Last week, the film world mourned the loss of one of its more influential and infamous auteurs. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis, most famous for pioneering the “splatter” exploitation film, bringing stomach-churning gore to the silver screen at the start of the sixties and proving if it bleeds red it draws green. Any time you’ve see a head roll, a throat ripped or just a whole bunch of blood splash at the cinema, it’s a result of Lewis’ groundbreaking film-making. More than just a director, his work as a visionary in terms of rolling-out and marketing his movies, from Blood Feast to The Gore-Gore Girls, has served as a successful blueprint in any facet of DIY entertainment business. Dying at the age of 90, it’s crazy to think that there was so much more to his life than the business and bloodshed of film. There was also the music.
Yes, while many of his exploitation contemporaries resorted to public domain or sound libraries to use and re-use music in their sexploitation or hyper-violent drive-in endeavors, Lewis’ background in music gave his filmography its own distinct flair. The theme he’s probably most known for is “The South Gonna Rise Ag’in,” the theme from Two-Thousand Maniacs, part of his infamous blood trilogy with Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red. Lewis’ knowledge of not just music, but the music business is something rare amongst auteurs of his time. When he eventually sold the rights to his films in the '70s, he always held on to the music rights so that he still collected royalties from the publishing. This is why Lewis has been able to release several albums of his music, as well as publicly perform songs like “The South Gonna Rise Ag’in” during his film’s screenings, of which footage of a happy octogenarian Lewis leading a crowd in a sing-along can be found all over YouTube.
But Lewis’ impact on the music industry can be felt far beyond his own compositions. It’s a favorite Bar Trivia question of many that Natalie Merchant’s group 10,000 Maniacs originally got their name from the H.G. Lewis classic. What’s funny is that just about every piece about the band christening themselves after the film is mentioned so off-handedly, like choosing a grindhouse classic in the pre-VHS 80s for their band’s new name is just some casual occurrence. It’s emerged since that Natalie wound up regretting the title, with the LA Times writing in 1997 that she hated it and it was a big reason why she left.
Much happier to utilize Lewis’ creations were Harlem’s A$AP Mob as member A$AP Ferg had his huge 2013 breakout single “Shabba” heavily sampling Lewis’ closing credits score from his film The Gruesome Twosome. Given it’s not even one of Lewis’ known signature films, we have to admire the level of digging for the sample there, as well as this putting H.G. Lewis only one degree removed from Shabba Ranks when playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
But for our money, nothing can beat when Lewis uses his sense of humor to add the thrill of cheeky fun to his film. While his wife-swapping sexploitation film Suburban Roulette may be among his most obscure releases, its title theme is one of our favorite in the annals of cinema history. Swinging, scandalous, slick and silly, it’s just so much fun to listen to. We’d wager there isn’t a movie in existence that wouldn’t be improved by this song’s impeccable comedic timing and genuine groove. While we’ve only scratched the surface of H.G. Lewis’ composition work here, it’s telling that the man who knew how to churn our stomachs also knew how to enchant our ears. The title of his compilation album The Eye-Popping Sounds of Herschell Gordon Lewis, is, in name and on record, a testament to his legacy’s one-of-a-kind mastery.