Written by Andy Corrales, AFS Creative Careers Intern
“An idea based in bloodlust could spread quickly in a civilization based on superstition.” — Detective Pete Thornton, BLOOD FEAST

This December, AFS Cinema is wrapping up its series Essential Cinema: The Original Indies with a pair of screenings of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s BLOOD FEAST on December 19 and 23; a film that Stephen King called the “worst horror movie” he’s ever seen that’s also in Time Magazine’s “Top Horror Movies of All Time.” While it might be unorthodox to include this divisive film in a line-up of films that birthed American Independent Cinema, its creation did signal a pivot in American cinema.


Herschell Gordon Lewis (1926-2016) was, if nothing else, a salesman. He had a PhD in English and a long career in advertising and marketing.

BLOOD FEAST clearly takes little interest in being confined to the binary labels of “good” or “bad” — its creation is simply a move of calculated marketing. While Lewis claims that the success of the film is “an accident of history,” remember that 1960s American cinema was experiencing the decline of Hays Code Hollywood. In 1960, the eyes of American audiences began to widen with violence and shock in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, an inspiration for Lewis. While PSYCHO birthed the slasher genre, Lewis took it to a previously unforeseen gory end and birthed the “splatter” or “gore” film.

Lewis made BLOOD FEAST for $24,000 and made millions in the box office by circumventing the major studio system. It has no big names and stars Connie Mason, a Playboy’s Playmate for June 1963, who gives a performance some say “makes acting look incredibly difficult.” It features nudity, women having their tongues pulled out, brains being chopped, limbs being eaten, and buckets of blood. The depravity, lewdness, and gore was everything American audiences had hidden from them by the major studio system in the 60s.

BLOOD FEAST lies at the intersection of schlocky filmmaking and clever marketing. Barf bags were distributed at the premiere, profits were returned exponentially, and Lewis went on to produce over 20 films in just a 10 year span. Lewis has a sense of humor that’s reflected in his over-the-top movies. He referred to American audiences as rats he’s guiding through a maze, and it’s abundantly clear Lewis understands exactly what general audiences want to see: blood and lust.

In an interview with Sean Baker in 2006, Lewis states: “I will tell you very flatly that my opinion is that the reason I’ve had good luck, both in the film business and the marketing business, is a total adherence to trying to figure out not what I want to say but what they want to see or hear. Couldn’t be simpler.”

The appeal of BLOOD FEAST couldn’t be simpler either. Lewis’ style of crude but energetic filmmaking and humor was a laugh in 1963, and it still works today.