Yesterday Dread Central brought you the first five milestones in our look back at the 25 milestones that shaped the independent horror landscape over the last 100 years. Today we begin in 1963 with some of the most influential independent genre projects of that era that took some of the biggest gambles in Hollywood and have left an enduring legacy over the last 40-plus years.
Enjoy these five milestones in indie horror, and we’ll see you tomorrow for our next journey through our genre’s rich and storied history.
1963- Blood Feast Introduces us to Splatter Horror:
Undoubtedly, horror fans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Herschell Gordon Lewis, because had it not been for Lewis’ pushing of the envelope, the horror genre today might be a completely different landscape of films. Lewis had worked as a marketing executive for Paramount Studios for years but he came to realize the profits in independent distributing and started his own company in the 1950s. Not content just creating an ordinary horror experience for audiences, he set out to make Blood Feast a blood and gore-filled fest that was beyond shocking to moviegoer sensibilities in 1963.
The best part was that nothing Lewis did was technically against any of the rules set in place from the ratings board, making it an unprecedented film because they had no idea what to do with it. From the success of Blood Feast, Lewis would go on to complete his Blood Trilogy with 2000 Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red, ushering in a new standard in horror and for filmmaking in all other genres as well.
Lewis, forever the businessman, still continues working to this day as a producer (at the age of 81 years young) and even recently stepped back behind the camera as director on Grimm Fairy Tales in 2009. But it’s his work from almost 50 years ago that has forever endeared Lewis to us as the Godfather of Gore and the countless directors that have worked in horror since Blood Feast will forever owe him a debt of gratitude for the ways he challenged the system with the project.
1968: Night of the Living Dead is Released:
There isn’t much left to be said about Night of the Living Dead that fans don’t know already. Shot on a budget of $114,000 and grossing over $30 million dollars worldwide during its release and subsequent re-releases, George Romero proved to Hollywood that it doesn’t take a star-studded cast to get audiences in their seats. With Night of the Living Dead, Romero proved that if you give moviegoers a unique concept and compelling storytelling, they’ll show up in droves.
Night of the Living Dead was a remarkable film for its time, and not just within the context of the horror genre either. The film received a lot of attention (and many times spawned controversy) over the use of nudity (which is subtle compared to today’s standards) as well as for Romero’s casting of African-American actor Duane Jones as the film’s lead, Ben, which was unheard of at the time. Even the film’s climax managed to stir the pot a bit, but Romero remained committed to the social commentary he wanted to make and never changed it despite being urged to do so.
After Night of the Living Dead, Romero went on to direct several other “Dead’ films, cementing his place in horror history as the “Godfather of the Zombie Movies.” His influence on cinema can be felt far and wide, and to this day Romero continues to work in the entertainment industry, proving that he’s still one of the premier filmmakers in our genre. His last project, Survival of the Dead, was released in 2010.
In 1999 Night of the Living Dead was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry alongside films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Roman Holiday and A Streetcar Named Desire.
1972- Wes Craven Takes Us to The Last House on the Left:
Before he was scaring generations of horror fans with Freddy Krueger, writer/director Wes Craven was a struggling artist in Hollywood back in the 1970s. It wasn’t until he met producer Sean S. Cunningham that he’d get the break he needed. Cunningham had recently worked on a successful project with the Hallmark Releasing production house, and based on that success, they gave him $90,000 to shoot a horror movie. Little did they know what they were getting into when Craven finished the script for The Last House on the Left.
Based on the 1960 Swedish film The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman, Craven’s The Last House on the Left went through several incarnations before it became the cult classic we know today. It may surprise some to know that the 1972 film is what Craven calls a “softer version” of his original script, which had been originally titled Night of Vengeance, so it’s hard to even begin to imagine what would have been in store for audiences if the original was a much more violent version of this already controversial flick which was dubbed a “Video Nasty” by the Department of Public Prosecutions in 1982 and remained banned until sometime in the 1990s.
It’s been noted that these days it’s still hard to find a completely uncut version of The Last House on the Left because during its initial release some projectionists were so appalled by its content that they’d actually hack out snippets themselves. The controversy wasn’t enough to keep audiences away – the film grossed $3.1 million during its initial theatrical run and has gone on to become a cult classic and even spawned a successful remake in 2009.
Despite their involvement with the controversial The Last House on the Left, both Craven and Cunningham have gone on to enjoy successful careers behind some of the genre’s most influential films of the 80s and 90s, and this project helped pave the way for them to do more, both independently as well as through the studio system.
1974- Tobe Hooper Unleashes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre:
There is no doubt that audiences would not find a more disturbing film in their cineplexes in 1974 than Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This gritty independent masterpiece is remarkable for many reasons, but two important reasons in particular: One, it was the originator of several elements common in the modern slasher subgenre of horror, including the use of power tools as murder weapons; and two, the characterization of the killer as an overbearing faceless figure.
Produced by Hooper for less than $300,000 with a cast of relatively unknown actors, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre caused quite a stir upon its release that October. The film was banned outright in several countries and later pulled from some theaters after concerns regarding its violent content, but it eventually went on gross over $30 million in the US alone, making it the most successful independent film at that time.
Over time The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has gained a reputation as one of the most influential horror films in modern cinema history with its influence over filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Alexandre Aja, and Rob Zombie only further proving the lasting power behind one of the grittiest and most terrifying social commentaries to ever be released in this, or any other, country.
1977- David Lynch Brings Us a New Cinematic Vision with Eraserhead:
Using Surrealism in films wasn’t that unheard of before filmmaker David Lynch got his start, but there is no doubt that he single-handedly changed the face of that type of storytelling (now, most people refer to cinematic surrealism as “Lynchian”) with his inaugural feature film, Eraserhead.
A film six years in the making, Lynch began working on the project after securing a $10,000 grant from the AFI in Los Angeles. With the grant not being sufficient money to complete the entire feature, Lynch remained unflappable in his desire to finish Eraserhead so he used money from friends and family and from odd jobs over the years. Lynch finally completed the film in 1977.
Upon its release, Eraserhead polarized and baffled many critics and audiences but demonstrated that Lynch was both a visionary and a pioneer filmmaker of his time. After its limited theatrical release, the writer/director was hired to helm The Elephant Man (by none other than Mel Brooks) and received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay for his efforts. Lynch went on to garner two more Oscar nominations as well for his directing work on 1986’s Blue Velvet and 2001’s Mulholland Drive.
Had it not been for Lynch’s perseverance to get Eraserhead made, fans may never have enjoyed the resurgence of Dennis Hopper or wondered who killed Laura Palmer. In 2004 Eraserhead received its highest honor by being selected for preservation in the National Film Registry alongside films like Ben-Hur, Enter the Dragon and Schindler’s List.
We’ll see you fiends Wednesday for our next five milestones!
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