they eat people’s faces), a blind woman gets brutally attacked by her guide dog, cult star David Warbeck runs around shooting zombies everywhere but the head, Fulci appears in a cameo, Fabio Frizzi delivers an incredible score, and there’s a mind-boggling conclusion.
Inspired by the musical Brigadoon, Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis set his Two Thousand Maniacs! in the Deep South for a redneck horror tale that finds tourists and townspeople in a gory battle to the death. Lewis was making “grindhouse” movies before the label was invented with his “nudie cutie” flicks and one of the films that spawned the gore genre: Blood Feast.
Sexploitation starlet Christina Lindberg plays a brutalized woman who seeks revenge on her attackers after being forced into a life of drugs and prostitution. Eye patch, shotgun, and black leather in tow, Lindberg’s character turns the tables completely. Director Bo Arne Vibenius intercut the film with scenes of hardcore porn to sleaze up the story. Crazy factoids: filmmakers took a life insurance policy out on Lindberg during the making of the movie since they used real bullets during the action sequences. They also used a real cadaver for a gory scene of violence.
Super producer Roger Corman is behind this classic women in prison film, directed by none other than Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia‘s Jonathan Demme. The movie was released at the tail end of the genre’s popularity, but the story of female convicts banding together against a cruel warden remains a favorite.
William Lustig’s grimy New York City-set tale of a madman who stalks a photographer (and sleeps with his creepy collection of mannequins, while sometimes scalping women for sport) epitomizes 1980’s horror. Actor Joe Spinell took on the role of psycho Frank Zito, crafting a frighteningly real character not typical of the time period. Look for an exploding head effect from FX legend Tom Savini (he used his own as the model). The most bizarre Maniac trivia, however, concerns singer Michael Sembello who originally co-wrote Flashdance‘s “Maniac” for Lustig’s movie. The performer spoke about his collaboration with writing partner Dennis Matkosky:
“He came up with the original kernel of inspiration and to me with the basic idea and groove and I believe the temporary lyrics for the chorus he had were: ‘He’s a maniac, maniac that’s for sure/ He will kill your cat and nail him to the door’ That direction obviously wasn’t going to work at which point the genius of Phil Ramone, producer of the soundtrack who had the vision to see the potential of the song, asked us to change it to the present concept of a girl possessed with the passion of a gift for dance. Without Phil it would not have happened.”