To a certain generation that grew of age in the 60's, 70's and 80's, there existed a certain kind of cinema experience which came to be known as the "Grindhouse." Wikipedia defines it as thus, "a grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly shows exploitation films. It is named after the defunct burlesque theaters located on 42nd Street in New York City, where 'bump n' grind' dancing and striptease were featured." This columnist experienced the grindhouse growing up in Oakland, California where kids were often allowed to enter R-rated films in notorious theaters with names like the "T & D Theater" and the "Cine 7." A paltry sum was collected and you could experience such wonders on a triple bill as Psychic Killer, The Empire of the Ants and They Came From Within! The theaters that exhibited these films were usually once beautiful and ornate theaters that had not been properly maintained and the floors were encrusted with foreign substances that many were too frightened to speculate what they were carrying on the bottom of their sneakers to their homes after spending countless hours enthralled with gratuitous, but necessary gore, nudity and violence!
The film production company that is known as Trash Film Orgy finished celebrating its 100th showing of a film at their annual Trash Film Film Festival at the Crest Theater in Sacramento, California. This year marked their 13th season showing the bizarre, infuriating and downright unintentionally hilarious films that were often a part of the grindhouse experience of the past. The principals behind T.F.O. are Christy Savage and Darin Wood whom also are filmmakers specializing in producing similar style films with titles such as Planet of the Vampire Women. It is their tastes that includes elements of exploitation, horror, science fiction, rock and roll, punk and retro sensibilities that infuses each and every showing in their festival with a wanton sense of unpredictability that nearly matches the grindhouse experience without the actual element of danger that existed in the past.
This year's festival was kicked off in their classic style with the original Zombie Walk through mid-town Sacramento that ended at the theater. There were zombies of all stripes, sizes and various rotting colors present. Those who did not arrive as a walking corpse could have their undead dreams realized by the talented make-up artist and Sacramento heartthrob, David Ainsworth and his crew from Alchemy FX for a small fee. As the sun began to set, the march began which was once again led by T.F.O.'s own film director, Darin Wood. The "zombies" were led past bars, clubs and restaurants where patrons were often perplexed and some even exhibited genuine fear! The intentionally slow walk created a classic moment that many shall not forget. As the participants moaned and shambled towards the theater, a shortcut led them on a grassy knoll where those documenting it captured an iconic moment that appeared to be staged by director, George Romero himself!
All films that are screened at the Crest Theater are actually projected using original 35MM film! It is perhaps because of this choice that the screenings will vividly recall those past screenings from the grindhouse era. There can be no denying that many of the prints are faded to the point where one color is prevelant-that of a sickly pink hue that brings back uncomfortable memories of being force-fed medicine that as a kid you would spit out in disgust and protest!
T.F.O. also adds an element of the carnival freak show with barkers and actors portraying low level operators pitching audience participation games of questionable skill and craven lust. These games are always quite popular and include such inventive creations such as "Undead American Training" and "Celebrity Trash Jeopardy." It is this one element where the T.F.O. experience differs substantially from the grindhouse experience. It would have been unthinkable and possibly dangerous for a theater owner and manager to conduct games during the era of the grindhouse. Unfortunately this columnist could well have imagined such games leading to riots and an eventual sacking of the theater and the staff!
The line-up of films that were shown this year were Shaun of the Dead, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Friday the 13th, The Road Warrior, Escape from New York and finally for the historic 100th showing-Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs. All of these films with the exception of the recent, Shaun of the Dead were shown at a grindhouse of the past.
This year's excitement centered around the 100th showing of a film at the festival. The T.F.O. gang of merry delinquents wisely chose to celebrate with a double bill centered around two very notorious films created by the controversial goremeister known as Herschell Gordon Lewis! Lewis gained a reputation for being one of the first filmmakers to exploit extreme gore and gratuitous violence starting in 1963. Audiences viewed the films with a combination of revulsion and lurid fascination and many say it was Lewis that ushered in the era of the grindhouse with his films.
There was a true atmosphere of a mardi gras style party in the air on the night of August 17th. The night's activities would be ushered in by zombies being led by a Michael Jackson impersonator dancing and singing, "Thriller." Talented cosplayers like Skottie McPherson stunned theater attendees with his amazing and exotic homemade outfit patterned after "Mecha-Godzilla." Fans once again enjoyed lobby games such as "Uncle H.G.'s Mystery Hole." It would not be a T.F.O. event without the most recognizable actresses of the acting troupe-Stephanie Hyden. Hyden happily posed with fellow actress, Tess Thomas in the southern cannibal photo opportunity booth. The two actresses also encouraged fans to take creative photos with them of which this columnist also took advantage of!
The moment had arrived when the film was to be shown. All T.F.O. film screenings are kicked off with a foul mouthed green flame encrusted character known as "The Mighty Tiki." The fifteen foot tall talking head preps the audience for the film with his comedic commentary and is certainly one of the highlights of any night at a T.F.O. film festival. An intriguing and wonderfully appropriate accident occurred before the screening the night's second feature, Two Thousand Maniacs. The film projector burned the film and that led to the film being cut in classic grindhouse manner. The theater began to shake with howls of laughter, screams and catcalls as these antics instantly brought this columnist to a memory spiral of times spent in the grindhouse theaters of the past. This accident would have caused fights to begin in a genuine grindhouse, but this columnist is thrilled to report that an amazing spontaneous dance began on the stage as audience members rushed to dance for the sheer joy of creating a dance party like atmosphere.
It has now been 13 years of programming and running this film festival. The crew of T.F.O. displays no signs of being weary-creative or otherwise. Each presentation remains unpredictable and genuinely entertaining with a healthy amount of irreverent humor that many have come to embrace at these shows. Is this a true grindhouse experience? As an individual who has first hand knowledge of that era-the answer would have to be yes with a caveat! The T.F.O. grindhouse experience can be said to be everything that the past experience was without the actual violence that sometimes accompanied past experiences. The past grindhouse experience was populated by characters you would not want following you to your Cadillac or Datsun. The T.F.O. people are just the opposite-you hope that they follow you to your vehicle! What a difference a few decades make-eh?