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06 March, 2011

The “King” is Gone

On 14 February 2011, Dave Friedman passed away in an Anniston, Alabama nursing home at the age of 87.  His death received little notice, save among those who consider themselves fans of Exploitation Film.  His involvement in the world of motion pictures spanned 65 years, from working in Paramount’s film exchange in Buffalo, New York at the end of World War II to his status as the elder statesman of Exploitation, giving interviews and making Documentary appearances.  Dave was known for many things, and by many names, during that long career.  One of his favorite monikers, inspired by his frequent cameo appearances in his films, was “Hitchcock of the Crotchies.”  To me, he was simply “the King of Babylon,” and now the King is dead.

Dave’s career could have been spent in the mainstream of the motion picture industry, quietly and competently rising through the ranks of Paramount’s distribution and promotional networks.  He could’ve remained one of the thousands of people without whom the movies we all loved would never have reached the screen, but who never receive any recognition for their hard work.  But the mainstream wasn’t what fired Dave’s passion for movies, toiling quietly in the shadows wasn’t his style, and he wanted more from life than a steady paycheck.

Dave began his Exploitation career working with the legendary Kroger Babb, out on the Road-Show circuit with two of Babb’s biggest money-makers, MOM AND DAD and KARAMOJA.  KARAMOJA was a Jungle movie, half documentary, half adventure film; in the parlance of the exploiteers it was a “Goona-Goona” picture.  MOM AND DAD is legendary in it’s own right, without a doubt the most successful and profitable of the “sex-hygiene” films, and one of the most profitable films ever, no matter the genre.  Produced on a budget of $65,000 in 1945, it was still booking into Drive-Ins in the 1970’s.  Dave once estimated, for the documentary SEX AND BUTTERED POPCORN (1989), that it had earned a total of $600 million in its long life.

Dave eventually found himself in position to buy out Babb’s share of Modern Film Distributors, the company formed to manage and distribute the movies owned by four of the leading exploiteers of the Road-Show era—Babb, Gidney Tally, Floyd Lewis, and Irwin Joseph.  His partnership in Modern Film gave the young man what he craved the most—independence, the ability to be his own boss.  From now on, his financial success or failure would ride on his shoulders alone, not on the whims of corporate vice-presidents he might not ever meet.

The next milestone in Dave’s career would come in 1959.  A young producer came to the offices of Modern Film in Chicago, looking for a distributor for his picture.  He had the financing lined up, had cast the film, had a script, it was all ready to go.  He was just looking for someone to get THE PRIME TIME into theaters.  That producer’s name was Herschell Gordon Lewis, and as the cliché goes, it was the “… start of a beautiful friendship.”

For the next five years, Dave and Hersch comprised one of the most prolific, and profitable, teams in Exploitation Film.  Together they owned the Nudie-Cutie genre, with films such as DAUGHTER OF THE SUN, ADVENTURES OF LUCKY PIERRE, and NATURE’S PLAYMATES; began the “Roughies” with SCUM OF THE EARTH; and poked fun at themselves, and the Sexploitation genre in general, with BOIN-N-G.  The duo’s most lasting contribution to the history of Exploitation Film, however, would come in 1963 with the invention of the “Gore” film, and the release of BLOOD FEAST.

As the two would later recount, both separately and together, they were sitting in their office, looking for ideas for their next project.  They had been contracted to film BELL, BARE AND BEAUTIFUL in Miami for an independent producer, and were casting about for a follow-up of their own.  Both men had grown tired of the Nudie films they had specialized in to that point, and, in Herschell’s words, were looking for a type of film that, “… the majors either couldn’t, or wouldn’t make.[i]  They tossed several Exploitation Film staples back and forth—Goona Goonas, Religious Con-Man, Nazi Slave-Camp—when Hersch uttered a single four-letter word: G-O-R-E.  With that, they knew they had something that no one else was doing—the only question was would anyone pay to see it?

They hammered out a rough script, and convinced Stan Kohlberg, the man who financed most of their pictures, to bankroll this one to the tune of $24,500.  When they headed south to shoot BELL…, they went prepared to shoot BLOOD FEAST immediately afterward.

Starring Bill Kerwin, Connie Mason, and Mal Arnold, the story concerns an Egyptian caterer (Arnold) who’s a secret worshipper of the goddess Ishtar, and is planning a cannibalistic “Egyptian feast” in her honor.  To that end, he’s been murdering nubile young maidens, collecting the required body parts for the dinner.  He plans to serve this feast to a young bride (Mason) at her rehearsal dinner.  Her fiancé (Kerwin) just happens to be the detective in charge of investigating the murders.

It would be quite a stretch of the truth to describe this as a good movie.  Hersch himself frequently compares it to a Walt Whitman poem.  “It was no good, but it was the first of it’s kind.”  It was the first of its kind, and it would open the door to increasingly graphic Horror Films.

