Exploitation films are generally low-quality "B movies". Even so, they sometimes attract critical attention and cult followings. Some of these films, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), set trends and become historically important.
Exploitation films may feature suggestive or explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, freaks, gore, the bizarre, destruction, rebellion, and mayhem. Such films were first seen in their modern form in the early 1920s, but they were popularized in the 60s and 70s with the general relaxing of censorship and cinematic taboos in the U.S. and Europe. The Motion Picture Association of America (and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America before it) cooperated with censorship boards and grassroots organizations in the hope of preserving the image of a "clean" Hollywood, but the distributors of exploitation film operated outside of this circuit and often welcomed controversy as a form of free promotion. Their producers used sensational elements to attract audiences lost to television. Since the 1990s, this genre has also received attention in academic circles, where it is sometimes called paracinema.
"Exploitation" is very loosely defined, and has more to do with the viewer's perception of the film than with the film's actual content. Titillating material and artistic content often coexist, as demonstrated by the fact that art films that failed to pass the Hays Code were often shown in the same grindhouses as exploitation films. Exploitation films share the fearlessness of acclaimed transgressive European directors such as Derek Jarman, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard in handling "disreputable" content. Many films recognized as classics contain levels of sex, violence, and shock typically associated with exploitation films; examples are Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Tod Browning's Freaks, and Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou contains elements of the modern splatter film. It has been suggested that if Carnival of Souls had been made in Europe, it would be considered an art film, while if Eyes Without a Face had been made in the U.S., it would have been categorized as a low-budget horror film. The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings.
Exploitation films have often exploited news events in the short-term public consciousness that a major film studio may avoid because of the time required to produce a major film. Child Bride (1938), for example, tackled the issue of older men marrying very young women in the Ozarks. Other issues, such as drug use in films like Reefer Madness (1936), attracted audiences that major film studios would usually avoid in order to keep their respectable, mainstream reputations. With enough incentive, however, major studios might become involved, as Warner Bros. did in their 1969 anti-LSD, anti-counterculture film The Big Cube. The film Sex Madness (1938) portrayed the dangers of venereal disease from premarital sex. Mom and Dad, a 1945 film about pregnancy and childbirth, was promoted in lurid terms. She Shoulda Said No! (1949) combined the themes of drug use and promiscuous sex. In the early days of film, when exploitation films relied on such sensational subjects as these, they had to present them from a very conservative moral viewpoint to avoid censorship, as movies then were not considered to enjoy First Amendment protection.
Several war films were made about the Winter War in Finland, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War before the major studios showed interest. When Orson Welles' radio production of The War of the Worlds from The Mercury Theatre on the Air for Halloween in 1938 shocked many Americans and made news, Universal Pictures edited their serial Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars into a short feature called Mars Attacks the World for release in November of that year.
Some Poverty Row low-budget B movies often exploit major studio projects. Their rapid production schedule allows them to take advantage of publicity attached to major studio films. For example, Edward L. Alperson produced William Cameron Menzies' film Invaders from Mars to beat Paramount Pictures' production of director George Pal's The War of the Worlds to the cinemas, and Pal's The Time Machine was beaten to the cinemas by Edgar G. Ulmer's film Beyond the Time Barrier. As a result, many major studios, producers, and stars keep their projects secret.
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Grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly showed exploitation films. It is thought to stem from the defunct burlesque theaters on 42nd Street, New York, where "bump n' grind" dancing and striptease used to be on the bill. In the 1960s these theaters were put to new use as venues for exploitation films, a trend that continued strongly throughout the 1970s in New York City and other urban centers, mainly in North America, but began a long decline during the 1980s with the advent of home video.
As the drive-in movie theater began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, theater owners began to look for ways to bring in patrons. One solution was to book exploitation films. Some producers from the 1950s to the 1980s made films directly for the drive-in market, and the commodity product needed for a weekly change led to another theory about the origin of the word: that the producers would "grind" films out. Many of them were violent action films that some called "drive-in" films.
Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines. They often blur the distinctions between genres by containing elements of two or more genres at a time. Their subgenres are identifiable by the characteristics they use. For example, Doris Wishman's Let Me Die A Woman contains elements of both shock documentary and sexploitation.
