Guerilla Grindhouse Horror-Comedy Blood Buffet
- 1 cup self-awareness
- 2 cups punk rock attitude
- a heaping handful of talented crew
- 1 can (10 ounces) of splatter and gore
- 1 large block of machismo, diced
- 1/2 tbs. 80’s culture satire
- 1 (female) risk-taking director with vision
- 2 servings of quality time management
- a pinch of budget
Mix ingredients with an intentionally absurd script and let simmer for 32 years. This recipe, when properly planned and executed can result in a five star, top-notch horror comedy sure to please your horror family and friends. If you require visual proof of what this recipe can yield, one needs to look no further than the 1987 cult classic, Blood Diner.
Originally slated as a sequel to the 1963 Herschell Gordon Lewis gore-tastic Blood Feast, the script came into being through the minds of screenwriter Michael Sonye and producer Jimmy Maslon. When the film was picked up by Vestron Pictures, it was decided that Blood Feast didn’t have quite the name recognition for a widespread release, and thus the name was changed from Blood Feast II to Blood Diner. The script had a lot going for it. Sonye and Maslon were horror heads through and through and they appreciated the thin line that divides horror and comedy. And while they certainly weren’t afraid to walk that line, they had no idea of the trailblazing boundaries that were about to be pushed through their work.
Released July 10th, 1987 Blood Diner would soon become one of the most over-the-top, underrated, intelligent and self-aware horror comedies in history. From production style to storyline, the film embodied a punk rock style of filmmaking that I’m calling ‘guerilla grindhouse.’
But before we dive in too deep, a synopsis:
Tagline: First they greet you, then they eat you.
Two brothers are entrusted by their uncle to uphold the ritualistic cannibalism of the ancient cult of Sheetar. In order to do so, they have to prepare a feast of sacrifice for the resurrection of their goddess.
The best move Vestron made was hiring Jackie Kong to direct. A relative newcomer, the up and coming director had just recently come off 1983’s The Being, and the 1984 hit Night Patrol. She was talented, she was driven…and she was young. Not yet even 30 years old, Jackie Kong wasn’t just breaking boundaries, she was smashing them to bits. On top of being a new director, she was a minority, and she was a woman. A woman making a film in a genre that has historically been dominated by men. Kong knew this was a big moment for her, and for women in the genre at large. She quickly decided to grab the opportunity by the proverbial balls and make the very most of the film. It’s for all these reasons and more that Jackie Kong has been often been fondly referred to as ‘Queen Kong.’
In regards to execution, Blood Diner could have gone several different directions. It could have been a straight up slasher. It could have been executed in a serious manner. Or, it could have been just plain bad. However, Jackie recognized the humor in the script and not only chose to turn it up, but turned that knob all the way to 11.
But here was the rub; Jackie was given a mere $330,000 to execute a feature-length, distributed film. To put that in perspective, The Lost Boys was also released in 1987 with a budget of $3.5 million dollars. Kong didn’t let that hold her back. Rather than be defined by the budget she was given, she grabbed that budget and made it work as hard as she possibly could for her.
First up came choosing her crew. Kong had achieved a significant amount of success and acclaim on Night Patrol, so it made sense to tap some of her contacts from that film. For Blood Diner, she brought along Jürg Walther as Cinematographer, Shiz Herrera for Costume Design as well as a handful of female make-up department artists and set designers. She was cognizant of her position and made sure her film set was relatively balanced in terms of gender representation.
Having her crew nailed down, Kong’s next challenge would come to casting. Adopting the ‘Fellini Method of Casting,’ Kong called up unknown and non-actors. She pulled from friends, from bands, from people off the street. She wanted the film to have a rich, full human texture and filled Blood Diner with real kids, punks and extras. If you look close enough, you’ll often see the same people in multiple scenes. Through this method, Kong and the producers found everyone they needed and were able to find the talent…at a fraction of the price.
