A few weeks back, I saw a piece on Steve Habrat’s Anti-Film School that made me think about the heyday of the 42nd street movie scene in New York. As a huge fan of Steve’s writing, I asked if he’d be interested in writing an article about it for me. He graciously accepted. Here is that article, an impressive and personal look by Steve at one of the more fascinating times and places in movie history. Enjoy!
Looking at 42nd Street today, it would be hard to imagine that hustling and bustling tourist playground was once home to some of the roughest and toughest movie palaces that you would ever step foot in. That is, if you WOULD step foot into some of those now gone but certainly not forgotten movie palaces. The Deuce, as it was once called, was the neon home of all things sleaze. From the 1960s all the way into the mid 1980s, 42nd Street was jam-packed with rickety movie theaters like the Lyric, the Victory, the Anco, the Liberty, the New Amsterdam, and the Rialto I and II, theaters that were once home for steamy burlesque, strip-tease, and peep shows. With the dancers long gone and their bump n’ grind routines retired, these massive and decaying meccas turned to graphic exploitation, down and dirty entertainment for those looking for thrills that they couldn’t get from Paramount Studios or Warner Bros. No, these were dangerous films, ones that lured in junkies, pimps, prostitutes, closet perverts, adventurous couples seeking an exotic night out, and more with their anything-goes promises of X-rated sex, unblinking violence, kooky plots, and, hell, maybe even a little hip-shaking rock n’ roll. Anything can happen when the lights go down in a grindhouse. Oh, and don’t mind that faint smell of urine, I’m sure someone just relieved themselves in a soda cup and spilled it.
I wasn’t walking the dangerous streets of New York City when crime gripped the city. I learned of 42nd Street and the history of exploitation cinema far away from my French New Wave loving film professors at Wright State, who I’m sure liked to pretend that films like Thriller: A Cruel Picture and I Spit on Your Grave were never made. However, one of my professors did show two blaxploitation films in my African American Cinema course, but I have to wonder how enthused he was about it. I discovered the cheap thrills through the years as I prowled the local Blockbuster searching for horror films that would push the envelop and scar my young mind. I learned of them in horror magazines that I got at the local grocery store, the ones that highlighted the most savage kills and contained “most shocking” lists. I learned of this movement through documentaries on the Grindhouse DVD, where Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez discuss trips to the drive-in and aging movie palaces where they saw Vanishing Point, Alien, and Zombie, and surfing the web for the best exploitation films of all time. Even today, exploitation love still flies under the radar, alive at nostalgia gatherings like Cinema Wasteland, the horror and sleaze convention that takes place fifteen minutes away from my house every six months. We even get a new splat-pack director emerging on the scene every now and then to unleash a bloody vision of Hell, clearly drawing inspiration from drive-in fare and goopy garbage that I’m sure made a killing on 42nd Street.
I wasn’t there to step around the passed-out bums or ignore the coos from the ladies of the night as I searched high and low for a double or triple bill that would thrill and chill me from 10 pm until 3 am, letting out at the exact time the drunks were most certainly regurgitating their alcoholic dinner in the back row and that shifty junkie was leaving a bloody needle on the bathroom floor and waiting for the prime opportunity to snatch your chain. I wasn’t there to marvel at Clint Eastwood, an unknown in the 1960s as he prowled the west turning gangs against each other in Sergio Leone’s vicious spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, a rock n’ roll cowboy picture that would laugh John Wayne out of the building. I wasn’t there to see scratched up prints of a little horror film out of Pittsburgh called Night of the Living Dead, a film so shocking with its sequences of cannibalism, that kids playing hooky from school watched it hidden behind the stained seats in front of them. I wasn’t there to hear the whispers about a film called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a rusty slasher that film critic Rex Reed called “the most horrifying picture” he had ever seen. I wasn’t there to catch the faint smell of vomit as I sat down for a showing of Ruggero Deodato’s still controversial Cannibal Holocaust, a film so shockingly real that Deodato was arrested after the film premiered in Milan for obscenity and was forced to produce every actor and actress in his film to the court.
I was born in May 1987, most likely when the last grindhouse was closing its doors under the watchful eye of the NYPD and no household was without a VHS player. Many blame VHS for killing off the grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street but AIDS and crack also played a role in shutting down the nonstop party. By the early 90s, you no longer had to risk your safety or your health to indulge in some X-rated fun. While you may have been safer in your house, apartment, or whatever you call home, with your clunky copy of I Drink Your Blood and a lukewarm Budweiser in your hand, nothing would compare to those sticky floors and rowdy audience members getting into scuffles. I suppose the few positives were that you didn’t have to fear you were going to get mugged if you needed to pee and you could watch the films in peace, far away from the cheers and jeers of a pot and alcohol fueled crowd.
Even though I was never able to visit one of 42nd Street’s now closed up grindhouses, I still dream about what that scene was like. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to experience all the different walks of seedy life sitting down as one to consume a whole slew of B-movie calories. We are now able to replicate a night at the grindhouse in our own living rooms, something that is both nostalgic fun but also a bit empty without the theater ads luring you to the lobby for refreshments. You can stick your nose into the holy grail of exploitation history Sleazeoid Express, chuckle at strings of vintage trailers in the 42nd Street Forever collection (everything from creature features to beach flicks are in the mix), and relive the classic grindhouse films in high definition, although I still don’t think I particularly want to see Lucio Fulci’s beloved Zombie in 1080p. I suppose I was close to the experience when I saw Grindhouse at the local Regal Cinemas, mostly because audience members were erupting in disgust and filing out in groups of three or four (I don’t remember the floors being sticky though). I suppose melting penises, machine gun legs, and girls having their faces ripped off by a tire are not everyone’s cup of spiked tea.
So why the fascination with this trashy era? I suppose cinema fans are drawn to this movement in cinema because of the aura of menace and danger surrounding grindhouses and exploitation cinema in general. You feel like you’re living on the edge when you watch these films. These works are almost like hideous car wrecks that you just can’t turn away from even though you really want to. There is something about content that is considered taboo that draws us in, but if it isn’t the taboo subject matter, it most certainly has to be the utterly weird content you stumble across. Maybe it is because there is so much spirit in these films, a genuine love for what the filmmaker was producing. Either way, the films and the spirit of 42nd Street live on, even if the theaters that once played films like Deep Throat and Italian Stallion have now been converted into mega McDonalds, Disney theaters, and maybe even a Gap. Long live The Deuce!