‘The Driller Killer’ is a No Wave Trashterpiece [Spins and Needles]

The Driller Killer

The uniquely heinous poster art for Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer doesn’t leave much to the imagination. For OG tape trader freaks, the back of the box promised the following:

“As the screaming drill closes on its victim you don’t really believe what you are seeing…until blood starts pouring and another tearing scream joins the drill. A stomach of steel is required to watch the final scenes of mayhem.”

To a growing audience of psychotronic film connoisseurs under conservative hegemony in the UK, every drop of blood was precious. Censors, who were being paid comfortably by the government to watch films they didn’t appreciate, lorded over each frame of footage that could be deemed harmful to society in those days. The 1980s saw a rise in democratic standards for adults in home viewership. But this was deliberately undercut by a moral panic that branded certain films as “video nasties”.

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Fitting snugly among works by Sam Raimi and Ruggero Deodato, Ferrara’s film is cited with great contempt in documentaries on the subject, usually accompanied by the sour-faced pout of reactionaries posing as serious intellectual figures. Though confrontational and ugly even by grindhouse standards, the film doesn’t blow its proverbial load right away. It couches its hellish fantasies in an intimate portrayal of a struggling artist surrounded by the concrete nightmare that was New York City in the late 1970s. 

Like many of the original nasties (then comprising 72 titles), the irony is that the content of the banned film actually resonates more with a desperate and downtrodden society than the groveling of a few powerful fossils. The camera eye in The Driller Killer captures its environment in vivid detail. Guerrilla sequences inside the legendary Max’s Kansas City authenticate the film’s outsider bravado, giving the defiantly self-proclaimed Blank Generation a fresh cinematic moment.

There are no vast, lonely street scenes like the ones in films such as Permanent Vacation and Smithereens. But Ferrara works the most neglected corners of the city for all they offer. Portraits of homeless men emptying their stomachs on the sidewalk before catching a nap are part of the psychology of the city. Their objectification is two-fold. First, it demolishes the tacit, pay-no-mind, attitude to an ongoing crisis for the audience. It also gives our protagonist Reno Miller (Ferrara) an outlet for expression. Reno first sketches them to gather inspiration as he attempts to finish his magnum opus. Then he later uses them as walking canvases, with the drill substituting a paintbrush. 

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A cheeky rendition of Bach’s “Invention 14 in Bb”, played by composer Joe Delia, is layered throughout. This merges the sensibilities of exploitation film with an air of respectability. For what it’s worth, neither Ferrara nor writer Nicholas St. John, appear to be clamoring for the attention of the high-art crowd. Their approach to the script is rooted in the deep nihilism and rebellious spirit of the time. Yet The Driller Killer does not follow the tide of New York punk rock into glory. Shot between 1978 and 1979, the film is washed from the crest of a vibrant scene and onto the shores of a more reactive movement known as No Wave.

The sagacious, hater extraordinaire Lydia Lunch describes it as such:

“Like the anti-art invasion of dada and the surrealist pranksters who…had a blast while pissing all over everybody’s expectations of what art was, no wave was a collective bowel-cleansing caterwaul which spat forth a collective of extreme artists who defied category, despised convention, defiled the audience and refused to compromise, and who have consequently influenced and informed pop culture as well as mainstream media ever since.”

No Wave embodies violence in its sound and is overwhelming as a result. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lunch’s first band, use a mix of poetry and surrealist imagery in their music to grapple with this heightened state of awareness. The Driller Killer is equally constructed with visuals that allude to threats of violence even before they occur on screen. Chief among them is the threat of financial insecurity. Speaking to the camera in Nick Zedd’s 1983 documentary Wild World of Lydia Lunch, the artist succinctly outlines the film’s main concern while recalling her own experiences: “I’m as broke as I get and fairly desperate”. Any romantic ideas people might have about punk when it first exploded fizzle away in the embers of reality for working artists who scramble for income.

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The film excels at building up this desperation to its logical, if entirely demented, conclusion. Ferrara himself has a good sense of humor about the film’s slow build-up on its commentary track. And honestly, if you picked up The Driller Killer off the strength of the image on the box and got a whacked-out dadaist fever dream instead, you’re somewhat justified in feeling impatient. But the wealth of atmosphere and sense of place the film provides supersedes the hunger for gore.

Before the sleaziest parts of the city were gutted in favor of what trash cinema guru Bill Landis (R.I.P.) called “a Disney-dominated Blade Runner aesthetic”, its reputation as a hedonistic playground was well-cemented. Popular and underground art cast back conflicted views on the city and its effect on the people who lived there. On the one hand, the turmoil of life is brutal and unending. On the other, the prevailing attitude from native New Yorkers seems to reflect the words of Jimmy Fails in The Last Black Man In San Francisco: “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” The Driller Killer slides on the razor-thin border occupying both sides of this sentiment.

