1963, it was winter in Chicago and Herschell Lewis and Dave Friedman were headed to Miami to make two movies back to back, Bell, Bare and Beautiful and Blood Feast. Herschell was the original huckster, super bright, multi-talented, hopelessly cynical. Dave was an ex-carny and a forever showman, a cigar chomping burlesque joke telling soft spoken guy from Alabama. I was twenty-one, hired to drive the equipment down to Miami, then be the assistant cameraman and shoot stills. Herschell offered me two hundred dollars a week and a room at the Suez Motel on Collins Avenue where cast and crew were staying. Only thing was I had to pay for the room out of the two hundred but that was still better than the fifty bucks a week they had paid me last time.
What we were about to do was preposterous. Shoot two movies in a couple of weeks with one script not yet written. Our entire shooting package was stuffed inside a little Volkswagen van, a Mitchell NC, two 1000' magazines, a tripod and a fluid head along with six lights, twenty thousand feet of film and the all important makeup trunk with the special bloody looking blood. No costumes, the actors would supply them from their closets. I didn’t know how crazy this was though, I thought this was how you made movies.
I set out from Chicago early one morning headed for Miami and my new career. The VW was loaded to the top, packed and pig slow. I ground down through Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia on Highway 41, old fashioned two lane most of the way. Herschell hadn’t mentioned paying for motels and I was afraid I’d run out of money so I just kept on driving. In the mountains the cold chilled the cab till I shivered uncontrollably. There was nothing but me headed south on the twisty mountain road but the big rigs rushing north, sailing by a few feet away, sucking the little van towards them in their wake. I drove through the long night freezing, cursing and scraping frost from the windshield until I’d see the lights of a roadside cafe glowing up in the darkness. Quick inside, order a cup of coffee with lots of cream and sugar and when my hands had thawed enough jump back in the cab and drive another fifty miles.
It took about twenty hours to reach the Florida border and when I got there a miracle happened. As I drove through the night the windows slowly cleared. I stopped seeing my breath lit by the dash lights and a beautiful smell floated into the cab. Orange blossoms. I slid the window open and for the first time ever I smelled the warm moist perfume of a Florida evening. I drove entranced now, Gainesville, Orlando, Kissimmee, headed south on the Sunshine State Parkway, four lanes wide and a wonder to me, smooth, straight and brand new. Finally Miami in the morning light and crossing over at 163rd I headed up Collins Avenue to the Suez.
Herschell and Dave were already there along with the others from Chicago, maybe six of us all together. We had a handful of locals to fill out cast and crew and three weeks to make two movies.
The movie that everyone remembers is Blood Feast, a story about a mad caterer who kills women and cuts off their body parts to make a feast for an ancient Egyptian goddess. It’s the first gore film.
But first we had to make the picture that paid the freight for us to be there, Belle, Bare and Beautiful. I won’t take the time to tell you about it right this minute, just go to YouTube and find the trailer if you want to know more. For now here’s a picture of Virginia Bell from the movie. I think I shot it in her husband's office but it could also be on the set of Flipper where we snuck in and filmed at night after the regular crew had gone home. It took us about a week to finish Bell and Bare, strip scenes, baseball games at the nudist camp, silly pretense of a story and all. Then we started on Blood Feast.
Blood Feast barely had a script, probably twenty pages of brief scene description. Mainly it was a preposterous story line that gave us an excuse to linger while we dismembered young women. Herschell, Dave and Bunny had schemed up a gimmick, an idea guaranteed to drive customers to the drive in. For the first time ever they would show an audience body parts actually being cut out of the body, all close up and bright in crimson color. That was new territory.
We started filming with a killing on the beach, convenient because our motel was on the beach. Herschell was a man of economy in production as well as cinematic expression. I set up the camera, helped place a few lights, then ran extension cords back to the motel for power. When we ran out of extension cords we were lit. Herschell waited for night to fall and then we begin filming.
The killer stalks the girl, overpowers her, cuts out her brain. Oh wait, I forgot to mention, this is a public beach. A crowd of tourists has gathered to watch us film. When they see that bloody head, see Mal Arnold raise the dripping brain high up in the air they freak, they remember their children are watching. There’s lots of hands over eyes and the crowd quickly thins but the ones that remain, ahh that’s interesting. They like what they see, they cheer.
We ground on for another six or seven days. We ripped out tongues, we sliced and diced and in between we filmed the excuses for dialog that are necessary so you can pretend this is a movie.
I won’t tell you I was disgusted then, I wasn’t. I was twenty one years old, excited to be learning new skills. The skeletal nature of Herschell’s productions meant that I could move from job to job at will, teach myself how to make a production board, move the lights, clean and thread the camera, it was my paradise. I don’t think I gave a moment’s thought to the implications of what was happening in front of the lens as long as the actors stayed in frame.
A week later we were finished with Blood Feast, the last body part in the can. That evening Dave Friedman took me out to dinner. We went to some nice place in Miami then drove back up Collins, top down and enjoying the evening. I felt like I had reached a new and special place in my life. As we drove we talked about working on the movie, about being part of something special, a brotherhood of outsiders making our way together in strange lands. Dave had been a carny, a lover of outsider life on a less traveled road. When I said this had all been interesting to me but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do he looked at me and said “Kid, once you been a carny you’re always a carny. There’s no going back now” and there I was riding in a slick new convertible on a beautiful warm night in a place I’d never been. It sounded pretty good to me.
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