Friday, June 1, 2012

The Age of Aquarius: New York City Sleaze Kings Part 2

"Terry Levene is one of the hardest working men I know. He would always put in 12 or 14 hour days. There was a lot of fun and variety in the work, and I always got along great with him."--Ron Harvey, Fangoria 79, p67

With hot porn on the plate and kung fu cookin' in the oven, Aquarius had some tantalizing titles ready to satiate the palette of rabid and roused patrons of danger seeking cinema. As mentioned in part one, the company, like other distribution company's, would sometimes flamboyantly over-hype the product in a valiant, if wildly dishonest effort to make the un-sellable sellable.

This was one of the wildest and wooliest aspects of going to the movies back in the day, or even just "window shopping", in an effort to pick and choose which flick to sit in on. The advertising often promised a lot of things that weren't quite delivered the way they were displayed to you. When you think about it, this sort of visual deception wasn't limited to the hucksterism prevalent in motion picture promotion. Ever seen a fast food commercial advertising some new item and upon buying one, it looks nothing like it did on TV?

Sometimes certain movies would be re-packaged and re-sold as something else entirely. Many times if a picture didn't go over too well, it would be re-dressed with a spiffy new poster design and given a brand spanking new title in an effort to attract the audience it missed the first time around. This didn't always work, either, but it wasn't for lack of the distribution company trying. Many times they'd come up with some truly deceptive doozies. You'd never see this sort of thing happening now, though. Could you imagine going into the theater and paying the high ticket prices of today to see some shitty movie you'd seen a year or more before?!

An example of this cinematic makeover would be the Italian crime picture from Michele Lupo released here as MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY (1973). Aquarius released it in 1975 under the title POWER KILL, which rhymed with the use of a power DRILL seen on the artwork and in the film. Aquarius re-released the movie in 1981 as ESCAPE FROM DEATH ROW with a vastly different ad campaign that avoided the mafia trappings of the earlier ads.

Other methods were employed to spice up a picture, at least from the distributors perspective. One such tactic was to "touch up" the acquisition to mold it into something said distributor deems palatable for the paying audience. Taking a page from Roger Corman's playbook, Aquarius's tinkering ranged from negligible to blasphemous (refer to PART 1).

Foreign product always seemed to fall victim to radical re-editing to "trim the fat" to make these movies tolerable for the supposed short attention spans of the sleaze crowd. An example of this is Umberto Lenzi's ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976), released here through Aquarius in 1982 under the title ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON. For whatever reason, Levene and his then partner Ron Harvey decided to eliminate the opening nine minutes and have the film start with tough cop Maurizio Merli chasing after a couple of purse-snatching youngsters on a motorcycle. After Merli stops them and rears back his hand, ready to unleash his patented "Merli Bitch Slap", the title appears; actually, it's a title card of Aquarius's approved poster font with newly designed credits laid over it. It's all a bit misleading considering this is an Italian production, yet these new credits give the impression that Aquarius was responsible for a bit more than merely re-cutting and scissoring Lenzi's movie.

At the time, nobody paid much attention to such things so long as licensors got paid, the distributors made their sale and the public (hopefully) got entertained. Nowadays, with the evolution of the industry and the sophistication of the patrons, this sort of playfully devious, unscrupulous behavior would be frowned upon. In some ways, this sort of cavalier approach to tinkering with an original product has simply morphed into the mass remaking machine of foreign films. In this case, the makers of the American versions sometimes avoid any inclination that they have taken their ideas from a different work entirely.

One of the elements of old fashioned movie marketing that's fascinated me was the way in which films were passed around from one part of the country to the next with multiple corporations handling distribution within their own territories. This always reminded me of the way professional wrestling was promoted regionally, or nationally back in the day with the various territorial big bosses trading their talent. That is till The Devil known as McMahon Jr. ruined it all by dis-associating himself from the territories, running them out of business, or buying them out. In the end, the magic of that sport was destroyed when he committed wrestling Hara-Kiri by ousting the wonders of Kayfabe (the illusion of wrestling as being "real") as scripted.
This aided in the slow erosion and eventual destruction of the carnival atmosphere the traveling wrestling shows had to offer.

Similarly, the growing monetary power of the major studios along with blockbuster movies like JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) signaled the beginning of the end for the trash palaces who would ultimately find sanctuary on home video.

For me, the handling, distribution, and demise of the independent film company in some ways mirrored what ultimately happened to old school, carny style wrestling promotion. But prior to that, all was right in the increasingly sleazy world of movie showmanship. Below is an eloquently elucidated explanation of the way independent companies handled their many acquisitions as told to me by film historian, writer and Temple of Schlock co-founder, Chris Poggiali.