Although they featured lurid subject matter, exploitation films of the 1930s and 1940s evaded the strict censorship and scrutiny of the era by claiming to be educational. They were generally cautionary tales about the alleged dangers of premarital sexual intercourse and the use of recreational drugs. Examples include Marihuana (1936), Reefer Madness (1938), Sex Madness (1938), Child Bride (1943), Mom and Dad (1945), and She Shoulda Said No! (1949). An exploitation film about homosexuality, Children of Loneliness (1937), is now believed lost.
In 1953 The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, was the first film about a motorcycle gang. A string of low-budget juvenile delinquent films featuring hot-rods and motorcycles followed in the 1950s. The success of American International Pictures' The Wild Angels in 1966 ignited a more robust trend that continued into the early 1970s. Other biker films include Motorpsycho (1965), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), The Born Losers (1967), Angels from Hell (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Satan's Sadists (1969), Naked Angels (1969), The Sidehackers (1969), Nam's Angels (1970), and C.C. and Company (1970). Stone (1974) and Mad Max (1979) combine elements of this subgenre with Ozploitation.
Black exploitation films, or "blaxploitation" films, are made with black actors, ostensibly for black audiences, often in a stereotypically African American urban milieu. A prominent theme was African Americans overcoming hostile authority ("The Man") through cunning and violence. The first example of this subgenre were Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Others are Black Caesar, Black Devil Doll, Blacula, Black Shampoo, Boss Nigger, Coffy, Coonskin, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Dolemite, Foxy Brown, Hell Up in Harlem, The Mack, Mandingo, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Sugar Hill, Super Fly, The Thing with Two Heads, Truck Turner, Willie Dynamite and Cleopatra Jones. The 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die uses blaxploitation themes, and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite are modern homages to this genre.
Cannibal films are graphic, gory movies from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, primarily made by Italian and Spanish moviemakers. They focus on cannibalism by tribes deep in the South American or Asian rainforests. This cannibalism is usually perpetrated against Westerners that the tribes held prisoner. As with mondo films, the main draw of cannibal films was the promise of exotic locales and graphic gore involving living creatures. The best-known film of this genre is the controversial 1980 Cannibal Holocaust, in which six animals are killed. Others include Cannibal Ferox, Eaten Alive!, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, The Mountain of the Cannibal God, Last Cannibal World, and the first film of the genre, The Man From Deep River. Famous directors in this genre include Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Jesús Franco, and Joe D'Amato.
"Canuxploitation" is a neologism that was coined in 1999 by the magazine Broken Pencil, in the article "Canuxploitation! Goin' Down the Road with the Cannibal Girls that Ate Black Christmas. Your Complete Guide to the Canadian B-Movie", to refer to Canadian-made B-movies. Most mainstream critical analysis of this period in Canadian film history, however, refers to it as the "tax-shelter era".
The phenomenon emerged in 1974, when the government of Canada introduced new regulations to jumpstart the then-underdeveloped Canadian film industry, increasing the Capital Cost Allowance tax credit from 60 per cent to 100 per cent. While some important and noteworthy films were made under the program, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Lies My Father Told Me, and some film directors who cut their teeth in the "tax shelter" era emerged as among Canada's most important and influential filmmakers of the era, including David Cronenberg, William Fruet, Ivan Reitman and Bob Clark, the new regulations also had an entirely unforeseen side effect: a sudden rush of low-budget horror and genre films, intended as pure tax shelters since they were designed not to turn a conventional profit. Many of the films, in fact, were made by American filmmakers whose projects had been rejected by the Hollywood studio system as not commercially viable, giving rise to the Hollywood North phenomenon.
Notable examples of the genre include Cannibal Girls, Deathdream, Deranged, The Corpse Eaters, Black Christmas, Shivers, Death Weekend, The Clown Murders, Rituals, Cathy's Curse, Starship Invasions, Rabid, I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses, The Brood, Funeral Home, Terror Train, The Changeling, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, Scanners, Visiting Hours, Highpoint, Humongous, Deadly Eyes, Class of 1984, Videodrome, Curtains, Self Defense, Spasms and Def-Con 4.
The period ended in 1982, when the Capital Cost Allowance was reduced to 50 per cent. However, at least one Canadian film blog extends the "Canuxploitation" term to refer to any Canadian horror, thriller or science fiction film made up to the present day.
