Horror! Sex! Big Box Office!
The erotic adventures of exploitation film producer and Alabama native Dave Friedman.
January 08, 2009
"Tell your readers," says David F. Friedman, "that there's no such thing as retirement."
He says this from his home office in Anniston, where the legendary film figure has been trying to retire since 1988. As usual, Friedman has recently returned from a horror convention. He spends a lot of time at those, or traveling the world while attending film festivals. Friedman is unique among the celebrities you usually find at conventions. Most of them charge for autographs. Friedman never has.
"People will leave you money, anyway," says Friedman. "I give all that to the Shriners Hospital."
Film fans want to give Dave Friedman money because he's given them so many hours of entertainment. His long career has created decades of movie memorabilia for him to sign. At a glance, his office has all the trappings of any successful businessman. There are awards, certificates, and newspaper articles. You'd have to look closer to see that Friedman was in the film business. As far as what kind of film business—well, the only clue is a framed movie poster for 1970's Trader Hornee.
|A poster from one of Friedman's 1961 productions, which was directed by future schlock-horror legend Herschell Gordon Lewis. (click for larger version)|
The more tawdry goods are on display in the garage that Friedman refers to as his museum. That's where you'll find the garish posters that celebrate his work in a wide range of exploitation films. He's a few weeks away from turning 85, and his failing eyesight has him thinking about cutting back on personal appearances. His memory of a strange career, however, remains impeccable.
Much of Friedman's story is told in his 1990 autobiography A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King. A lot still had to be left out. The Birmingham native's career took him far from his childhood spent on 10th Street South.
"It was called Juniper Avenue back then," Friedman adds. "My father was with the Birmingham News for 45 years, but he also partnered with a man who owned a pretty good-sized carnival in North Alabama. He loved all kinds of show business, from the grand opera to the organ grinders with their monkeys. My mother was a professional musician and my uncle operated a little movie theater in town. There was another big theater built where my grandfather used to have a warehouse. He came to Birmingham in 1880."
After his parents divorced, Friedman moved to Anniston. His early work as a film booker and projectionist landed him in the Army Motion Picture Services when he was drafted during World War II—only to end the war stationed at Anniston's Fort McClellan.
Friedman's most legendary work began in 1960s Chicago. That's where he was working with a film distribution company that specialized in the notorious "Birth of the Baby series"—consisting of moralistic films spliced with footage of actual childbirth.
|Dave Friedman in 1969. (click for larger version)|
"One day," recalls Friedman, "this fellow came in and said, 'I'm making a movie.' I said, 'Take a number, kid.' He said, 'No, I've got the money.' I said, 'Please, sit down.'"
|Dave Friedman in 2005. (Photo courtesy of CineSchlockOrama.com.) (click for larger version)|
The fellow was former English professor Herschell Gordon Lewis, who wanted to make some racy films. That meeting launched a legendary partnership between Friedman and Lewis as producer and director.
"The first film we made," recalls Friedman, "was called The Prime Time. That was Karen Black's first film. Then we made Living Venus, about a man who starts a girlie magazine—à la Hugh Hefner, of course. That was Harvey Korman's first picture. Those made money, and we started making nudist camp movies. That became a big thing, but those were also a big bore. We must've made two dozen of those things. We were willing to shoot anything to get out of Chicago in the winter. Finally, Herschell said, 'Isn't there something else we can do that hasn't been done?' Out of that conversation came a four-letter word: gore."
The result was 1963's Blood Feast, full of gorgeous babes being stripped of their intestines and tongues. Drive-in audiences had never seen anything like it. The grotesque horror/comedy cost $24,000. Friedman estimates that the film ended up grossing $7 million. Not for Friedman, though.
"I sold out my interest early on Blood Feast," he says. "Then we got the idea to make Two Thousand Maniacs! Herschell had taught at [the University of Southern Mississippi], and he loved the South. I'd seen a play in New York called 'Brigadoon' about a town that came to life every 100 years. We came up with a Southern town from the Confederacy that returned to kill traveling Yankees. That was another huge hit. We finished the trilogy with Color Me Blood Red in 1965, and then me and Herschell had some stupid argument. I moved to L.A. to grind out movies there."
Friedman could have gone back to L.A. to raise tomatoes and he'd still be an icon of trash cinema. Instead, he would work into the late 1970s producing baffling and bizarre films such as The Acid Eaters, The Head Mistress, The Adult Version of Jekyll & Hide, The Erotic Adventures of Zorro, and—as noted—Trader Hornee.
Friedman dabbled in hardcore adult filmmaking at the start of the 1980s but quickly lost interest. He still helped produce a porn-chic classic in the All About Eve remake called The Budding of Brie. He wasn't interested in making films for home video, either. ("To me, it's not a movie if it doesn't play on the big screen.") By 1988, he was ready to leave L.A.
|A poster promoting Friedman's 1968 film The Acid Eaters. (click for larger version)|
Meanwhile, the world was catching up with his filmography. Friedman was writing A Youth in Babylon when he moved back to Anniston. The home video market that he disdained was beginning to make him a household name—at least in houses where a bunch of film geeks lived.