Because a lot of the cast were newbies (and some not actors at all), Kong knew that organization and rehearsals would be key. They had only 18 days to film the entire movie and there was no room for errors. Kong drew out shot-by-shot diagrams and planned out every camera movement, actor placement, and developed specific lighting schemes with Walther. Before the cameras even started rolling, Kong insisted on weeks of rehearsals with her actors. Here they developed the characters, their quirks, dialogue, and execution. Nothing was left open to interpretation and there would be no off-the-cuff improvisation on her film. Because of this incredible due diligence, when it finally did come time to shoot, everyone knew exactly what they were doing and when. Just because the film required a quick, guerilla-style approach to production, that doesn’t mean the professionalism wasn’t there. Due to her focus, confidence and vision, Kong was able to not only deliver a film shot in 18 days, but she also delivered a good one.
UP THE PUNX
In order for Blood Diner to be successful, Kong knew there was no holding back. This was a film and a script that if not executed correctly would only result in confused faces. There was simply no other way than to throw all the rules out the window, ignore precedent and adopt a no-holds-barred mentality. Similar to the way punk rock had disrupted and disturbed the music industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Kong’s approach to Blood Diner was, well, punk as hell. From the costumes, to the soundtrack, tropes, lighting and dialogue, Blood Diner is a smart, subversive dream. Let’s examine this just a bit.
“Well, you know, like, I don’t really give a fuck what the general public think.” – Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols
One of the first ways Kong broke out of the mold was with her casting of the two leading men. In the story, George and Michael Tutman are, basically, serial killers. However, rather than depicting them as the dark, mysterious and brooding killers that were typically represented in horror films, Kong cast the young, handsome and charismatic Carl Crew and Rick Burks. For both, this was their very first role. In fact, Rick was not even really interested in acting as he was already an established musician. Sadly, it would be one of Burks last roles as he tragically passed away in a car accident at the young age of 28. Throughout the film, both guys are sweet, good looking, hard-working and generally pleasant, all while slaughtering innocent women and collecting body parts in their off time. While this idea is familiar to us now thanks to shows like Dexter and awful humans like Jeffrey Dahmer, this idea was relatively uncharted territory in 1987.
Another big theme throughout the film is a metaphorical middle finger to 1980’s popular culture. While on the surface the 80’s were a time of cultural excess and relative prosperity in the US, there was a lot of social unrest and change bubbling beneath the surface. The neon fog that had drenched popular culture was beginning to dissipate by 1987 spurred by artistic fields and creative dissent. While some satirical content was relatively innocuous, some of Kong’s choices would dramatically effect Blood Diner‘s future.
Health consciousness had risen to an unprecedented level in the 1980’s. Fad diets, diet sodas, gym culture and revealing clothing was all the rage and soon revealed the superficiality of pop culture. Blood Diner plays with this trend in a variety of ways. For one, the Tutman Cafe was a ‘health’ cafe. Clearly, their vegetarian offerings were only healthy on paper, but the restaurants patrons seemed to adopt the ‘ignorance is bliss’ mentality and ate their dishes blindly. The main patron, a heavyset man by the name of Vitamin C, although obviously overweight and unhealthy, claimed to abide by a strict vegetarian diet. Later, after multiple homicides, the Tutman’s victims are classified as ‘vegetarian targets’ rather than the obvious young female targets they were. All of these ideas playing off the thought that the health craze was just that, a craze. Overall, people didn’t actually take it seriously and do the proper research that could have actually benefited them.
The best scene that ties this fairly harmless satire to one that caused offense is the infamous ‘Nude Aerobics’ scene. Classes like Jazzercise and aerobics were booming biz in the 80’s and everyone was pushing the boundaries to cash in on that next big workout tape. Here we see the story poking at the absurdity of the industry with an over-the-top scene of bouncing, topless cheerleaders. Yes, it’s exploitative and titillating, but because it’s so ridiculous it crosses over from sleaze to satire. Even now, this scene is surprisingly funny and works as a plot mechanism to provide the brothers with a veritable smorgasbord of victims in one room. When the boys break in and begin shooting up the place, Kong then made a choice that simultaneously made a political statement, and shot her films wide distribution rights in the foot.
Years before Point Break came about, Kong chose to have her lead killers wear masks of President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan in the aerobics slaughter scene. At the time, Reagan was a sitting U.S. President and known for his conservative bent and infamous Reaganomics economic policy. Nancy Reagan was also famous in her own right, primarily known for launching the ‘Just Say No’ drug awareness campaign. Due to the political climate at the time in 1987, it’s no surprise why Kong would choose to utilize the Reagans’ images in this way, but the rating board claimed that was the final straw for them. Kong was told if she chose to release the film as is (even though they hadn’t even finished the movie), Blood Diner would garner an X-rating.
