Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sins of Celluloid 4: The Most Controversial, Disturbing & Essential Exploitation/Grindhouse Movies

DEATH WISH 2 (1981)

***WARNING! This article contains images of nudity and bloody violence***

Revenge movies are arguably the single most innate style of cinema out there. They stir feelings within us all for our desire to protect our loved ones and strike back at those who would take away what we work so hard to accrue. One doesn't have to be a horror, or an exploitation movie fan to enjoy this visceral style of motion picture. Revenge movies don't necessarily have to be exploitation movies whose sole selling points are there acts of violence and bloodletting.


Some entries are far more sleazy and nasty than others, but even the more mainstream efforts have their fair share of anger inducing scenes of violence. While this type of film was more prominent in the 1970's and 1980's, revenge movies are still made, although nothing like what had come before. The films saw a short lived resurgence in the new millennium with the double dose of THE BRAVE ONE and DEATH SENTENCE (both 2007). The latter film especially tried to emulate the gritty style of the older films.


This list contains an array of revenge movies that are notable representations of vengeance seeking characters. Many horror movies have a revenge motif, most dominantly in the slasher pictures wherein a horrible wrong is committed only to be rectified some years later on the perpetrators. I've pretty much excluded any of those from this particular list. There is one bonafide horror movie found on this list and it's a classic and likewise tragic example of the form.


Vendettas are also the central conceit for hundreds of martial arts actioners whether they're made in Hong Kong, Japan, or America. I included one of the most popular American martial arts actioners from the 1980's and left off any others considering the sheer plethora of Asian revenge movies out there. Some of them will be present on a future chapter of this series.


Then you have the more popular style rape-revenge movies modeled after Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971) and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). These thrillers were made even more infamous and controversial with the release of Meir Zarchi's I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978). Movies such as DEMENTED (1980) and NAKED VENGEANCE (1985) follow the template laid down by Zarchi's powerfully raw, yet average exploitation sickie.

MAD MAX (1979)

STRAW DOGS and LAST HOUSE were so genre defining, there were even TV movies built around the concept of a family fighting for their lives against oppressive cretins. One such film is TERROR ON THE BEACH from 1973 starring Dennis Weaver as a man on a sun and surf trip with his family plagued by an escalating level of violence perpetrated by a gang of hippy miscreants. The rape-revenge movie motif still thrives today albeit with a more polished degree of sadism. The following list is a small selection of various revenge movies; some more popular, or well known than others, but all are ace in my book and well worth seeking out.



Directed by Phil Karson

Buford Pusser runs for sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee and causes a major ruckus with the criminal element in town. With ties to the mob, the gambling and prostitution racketeers do everything necessary to try and bring down the determined and resolute lawman.

Karson's violent and bloody big hit about a man pushed to the limit was one of the most inspiring and riveting action revenge dramas of the 1970's. Even more so that it was based on a true story. Joe Don Baker walks tall and carries a big stick in arguably, his most famous role. Baker's electric performance carries the movie from start to finish. Occasionally over the top, but infinitely intimidating, Baker makes you believe he IS Buford Pusser. There's intense acting all around and the violence level is brutally high and often times shockingly sudden.

Life imitates art and the making of WALKING TALL was just as harrowing as the film itself. Since the real Buford Pusser was a consultant on the movie, death threats were prominent during shooting and Baker was authorized to carry a gun with him at all times. Racism was not only a problem in the movie, but it was rampant during the shoot, too. Pusser was originally set to play himself for the sequel, but his mysterious death resulted in Bo Svenson stepping into the big man's shoes for the next two sequels and short lived television series. Truly a wild and bloody piece of Americana, WALKING TALL is must see entertainment for 70's revenge action fans.


Directed by William Fruet

A quiet trip out to a country house turns into a nightmare for Brenda Vaccaro and Chuck Shamata when they run four harassing and hellraising thugs off the road. Humiliation, rape and death follow in that order resulting in Vaccaro turning the tables on her attackers. Schlock director, Fruet is behind the camera on this one and it's arguably the best movie he ever did.

Everything about this movie is worth talking about especially the performances. Vaccaro is a startlingly resourceful female. What makes her role so surprising is that she's tough as nails from the start. There's no life altering experience that turns her into a savage survivalist; she's already capable of taking care of herself.

Don Stroud truly epitomizes a psycho bastard in this movie. An endearingly capable actor at playing sleazeballs, he also co-starred as a good guy in another Fruet directed revenge movie, SEARCH & DESTROY (1979). No doubt this movie influenced I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978). William Fruet explored similar ground with TRAPPED in 1982 starring a psychotic turn by Henry Silva.