"Independent film companies such as New World Pictures, Dimension Pictures, and Film Ventures International used a system of sub-distributors around the country to save themselves the money, time and hassle of operating their own national distribution departments. These sub-distributors, also known as states’ rights companies or exchange offices, would handle the distribution for the independents in specific territories. For example, Clark Film Releasing covered Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and either Louisiana or Alabama. They released the Jean Rollin double bill DEMONIACS and STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN AT NIGHT on their own but mostly sub-distributed for indies like Crown International Pictures in the aforementioned territories. Speaking of Crown International, they got started in the business as an exchange that handled the 13 western states for a number of indies, most notably (and profitably) American International Pictures. In the mid ‘60s, flush with success from their Poe pictures and Beach Party movies, AIP decided to break away from Crown and start its own national distribution system; this cost Crown a chunk of money because they were no longer collecting a commission on all of the AIP titles.

With his Cinemation Industries, Jerry Gross tried to get around the exchange system by opening field offices in the top five or six territories and handling his own distribution on the national level, but it was an expensive operation and within five years Cinemation was bankrupt. Roger Corman, on the other hand, mostly stuck to exchanges in the major territories (I think his New World Pictures did have an Atlanta office for a few years); Aquarius sub-distributed all of his Concorde releases in New York in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Marvin Films and Bedford Entertainment also handled indy pics in New York but the major sub-distributor was Aquarius.

Aquarius made a name for itself in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and was the company that handled DEEP THROAT during its most controversial days. David Friedman (Entertainment Ventures), Bob Cresse (Olympic International) and other west coast nudie filmmakers didn't have a strong footing on the east coast so they needed someone like Terry Levene to handle their films in the New York area. There was a strong adult movie presence in New York at that time, with its own players and distributors; Aquarius was located in the Selwyn Theater building, right in the heart of 42nd Street, and Levene knew all the theater managers and owners and could get the films in the top houses."

"Our strategy was always to make these films look as American as possible."--Ron Harvey, Fangoria #79, p54.

Aquarius had their share of big ticket moneymakers and small change grossers. Among the big movies the company could lay claim to was their brief Northeastern release of the almighty HALLOWEEN (1978) prior to it going out big the following year in America and internationally.

The company also managed to briefly put the infamous killer santa flick, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) back into circulation when civic protest groups figuratively set fire to it. Despite bearing an incredible ad campaign and doing good business, the film was pulled due to all the controversy it was attracting like a magnet.

One of Aquarius's low points was said to be ZAAT (1972), better known under the title of THE BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z. This Florida lensed creature feature was about a scientist who turns himself into a giant, walking catfish monster who avenges himself on those who wronged him. It was a staple of Saturday Morning television when I was growing up in the early 1980s.

EVILS OF THE NIGHT (1985) is easily one of the worst horror films the world has never seen in its plot about aliens seeking blood for some eternal life elixir and using two mechanics to aid in their mission. Atrocious in the extreme, the poster designed for this no budget wonder allegedly riled George Lucas resulting in a cease and desist order. It must have been the image of the Millennium Falcon on the poster that irritated him? The Force was not with Aquarius on that particular title.


Italian genre product was always a hot ticket for demanding trash fanatics and Aquarius wrangled several of Italy's most reprehensible cinematic felons. Of course, some of these titles didn't come away unscathed before hitting the hallowed ground of what was once 42nd Street.

DR. BUTCHER M.D. (1980) aka QUEEN OF THE CANNIBALS aka ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST is arguably the epitome of imported Euro gore epics. What makes it special is the amount of work that went into redressing it into something they thought would be more accessible for the rabid American audience.

For whatever reason, the Aquarius brass figured QUEEN OF THE CANNIBALS (1980) was a bit too sluggish in places. After shaving off some of the running time, they figured it was now a bit too short. According to Ron Harvey, to accommodate their now shorter acquisition, a portion of an unfinished Roy Frumkes picture, TALES THAT'LL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT, was tacked onto the beginning of the movie. This amounted to just a few minutes of footage.

Interestingly enough, Frumkes has a different story as to why Aquarius wanted to acquire footage from his unfinished production; this dealing with an apparently failed animated credits sequence. Instead of putting more money into it, Levene asked for footage from Frumkes.

Like some of the running time, the films original score was stripped away like the flesh of the poor victims in the movie. A new, and annoying electronic score by Walter Sear was put in its place.

The carpet was rolled out further for this one in what amounted to a gory gala the likes of which hadn't been seen since the William Castle days. If ever one could compare exploitation movie hucksterism with the travelin' carny lifestyle, it was with DR. BUTCHER M.D.

The legendary Butchermobile was an ingeniously devilish idea that was born when Terry Levene and Gore Gazette founder Rick Sullivan joined forces for the greater gory of exploitation cinema and its NYC fans. This flatbed truck had an operating table and other medical paraphernalia. The old Psychotronic Magazine's own Michael Weldon played the good doctors human guinea pig. The Butchermobile cruised Manhattan and the outer reaches of New Jersey to peddle the services of the Doctors theatrical practice. But not to worry, if you can't make it, "he makes house calls!" Despite these ghoulishly opulent efforts, DR. BUTCHER M.D. reportedly didn't sell as many tickets as would have been hoped.


