FT. LAUDERDALE, FL—Once-prolific horror film director Herschel Gordon Lewis has died at his home in Ft. Lauderdale. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed. He was 87 years of age.
Born in 1929, Lewis spent most of his childhood in Chicago, and following his graduation from high school, attended Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, graduating in 1950 with a master's degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter, he began teaching English lit at Mississippi State University, and following his leaving the university, became involved in managing radio stations in Racine, Wisc., and Oklahoma City, Okla., before changing professions yet again to become an advertising copywriter at a friend's agency in Chicago. Before long, he was also directing TV commercials for an ad production house until he and a partner bought out the owners and renamed it Lewis and Martin Films, a play on the then-popular comedy duo of (Dean) Martin and (Jerry) Lewis.
By 1961, Lewis had made the acquaintance of softcore film producer/director David Friedman, and the pair collaborated on a series of so-called "nudie cuties" (also termed "sexploitation films"), the first of which was Living Venus (1961), a send-up of Hugh Hefner and the founding of Playboy magazine. Several more nudie-cuties followed over the next two years, including the first nudie musical, Goldilocks and the Three Bares. In 1963, Lewis directed his first (and most famous) horror movie, Blood Feast, considered the first "splatter film" and described by film critic Roger Ebert as "a terrible film, and a historically important one, too"—in part because Lewis could sell his horror fare to drive-in movie theaters that wouldn't (or legally weren't allowed) to play his nudie-cuties.
For the next 10 years, Lewis produced several more splatter films, including Monster A Go-go, Color Me Blood Red, The Wizard of Gore and The Gore-Gore Girls (with a cameo by comedian Henny Youngman), but he never forgot his nudie roots, also releasing low-budget softcore titles including The Girl, The Body and The Pill (1967), How to Make A Doll (perhaps the first movie to feature a sex robot) (1968), She-Devils on Wheels (1968) and Suburban Roulette (1968), about spouse-swapping. In the same time period, he even made a couple of children's features, Jimmy the Boy Wonder and The Magic Land of Mother Goose.
Lewis largely retired from filmmaking in 1972, releasing only two titles thereafter: Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat (2002), and The Uh-Oh Show (2009)—both gore, of course. He spent most of his time until his death in advertising once again, as a copywriter and direct marketer—which led to a fraud conviction in 1976, for which he spent three years in prison. However, Lewis published more than 20 books on advertising including The Businessman's Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion in 1974 and How to Handle Your Own Public Relations in 1977, and even opened his own ad agency in Ft. Lauderdale, Communicomp, which had a large international client base.
"John Waters, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn are among the modern-day filmmakers who were inspired by Lewis' work," according to a short obit published by the Associated Press. "Gunn posted his condolences on Twitter and said Lewis 'changed cinema.'"