It's difficult to overestimate the impact that exploitation films have had on American and international cinema. This film genre is actually made up of many more specific subgenres that are commonly bound by characteristic over-the-top action, violence and sex. The fears and desires of both the viewer and the public are overtly exploited by the alternately (if not simultaneously) titillating and offensive scenes.
Without the vast galaxy of often X-rated exploitation films, also commonly referred to as grindhouse pictures, we wouldn't have many wider-released films and genres. Horror films like "Friday the 13th," respected revenge films like "The Accused" and classic teen romps like "Weird Science" may never have had precedence for runs in mainstream theaters had exploitation filmmakers not hacked even deeper into the jungle of taste and public perception.
As a result of this wide array of grindhouse movies it is also difficult to select just 10 for this list. We selected movies based on their effects on culture and the amount of ground broken by the films. Here they are in no particular order.
Note: Please be advised that the following pages describe movies that feature graphic violence and sex.
I Spit on Your Grave
Revenge is a common theme in the world of exploitation cinema, and the best example of this subgenre may be director Meir Zarchi's 1978 classic "I Spit on Your Grave."
In the film, a writer leases a cabin in the woods of upstate New York to finish her novel. During her stay, she attracts unwanted attention from some local men who eventually attack and rape her repeatedly -- and annihilate her manuscript. After she recovers, she systematically hunts down and violently murders each of the men who brutalized her, which explains the alternate, original title, "Day of the Woman."
Because of the graphic and explicit violence, the movie was banned in some countries; in the U.S., the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) went to federal court in 1984 to seek an X rating on the movie [source: UPI]. According to the suit, the producers allegedly added more sexually explicit content after the film initially received an R rating.
In addition to the extreme rape and murder-based violence, the movie is notable for prompting Roger Ebert to write in 1980 that seeing "I Spit on Your Grave" was "one of the most depressing experiences of my life" [source: Ebert].
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
A film about a black male prostitute would be considered racy today; that Melvin Van Pebbles created and released such a film in 1971 makes "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" groundbreaking. The film's themes of black radical self-sufficiency (up to and including criminal acts, if necessary) in the face of suppression and opposition by the white establishment is credited with directly forming the foundation for the blaxploitation genre. (It was dedicated to "All the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of The Man" [source: PBS].) Because of this, "Time" magazine's film critic Richard Corliss called "Sweet Sweetback," "without question or competition, the most influential movie by a black filmmaker [source: Corliss].
In the movie, Sweetback, played by Van Peebles, is a gigolo who has a détente with local police; he's allowed to operate by allowing them to arrest (and quickly release) him to fill their quotas. On one of these occasions, two officers assault a Black Panther in front of Sweetback, prompting him to murder the police and begin on a path of revenge against the white establishment.
This movie is also noteworthy for the child sex scene explaining Sweetback's ascension to prostitution, with the young Sweetback played by Van Peeble's son Mario. Mario Van Peebles later became a director himself, making a biopic chronicling his father's movie called "Baadasssss!"
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
American director Russ Meyer, over the course of his 26-film career, became known as the "King of the Nudies," thanks to his creation of the grindhouse subgenre of sexploitation movies. The 1965 movie "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" was probably his best known (or at least most culturally impactful) of them all.
The film's plot centers around three bisexual go-go dancers out on a crime spree in the Western American desert. In short order, they find trouble after they pick up a young couple, murder the man and bring the woman along for the ride. Car racing, martial arts and wrestling among the stars prove to be common pastimes as the plot ultimately brings the women to an isolated house inhabited by a wheelchair-bound elderly man and his sons -- all of whom have designs on the women. The stars, in turn, have designs on the money the old man may have stashed in the house.
"Faster Pussycat!" is noted by critics for its inherent dualism toward gender. On the one hand, Meyer employs extremely buxom actresses for his roles. (Indeed, in other films of the sexploitation genre he helped to create, he hired women in their first trimester of pregnancy.) But his script also empowers the women; they're subservient to no man.
The car chase scene was certainly extant by the time "Vanishing Point" rolled around in 1971. The Keystone Cops had begun chasing robbers around decades earlier, and what's considered by some as the greatest car chase scene ever -- featured in the Steve McQueen cop movie "Bullitt" -- had hit theaters three years earlier. What's more, the road movie genre had been firmly established by the likes of films like "Easy Rider."
Yet, few had explored the concept of creating a movie that consists pretty much only of a very long car chase, as "Vanishing Point" does. The film's release all but birthed the carsploitation genre. (We must note that many grindhouse enthusiasts believe that "Two-Lane Blacktop," released the same year, is a finer film.)
What places it squarely as the forerunner of modern carsploitation films like "The Road Warrior," "Death Race 2000" and "Death Proof" is the full-octane, amphetamine-fueled high-speed action. As the law becomes aware of the protagonist's attempt to make it from Los Angeles to Denver in 15 hours in a 1970 Dodge Challenger, they make every attempt to stop him as they pursue him across the Western desert.
Faces of Death
What could be more exploitative than exploiting the death of a human being or animal? Pretty much nothing -- which makes the shockumentary exploitation subgenre particularly attractive and repulsive at the same time.
The film is part of a legacy created by the sensational faked documentary of cannibalism and bestiality in Africa -- RKO's "Ingagi," released in 1931 -- and the film "Mondo Cane," an Italian documentary that explored cultural taboos throughout the world and created the mondo genre.
"Faces of Death" represented a peak of the shockumentary/mondo film when it was released in 1978. It was the first wide-released film to show footage of actual human deaths. The documentary cobbled together underground videos and films that circulated among exploitation enthusiasts for years and was filled out with staged scenes (faithful to the genre), as was the case with the famed scene where a group of tourists supposedly beat a monkey to death at a restaurant in Asia and eat its brains directly from its skull. Others, like the lengthy autopsy performed on a cadaver, are real.