Rather than accept their decision, or make any changes to her film, Kong chose to say ‘piss off’ to the MPAA and released Blood Diner as Unrated. This decision immediately disqualified Blood Diner from being shown in the majority of theaters across the U.S., but surprisingly, Vestron backed Kong’s decision. Her film was clearly not for mainstream audiences anyways, so why bother trying to fit it into that mold?
Don’t think for a second, though, that ”Blood Diner,” which opens today at the Eighth Street Playhouse, is at all similar to ”Eating Raoul” or any other real movie. It pretends to have a comic plot, but that’s just a shabby excuse for the brothers to hack up naked women. The production is conspicuously low-budget, and the dubbing, lighting and continuity are pathetically amateurish, but none of that matters. This is not a real movie; it’s celluloid swill. -The New York Times, Sept. 4, 1987
Choices like this run rampant throughout the film and speak to the unique way Kong and crew approached the film. Adopting a meta-like attitude for the film, there is a blatant and intelligent awareness about it. Using this self-awareness to its advantage, Blood Diner succeeds in keeping horror audiences on their toes even 32 years later. As horror fans, we know that we are all on an eternal quest to see and absorb everything out there in the genre. Therefore, it’s refreshing when something happens in a film that we either don’t see coming, or can appreciate why it’s happening. For example, towards the end of the film, George tracks a female victim and her boyfriend to a cave. He catches them both pre-intercourse, quickly disposes of the boyfriend and begins to approach the fully nude female victim. However, instead of a typical slasher victim reaction, this girl, completely physically vulnerable, not only fights back, but kicks George‘s ass. It’s also just one of many scenes where the film pokes fun at traditional male roles, characteristics and entitlement. (I’m going to need a whole other article just to discuss Sheetar and her overall majesty) In this moment, Kong said, ‘Yeah, I see you horror tropes’ while she simultaneously flipped them off. It’s a sequence that is still awesome, still surprises and still holds up.
“I try never to insult my audience. That’s my number one goal. I try to treat my audience as though they’re very smart and will know my next move unless I’m clever enough to surprise them.” – Jackie Kong
The only downside to Blood Diner‘s relative obscurity for so many years is that Jackie Kong is not given nearly enough credit. What Kong did with Blood Diner not only pushed creative boundaries, she was (and is) an incredible trailblazer in the world of female filmmakers. For years following its release, it was a common rumor that Jackie Kong was actually a man. It seemed so incredible, so unbelievable that a woman could have been responsible for such a blood-soaked, over-the-top comedy gorefest. In a genre dominated by men, Jackie Kong proved not only that female directors could make horror films, but that they could understand, surprise, satisfy and shock a horror audience. Who would have guessed right? (Heavy sarcasm intended) While there is still clearly work that needs to be done in regards to equality in film making opportunities, Kong helped take a brick out of that ever-present wall and crush it beneath her feet.
Mirroring the subversive and guerilla-style message and production of the film, the release was perfectly matched. Despite having been released as unrated and shown mainly at festivals and brave indie theaters, Blood Diner has managed to carve out a firm foothold in the cult classic territory.
It has lived and breathed through reputation, rumors, blog recommendations and more recently, the beautiful Vestron Collector’s Series Blu-Ray. Everyone involved with the film knew that it wasn’t going to be like anything else that had come before it. The comedy and delivery may have been initially lost on the majority of 1987 audiences, but the crew knew and trusted that what Blood Diner was doing was special. It paid tribute to the gore greats of the past while simultaneously writing a whole new future. They knew that given enough time, and in the right hands, culture would catch up. It was never intended for the masses, so it’s rather beautiful that it was never treated like it was. The commentary and craft that is so intelligently executed and evident in the film has allowed it to grow and fester over time. Like a secret message whispered only in the ears of the deserving, Blood Diner is glorious gem best watched with a group of like-minded friends. So eat up, and satiate your hunger for the absurd. Blood Diner is always open.