They followed BLOOD FEAST with TWO THOUSAND MANIACS, produced on a much higher budget, approximately $65,000.  As expected, the production values were far better on this film than they had been for the previous one; indeed, the movie as a whole was much improved over BLOOD FEAST.  Their final Gore film, and their final collaboration (at least until they recently re-teamed for the sequel to BLOOD FEAST, 2002’s BLOOD FEAST 2: ALL YOU CAN EAT)) was 1965’s COLOR ME BLOOD RED, starring Adam Sorg as an artist who becomes a success by using the blood of his murder victims as red paint.
During the production of COLOR ME BLOOD RED, tensions between the two friends began to rise, and culminated in an argument over finances.  As Dave would later say, it was, “[two] friends arguing about money—stupid.”  Though they would remain friends, the partnership was over.  Dave sold out his share of their films, packed up his wife Carol and their parrot Lolita, and headed west to join forces with Dan Sonney, head of Sonney Amusements.

Dan Sonney had spent his life in Exploitation Film.  The son of Louis Sonney, a renowned lawman-turned-exploiteer, Dan’s first job in the business had been as a production assistant on Dwain Esper’s MANIAC, which was produced by the senior Sonney.  Dan had been, for most of the early 1960s, the western states’ distributor for Friedman and Lewis’ films, and he and Dave had gotten to be good friends.  They would form a partnership that would be even more productive and successful than that Dave had shared with Herschell.
For the next fifteen or so years, until Dave retired in the early 1980s, the pair produced, under a variety of labels, some of the best Exploitation Films of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  From hard-edged Roughies like THE DEFILERS and A SMELL OF HONEY, A SWALLOW OF BRINE, to Period costume sex farces such as THE NOTORIOUS DAUGHTER OF FANNY HILL and THE LONG SWIFT SWORD OF SIEGFRIED, to SHE FREAK, Dave’s loving paean to the ‘carny’ lifestyle, the duo ruled Drive-Ins and Exploitation movie-houses.  They did so with low-budget but good-quality filmmaking, a good sense of humor, and by never forgetting to give the customer what they wanted, or thought they wanted.

As the Exploitation genre was gradually co-opted by mainstream Hollywood, the old-time exploiteers were left with just a few unpalatable choices.  One was to join that mainstream, to surrender their individuality to the corporations that to a greater and greater extent controlled Hollywood.  This ran counter to the core principles of most exploiteers, who had entered the field in the first place because it offered them the ability to make their movies their way.

Another path, and that taken by many, including Harry Novak and Ray Dennis Steckler among others, was to switch to making hardcore Adult Films.  Not ideal, and certainly not what most wished to do.  But it did offer some measure of creative freedom, and even in the waning days of “Porno-Chic” there was little stigma attached.

The third option was to simply get out—retire, leave the business.  Many of the older hands chose this path, as did Dave Friedman—eventually.  First, he tried his hand at producing a handful of hardcore films, all of which he was hired as an independent contractor to do.

But hardcore films violated Dave’s basic mantra—sell the sizzle, not the steak.  Exploitation was built on the premise of promising everything—but delivering just enough to keep the yokels coming back for more.  Hardcore violated those deeply-ingrained tenets of Dave’s beliefs.  It had nothing to do with the explicit nature of the movies themselves.  Dave had long been one of the staunchest crusaders for increased First amendment protections for motion pictures.  Indeed, he served as the first president of the Adult Film Association of America, a trade group representing Adult Film producers, distributors, and exhibitors.  He just didn’t enjoy making these movies.

So Dave retired to Anniston, Alabama, his boyhood hometown.  He expected to become a Southern gentleman of leisure, spending his time playing golf, playing cards, both he and his movies forgotten.  And such might have been the case, if not for one man.

Mike Vraney has long had a fascination with, and love of, Exploitation Film, as well as odd and exotic film of all types [Something Weird on the Screen:  The Wild, Bizarre and Wacky World of Scare-Your-Children Movies, Exploitation Shorts and Stag Films, 11 April 2009].  He began marketing a few of Dave’s movies on home video, without the proper permission, in the mid-1990s.  When Dave found out about this, his reaction was two-fold: one, he wanted what money was owed to him, and two, he couldn’t believe that there was a market for these films.  Mike, who had been trying to get in touch with Dave for some time, soon had the older man convinced that the market for old Exploitation Films did exist, and that if Dave would trust him with his film vaults, it would make both men a great deal of money.  Mike would soon prove himself a savvy judge of the movie-buying public, and the two would soon form a deep, lasting friendship that continued until Dave’s death.

Dave’s passing last month will leave a permanent void in the hearts of those who knew and loved him, but it will also leave an empty space in the hearts of fans of Exploitation Film.  Dave was one of the last living links to those days of the Drive-In movie, and perhaps the last to the Road-Show era of the 1920s-1950s.  That alone is enough for readers of the Crypt to mourn his passing.

As for me, there’s more than that.  Dave was a personal hero to me, an inspiration.  Recently, in connection with research for the book we are co-authoring, the Unimonster’s Crypt’s senior correspondent Bobbie Culbertson interviewed Dave by telephone.  For more than ninety minutes, he regaled her with tales of a bygone era, of legendary people long gone, and facts and figures still sharply in focus fifty years after the events transpired.  He recited, from memory, Elliot Forbes’ speech that he would deliver at intermissions in showings of MOM AND DAD.  For ninety minutes, this great man entertained and educated us with a cheerfulness of spirit that was amazing.  Dave Friedman spent eighty-seven years enjoying life—fine food, fine liquor, fine cigars.  He loved life.

The King of Babylon is dead—and there is no heir apparent waiting in the wings.  The King is gone—as is the kingdom over which he ruled.

[i] A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Christopher Wayne Curry, 52

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