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This love/hate dichotomy is fully alive in Reno. Ferrara may be sheepish about his acting abilities on commentary. But he exudes confidence in moments of artistic inspiration. He plays the darker notes of a fractured psyche to a scary degree. One sensation typically follows the other. This is exemplified by a scene wherein Reno peacefully scopes out his city from a water tower only to witness a stabbing nearby. His irritability and dissociation are exacerbated by a new tenant in his building who practices with his band at all hours of the night. When Reno’s girlfriend Carol (Carolyn Marz) points out that they have an album in the works, he replies: “If I heard this on a record I’d quit painting in protest”.

The music of Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters isn’t quite no-wave, however. It’s technically proficient, even in its contentful spoofing of rock cliches, and not nearly as discordant. The No Wave philosophy opened the door for meaningful art regardless of skill level. This means that you could pick up a guitar or sax and wail to your heart’s desire. Often, roommates who started bands and made films would trade jobs to get the most out of any given experiment. But the guttural screams and screeching guitars blend into a cacophonous white noise, drilling itself in Reno’s head on a daily basis.

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Played by artist D.A. Metrov, Tony makes good on the film’s intro card that reads THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD. He’s bratty, chaotic, and stoned out of his mind most of the time he’s on screen. As a solo character, he’s entirely formless. As a tether to Reno, he’s living a much more creatively fulfilling life with little distraction. His mere presence tugs at the strings of Reno’s insecurities, unraveling a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “The Grand Street Stomp” with its memorable guitar riff and pulsing rhythm, doesn’t just play in mockery of older rock music. It actively pisses in Reno’s soup. So to speak.

The more Reno tries to be like Tony (i.e., wearing eyeliner to his shows, exhibiting controlling behavior towards roommates), the harder it backfires. The raw emotions stirring from this split persona emerge in a scene where Reno challenges the bull depicted in his work-in-progress. Earlier, he has trouble securing funds from his art dealer Dalton Biggs (Harry Schultz). So he has to rely on Carol’s alimony payments to make rent. Feeling emasculated, Reno yells “hey toro!” at the painting in a scene reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s famous “you talkin’ to me?” soliloquy in Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle and Reno Miller follow eerily similar paths, albeit with different motivations. The selfishness in Reno’s actions eclipses any human impulses by the end. 

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In a film of doubles, writer Nicholas St. John himself could be seen as a tether to Paul Schrader. Like Bickle, his protagonist is tormented by the perceived damnation of the world around him forcing itself inward. The opening organ music of The Driller Killer is positioned briefly as antithetical to the secular noise at Max’s. But Reno’s random encounter with an older man in a church on Mulberry Street is nonetheless haunting.

A crisis of faith imprints itself over nearly every scene of the film. But the message is savagely put down with each kill. Perhaps it’s an unbridled rage towards the nameless churchman that Reno projects onto the homeless men he murders to feed his ego, and creativity. The unflinching crucifixion of a transient man by drill is among the most blatantly sacrilegious in the film. And all this violence answers a crucial question asked by Tony to the artist as poses for a portrait: “What is it of me that you’re putting on there?”

The reputation The Driller Killer has of being abrasive and difficult to follow usually negates the incisiveness of its craft. As with their killer, Ferrara and St. John both sequester the audience and force them to reckon with what they want out of transgressive art. The audience is meant to fire back with questions as to how much of themselves they actually see on screen. Terrifying questions breed equally terrifying answers. This film externalities the anxiety of housing insecurity through killings. It is indelicate and nasty. If it was a person, you would be right to walk across the street to avoid them. And still, it is executed with great acuity of vision.

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Rowdy 42nd street audience be damned, The Driller Killer demands you stick with it till the end. This study of an artist-turned-killer takes risky emotional swings and delivers on the madness of its title a little too convincingly. Props go to Jack McIntyre and David Smith, son of legendary make-up artist Dick Smith, for effectively breathing life into kill sequences that could have undersold in less steady hands. Although, learning that a real drill and a Hail Mary were used in a shot where an actor actually gets drilled adds a nauseating touch to each viewing. As the maestro notes on commentary: “You can’t just drill a motherfucker you gotta have a fuckin scene.”

A polarized reception from even the most hardcore film-hounds may contribute to the miracle of the film’s longevity. But in actuality, The Driller Killer’s place in a broader culture is a testament to Ferrara’s unfuckwitable position as one of his generation’s greatest talents. As far as labels are concerned, this thing is No Wave right down to the last credit; which funnily enough is dedicated to the people of New York “The City of Hope”. It’s a scuzzy prelude to a great filmography and a seminal proto-slasher to boot. To think that police with too much time and money on their hands were tasked to confiscate and watch such wretched beauties way back when.



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