Meet Me at the Grindhouse

Dawn of the Dead - 1978: Grindhouse brought us ZOMBIES!

Have you ever been to a Grindhouse? Probably not. With the advent of cable television, the need for the  Grindhouse theaters diminished substantially putting this American phenomenon into obscurity. But let’s roll back and talk about what a Grindhouse actually is.

The historical Grindhouse was a venue for more risque forms of live action performances and most often found in larger cities. The first which carried the moniker was a theater located on 42nd Street in New York City. The home of burlesque and “bump and grind” dances from the 1930s, the theater was first referred to as a “Grindhouse” in the 1943 film Lady of Burlesque: The G-String Murders. As the times began to change, the theater lost its live action performances and began to showcase… other films.

Lady Snowblood - 1973: One of our early introductions to Japanese Horror

Sticking to its underground roots, the Grindhouse theaters were most commonly known in the 60s and 70s for presenting uncommon films: Exploitation films such as blaxplotation,  carsploitation,  chambara, foreign, martial arts, horror, and even pornography, just to name a few.  These films were almost always of B-movie quality with completely outrageous marketing. Often times, Grindhouse films were very female-centric. For the good and the bad. Strong female character, murderesses, victims, lesbian vampires, nudity, boobies! The Grindhouse films saw all sides of the spectrum as far as female characters in horror are concerned. Because of this gigantic melting pot of film, Grindhouse theaters created a film subculture all their own for the outcasts of mainstream cinema. The Grindhouses were the only theaters for many of the “horror classics” we know and love.

Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS - 1974: So much Exploitation!

Perennial favorites such as Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead, and the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as well as non-horrors such as Mad Max, Enter The Dragon, and Shaft. It’s all “Grindhouse.” With double features and over-the-top content, the Grindhouse was an All-American way of movie going with the most sensational bang for your buck. You want over-the-top gore? You could find it. You want kung fu action? There it is. Gratuitous sex and violence? Yes, please, and thank you! We humans, for some reason, gravitate towards being titillated by the different and the edgy. The Grindhouse films fulfilled our baser needs to simply be entertained with off-color fare.

Alas, the physical Grindhouse is essentially an extinct beast. With the popularization of  VHS and cable television  in the 80’s, many of the genre films one would find only at a Grindouse became much easier to lay hands on. With “straight to video” and late night anthologies, going to a Grindhouse to scratch your B-movie itch became unnecessary. Horror cinema as we know it today owes quite a bit to the original Grindhouses, especially zombie films. They paved the way making the cinematic underground more accessible to the average viewer.

Suspiria - 1977: Dario Argento was a regular grindhouse filmmaker.

But do not lament! The style of the Grindhouse film is alive and well. Actually, surprisingly so. It’s just that the average film goer doesn’t realize it. Many popular, mainstream films today owe their roots to Grindhouse.  Incorporating elements of sensational marketing, smokin’ hot women, shock horror, purposefully dated imagery and cheesy plot devices and special effects, these are tell-tale signs of  Grindhouse influence in many of popular modern films.

A good chunk of the resurgence of 1970s style Grindhouse is due to the creative clout of Quintin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. They have brought 70s style exploitation to the forefront of mainstream cinema with a decent amount of success. Their collaborative films Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Billl and the Grindhouse double feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof have reminded film-goers what kind of fun exploitation films are. With the added credibility of casting well-known actors and actresses, the popularity and success of these films has created a solid and respectable foothold in popular film for what was once considered a seedy counterculture. I find this re-emergence of Grindhouse to be a return to fun, provocative, and downright creatively different films.

For further reading and all things Grindhouse check out The Deuce. An amazing database of Grindhouse film and advertising art. Honestly, a must for any Grindhouse fan.

Some recent and upcoming films (short and feature length) that really grasp the essence of the modern Grindhouse.

Howlin’ For You

Hobo With A Shotgun

Death Proof - 2007

Rubber - 2010

Machete - 2010

Hobo with a Shotgun - 2011

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About Ash Wednesday

Some say the pen is mightier than the sword. Ash Wednesday believes so, especially when you use one to stab somebody in the eye! Her first big girl book was Jurassic Park in 4th grade and she's been a sci-fi/horror book fan ever since. With her affinity for things with big teeth and biting habits, she also loves good (or really bad) zombie, vampire and supernatural flicks. For the record, vampires don't sparkle.