Friedman's move coincided with a Rolling Stone article on his work—complete with a Richard Avedon photo of a smiling Friedman under some bed sheets with a dismembered young lady.
"An old friend of mine here had a son who was reading that issue of Rolling Stone," recalls Friedman. "He says, 'Hey, that's Dave Friedman. He's back in town.' The kid says, 'No, dad, this is some guy in Hollywood who makes horror pictures.'"
It didn't take long for people to find Dave Friedman in Anniston. Local trash-film fans were pleasantly baffled to find an Alabama address in the ads that Friedman placed in horror magazines for A Youth in Babylon. Those who ordered the book were even more surprised to find that an exploitation legend came with a Birmingham heritage. A Youth in Babylon also revealed that the Gore Trilogy came late in what was already an amazing career. Before meeting Lewis, Friedman had amassed a book's worth of stories about his work running carnivals and working as a Hollywood publicist—including a long stint with Paramount Studios.
For every photo of Friedman holding a gory prop, you can find another where he's posing with the likes of William Holden, Cary Grant, or Danny Kaye ("the most miserable son of a bitch I ever knew"). Friedman also helped launch a different kind of big name in film.
"Back in 1967," he recalls, "me and my partner Dan Sonney took over an old theater in L.A. I said, 'Dan, what do you want to call this?' He'd just seen a picture called What's New Pussycat? 'Let's call it the Pussycat,' says Dan. I said that was the most horrible name I ever heard—but I designed the marquee for the Pussycat Theatre, which played adult fodder. There was a young man named Vince Miranda. He had two theaters in L.A. also playing adult films. He liked the name, so he bought a half-interest in our theater. I should've said, 'Vince, I want a nickel a head for every customer.' He developed a chain of 40 theaters in California all called the Pussycat."
It would be reasonable to think that Friedman was also behind the Pussycat Theatre that opened in Roebuck during the 1970s. That turned out to be more of a missed opportunity.
"The problem," explains Friedman, "was that Vince only registered the name in California. People around the country started opening Pussycat Theatres. A big supposed Mafia character opened a beautiful one in Times Square, copying the logo perfectly. There wasn't anything we could do about it. I'm glad Birmingham got one. You know, it wasn't the most receptive town for adult films."
Friedman learned that the hard way in 1969.
"Albert Brewer was the interim governor back then," he recalls. "George Wallace had been governor, and then he had his wife Lurleen elected because term limits kept him from running under his own name. But she died in office, and Brewer became governor. Brewer wanted to make a name of his own, so he decided to clean up Alabama. He raided seven movie theaters. Two of them were playing Thar She Blows!—which I made—and another had my film Starlet. That was the 81 Drive-In in Selma. Another picture picked up was Midnight Cowboy [originally rated X], but United Artists wasn't going to do anything about it. I had a distributor in Atlanta who came to me and said we had to fight this."
The resulting court case changed Alabama's obscenity laws. "My company filed a lawsuit against Brewer. The case went before Frank Johnson, who's greatly respected as a federal judge. That trial was the funniest thing in the world. I had a recurring character in my films called Phil Latio, so the manager of the Selma drive-in gets put on the stand, and he's asked if he knows what Phil Latio is. He didn't. I get on the stand, and I'm asked, 'Why would you name a character Phil Latio?' I talk about how my fellow author Ian Fleming had named a character Pussy Galore. Brewer's lawyer says, 'Well, I don't know anything about this Ian Fleming fellow . . .'"
Friedman won the case because of the lack of a prior advisory hearing. Brewer might have treated the producer better if he'd known that Friedman had already helped put an end to live stripper shows—in his own way.
"Those nudie cuties we made in Chicago closed all the burlesque theaters in America," Friedman explains. "I'd tell the burlesque operators, 'I've got some pictures here with better-looking women than you've got, and you can put them on the screen 40 feet wide and 30 feet high. You won't need any stagehands, you won't need any musicians, you won't have girls backstage fighting with each other, and if you want them to do an extra show on Saturday night, the can of film doesn't argue.' They'd say, 'When do I start?'"
Friedman also sees a clear distinction between this more innocent age and later hardcore films.
"Everything we did then would get an R rating now," he says. "The other big difference is that we had fun. In Starlet, there's a scene where we have a screen test for a movie within the movie. In a bit of whimsy, I decide that the actress playing the girl who's auditioning is going to recite Portia's speech from 'The Merchant of Venice.' This girl isn't the greatest actress, but she's got other attributes. We start shooting the audition scene, and she starts up: 'Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh . . .' She does the whole thing perfectly, then again for two more close-ups. She'd memorized it all. Cut, print, she comes up to me: 'Gee, Mr. Friedman, you write the most beautiful stuff.'"
