Welcome to the BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO CLASSIC EXPLOITATION CINEMA. This is a start-off point for people who are new to these kinds of films and find themselves confused by the sheer overwhelming number of them. This page will provide an easy general introduction and a number of tips on films you should watch. This page is also ideal for those who want to make sure they know the basics and are just interested in learning more.
Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by "exploiting" often lurid subject matter. The term "exploitation" is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. Thus, films need something to "exploit", such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. An "exploitation film", however, relies heavily on sensationalist advertising and broad and lurid overstatement of the issues depicted, regardless of the intrinsic quality of the film. Very often, exploitation films were of low quality in every sense. This, however, was not always the case. Exploitation films sometimes attract critical attention and cult followings.
Exploitation films feature uncut unrated material. They specialize in numerous sex and nudity scenes, bloody gore, violence, and taboos. They were most popular in the late 1960s to late 70s. Most are low budget films that would not be played in theaters today and would most likely receive an NC-17 rating.
Exploitation films may feature suggestive or explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, freaks, gore, the bizarre, destruction, rebellion, and mayhem. Such films have existed since the earliest days of moviemaking, but they were popularized in the 1960s with the general relaxing of cinematic taboos in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, low budget filmmakers used sensational elements to attract audiences lost to television. Since the 1990s, this genre has also received attention from academic circles, where it is sometimes called paracinema.
"Exploitation" is very loosely defined, and has more to do with how the viewer approaches the film than with the film's actual content. Titillating material and artistic content can and often do coexist, as demonstrated by the fact that art films that failed to pass the Hays Code were often shown in the same grindhouses as exploitation films. Exploitation films share with acclaimed transgressive European directors such as Derek Jarman, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard a fearlessness toward handling 'disreputable' content. Numerous films recognized as classics contain levels of sex, violence, and shock typically associated with exploitation films, including Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Tod Browning's Freaks, and Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Buñuel's Un chien andalou contains elements of the modern splatter film. It has further been stated that if Carnival of Souls had been made in Europe, that it would be considered an art film, while if Eyes Without a Face had been made in the U.S., it would have been categorized as a low-budget horror film. The art film and exploitation film audiences are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings.
Exploitation films often exploited events that occurred in the news and were in the short term public consciousness that a major film studio may avoid due to the length of time of producing a major film. For example Child Bride (1938) addressed a problem of older men marrying very young women in the Ozarks. Other issues such as drug use in films like Reefer Madness (1936) attracted an audience that a major film studio would avoid to keep their mainstream and respectable reputations. Sex Madness (1938) portrayed the dangers of venereal disease from premarital sex. The film Mom and Dad (1945), a film about pregnancy and childbirth, was promoted in lurid terms. She Shoulda Said No! (1949) combined the themes of drug use and promiscuous sex.
Grindhouses and Drive-ins
Grindhouse is an American term for a theatre that mainly showed exploitation films. It is named after the defunct burlesque theatres, on 42nd Street, New York, where 'bump n' grind' dancing and striptease used to be on the bill. In the 1960s these theatres were put to new use as venues for exploitation films.
As the drive-in movie theater (an outdoor theater into which the patrons drive and watch the film from their car) began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, theater owners began to look for ways to bring in patrons. One solution was to book exploitation films. In fact, some producers in the 1970s would make films directly for the drive-in market. Many of them were violent action films which some would refer to as 'drive-in' films.
Exploitation films may adopt the subject matters and stylings of film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films. The subgenres of exploitation films are categorized by which characteristics they utilize. Thematically, exploitation films can also be influenced by other so-called exploitative media, like pulp magazines. Exploitation films also sometimes blur genre lines utilizing two or more genres at a time for example the 1980 film Maniac could be considered both a slasher film as well as a gore film. Doris Wishman's Let Me Die A Woman contains both shock documentary and sex exploitation elements.
Exploitation films made in the 1930s and 1940s that got around the strict censorship and scrutiny of the era despite featuring lurid subject matter by claiming to be educational in nature. They were generally cautionary stories about the alleged dangers of premarital sex and drug use. Examples include Marihuana, Mom and Dad, Reefer Madness, Sex Madness and She Shoulda Said No!.