The film's producers proudly boast that it was banned in 46 countries; authorities also blame it for numerous acts of violence.
The Toxic Avenger
In the realm of grindhouse pictures, sometimes the studios that produce the films become as legendary as the movies themselves. Such is the case with Troma Entertainment, the makers of classic exploitation films, including "Surf Nazis Must Die," "Class of Nuke 'Em High" and "Redneck Zombies."
The most enduring and endearing of Troma's nuclear exploitation films is arguably, "The Toxic Avenger." Released in 1984, the movie stems from societal nervousness about the then-growing problem of toxic waste and pokes fun at the emergent American obsession with fitness. "The Toxic Avenger" follows the common revenge theme and combines it with sexploitation. A 98-pound (45-kilogram) weakling janitor at a health club in the fictional town of Tromaville, N.J., is thrown from a third-story window -- and into a vat of toxic sludge. He is reborn a horribly misshapen and incredibly strong mutant, the Toxic Avenger, a force of nature who dispenses justice to local thugs with cartoonish violence. Worry not, he gets his revenge against the cool kids who mocked and disfigured him.
"The Toxic Avenger" is noteworthy among exploitation films because, unlike most of their brethren, the filmmakers went to the trouble of using good visual effects.
The tagline for the 1980 Ruggero Deodato cannibal exploitation movie, "Cannibal Holocaust" reads, "Better to rest in peace in the body of a warm friend, than in the cold ground." It's probably the friendliest aspect of the film.
The movie revolves around a group of young documentary filmmakers who venture into the Amazon rain forest to contact a remote tribe of reputed cannibals. When they don't return, an anthropologist travels to South America in search of their whereabouts. After partaking in an act of cannibalism, the scientist gains trust -- and ultimately the film reels he needs -- from a local cannibal tribe. When he returns to New York and views them, he learns that the filmmakers deserved the brutal fate that befell them. In order to stir up the violence they'd expected to capture, the filmmakers terrorized a tribal village for their footage.
"Cannibal Holocaust" is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The film's director, Deodato, was arrested for obscenity in his native Italy following the movie's premiere there. The film was investigated in Venezuela, where it was filmed, for animal cruelty (which one reviewer called "hideous, unspeakable") [source: Ashlin]. And "Cannibal Holocaust" is also credited with inspiring the legendary horror mockumentary "The Blair Witch Project."
Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS
It's virtually impossible to go over-the-top when producing a film set around a World War II Nazi prison camp where human experimentation takes place; reality is ghastly enough. Were a film ever capable of managing such heights of tastelessness produced, it would immediately enter the annals of exploitation history. Such is the reason 1975's "llsa: She Wolf of the SS" is included in this list.
Although the film was not actually the groundbreaking piece of cinema it appears -- another film, "Love Camp 7," had forayed into sexual hijinks set in a concentration camp six years earlier -- "Ilsa" is still considered the de facto foundation for the nazisploitation subgenre that followed.
Where "Love Camp 7" is a cartoonish sex romp, "Ilsa" is grisly and X-rated for its multitudinous scenes featuring graphic and disturbing rape, torture and violence. As the title implies, Ilsa is a dominatrix-like matron of a Nazi prison camp who experiments on new means of sexual torture of both men and (naked) women alike. During her tenure, she comes across a prisoner she can't conquer -- hence the plot.
"Ilsa" became a franchise, with "Ilsa: The Tigress of Siberia" and "Ilsa: Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks" joining the original.
Weighing in at a trim 66 minutes, it's surprising how over-the-top "Reefer Madness" still manages to be. The 1936 film, with the alternate, original title of "Tell Your Children," is a noteworthy exploitation film for the impact it had on drug policy in the United States and public hysteria toward drug use.
The film is a story that a principal recounts to a group of parents at a PTA meeting. After being turned on to marijuana by a local couple who sell the drug, the lives of several teenagers and the pot dealers are decidedly ruined. One boy is killed, another grows addicted to the drug and becomes a fiend. One of the dealers frames another teen for murder and is driven to insanity through a combination of guilt and pot consumption.
"Reefer Madness" has also had a tremendous influence on the drug culture. The film's director (Dwain Esper, who also made other 1930s exploitation films, "Sex Madness" and "Psychotic Connections") is credited with taking a hum-drum propaganda film and turning it into a parody of itself. The anti-drug propaganda film has, contradictorily, become a cult favorite among people who use drugs.
The Big Boss
The first major-release film starring Bruce Lee not only kicked off his career, it also led to the creation of other exploitation subgenres.
"The Big Boss," also known in the U.S. by its American title, "Fists of Fury," is typical of the martial arts genre it helped create. The prolonged fight scenes make up the bulk of the film's running time. The protagonist -- here, a martial arts student investigating his teacher's murder -- commonly takes on a number of enemies at once, and often in successive waves. It's the violence carried out through astounding kung fu and karate moves that provide the hallmark characteristic of the martial arts exploitation film.
Released in 1971, "The Big Boss" was the first of five major Bruce Lee films, which are a foundation of the martial arts exploitation subgenre that also includes the likes of Sonny Chiba in the "Streetfighter" series. It's also noteworthy in that it introduced Lee to the world, making him a star and creating such a cottage industry around him that his untimely death at age 32 in 1973 actually ushered in a new subgenre of the martial arts subgenre: Bruce Lee exploitation. In these dozens of films, Bruce Lee lookalikes -- often with knockoff names like Bruce Le and Bruce Li -- carried on the tradition created by the original.
'The spice must flow,' is a famous quote from 'Dune.' Test your knowledge of the 1965 novel and 2020 movie with our quiz.
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