by: Christian Niedan
Part four of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with director and producer William Lustig…
Rising from the shallow grave of the long-gone “grindhouse” and exploitation eras of cinema from the 1960s through 1980s, a slew of obscure movies began clawing their way back to the small screen in 2002 thanks to the resurrective powers of William Lustig — via his Los Angeles-based film distribution company, Blue Underground. For Lustig, Blue Underground and its revivalist mission is both a business and a calling. The films Lustig restores and reissues on DVD and Blu-ray sprang from the same era that birthed Lustig’s own directorial career, one that began with a smattering of adult film credits before he found himself properly ensconced in a murderous slice of the cinematic mainstream.
Though he is now a long time L.A. fixture, it was Lustig’s New York City backdrop for his Maniac Cop series of horror films that inspired me to interview him by phone from Blue Underground’s office in 2013. Back in 1988, Maniac Cop’s tagline of “You have the right to remain silent…forever,” promoted a film that featured Robert Z’Dar as Matt Cordell, a vengeful undead police officer. In the film, Lustig defied modern convention, and approached the story and visuals as a fusion of genres including police crime drama, classic monster, and film noir. In Maniac Cop, New York City’s ominous nightfall brings forth former officer Cordell to prey upon wretched criminals and innocent bystanders alike.
Crime had been a major concern for many New Yorkers going back to the 1970s, with reported murders actually peaking in 1990 at 2,245 (the same year as Maniac Cop 2’s release). Compare that to 2017’s murder rate of 290, which was the lowest since 1951. In 1976 and ‘77, those totals stood at 1,622 and 1,557. Yet it was six murders across those two years that captured the dark imaginations of NYC locals, thanks in part serial killer’s David Berkowitz’ mysterious rampage under the moniker “The Son of Sam.” Locals followed the deadly results in tabloid newspapers, like The Daily News (to which Berkowitz sent taunting letters), with salacious headlines updating a nervously eager readership. One of the readers of that ongoing print coverage was Lustig, who used Berkowitz as partial inspiration for Joe Spinell’s serial killer, Frank Zito, in his 1980 film, Maniac. Lustig described that sensationalized tabloid influence in his creative process during our interview:
William Lustig: “I remember it very clearly. When I talk to audiences, I talk about the ’70s as being the ‘Golden Age’ of serial killers. Because today, the serial killers tend to be these people who we find out [are] some white trash in a trailer park who [bury] a girl in the backyard, or they do something horrendous. And it’s terrible, but somehow in the ’70s you had some really colorful people. Remember, Son of Sam was writing to Jimmy Breslin at the New York Daily News, so we were hooked on getting the newspaper. There wasn’t CNN. We were grabbing the newspaper off the newsstand to read about the latest installment of the Son of Sam. You know, we take for granted today the 24-hour news cycle. But back then, it was like getting the early edition of the Daily News, and hearing the latest about this killer on the loose, and following on a day-by-day basis, and only getting those tidbits that you could read in a newspaper. And it was exciting. It was suspenseful. I can put on the news now, and I’ll hear every little update about [Christopher Dorner] on the loose. You know, there’s no suspense. There’s no interest. I’ll tell you, it was like living in a pulp novel. That’s what the ’70′s were like with all these serial killers.”
“They thought the Son of Sam had a fetish for women with a certain color hair. And women were going to their hair salons to change the color of their hair to make them a less-likely target. I even remember going to a newsstand one day, and the guy’s looking at me and says, ‘Boy, you look just like the sketch on the cover.’ It was that kind of a thing. I mean, it was really interesting.“
When I interviewed him, Lustig’s career identity was that of a film distributor, which evolved from a multi-year stint producing DVD projects for Anchor Bay Entertainment, before the company was sold — a possible setback that he recalled as an opportunity:
William Lustig: “So I had a group of people that were really kind of a well-oiled machine, and we had the contacts to acquire product. So I turned our energy into starting Blue Underground. In broad strokes, it was my intent to be able to continue to bring out films that I love that had not really been given respectable releases. Really high quality transfers with interesting bonus material. I kind of thought of Blue Underground as being the ‘pop culture Criterion Collection.’ Right now, we have about 154 films under license. I would say about 50% are horror, and then the rest would be action, erotic, and then Westerns. Mid-1960s would be the earliest.”
On the Blue Underground website, visitors can find the company’s evocative mission statement:
“It’s any time between the late ’60s and mid ’80s, and you’re standing in front of a decrepit movie theater in an unsavory part of town. The titles on the marquee called you like a beacon. You were lured by the reputation of an obscure director, the talents of a notorious star or even the promises made by an amazing poster. You honestly don’t know what you may be getting yourself into, or even if you’ll get out of the theater alive. For some strange and wonderful reason, you are compelled to see movies about psychopaths, cops, robbers, zombies, cannibals, madmen, strange women and more, with an audience often comprised of the same.
Today those theaters are gone, but that excitement — and these films — remain. These will be definitive discs of some remarkable films, all fully restored, remastered and packed with the most mind-blowing extras in the business. We encourage your feedback, look forward to your support and appreciate your enthusiasm. We’re committed to bringing these movies out of the dark and back into your life where they belong!”
One of those Blue Underground-licensed films emerging from the cinematic darkness was Snuff, co-directed by Roberta Findlay, a filmmaker that I have tried and failed to get an interview with. Lustig wanted to interview her for an extra on the Blu-ray release of the film, which (given its quality) one might not think deserved such high-end treatment — though, Lustig expounded on his decision:
William Lustig: “You know, what appeals to me is the mystique of the film. And what interests me is how [Allan Shackleton] took what was in the news about snuff movies, and created controversy around this awful movie by shooting some additional footage at the end. Also, him hiring protesters and the whole marketing campaign the guy did. All that stuff interested me. I think the movie itself is so bad, it’s unbelievable. But now we’re gonna give it to audiences in high definition. And in fact, I was just going over a scene in the movie with my associate. We were talking about color correction in a day-for-night scene, and I was telling him ‘Make sure you can balance the shots.’ It was this really badly shot day-for-night footage. It was shot in South America, except for the end. The end was shot in Chelsea.”
The films in Blue Underground’s catalogue closest to Lustig’s heart, though, come from Italy. He highlighted Dario Argento titles like Deep Red and Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. Yet, he maintained a quality-control editorial mindset to the screen stories he handled, not extending a film just because the extra footage existed — using Italian cinema as an example:
William Lustig: “You have to understand that in the ’60′s there were a lot of Hollywood films that were made in Italy for economic reasons. And so there was a lot of films that I’d seen that were based in Italy, in Rome and those places. It’s funny, I think my first trip to Milan, Italy I had read in a newspaper while I was there that Profondo Rosso was being shown at a theater in a certain part of Milan. One night, I got a taxi to take me to the theater so I could see the uncut version. Even though it was in Italian, I wanted to see the uncut version, because I had heard the Italian version was longer than the English version. And I remember going to this huge cold theater with wooden seats to see the uncut Italian version. That can tell you how big a fan I was. It was about twenty minutes longer, and it really wasn’t very good footage either. I don’t think it added anything to the movie, and it was wise that it was cut.”
Read Part Five — The Chronicler!