CARRIE (1976)

Directed by Brian DePalma

A tormented high school girl possesses telekinetic powers. After brutal treatment from her fanatical, unhinged mother and oppressive degradation from her schoolmates, Carrie snaps and unleashes a savage revenge on those who mercilessly demeaned her.

Absolutely one of the scariest horror movies ever made and a prime example of the revenge motif in film. For me, one aspect of the film that makes it special is the tragedy at the core of the plot. There is no happy ending for anyone. Everyone suffers, even Carrie, an innocent young woman who never knew acceptance from those around her, not even her own mother. The one character who did care about her well being met her doom after Carrie lost all remnants of her sanity. Innocent or not, in her eyes, everyone was evil and must be destroyed.

A major horror highlight, this movie still stands up incredibly well today and the sequel retained the nihilism of the first film, if not going a bit overboard with the callousness of the antagonists. Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen and John Travolta all do wonders with their characters making this 1976 horror classic one of the best revenge movies of all time.


Directed by Meir Zarchi

There are a lot of words that can describe this notorious movie--sadistic, nauseating and repulsive. You could also throw in amateurish and rudimentary. There are traces of an attempt at a half decent rape revenge thriller here, but it's lost in sadism and bad acting. The some 30 to 40 minute rape sequence is one of the most grueling pieces of film you will ever lay your eyes on. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have seen this in a theater. Judging by Roger Ebert's review at the time, it sounded like it was a scary experience. Taking apparent inspiration from William Fruet's underrated, DEATH WEEKEND (1976), I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is possibly the single most savage movie on this list.

Camille Keaton (Buster's granddaughter) plays the brutalized female well enough and seems to become an emotionless predator after she has collected herself and plotted her revenge. She plays a writer on vacation who attracts the attention of a group of lowlifes. They all take turns raping and humiliating her in an agonizingly prolonged sequence of suffering. After a period of convalescing, she gets the dirty bastards systematically killing them all one after the other.

Zarchi's movie is strikingly well made in places, but the acting frequently lets it down and also what appears to be a poverty row production. It straddles the line between an important depiction of the depravity and ultimate humiliation of the act of rape and a straight up, sick piece of exploitation filth. It's one of those movies that is difficult to enjoy, but taken as a grotty piece of exploitation gutter trash, it works on a number of levels. It's also one of the most well known rape-revenge movies ever made spawning a mini sub genre of like minded movies such as the deplorable DEMENTED (1980), the Dirty Harry movie, SUDDEN IMPACT (1982), the horrid HELL HIGH (1989), Cirio H. Santiago's clone, NAKED VENGEANCE (1985) and THE LADIES CLUB (1986) about a group of vigilante women who castrate male criminals that go unpunished due to the flawed legal system. Despite its inherent tastelessness, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is one of the most imitated grindhouse movies.

MAD MAX (1979)

Directed by George Miller

Sometime in the future in Australia, "Mad" Max Rockatansky, a wild policeman in a post apocalyptic world, must contend with a viciously sadistic biker gang. After his wife is mutilated and his baby son murdered, Mad Max takes the law into his own hands.

Aside from the mediocre THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), MAD MAX could be seen as the progenitor of the post apocalyptic movies that enjoyed a brief stint of popularity particularly in Italy. No doubt Gibson really hit genre pay dirt with THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), but it's MAD MAX that has fast garnered an increasing amount of notoriety over the years being noted for the cult classic it has always been. Shot for very little money, Miller captures an amazing atmosphere of speed and ferocity. The film seldom slows down. There's relatively little fat on the production. The rapid fire editing and loud and abrasively bombastic score make the proceedings simultaneously unsettling and gives the picture a bigger scope it would otherwise not have.

Released in the States by AIP in a dubbed version (the dubbing is really good, too), the recent MGM DVD contains both this version as well as the original Australian dub. Personally, I prefer the dubbed version (probably the only time I will ever state that) as it gives the already comic book characters (names such as the Nightrider, Toecutter, Fifi, Goose, Mud Guts, Johnny the Boy) even more outlandish personages with their overboard voices. Cues from Brian May's (not the QUEEN guitarist) outstanding score can be heard in dozens of Shaw Brothers 1980's productions.

Max gets mad

The stunt work is one of the biggest assets and the opening car chase between the Interceptors and the Nightrider is one of the ballsiest, exciting and destruction addled metal and motor sequences ever caught on film. From start to finish it's all about fast cars, motorcycles, violence and twisted bodies and metal. The final scene is one of the most cold blooded instances of revenge I've ever seen. MAD MAX is such an effective movie, several key scenes were recreated virtually shot for shot in the Thomas Jane version of THE PUNISHER (2004).


