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 bucks 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.
What we were doing was preposterous. Shoot two movies in a couple of weeks with one script not even written yet. Our entire shooting package was stuffed inside one little Volkswagen van. We had a Mitchell NC, two 1000' mags, a couple tripods and a fluid head. Six Lights and stands, a couple of reflectors, twenty thousand feet of film, props 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 van was loaded to the top, packed and pig slow. I ground down through Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia, Highway 41, old fashioned two lane for 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, shaking my way through the night. There was nothing on the little road snaking through the mountains but me and the big rigs rushing the other way, sailing past me a few feet away, sucking the little Vdub towards them in their wake. I drove through the long night freezing cursing and scraping frost from the inside of the windshield until the lights of a roadside cafe would gleam up in the darkness. Quick inside, a cup of coffee with lots of sugar and cream and when my hands had thawed enough to feel them back to the cab and drive another fifty miles. It took about twenty hours to reach the Florida border and then 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. Gainesville, Orlando, Kissimmee, driving on the Sunshine State Parkway now, four lanes of wonder, wide, straight and brand new. Miami in the morning light, crossing over at 163rd to Miami Beach, then up Collins Avenue to 182nd Street and the Suez.
Herschell and Dave were already there along with the others from Chicago, maybe six of us. We had a handful of locals to fill us out 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 down there, Belle, Bare and Beautiful. I won’t take the time to tell you about it, just go to YouTube and find the trailer if you need to know more. For now here’s a picture of Virginia Belle from the movie. I think I shot it in her husband's office but it could also be on the set of Flipper which we commandeered. We filmed there every night after they had gone home. It took a week or so to finish Belle and Bare, the baseball games at the nudist camp, some stripping, whatever pretense of a story and all. Then we started on Blood Feast.
Blood Feast barely had a script, I don’t think there was twenty pages, just a preposterous story line that gave us the excuse to linger over the dismemberment of young women, a disgusting new world. Herschell, Dave and Bunny Downe had figured out a gimmick that would drive customers to the drive ins, they would show the audience the body parts actually being cut out of the body, close up and bright in crimson color. That was new. We started with a killing on the beach, convenient because the 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. 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 shoot. 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 grind on for another six or seven days. We rip out tongues, we slice and dice. In between we film the excuses for dialog that are necessary to 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 this brand new skill. 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, my paradise. I don’t think I gave a moment’s thoughts to the implications of what was happening in front of the lens as long as they stayed in the 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 a nice place in Miami and drove back up Collins, top down and enjoying the evening. I felt like I had reached a special place in my life. We talked about working on the movie, about being part of something special traveling together through strange lands. Dave had been a carney, a lover of outsider life on the 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 turned to me and said “Kid, once you been a carney you’re always a carney. There’s no going back now.” I was riding in a new convertible in the beautiful night in a place I’d never been. It was good enough for me.
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