Aquarius Releasing soldiered on displaying an incredibly gruesome amount of intestinal slinging fortitude with even more despicable Euro trash including Joe D'Amato's masterpiece BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), released here as BURIED ALIVE. The nausea worthy grotesqueries of D'Amato's movie were left alone for this necrophilic tale of graphic torture, murder, cannibalism and "acid bath revenge!"

The films title never actually happens (well, almost), but this misleading moniker was likely forgotten about after some amazingly realistic gore effects caused the film to come under scrutiny that real corpses were used in some of the nastier scenes.

Unleashed on videotape through Thriller Video, this release got rented out a lot, at least in my neck of the woods. Films like this and MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY were in heavy rotation at school when a bunch of us kids would sit around and talk about what we'd seen on Kung Fu Theater over the weekend, or some disturbing piece of filth we had rented at the video store.

"Believe it or not, we actually improved 7 DOORS by cutting out all the boring scenes."--Ron Harvey, Fangoria 79, p55

In what would appear to be a bid to attract additional revenue from patrons and neighborhoods put off by the brutality inherent in unrated movies (is there such a thing?), Levene and company decided to take one of their Italian acquisitions and have the MPAA brand it with an R rating thereby gutting the gore. Unfortunately, the film they did this with just happened to be Lucio Fulci's Gothically moody, spectacularly gory film THE BEYOND (1980), a film that was released here with the much more splashily attractive moniker of 7 DOORS OF DEATH.

Walter Sear was again recruited to contribute to an already fine score by Fabio Frizzi, including the replacement of the opening credits cue. Some reportedly bogus comments from both Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel (who later claimed to have never seen the film) were plastered at the top of the films poster design. None of this seemed to make much difference, however, as 7 DOORS OF DEATH made a bigger splash on VHS, and eventually DVD when the uncut version was finally released giving fans a reason to toss out those bootlegs.


Aquarius fared much better with the release of SAVAGE MAN, SAVAGE BEAST (1975), a popular, graphically gruesome Mondo movie that made a name for itself built around some alleged real death footage involving castrations and a man devoured by lions.

The poster artwork is among the most graphic ever seen. I'd imagine only the seriously hardcore houses would carry it with that kind of explicit imagery adorning the outside of the theaters or even in the lobby's.

Looking for something of a similar nature, Levene and the boys got their hands on Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), an Italian production among the most notorious trash epics the world has ever seen. In addition to launching thousands of lunches, Lenzi's magnum opus has amassed a staggering amount of exposure over the years. That its profitable theatrical run had zero advertising save for the marquees and the revolting, viscera-packed trailer is a testament to the rude, raw and rowdy power the film possesses enabling word of mouth to do all the advertising that was necessary.

Also against it were the limited number of play dates afforded an unrated picture at the time. Lenzi's lovingly offensive gut-muncher spit in the eye of other exploitation pictures that carried a rating, ultimately accruing a ghastly reputation in the process. The promotion of the film was simply brilliant with its gruesome painted artwork and collage of images from the film itself. Proudly proclaiming "The Most Violent Film Ever!" splattered across the top, how could trash film lovers and the morbidly curious not resist? This wasn't simply an occasion where the ballyhoo matched the film, it was a case where the film surpassed audience expectations.

The films title is also brazenly sadistic and exemplifies the film perfectly in lieu of what transpires onscreen. The title, itself, being born and mangled from a line of dialog spoken from Lorraine De Selle late in the picture.

The film also scored big on videocassette and was one of a few titles from Thriller Video wherein hostess Elvira decided to pass on lending her presence to the feature. But that wasn't all. Lenzi's cannibal camp out is likely the only Italian endurance test to ever make it to prime time American television.

In the late 80s, horror was everywhere including the news where it was widely reported that horror films supposedly had some sort of influence over children to turn them into mini-serial killers. An episode of 20/20 built solely around horror featured clips from the FRIDAY THE 13TH series and EVIL DEAD 2 in its bid to show America what its children were watching. Among these clips was a sequence wherein a group of women were sitting around watching MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY of all things. The looks on their faces was priceless to say the least. In a way, Lenzi's phenomenal chunk-blower (to use a term coined by the late, great Chas. Balun) had finally hit the big time.

The Age of Aquarius is past now, replaced by a cold, computerized approach to film marketing. The old fashioned and deceptive methods of movie showmanship is pretty much a dead art form with the advent of technology and the resultant sophistication of the paying audience. Still, there's nothing wrong with pondering those bygone days when times were much simpler and a lot more fun was had when embracing the movie going experience.


Most of the poster images from WRONG SIDE OF THE ART.

Butchermobile and ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST images from Media Blasters DVD.

MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY images from Grindhouse Releasing DVD.

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