Directed by Vernon Zimmerman

Eric Binford is a social outcast who is picked on and put down by his family and more or less everyone he interacts with. However, he finds solace in the world of cinema. His entire life is the movies. He loves them so much, the line between fantasy and reality becomes terrifyingly blurred when he snaps one day and decides to strike back at those that have wronged him by dressing up as some of his favorite movie characters until the police corner him atop Mann's (Grauman's) Chinese Theater in a bullet riddled finale.

An early appearance by Mickey Rourke (right)

An unusual revenge thriller character study that faded into obscurity upon its initial theatrical release despite a genuinely unsettling ad campaign. Considering the time the film was made and that slasher pictures were big business, the films trailers leave one with the impression that they are getting something along the lines of your FRIDAY THE 13th's, PROM NIGHT's and TERROR TRAIN's of the day. It found a home (and regular airplay) on cable television in the early 1980's. Still not receiving the credit the film deserves, it remains a cult item after all these years and unjustly so. Possibly the ultimate film fan movie, Vernon Zimmerman's movie is a veritable cornucopia of old movie clips, references and odes to stars of a bygone era.

The death scenes are often meticulously shot. One of the most violently spectacular is a gruesome barber shop murder towards the end of the film. Director, Zimmerman, also directed the Claudia Jennings roller derby cult film, UNHOLY ROLLERS (1972), another film that needs a DVD release. FADE TO BLACK is a hidden gem if there ever was one.

MS. 45 (1981)

Directed by Abel Ferrara

This obscure, vicious and wholly underrated rape-revenge thriller sees Abel Ferrara follow Meri Zarchi's template by having his protagonist raped several times in the same day. There's one difference; instead of the action taking place out in the isolation of the country, the location is the concrete jungle that is New York City.

Another difference is that Ferrara's movie is more competently made and directed in an artsy, yet sadistic fashion. MS. 45 borrows just as liberally from DEATH WISH (1974), but from a female perspective. Unlike Paul Kersey, Thana is a mute which makes her two rapes in the span of a single day all the more horrific. After the second time, she snaps and kills the man with an iron. She then chops up the corpse and keeps most of the parts in her refridgerator. She finds an ingenious, yet ghoulish way of disposing of the remains. She then goes out at night casually blowing away scummy men with her .45 hand gun.

As the film progresses, it becomes quickly apparent that Thana (Zoe Tamerlis) is slipping deeper and deeper into insanity. The more men she kills, the more she loses grasp of her mental faculties. The conclusion features a slow motion man massacre at a masquerade party. Ferrara (BAD LIEUTENANT) goes to bat to deliver a surprisingly well made, yet mesmerizingly sadistic and offensive rape-revenge potboiler. Criminally underrated in this country, it has yet to receive a decent release in the States (Not counting the cut Image DVD). The French release is uncut. Highly recommended.

DEATH WISH 2 (1981)

Directed by Michael Winner

Bronson administers last rites

Whereas DEATH WISH (1974) was a stark portrayal of an architect roaming the streets of New York at night blowing away the criminal element after his wife is murdered, the sequel piles on the pugnaciousness. Director, Winner avoids the occasional shock value of the original deciding to go straight for the throat for part two.

Laurence Fishburn is the gangmember with the glasses

Severely cut in America, the film has managed to get an uncut release in several overseas territories. The brutal rape and death of the housekeeper is much longer in the more violent international version. Paul Kersey's (Charles Bronson) daughter suffers even greater indignities the second time around. There's relatively no plot whatsoever aside from being an exploitation retread of the original motion picture.

From here on out, Kersey's "adventures" would become more comical and inferior in the process. While Bronson himself became more comic bookish in the other entries, he's a completely cold, detached hunter for justice in the second film. Arguably one of the most significant examples of the revenge movies throughout the 1980's. Bronson starred in a string of other similar movies such as TEN TO MIDNIGHT (1983), MURPHY'S LAW (1986) and KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS (1989).


Directed by Bill Lustig

Eddie Marino comes home from work one day and finds his wife viciously beaten and stabbed and his young son dead. After the gang leader responsible gets off on a technicality, Eddie ends up in jail himself after attacking the man in the courtroom. Once he gets out, he teams up with his friend, Nick, who heads a vigilante squad of street avengers who do what the courts and police force won't do--clean up the scum.

