Welcome Back to the Grindhouse
From the mid 70’s through the late 80’s, a cultural phenomenon sprang up in heavily populated urban areas. Theaters, many of which dated back before motion pictures to the days of burlesque, began to specialize in showing exploitation films that their main stream competition avoided. These sleaze cinemas were dubbed “grindhouses” in a nod to their strip show origins and also in reference to the quality of the film prints they ended up with that often looked as though they had been through a meat grinder. While they were popular with fans of offbeat movies and profitable due to the low overhead inherent in their less than desirable and often ill-maintained locations, the advent of home video spelled doom for the grindhouse.
In the more rural areas of the southern states, grindhouses were almost unheard of. In there place, we had the drive-in theaters which were also declining in popularity thanks to the color television boom of the 60’s. Like the grindhouses, many drive-ins tried to cater to a niche their four walled and broadcast competitors were quick to dismiss. Drive-in theaters were also known for multi-bill shows that sometimes lasted from dusk until dawn and could feature as many as five different films. I was fortunate enough to catch the very tail end of the drive-ins’ reign in the late 80’s and early 90’s but, even though I scrambled for anything I could find, I only had a handful of opportunities to appreciate this type of cinema in its original incarnation.
For St. Augustine, Florida resident Brandon Merkley, grindhouses were just fabled legends to read about in magazines. The 24 year old recent college graduate’s only first hand experience with exploitation films were the ones he rented and regularly watched on VHS tape as he was growing up. From a young age, he was hooked on films many of his peers had not even heard of. As Brandon recalls, “the first exploitation film I ever remember seeing was I Spit on Your Grave, when I was in the fifth grade. Don’t ask me how, but somehow a friend and I managed to rent a copy of it. This was in Kentucky so I suppose the video store just didn’t care. I don’t remember our exact reactions at the time, but I still love that film to this day.”
I Spit on Your Grave was about the rarest title Brandon’s local video store had to offer, so he had to wait a few years for the Internet and online rentals to help broaden his cult movie horizons. His family eventually moved from Kentucky to Florida but it would still take some time for him to discover a suitable venue for his own version of the grindhouse. “I’ve lived in St. Augustine for about six years now”, Brandon says, “but it was only about eight months ago that I discovered Pot Belly’s Cinema. I guess I was just too busy before that spending my time on less productive activities! After I saw a film there one night, I talked to the owner, Kenny Pierce, about showing cult movies. He was interested but I had no idea how to go about it. I just started researching on the Internet and bought a few 35MM film prints before I was even sure this was going to happen.”
Together with partner Travis Johnson, Brandon created CULTure Shock Productions to bring underground cinema to St. Augustine. He originally called the project Grindhouse Redux, but changed the title after his initial screening to broaden the audience and include films that might not strictly fit the definition of exploitation. His screenings adhere to a strict policy of only using 35mm film prints, no digital projection. While the quality of his source material may vary, the faded colors and intermittent surface damage add a dash of welcomed nostalgia.
In late August of this year, Brandon kicked off his film series with a high octane double feature of Lamberto Bava’s Demons and the cheesy Italian zombie flick Burial Ground. He has followed this on a biweekly basis with some great films like Pieces, Nightmare (aka Nightmares in a Damaged Brain), The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and his beloved I Spit on Your Grave. So far the turnout has been solid and an even mix between regulars and new attendees almost every week. The management at Pot Belly’s has been pleased with the response and the CULTure Shock film scheduled has already been planned through the end of the year.
I attended a screening of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie on a Friday evening with a very responsive audience. To warm up the audience, Brandon showed a 16mm reel of previews, theater spots, and even a Pink Panther cartoon. The 35mm feature print that followed was in surprisingly good shape although the color had shifted toward the red side. This was an uncut print with all the unrated gore in tact and it was clear from the audiences’ reactions that many of them had not seen the film before. Seeing the over the top violence on the big screen, for the first time in many years, reminded me of how far special effects have come in the last three decades but the sheer visceral impact of the film has not been diminished by time.
What these screenings may lack in modern finesse, they more than make up for with home grown charm. The posters on the front window are often just simple collages of images from the film and Zombie even included hand stenciled barf bags created by Travis to commemorate the event. There is also the added attraction of being able to purchase beer and an extended menu of food from the wait staff without ever having to leave the comfort of your seat or miss any of the show. Pot Belly’s is a cinema and draft house that has served St. Augustine for many years. Sitting in one of its small darkened theaters, it was very easy to imagine I was on 42nd Street in New York in 1979 and watching Zombie during its original release.
CULTure Shock Productions has an impressive and diverse schedule planned for the last two months of 2009 as well as few surprises brewing for next year. On November 6th and 7th, they will show David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, followed by John Water’s cult classic Pink Flamingos on November 20th, 21st, and 22nd. In December, they will have another Lynch film, Blue Velvet, on the 4th and 5th and then close out the year with William Lustig’s Vigilante on December 18th and 19th. For anyone like me who missed it entirely or those longing to return to the grindhouse again, this film series is highly recommended. It is the closest you can come to recreating the grindhouse experience without the police sirens and rats!