Carsploitation films feature scenes of cars racing and crashing, featuring the sports cars, muscle cars, and car wrecks that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. They were produced mainly in the United States and Australia. The quintessential film of this genre is Vanishing Point (1971). Others include Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Death Race 2000 (1975), Race with the Devil (1975), Cannonball (1976), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), Mad Max (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), Dead End Drive-In (1986) and The Hitcher (1986). Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007) is a modern tribute to this genre (containing some references to Vanishing Point), as well as to slasher films and the films of Russ Meyer.
In the 1970s, a revisionist, non-traditional style of samurai film achieved some popularity in Japan. It became known as chambara, an onomatopoeia describing the clash of swords. Its origins can be traced as far back as Akira Kurosawa, whose films feature moral grayness[clarification needed] and exaggerated violence, but the genre is mostly associated with 1970s samurai manga by Kazuo Koike, on whose work many later films would be based. Chambara features few of the stoic, formal sensibilities of earlier jidaigeki films – the new chambara featured revenge-driven antihero protagonists, nudity, sex scenes, swordplay, and blood. Well-known chambara films include Hanzo the Razor, Lady Snowblood, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Sex & Fury.
Modern Japanese films such as Azumi and anime such as Shigurui continue the chambara tradition, and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series is a prominent American tribute to the genre, as is Ninja Assassin. Other films, such as The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, combine elements of chambara with body horror. Games like Senran Kagura combines Chambara with sexploitation.
Giallo films are Italian-made slasher films that focus on cruel murders and the subsequent search for the killers. They are named for the Italian word for yellow, giallo, the background color of the pulp novels these movies were inspired by. The progenitor of this genre was The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Other examples of Giallo films include Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, The Cat o' Nine Tails, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Blood and Black Lace and Tenebrae. Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava are the best-known directors of this genre.
Mockbusters, sometimes called "remakesploitation films", are copycat movies that try to cash in on the advertising of heavily promoted films from major studios. Production company the Asylum, which prefers to call them "tie-ins", is a prominent producer of these films. Such films have often come from Italy, which has been quick to latch on to trends like Westerns, James Bond movies, and zombie films. They have long been a staple of directors such as Jim Wynorski (The Bare Wench Project, and the Cliffhanger imitation Sub Zero), who make movies for the direct-to-video market. Such films are beginning to attract attention from major Hollywood studios, who served the Asylum with a cease and desist order to try to prevent them from releasing The Day the Earth Stopped to video stores in advance of the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still to theaters.
The term mockbuster was used as early as the 1950s (when The Monster of Piedras Blancas was a clear derivative of Creature From The Black Lagoon). The term did not become popular until the 1970s, with Starcrash and the Turkish Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam and Süpermen dönüyor. The latter two used scenes from Star Wars and unauthorized excerpts from John Williams' score.
Mondo films, often called shockumentaries, are quasi-documentary films about sensationalized topics like exotic customs from around the world or gruesome death footage. The goal of mondo films, as of shock exploitation, is to shock the audience by dealing with taboo subject matter. The first mondo film is Mondo Cane (A Dog's World). Others include Shocking Asia, Africa Blood and Guts, and Faces of Death.
These "nature-run-amok" films focus on an animal or group of animals, far larger and more aggressive than usual for their species, terrorizing humans while another group of humans tries to fight back. This genre began in the 1950s, when concern over nuclear weapons testing made movies about giant monsters popular. These were typically either giant prehistoric creatures awakened by atomic explosions or ordinary animals mutated by radiation. Among them were Godzilla, Them!, and Tarantula. The trend was revived in the 1970s as awareness of pollution increased and corporate greed and military irresponsibility were blamed for destruction of the environment. Night of the Lepus, Frogs, and Godzilla vs. Hedorah are examples. After Steven Spielberg's 1975 film Jaws, a number of very similar films (sometimes regarded as outright rip-offs) were produced in the hope of cashing in on its success. Examples are Alligator, Cujo, Day of the Animals, Great White, Grizzly, Humanoids from the Deep, Monster Shark, Orca, The Pack, Piranha, Prophecy, Razorback, Blood Feast, Tentacles, and Tintorera. Roger Corman was a major producer of these films in both decades. The genre has experienced a revival in recent years, as films like Mulberry Street and Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter reflected concerns about global warming and overpopulation.
The Sci-Fi Channel (now known as SyFy) has produced several films about giant and/or hybrid mutations whose titles are sensationalized portmanteaus of the two species, examples include Sharktopus and Dinoshark.