Friedman's sleaziest production would be 1975's notorious Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. That would be his only film without his name in the credits. He was still happy to join star Dyanne Thorne for commentary on the DVD.
"Well," says Friedman, "you have to give the customer something extra with a DVD. I must've done commentaries on 40 of them now. Everything about making the film comes back to you. What's surprised me is that people are interested in hearing me talk."
Friedman started talking thanks to Mike Vraney, whose Something Weird Video company has released nearly all of Friedman's productions.
"It's funny how I met this kid," recalls Friedman. "I made a picture in 1969 called The Ribald Tales of Robin Hood—His Lusty Men and Bawdy Wenches. I sold the picture to a company in Germany, where it became that year's second biggest hit after Love Story. The German distributor then buys the rights to every territory in the world. Almost 20 years later, the German wants to renew the rights, because Fox is filming Robin Hood with Kevin Costner. But the German had lost all the elements—the voice track, the sound effects, the music track. He says he can make copies from a video. Not long after, I'm looking through a newspaper for film collectors, and there's Ribald Tales for sale from Something Weird Video."
Vraney didn't have a pleasant reputation at the start of the 1990s. Friedman's first encounter with Something Weird was typically caustic: "I call the number in the ad, find out the movie costs $15, and then I ask where he got the film. The guy replies, 'What's it to you?' I say, 'Do you know who you're talking to? My name's David Friedman.' 'Mr. Friedman,' says the guy. 'I've been trying to reach you for years. I want to put all your old movies out on video.'"
Friedman can still laugh in admiration at his fellow hustler. "I catch this guy pirating a video of mine, and now he's wanting to work with me. But the more Mike talks, the more I like him. I say, 'Tell you what, kid. I'll meet you in Los Angeles and give you six or seven negatives. Treat me right, I can give you a hundred more. Treat me wrong, I'll send someone to break your legs.' A few months later, Mike sends me a check for $8,000. I call him up: 'Kid, meet me back in L.A.'"
Friedman was retired. He wasn't supposed to be thinking about releasing his films. He's happy to credit Vraney for finding him new audiences.
"I thought those old pictures were dead in the water," Friedman explains. "If people wanted to see sex, they had hardcore. Mike found an audience that saw these films as being kind of campy. Then he found people who liked that old-fashioned look in a girl, and then all the people who remembered these films from when they were 16 and sneaking into theaters."
Along with the gorehounds, those are the types that Friedman has regularly encountered on the convention circuit.
"A lot of the kids want to know how to get started in the business," says Friedman. "I have to tell them it's a little late. There's no such thing as a roadshow anymore, where you put your film under your arm and travel from theater to theater. Then I get fans who ask me about my motive in making these films. My motive was making a couple of bucks. They'll start a question: 'In the blocking of Blood Feast . . .' Nobody was telling the actors how to move in Blood Feast. The fans make much more out of these pictures than we ever did while we were grinding them out."
Friedman can still understand falling in love with a film.
"Todd Browning's Freaks played Birmingham when I was about nine years old," he says. "The local censor had forbidden the movie for children. I watched the movie from the projectionist's booth in my uncle's theater. That's the film that really left an impression on me. That's why I wrote and produced She Freak in 1967. I'm in California, so I change things around. It's a California carnival. No rain, bright sunshine, gay pennants float in the breeze. The poster says, 'Behind the tents and tinsel of a monster midway, something barbaric occurs on the alley of nightmares!' That last part was taken from Nightmare Alley, a great old film with Tyrone Power. That's my tribute to Freaks. Of course, there weren't many real freaks around by then. I had to make my own."
Fortunately, there are still freaks around to keep Friedman as busy as he wants to be. He's taken a few acting roles over the years. Documentary filmmakers from the UK and Japan continue to come to Anniston to interview him about genre films. Friedman himself is producing a documentary about Herschell Gordon Lewis. ("I want to call it The Merchant of Menace.") He reunited with Lewis for 2001's Blood Feast 2, and made a cameo appearance with director John Landis in 2005's 2001 Maniacs. It won't be easy to get Friedman to try another retirement. Today, he's certainly enjoying his life of legitimacy.
"Back when we were making those nudie cuties," Friedman notes, "we were pariahs. Now we give talks at college campuses. I've spoken at Southern Methodist University, where my book is used as a text in a class on exploitation films. It seems I'm just an old country boy who keeps being around at the right time and place. I have no shame or remorse, and I'm always happy when people come by for interviews. I may be just now getting the big head." &
In 2001, Dave Friedman and fellow filmmaker Dan Sonney were the subjects of the documentary Mau Mau Sex Sex, which appeared at that year's Sidewalk Film Festival. DVDs are available at http://maumausexsex.com.