In 1953 The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, was the first film about a motorcycle gang. The success of American International Pictures' The Wild Angels in 1966 ignited a trend that continued into the early 1970s. Other biker films include Motorpsycho (1965), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), Born Losers (1967), Satan's Sadists (1969), The Losers (1970), and C.C. & Company (1970).
Action films (often referred to as Kung fu or chopsocky films) that are characterized by extensive fighting scenes employing various types of martial arts.
"Blaxploitation" films (Note: The word was not coined by whites but by a black person) were made with black actors, for black audiences, often taking place within a stereotypically African American urban backdrop. A prominent theme was African-Americans overcoming "The Man" (a slang term for white oppressors) through cunning and violence. The progenitor of this exploitation genre is usually credited to Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, although Gordon Parks Sr's Shaft is truly the prototype for the standard action oriented films in this genre. Other popular titles include: Black Caesar, Blacula, Black Shampoo, Boss Nigger, Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, Coonskin, Cotton Comes To Harlem, Dolemite, Foxy Brown, Hell Up In Harlem, The Mack, Shaft, Sugar Hill, Super Fly and Truck Turner.
In the 1970s, a brand of revisionist, non-traditional samurai film rose to some popularity in Japan, following the success of samurai manga (graphic novels) by Kazuo Koike, on whose work many later films would be based. The Zatoichi films, Lady Snowblood, the Lone Wolf and Cub films, Sex & Fury (which would also be a sexploitation film) and Shogun Assassin had few of the stoic, formal sensibilities of earlier jidaigeki films such as those by Akira Kurosawa -- the new chambara featured revenge-driven antihero protagonists, gratuitous nudity, steamy sex scenes, gruesome swordplay and gallons of blood, often spurted from wounds as if from a firehose.
The Japanese Yakuza (gangster) film was also a popular staple in theaters both in Asia and in the US during the 60s and 70s. Studios such as Nikkatsu were the forerunner of these pulp-crime pictures that dealt with the violent and exotic criminal underworld in urban Japan.
Carsploitation is a genre which features automobiles as the main showcase or driving force of the films. The quintessential film of this genre is Vanishing Point. Others include Death Race 2000, Cannonball, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Gone in 60 Seconds, Mad Max and Two Lane Blacktop.
Exploitation genre films taking place in the American South. The majority of Hixploitation films deal with topics such as moonshiners & crazy backwoods hillbillies.
Mondo films, often called shockumentaries, are quasi-documentary films that focus on sensationalized topics, such as exotic customs from around the world or gruesome death footage. Similar to shock exploitation, the goal of Mondo films is to be shocking to the audience not only because they deal with taboo subject matter. The first and best-known mondo film is Mondo Cane. Others include Shocking Asia and Goodbye Uncle Tom.
Sex exploitation, or "sexploitation" films, are similar to softcore pornography, in that the film serves largely as a vehicle for showing scenes involving nude or semi-nude women. While many films contain vivid sex scenes, sexploitation shows these scenes more graphically than mainstream films, often overextending the sequences or showing full frontal nudity. Russ Meyer's body of work is probably the best known example; with his best known films being Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Supervixens. Subgenres include Women In Prison, Cheerleader movies, Nurse films, Nunsploitation, Nudies, Roughies, Dykesploitation. Other well-known sexploitation films include the Emmanuelle series and Caligula. Caligula is unique among classic sexploitation films in general in that it features a high budget and eminent actors.
Shock exploitation films, or "shock films" contain various shocking elements such as extremely realistic graphic violence, graphic rape depictions, simulated bestiality and depictions of incest. Examples of shocksploitation include: Bloodsucking Freaks, I Drink Your Blood, Fight For Your Life, I Spit On Your Grave, Ilsa: She Wolf of The S.S. (and its sequels), Last House on Dead End Street, The Last House On The Left, Pink Flamingos, Salo, 120 Days of Sodom, Snuff, Thriller: A Cruel Picture
Spaghetti Western is a nickname for the Italian-made Western films that emerged in the early to mid-1960s. They were considerably more violent and amoral than typical Hollywood westerns (some films have body counts of over 200 people killed) and often eschewed (some say "demythologized") the conventions of earlier Westerns.
The exploitation of teenagers by the producers of teen-oriented films, with plots involving drugs, sex, alcohol and crime. The word Teensploitation first appeared in a show business publication in 1982 and was included in the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for the first time in 2004. These include JD Films (juvenile delinquent) and beach party movies like Beach Blanket Bingo among others.
- Vigilante/Revenge films: films in which a person violates the law to exact justice. These films were rooted in 1970s unease over government corruption, failure in the Vietnam War, and rising crime rates. These movies point toward the rising political trend of neoconservatism. The classic example is Death Wish, and its sequels. These films often deal with individuals who are unable to find help within the system, such as the Native American protagonist of Billy Jack, or characters in blaxploitation films such as Coffy, and persons from small towns who go to larger cities in pursuit of runaway relatives (i.e. 1979's Hardcore, and 1976's Trackdown). It's not uncommon for the vigilante in these films to himself be a policeman who feels thwarted by the legal system, as in Walking Tall's original trilogy and remake, Mad Max, and the Dirty Harry series of Clint Eastwood movies.
- JD Films: Juvenile delinquent themed films such as The Delinquents, High School Hellcats.
- Rape/Revenge films: Films in which a woman is raped, left for dead, recovers and then subsequently extracts a typically graphic, gory revenge against the person/persons who raped her. By far the most famous film of this genre is I Spit on Your Grave (also called Day of the Woman). Others include Ms. 45 and Thriller: A Cruel Picture. The Last House On The Left.
- Drugsploitation: a subgenre of exploitation films that center around an explicit use of drugs.
- Poliziotteschi is the Italian subgenre of crime/action cinema that became popular in the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. The term "poliziotteschi" is derived from "polizia" the Italian word for police and "esco" i.e. "esque" in American language. They are also commonly referred to as Italo-Crime and Euro-Crime films. The word "Poliziottesco" in particular represents specifically the 1970s crime/police actioners. Regular components featured in these films included: over the top violence, car/motorcycle chases, heists, shootouts. The subgenre's plots and stories usually involved police procedurals, mafia wars, as well as political corruption within Italy's big cities like Naples, Milan, Torino and Rome.
Sci Fi & Horror/Thrillers
- Eco-Terror films: Eco-terror films, also called "nature-run-amok" or "natural horror" films or "eco-horror" films, are sci-fi/horror films that focus on an animal or group of animals that are far larger and more aggressive than is usual for its species, terrorizing humans within a particular locale whilst a group of other humans attempt to hunt it down. This trend began in the 1950s, when concern over atomic testing led to the popularity of movies about giant monsters. These were typically either giant prehistoric creatures awakened by atomic blasts, or ordinary animals mutated by radiation. These films included Godzilla, Them!, and Tarantula. The trend was revived in the 1970s as awareness of pollution increased, with corporate greed and military irresponsibility being blamed for destruction of the environment. Night of The Lepus, Frogs, and Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster are examples of these movies. After the massive success of Steven Spielberg's 1975 Jaws, a number of highly similar films (sometimes regarded as outright rip-offs) were produced in hopes of cashing in on its success. These included Alligator, Day of The Animals, The Last Shark, Grizzly, Humanoids from the Deep, The Pack, Piranha, Razorback and Tentacles.
- Giallo films: Giallo films are Italian-made murder mysteries that focus both on the cruel deaths committed by the killers and the subsequent search of detectives for the killers. They are named for the Italian word for yellow, "Giallo", the color of which was the background of the pulp novels these movies were initially adapted from or inspired by. The progenitor of this genre was The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
- Cannibal films: Cannibal films are a collection of graphic, gory horror subgenre movies made in the early 1970s on into the late 1980s, primarily by Italian moviemakers. These movies focused on cannibalism by tribes deep in the South American or Asian rain forests, usually perpetrated against Westerners that the tribes hold prisoner. Similar to Mondo films, the main draw of cannibal films was the promise of exotic locales and graphic gore involving any living creatures, human or animal. The best known film of this genre is the controversial 1980 Cannibal Holocaust in which six real animals were killed. Others include: Cannibal Ferox, Eaten Alive, Mountain of The Cannibal God and the first cannibal film, Man From Deep River. Famous directors in this genre include Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, and Joe D'Amato.
- Zombie films: Zombie films are graphic, gory movies focusing on undead zombies that have arisen due to some factor and were made to cash in on the success of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead. Examples include The Beyond, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, City of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, The House by the Cemetery.