Nazi exploitation films, also called "nazisploitation" films, or "il sadiconazista", focus on Nazis torturing prisoners in death camps and brothels during World War II. The tortures are often sexual, and the prisoners, who are often female, are nude. The progenitor of this subgenre was Love Camp 7 (1969). The archetype of the genre, which established its popularity and its typical themes, was Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), about the buxom, nymphomaniacal dominatrix Ilsa torturing prisoners in a Stalag. Others include Fräulein Devil (Captive Women 4, or Elsa: Fraulein SS, or Fraulein Kitty), La Bestia in Calore (SS Hell Camp, or SS Experiment Part 2, or The Beast in Heat, or Horrifying Experiments of the S.S. Last Days), L'ultima orgia del III Reich (Gestapo's Last Orgy, or Last Orgy of The Third Reich, or Caligula Reincarnated as Hitler), Salon Kitty and SS Experiment Camp. Many nazisploitation films were influenced by art films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's famous Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom) and Liliana Cavani's Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter) .
Nudist films originated in the 1930s as films that skirted the Hays Code restrictions on nudity by purportedly depicting the naturist lifestyle. They existed through the late 1950s, when the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Excelsior Pictures vs. New York Board of Regents that onscreen nudity is not obscene. This opened the door to more open depictions of nudity, starting with Russ Meyer's 1959 The Immoral Mr. Teas, which has been credited as the first film to place its exploitation elements unapologetically at the forefront instead of pretending to carry a moral or educational message. This development paved the way for the more explicit exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s and made the nudist genre obsolete—ironically, since the nudist film Garden of Eden was the subject of the court case. After this, the nudist genre split into subgenres such as the "nudie-cutie", which featured nudity but no touching, and the "roughie", which included nudity and violent, antisocial behavior.
Nudist films were marked by self-contradictory qualities. They presented themselves as educational films, but exploited their subject matter by focusing mainly on the nudist camps' most beautiful female residents, while denying the existence of such exploitation. They depicted a lifestyle unbound by the restrictions of clothing, yet this depiction was restricted by the requirement that genitals should not be shown. Still, there was a subversive element to them, as the nudist camps inherently rejected modern society and its values regarding the human body. These films frequently involve a criticism of the class system, equating body shame with the upper class, and nudism with social equality. One scene in The Unashamed makes a point about the artificiality of clothing and its related values through a mocking portrayal of a group of nude artists who paint fully clothed subjects.
The term "Ozploitation" refers broadly to Australian horror, erotic or crime films of the 1970s and 1980s. Reforms to Australia's film classification systems in 1971 led to the production of a number of such low-budget, privately funded films, assisted by tax exemptions and targeting export markets. Often an internationally recognised actor (but of waning notability) would be hired to play a lead role. Laconic characters and desert scenes feature in many Ozploitation films, but the term has been used for a variety of Australian films of the era that relied on shocking or titilating their audiences. A documentary about the genre was Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!. Such films address themes concerning Australian society, particularly in respect of masculinity (especially the ocker male), male attitudes towards women, attitudes towards and treatment of Indigenous Australians, violence, alcohol, and environmental exploitation and destruction. They typically have rural or outback settings, presenting the Australian landscape and environment as an almost spiritually malign force that alienates white Australians and frustrates both their personal ambitions and activities and their attempts to subdue it.
Notable examples include Mad Max, Alvin Purple, Patrick, Turkey Shoot, Road Games, Wolf Creek, The Man from Hong Kong, Scobie Malone, Wake in Fright, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Long Weekend, Dark Age, Dying Breed and Animal Kingdom.
This genre contains films in which a person is raped, left for dead, recovers and then exacts a graphic, gory revenge against the rapists. The most famous example is I Spit on Your Grave (also called Day of the Woman). It is not unusual for the main character in these films to be a successful, independent city woman, who is attacked by a man from the country. The genre has drawn praise from feminists such as Carol J. Clover, whose 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film examines the implications of its reversals of cinema's traditional gender roles. This type of film can be seen as an offshoot of the vigilante film, with the victim's transformation into avenger as the key scene. Author Jacinda Read and others believe that rape–revenge should be categorized as a narrative structure rather than a true subgenre, because its plot can be found in films of many different genres, such as thrillers (Ms. 45), dramas (Lipstick), westerns (Hannie Caulder), and art films (Memento). One instance of the genre, the original version of The Last House on the Left, was an uncredited remake of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, recast as a horror film featuring extreme violence. Deliverance, in which the rape is perpetrated on a man, has been credited as the originator of the genre. Clover, who restricts her definition of the genre to movies in which a woman is raped and gains her own revenge, praises rape–revenge exploitation films for the way in which their protagonists fight their abuse directly, rather than preserve the status quo by depending on an unresponsive legal system as in rape–revenge movies from major studios, such as The Accused (1988).
