With the demise of the drive-in theater rose the behemoth home video industry – and a torch was passed from one era of low-budget directors and producers to a new batch of underfunded fringe filmmakers. These fresh faces had new technology, and a new distribution game… but a similar reckless abandon and rebellious tenacity as their b-movie forefathers.
Fright fans were introduced to a new breed of horror movies - made for tens of thousands of dollars… or thousands of dollars… or a few hundred bucks and a borrowed video camera. Unpaid amateurs / quasi-professionals made up the bulk of most casts and crews - and often, the directors and producers were quite inexperienced themselves.
Join me for a visit to the heyday of the direct-to-video, micro-budget horror movie. We’ll explore this strange new cinema of the 80s and see how it evolved through the ‘90s. (Be sure to adjust tracking for best picture quality.)
In the early 80s, videotape and analog editing systems weren’t good enough for making feature films… but people started doing it anyway. Boardinghouse (1982), directed by John Wintergate, takes the credit for the first feature length movie shot on videotape. It was printed to 35mm film and theatrically distributed, so it represents a bridge between the old and the new. Videotape was functioning now as a shooting format, but even though the home video market had built up its momentum, that pesky theatrical release was still a necessity. Until…
Direct-to-video movies Sledgehammer (1983), directed by David A. Prior, A Polish Vampire In Burbank (1985), directed by Mark Pirro, Blood Cult (1985), directed by Christopher Lewis, and Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986), directed by Tim Ritter paved the way. A new business model was established. Theatrical release had been excluded from the loop.
Soon, a slew of ultra-cheap movies were being released direct-to-video. The late ‘80s and the 1990s saw the emergence of filmmakers who would be ridiculed by critics for their no-budget tactics, yet worshipped by new hard line cult followers. Usually shooting on video to keep costs to a minimum, these filmmakers fused artistic freedom with exceedingly unrefined DIY methods to conceive a whole new category of cinema.
With no theatrical distributors or exhibitors to please, and with no MPAA to concern themselves with, micro-budget filmmakers had the freedom to do whatever they pleased. Lurid material and outlandish creative choices became fair game.
Directors like Hugh Gallagher (Gorgasm, Gorotica) took the sex and depravity to extremes. Prolific directors like Ron Ford (Alien Force) and Kevin J. Lindenmuth (Addicted to Murder) would build cult followings with their horror/sci-fi contributions. Low-fi, over-the-top gore was splattered across the screen by filmmakers like Todd Sheets (Zombie Bloodbath, Goblin), Leif Jonker (Darkness), Ronnie Sortor (Sinistre), Andreas Schnaas (Violent Shit), and Olaf Ittenbach (The Burning Moon). Unbridled insanity poured forth from directors like Matt Jaissle (The Necro Files) and the Polonia Brothers (Saurians, Feeders). Directors like Scooter McCrae (Shatter Dead) and Andrew Copp (The Mutilation Man) submitted brooding art film / exploitation film hybrids with intriguing narrative and visual agendas.
Darkness (1997), Leif Jonker’s Kansas-lensed vampire bloodbath, maintains a strong cult following today. Shot on Super 8 film by a buncha youngsters, the weak links in this DIY movie are outweighed by the earnestness with which the filmmakers and cast attacked the subject matter. Jonker’s passion for the film is evident in every frame. There is a ferocity to this carnage-filled flick that makes it stand out.
Another movie that still maintains an ardent following is Scooter McCrae’s Shatter Dead (1994), shot in New York. A tale of the undead trying to cope in society alongside the living, Shatter Dead gained attention for its somber tone and imaginative, unsettling plot. It is one of the most infamous of the 80s/90s micro-budget films, and it did more than most movies to bring attention to the shot-on-video output of the era.
Two true heroes of the micro-budget scene are Mark and John Polonia, Pennsylvania-based twin brothers who never let lack of budget derail them. They began rolling camera in the mid-80s, and soon cranked out their first feature, the (now rather notorious) shot-on-video Splatter Farm (1987). Their dinosaur adventure movie, Saurians (1994) gains its tremendous charm by aiming so very high on such a very low budget. Shot on Super 8 film, Saurians attempts to be Jurassic Park on a budget that would make Ed Wood cry. Using a variety of film-trickery, including early, extremely clunky computer imagery, Saurians ranks as one of the most entertaining flicks to emerge from the 80s/90s micro-budget scene. The ridiculous but fun Feeders (1996), one of the Polonia’s bigger hits, features rubber alien puppets, and crude computer generated UFO special effects. Feeders 2: Slay Bells (1998) delivers pure b-movie magic with a ludicrous tale of Santa Claus’s fight to save the world from alien invasion. Refusing to let time constraints stop ‘em, the Polonias allegedly shot the feature-length Terror House (1998) in only 48 hours!
Until John Polonia passed away at the age of 39 in 2008, the twins remained relentless in getting no-budget movies made, no matter what negativity, road blocks, or financial set-backs confronted them.
Other names drifted to the head of the pack, partly because they submerged themselves in the distribution and marketing game, and functioned as producers on other filmmakers’ movies. New York-based Ron Bonk (The Vicious Sweet) is one of these fringe-cinema leaders. He has worked consistently as a director, producer, and distributor for the past two decades. Bonk unleashed his most recent film, Ms. Cannibal Holocaust just last year.
Perhaps the most influential figure in 90s direct-to-video outsider cinema is J.R. Bookwalter – writer, director, producer, and editor… as well as founder of Tempe Video, a trailblazing production and distribution company. Bookwalter hit the ground running with his blood-soaked first feature film, The Dead Next Door (1989), an Ohio-lensed movie that resulted from a business partnership with Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Oz The Great And Powerful).
The Dead Next Door - often credited as the most expensive Super 8 feature film ever made - was a hit with horror fans, and gave Bookwalter’s career an early boost. When Bookwalter directed the significantly lower-budgeted features Ozone (1995) and The Sandman (1995), he raised the bar for poverty-stricken shot-on-video movies. While still DIY rough, these movies aimed for bigger and better, exhibiting a luster and grasp of the craft that most other SOV movies hadn’t achieved.
Looking back at the direct-to-video movies of the 80s and 90s, one notes that often, two elements make these movies entertaining: audacity and adversity. A filmmaker’s freedom and willingness to put just about anything on screen results in some bizarre, shocking, and/or fun flicks - a welcomed antidote to the seen-it-all-before blues one can contract from watching a steady stream of bigger budget films. Also, when lack of money and/or professional experience cause the filmmakers and cast to struggle - fighting against all odds just to get the movie made - it adds to the movie’s personality… it’s sometimes charming, sometime hilarious, and on occasion, rather impressive.
Removing theatrical release from the equation built the foundation upon which today’s indie film distribution machine is built. Back in the 80s, the major studios had much to do with the videocassette rental industry, but nothing to do with the birth of non-theatrical, direct-to-video feature films. Filmmakers who work today in this market, releasing their movies via disc and VOD, owe thanks not to Hollywood, but to the filmmakers listed above. These are the gentlemen who took the risks, blazed the trail, and left in their wake a wealth of lawless, anything-goes movies.