- Gore films: A splatter film or gore film is a type of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and violence. As a distinct genre, the splatter film began in the 1960s with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman, whose most famous films (and quintessential examples of the genre) include Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), The Gruesome Twosome (1967) and The Wizard of Gore (1970).
- Slasher films: Slasher films focus on a psychopathic killers stalking and killing a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner. The victims are often teenagers or young adults. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is often credited as creating the basic premise of the genre. It truly emerged as a genre during the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. Well-known slasher films include: Black Christmas, Driller Killer, Friday The 13th, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Sleepaway Camp, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Toolbox Murders.
- Women in prison films: Sexploitation subgenre that became popular in the early seventies and remains a popular subgenre to this day. They are primarily voyeuristic sexual fantasies about prison life that rely on heavy doses of nudity, lesbianism, sexual assault, humiliation, sadism, and rebellion among captive women. Titles include: Women in Cages', The Big Doll House, Bamboo House of Dolls, Barbed Wire Dolls, Women's Prison Massacre, Reform School Girls and Caged Heat.
- Nunsploitation films: Sexploitation subgenre featuring nuns in dangerous or erotic situations.
- Nazisploitation: Nazi exploitation films, also called "Nazisploitation" films, or "Il Sadiconazista" are subgenre War and or Sexploitation films that focus on Nazis torturing prisoners at death camps and brothels during World War II. The tortures inflicted are often of a sexual nature; and the prisoners, who are often female, are nude. The progenitor of this subgenre was Love Camp 7 (1969). The quintessential film of the genre which launched its popularity and its typical tropes was Ilsa: She Wolf of The S.S. (1974); about the buxom, nymphomaniacal dominatrix Ilsa torturing prisoners in a Stalag.
- Pinku eiga (pink films): Japanese sexploitation films popular throughout the 70s, often featuring softcore sex, rape, torture, BDSM and other unconventional sexual subjects that were considered erotic.
- Pornochanchada films: Brazilian naïve softcore pornographic films produced mostly in the 1970s
- Macaroni Combat: 1960s-80s Italian produced subgenre war films. Titles include: Inglorious Bastards, From Hell To Victory, Five For Hell and The Dirty Heroes.
- Nazisploitation Films (see above)
- Brucesploitation films: Martial arts subgenre profiting from the death of Bruce Lee utilizing look-alike actors.
- Ninja Films: a subgenre of martial arts films, these films center on the stereotypical, historically inaccurate, image of the ninja costume and his arsenal of weapons often including fantasy elements such as ninja magic.
What is a Cult Film?
Cult films arent necessarily exploitation films. They are simply films that have gained a large devoted following because of their unique qualities. They range from low budget exploitation features to big budget studio films that may not have done well on their initial release but were re-visited and grabbed people's imaginations/attention. Cult films can be from any period, the 20th century and beyond. Classics include: Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Night of the Living Dead, Harold and Maude, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of The Paradise, The Harder They Come, The Warriors, Eraserhead, Videodrome. Post grindhouse era cult films include: Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, Showgirls, Donnie Darko and Fight Club...READ MORE
- Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999
- Jeffrey Sconce, "'Trashing' the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style", Screen vol. 36 no. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 371–393.
- Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984, 1994.
- V. Vale and Andrea Juno, RE/Search No. 10: Incredibly Strange Films Publications, 1986.
- Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia|The Film Encyclopedia 5e: The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Cinema in a Single Volume (Film Encyclopedia), 2005.
- Benedikt Eppenberger, Daniel Stapfer Maedchen, Machos und Moneten: Die unglaubliche Geschichte des Schweizer Kinounternehmers Erwin C. Dietrich. Mit einem Vorwort von Jess Franco. Verlag Scharfe Stiefel, Zurich, 2006
What should I watch first?
- The introduction finishes with some examples of films you should start watching. We now have an essential list of films HERE.
Want to know more?
- Read up on Exploitation subgenres
- Watch the documentary: American Grindhouse
- Watch the documentary: Not Quite Hollywood
- Watch the documentary: Machete Maidens Unleashed
- Watch the documentary: Schlock: The Secret History of American Movies
- Click here to check out some great books about Exploitation Cinema.