The Redsploitation genre concerns Native American characters almost always played by white actors, usually exacting their revenge on their white tormentors. Examples are Billy Jack, The Ransom, The Thunder Warrior Trilogy, The Manitou, Prophecy, Savaged and Scalps.
Sexploitation films resemble softcore pornography. Films in this genre are an excuse for showing scenes involving nude or semi-nude women. Many movies contain vivid sex scenes, but sexploitations are more graphic than mainstream films. Extending the sequences or showing full frontal nudity are typical genre techniques. Russ Meyer's films, such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Supervixens, are well-known examples. Other well-known sexploitation films include the Emmanuelle series, Showgirls, and Caligula. Caligula is unusual among exploitation films for its high budget and eminent actors (Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren).
Slasher films focus on a psychopath stalking and violently killing a sequence of victims. Victims are often teenagers or young adults. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is often credited with creating the basic premise of the genre, but John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) is usually considered to have started the genre. That film's masked villain, group of weak teenagers with one strong, female hero, isolated or stranded in precarious locations or situations, and either the protagonists or antagonists experiencing warped family lives or values became slasher film tropes.
The genre continued into and peaked in the 1980s with well-known films like Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Many 1980s slasher films used the basic format of Halloween, for example My Bloody Valentine (1981), Prom Night (1980), The Funhouse (1981), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Sleepaway Camp (1983), many of which also used elements from the 1974 film, Black Christmas.
The genre experienced a mainstream revival in the 1990s with the success of Scream, which both mocked and paid homage to traditional slasher conventions. Slasher films often prove popular and spawn sequels, prequels and remakes that continue to the present day. Adam Green's Hatchet and Ryan Nicholson's Gutterballs bill themselves as throwbacks to the slasher films of the 1980s.
Spaghetti westerns are Italian-made westerns that emerged in the mid-1960s. They were more violent and amoral than typical Hollywood westerns. These films also often eschewed the conventions of Hollywood studio Westerns, which were primarily for consumption by conservative, mainstream American audiences.
Examples of the genre include Death Rides a Horse, Django, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Navajo Joe, The Grand Duel, The Great Silence, For a Few Dollars More, The Big Gundown, Day of Anger, Face to Face, Duck, You Sucker!, A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West. Quentin Tarantino directed a tribute to the genre, Django Unchained.
A splatter film, or gore film, is a horror film that focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and violence. It began as a distinct genre in the 1960s with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman, whose most famous films include Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), The Gruesome Twosome (1967) and The Wizard of Gore (1970).
The first splatter film to popularize the subgenre was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), the director's attempt to replicate the atmosphere and gore of EC's horror comics on film. Initially derided by the American press as "appalling", it quickly became a national sensation, playing not just in drive-ins but at midnight showings in indoor theaters across the country. Foreign critics were kinder to the film; British film magazine Sight & Sound included it on its "Ten Best Films of 1968" list. George A. Romero coined the term "splatter cinema" to describe his film Dawn of the Dead.
Later splatter films, such as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and Braindead (released as Dead Alive in North America) featured such excessive and unrealistic gore that they crossed the line from horror to comedy.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, Swiss film producer Erwin C. Dietrich produced many exploitation films in Switzerland, but the term Swissploitation was never really used to describe exploitation films from Switzerland.
The Swiss exploitation film Heidiland (2018) claims to be "the first Swissploitation film", arguing that it is the first Swiss exploitation film to exploit "Swissness" for the movie's core topic and style.
Women in prison films emerged in the early 1970s and remain a popular subgenre. They usually contain nudity, lesbianism, sexual assault, humiliation, sadism, and rebellion among captive women. Examples are Ted V. Mikel's "10 Violent Women", Roger Corman's Women in Cages and The Big Doll House, Bamboo House of Dolls, Jesus Franco's Barbed Wire Dolls, Bruno Mattei's Women's Prison Massacre, Pete Walker's House of Whipcord, Tom DeSimone's Reform School Girls, and Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat.