David F Friedman: Film producer behind the 'nudie cuties', 'roughies' and 'splatter' genres

The self-proclaimed "mighty monarch of the exploitation world" David F Friedman produced more than 50 low-budget films that drew big audiences to US drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas throughout the 1960s and '70s.

Friedman's output ran the gamut of exploitation genres and his films rang the changes in mores and censorship, from "nudie cuties" like The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), to the hardcore pornography of The Budding of Brie (an X-rated remake of All About Eve, 1980), via the softcore The Erotic Adventures of Zorro ("the first movie rated Z", 1972).

He originated some of the more un-savoury exploitation categories, in particular the "roughies", with Scum of the Earth! (1963), and the womens'-prison and Nazi-exploitation genres, with films such as Love Camp 7 (1969 in the US but refused a video certificate in Britain in 2002), and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1974). But his most significant contribution to popular culture may have been the "splatter" or "gore" film, with Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965), all directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. Dubbed "the blood trilogy" by B-movie aficionados, they created the template for much of what followed when bigger studios moved into horror in the 1970s and '80s, and have been revived on cable and digital channels and reissued on video and DVD over the past two decades.

An old-fashioned huckster who learnt the tricks of the trade with the exploitation-film pioneer Kroger Babb, Friedman also wrote scripts, acted and directed. But his forte was the way he targeted audiences eager for a glimpse of nudity or a vicarious thrill with fast-paced trailers and posters that appeared to drip blood.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1923, Friedman remembered seeing Tod Browning's Freaks when he was nine. "I watched it from the projectionist's booth in my uncle's theatre. That's the film that really left an impression on me." His parents divorced in 1933 and, when his mother remarried, he began spending more time around carnivals. While studying at Cornell University he worked as a poster boy helping to promote movies. After being drafted, he attended the US Army film school and spent most of the Second World War as part of the Signal Corps.

This training stood him in good stead and he worked as a projectionist, booker and publicity agent for Paramount. He always had an eye for a deal and sold some army-surplus searchlights to Babb, who was touring Mom and Dad, his supposedly educational but in fact highly exploitative film and sideshow about the facts of life. He joined Babb and they they set up Modern Film Distributors in Chicago. In 1956, they bought the rights to Summer With Monika, Ingmar Bergman's 1953 film, shortened it, gave it a racier title – Monika: the Story of a Bad Girl – used posters and lobby cards to make nudity the selling-point, and turned a tidy profit.

Friedman moved into the "nudie cuties" after meeting Lewis, a former English professor, who directed The Prime Time – Karen Black's first film – Lucky Pierre, Daughter of the Sun, Nature's Playmates, Boin-n-g – which poked gentle fun at the genre – and Goldilocks and the Three Bares. Friedman and Lewis then left the nudist camps behind in search of other taboos to break. "Herschell said, 'Isn't there something else we can do that hasn't been done?' Out of that conversation came a four-letter word: gore."

Made for $24,500, Blood Feast tells of a knife-wielding Egyptian caterer who serves up the body parts of his victims. Friedman's masterful trailer and poster claimed there had been "nothing so appalling in the annals of horror"; he took a leaf out of the William Castle book of promotion and had "You May Need This When You See Blood Feast" printed on thousands of airline sick bags which were distributed to cinema-goers as they entered theatres and drive-ins. The film turned a $6.5m profit.

The imaginative Two Thousand Maniacs! followed. "I'd seen a play in New York called Brigadoon about a town that came to life every 100 years. We came up with a Southern town from the Confederacy that returned to kill travelling Yankees." It was remade as 2001 Maniacs by Tim Sullivan in 2005 (Friedman had a cameo alongside John Landis, another admirer of his work). After Color Me Blood Red, the tawdry tale of a painter whose palette literally drips with blood, he fell out with Lewis, though they later reconciled and made Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat in 2002.

In the mid-1960s, Friedman produced softcore features like The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966) and The Ribald Tales of Robin Hood: his Lusty Men and Bawdy Wenches (1969).

Friedman was a charming, witty raconteur whose autobiography A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-film King (1990), is a hoot. "I made some terrible pictures, but I don't make any apologies for anything I've ever done," he said. "Nobody ever asked for their money back."

David Frank Friedman, film producer: born Birmingham, Alabama 24 December 1923; married (died 2001); died Anniston, Alabama 14 February 2011.

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