Every true horror fan knows the film: Blood Feast. And most know its director: Herschell Gordon Lewis. But few of them are familiar with producer David F. Friedman, Lewis’ partner on Blood Feast and its two follow-ups, Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red. Although Lewis helmed these seminal movies, Friedman’s input was equally responsible, if not more so, for their success. Given the colorful life he has led and his varied experiences in the motion picture industry, Friedman’s storied journey through the wilds of show business would be right at home up on the silver screen.
David F. Friedman was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 24, 1923. His parents divorced when he was eight years old, and he lived with his father, who was an editor of the Birmingham News but also a partner in carnival in North Alabama. Friedman’s mother was a professional musician and his uncle operated movie houses, where he spent much of his boyhood soaking up films. But a large part of Friedman’s youth was spent traveling the carnival circuit throughout the South. He was on the inside, a member of the show, and it was here that he was first bitten by the showbiz bug, giving him a taste for spectacle that would serve him well in the future.
After finishing high school, Friedman went to Cornell University and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Before being drafted, Friedman worked as a projectionist and film booker for Paramount Pictures. After entering the service in World War II, he was assigned communication duties and served with a filmmaking unit of the US Army Signal Corps. It was during this period that Friedman learned rudimentary filmmaking. After leaving the service, he found himself working as a croupier in infamous Phenix City, Alabama, well known in the 1940s and ‘50s as a haven for organized crime and corruption. In 1946, he sold some army surplus searchlights to exploitation film and roadshow pioneer Kroger Babb, which in hindsight was a most fortuitous meeting.
Friedman went to work with Babb, traveling the country showing exploitation films and learning the basics of film distribution and exhibition. He was amazed at the money that could be made this way. This period also tied in to his love of the carnival circuit—making a score, pulling a fast one on the mark and leaving with a pocket full of cash. This was basically how roadshows worked, and Friedman was hooked.
After his partnership with Babb ended, Friedman met the man with whom he would be most associated: Herschell Gordon Lewis. Lewis, a former English professor and advertising executive, was an odd partner for Friedman, the former carny. But together, they formed Mid-Continent Films in Chicago and were soon to make film history.
The first films they made were “nudie-cuties,” an extremely popular exploitation genre usually filmed in nudist camps. Movies such as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Goldilocks and the Three Bares were highly profitable for Lewis and Friedman but, as with any trend, the public eventually began to look elsewhere for a new thrill. And so did Friedman and Lewis. Trying to hit upon something that had never before been done, they stumbled upon a novel concept: gore.
Produced for $24,500 in 1963, their first gore film, Blood Feast, went on to gross an estimated $7 million and played somewhere almost nonstop over the next 15 years. Blood Feast was the goriest horror movie filmed at that point in time and the first to show brains and intestines being spilled and limbs being chopped off. It was also the first film in which people died with their eyes open. Its popularity was no doubt boosted by the lurid advertising campaign designed by Friedman. The movie poster, featuring a man holding a cleaver over the bloody body of a young woman, screamed: “Nothing So Appalling in the Annals of Horror! You’ll Recoil and Shudder as You Witness the Slaughter and Mutilation of Nubile Young Girls—in a Weird and Horrendous Ancient Rite! More Grisly Than Ever in Blood Color!” Always the showman, in an attempt to get publicity Friedman even went so far as to request an injunction against Blood Feast to prevent it from being shown. To his surprise, the judge granted the injunction, so he then had to fight to allow his movie to be shown. Of course, the film was roundly panned by the critics, but that did nothing to hurt it. It was an especially huge hit at drive-ins throughout the country.
Lewis and Friedman went back to the well and made two more gore films, Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red, before ending their partnership over business differences in 1964. Friedman headed west to Los Angeles and began a partnership with veteran exploitation producer Dan Sonney. Friedman’s first film after breaking with Lewis, The Defilers, which he both wrote and produced, was known in the trade as a “roughie,” an exploitation film dealing with sex, violence and violent sex. Using the name Herman Traeger, Friedman also produced the notorious Nazi exploitation film Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS in 1974.
The team of Sonney and Friedman eventually produced dozens of soft-core sexploitation films. It wasn’t long before they decided to expand their horizons and become theater owners. They bought a theater in downtown Los Angeles and named it the Pussycat. This became the flagship of the infamous Pussycat Theater chain. The Adults Only market had grown considerably in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and Friedman and Sonney were on the ground floor. Friedman went on to become the first president of the Adult Film Association of America and was a crusader for First Amendment rights.
Ironically, it was hardcore pornography that led to Friedman’s disenchantment with the movie industry. His motto had always been “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” By showing everything in graphic detail, he felt porn violated all the principles of good showmanship. Friedman produced a few hardcore films, but his heart wasn’t in it and he left the business in the mid-1980s.
In a nice touch of symmetry, Friedman and Lewis were reunited in 2002 to make a sequel to Blood Feast that was financed by Jacky Lee Morgan, a long-time fan. The resulting film, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, was bloodier than the original and featured a cameo by John Waters, one of Lewis and Friedman’s filmmaking heirs.
Friedman now lives in Alabama and makes the rounds at horror conventions, telling tales and signing autographs. Always the carny, he still owns and operates carnivals that tour the South. As Friedman says, “There’s no such thing as retirement.” Especially when you’re a living legend.