Fred Williamson

Robert Forster (left) and Woody Strode (right)

William Lustig's gritty and violent DEATH WISH style movie shares plot elements seen in such films as EXECUTION SQUAD (1971) and VIOLENT ROME (1975) and other Italian crime ventures that featured a privatized group of street cleaners. Lustig directed a string of ultra violent New York thrillers that include MANIAC (1980) and MANIAC COP (1988). His grim view of a city under siege rivaled the raw, seedy atmosphere projected by the likes of Abel Ferrara (MS. 45, DRILLER KILLER) and also Frank Henenlotter and his grime ridden and crusty look at life on 42nd Street in BASKET CASE (1982).

This vigilante movie is like a mini epic. It covers a lot of ground in its 90 minutes and finishes up with a truly shocking, fist-in-the-air, poetic justice of an ending. The soundtrack, sounding like a John Carpenter score done in the Eurocrime style is also worthy of a CD release. Forster went from a tormented cop in ALLIGATOR (1980) to a tormented everyman in Lustig's movie. Fred Williamson is fine, but really keeps the film from maintaining its seriousness with his cigar chomping delivery. Still, it's an essential example of big city retribution.

CLASS OF 1984 (1982)

Directed by Mark Lester

This compelling piece of revenge cinema trash is one of the best examples of the form. An overly violent 80's retread of the 1955 Oscar nominated classic, THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, Lester's movie piles on the exploitation value while displaying a prophetic eye towards the school system of the future. The tagline itself is chilling--"We are the future! And nothing can stop us."

Perry King (MANDINGO) is Mr. Norris, a new teacher at an out of control inner city high school where the students do the teaching. He attracts the attention of the school's main problem child, Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten). Stegman sells drugs, roughs up the meek and makes a general nuisance of himself. In a startling change of pace, Stegman is revealed to not only being a cretin, but a talented, gifted one at that in a scene where he breaks out into a classroom piano solo. Van Patten went on to play a good guy in the short lived television series, THE MASTER (1984) starring Lee Van Cleef and Sho Kosugi.

Michael J. Fox is on hand in an early role. He previously appeared in a supporting role in the hilariously goofy scavenger hunt comedy, MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980). Roddy McDowall steals the film in a showstopping sequence of madness where he loses his sanity amidst all the chaos and holds his class at gunpoint after discovering all his animals have been butchered.

The revenge aspect comes into play when the teacher (played by Perry King) must fight not only for his life, but for his family when Stegman and his gang break into his home and take turns raping his wife. The gruesome finale pits Norris against Stegman and his cronies. Shockingly effective today in light of the numerous school catastrophes over the years and also the recent spate of school massacres in China. Director, Lester returned a few years later for a pseudo sequel, CLASS OF 1999 (1990), about robotic teachers placed in a violent school system utilizing murderous methods to get through to the students. CLASS OF 1984 is a violent high school exploitation movie worth studying.

10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Charles Bronson stars in one of his most violently depraved cop-revenge thrillers. This isn't the typical revenge movie, but more of a sleazier version of DIRTY HARRY or one of its sequels. The vendetta is sought by the antagonist who has a seething hatred for women. Unlucky in love and unable to mingle with the fairer sex, Warren Stacey (Gene Davis) stalks and brutally butchers those who have humiliated him, or simply turned down his advances. What makes this sadistic serial killer unusual is that he kills in the nude. Whereas he cannot please a woman with his penis, he extinguishes their lives with his butcher knife.

Bronson plays Leo Kessler, the gruff and grumpy lawman who goes to great lengths to bust the psycho, but as usual, legal loopholes cause the sick bastard to go free. In an effort worthy of the best Italian violent cop variants, Kessler purposely plants evidence in Stacey's home to gain a conviction, although it all goes to nothing since the killer is naked when he kills, unbeknownst to the authorities. Kessler's breaking of the law causes him to lose his job and Stacey continues his killing spree now setting his sights on Kessler's daughter.

Partially based on the Richard Speck murders, 10 TO MIDNIGHT is a nasty, vicious, wholly misogynistic crime thriller that often resembles a slasher movie. One of the grimiest movies of the 1980's, it was the second of Bronson's films to be produced by trash peddler, Menahem Golan of The Cannon Group. He cranked out a string of similar movies starring Bronson up until 1989. MURPHY'S LAW (1986) is another one to feature a vengeance seeking villain out to get Bronson, killing anyone close to him. 10 TO MIDNIGHT was also the fourth film to team Bronson with British director, J. Lee Thompson. Critically lambasted upon its release, 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983) is the closest Bronson came to headlining a horror movie and it's must see entertainment for sleaze buffs. A terrifically awesome ending, too.


Directed by Sam Firstenberg

Sho Kosugi made a comeback in America recently playing the main villain in NINJA ASSASSIN (2010)

The first sequel/follow up to the successful, but scatterbrained ENTER THE NINJA starring Franco Nero. Sho Kosugi was the villain in that one, but steps into the hero role for the second film. Apparently, martial artist Mike Stone (who worked on the previous picture) was set to play the hero, but got fudged out in favor of Kosugi. REVENGE OF THE NINJA is, quite simply, one of the perfect examples of a lean, mean action movie machine. Every cliche, every scenario possible within the action genre is present in this movie and played to the hilt.

Cho, a ninja who tires of the conflict in his homeland that has cost him the lives of his family, decides to take his mother and remaining son to America to start over. He opens a Japanese doll gallery with Braden, his American friend, but realizes too late that Braden is only using the gallery as a front for his heroin deals. Cho's friend also spent many years in Japan and he is also a ninja. Working with the mob, they eventually betray Braden and he takes revenge on the mob with Cho caught in the middle.

Most probably the single greatest ninja movie made in America in the 1980's and one of the most fondly remembered drive in sleaze fests ever produced. There's a high quotient of violence and gore and director, Firstenberg, would never be this good again. The scene where Cho, on foot, chases a group of thugs in a van is one of the greatest chases of all time and the final battle atop a huge building is a bravura piece of choreography. Sho Kosugi would go on to a semi successful career playing similar roles in films like RAGE OF HONOR (1987), BLACK EAGLE (1989) and the ultra violent ninja version of DEATH WISH, PRAY FOR DEATH (1986).


Directed by Danny Steinmann

Linda Blair sets up some punks for the kill

Simply one of the sleaziest, most violent revenge movies of the 1980's if not of all time. Linda Blair stars as a high school hell cat out for revenge for the rape of her deaf sister (played by scream queen, Linnea Quigley) by a gang of real psychotic bastards. Blair, decked out in black skin tight leather, makes'em pay with bear traps and a crossbow.

The performances are good if a bit delirious at times. The David Hess award goes to Robert Dryer who carves a searingly hostile impression as the leader of The Scars. He's totally insane and at times, Dryer plays him like a bomb about to explode and take the world with him. With his veins popping out and bulging eyes, Dryer is occasionally over the top, but it's always a build till he gets to that point. If nothing else, Dryer's performance warrants a watch just for his scary portrayal alone.

Steinmann was a good director who got saddled with problematic productions. Tom DeSimone was the films initial director, but was let go about a week into production after the film fell into disarray. When the production resumed, chunks of the script were thrown out as it took away from the focus of the movie. During the hiatus, some of the actors went on to other things and either their parts were recast, or they simply disappear from the narrative. Cherie Currie, a former member of 'The Runaways', was originally cast as Brenda. Steinmann also directed the overly sleazy FRIDAY THE 13TH 5 (1985). SAVAGE STREETS review here.


Directed by Jim Van Bebber

Director, star, writer and pretty much everything else, Jim Van Bebber

Goose, the leader of the Raven's, a street gang involved in a turf war against the Spiders, decides to hang up his violent ways to live a normal life with his girlfriend. However, in his absence, the two gangs form an alliance and don't take kindly to Goose quitting for a more stable existence. Savagely butchering his girlfriend and leaving him for dead, Goose goes out for violent and bloody revenge.

Jim Van Bebber is a one man war machine in this, his first feature film. Not only does he both star and direct, but he also wrote, edited, did the special effects and also did stunts and fight choreography! DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) is a jaw droppingly amazing, ultra violent, comic bookish two buck shoestring wonder. Hopelessly cheesy at time, the chuckles (the conversation with Goose and his drug addicted dad is priceless!) set off the grim nastiness very nicely. Van Bebber (THE MANSON FAMILY) has an enormous amount of talent and it boggles the mind he has yet to be snatched up by a major to helm a big Hollywood action picture.

Beginning on a rather stale note, it only takes a few minutes for this 16mm marvel to kick into high gear. Aside from all the over the top violence, bloodshed and bad acting, several scenes and dialog exchanges are pulled off with poignancy and undeniable skill. DEADBEAT is a one of a kind underground splatter action revenge movie whose no budget level of accomplishment is staggering to say the least. Very few filmmakers can do so much with so little. There's a ton of creative energy in this nifty little cult obscurity. The no holds barred, gore drenched finale is worth the DVD alone.

Coming Soon it's Asian sleaze at its finest! From Hong Kong to Indonesia and the Philippines, it's an Asian Exploitation Explosion!! Watch for it!!!

Related Posts with Thumbnails


copyright 2013. All text is the property of and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.