Back in the day, aka the early 80’s, my dad packed all five of us into our dying Honda Civic and trucked the family into Boston to buy our first VCR. This was a momentous occasion for the family White. We took the spoils of our trip into the urban jungle home and on the way, stopped into Salem and set up an account at a video store called Video Paradise, whose big sales pitch was “Our videos cost $1 to rent”. Back then the home video market was still a novelty. They were fucking everywhere, you must understand, and much like the cottage industry of niche collector DVD boutiques that cropped up at the dawn of that medium, home video became this boomtown for anyone who had the money and license to transfer movie x to VHS and/or Beta. This resulted in a hilarious new industry of deception where the exploitation movie industry felt right at home. Video box art became the stuff of legend and lured a lot of people into renting some obnoxious crap based entirely on cool pictures. Here’s a list of a bunch that never failed to grab my attention when I was a kid, roaming the vaunted shelves of Video Paradise in Salem, Massachusetts circa 1984.
dir. Umberto Lenzi, 1983
Two sections of the video store obviously held my attention more than the others. I was devoted to the action movies and the horror movies. My parents wouldn’t let me see any of them, though, and this burned me like you wouldn’t believe. Sure, I’d eventually catch up with all the movies I ever wanted to see when I was 9 years old on cable, late shows, video trades, what have you, but few boxes capture my imagination quite like the box for Umberto Lenzi’s Ironmaster. Would you look at that fucking thing? What a poster! What a sword! Of course, none of that Frank Frazetta shit factors into the movie. Ironmaster, in actuality, is a really crappy Quest For Fire ripoff. If you go into it expecting virginal fantasy movie women kneeling at the feet of badass macho warriors, you would be sorely disappointed. If you went in having never seen the poster and expected to find a nonsensical movie about starving cavemen, has Umberto Lenzi got a movie for you! I always assumed that this was some kind of Conan The Barbarian type of movie but when I finally caught up with the tape at a liquidation sale for a local video store that was going out of business, my disappointment was so substantial that persons nearby could taste it.
Exterminators of the Year 3000
dir. Giuliano Camimeo, 1983
It was the mid-80’s and it seemed like a forgone conclusion that missiles from The Soviet Union were going to come in the middle of the night and reduce our fine nation to sand and fallout. The only sensible thing for low budget filmmakers to do was take several hundred thousand dollars and shoot a bunch of assholes in rags hauling ass around the desert in dune buggies while pointing crossbows at each other. Sure, early experiments in post-apocalypse filmmaking were pretty cool but it took no time for Italy to milk The Road Warrior dry. Exterminators of the Year 3000 is among the worst of the leatherpocalypse movies out there and that’s saying something. The poster, a totally awesome vision of the scorched Earth of the future always made me take notice, mostly because the kid with the gleaming hand was really cool. Like most of these posters, the art was totally sweet in order to cover up the fact that the movie, your typical scavengers scavenging for the last water/gas/fertile women in the world was a movie so cheap and insulting that they sold it under a half a dozen titles in different regions of the world to cover their tracks in case anyone came for their head. At least Warriors of the Wasteland had that ridiculous hair and the most ridiculous buttrape revenge scene ever put on film.
The Slumber Party Massacre
dir. Amy Jones, 1982
I still have not seen The Slumber Party Massacre and there isn’t a part of me that regrets that. Even when I was 10 years old, though, this registered in my prepubescent mind as sexy. A prime example for feminists, parent advocacy groups and Gene Siskel, this poster pretty much said, in one photo, what all of those people were trying to warn everyone about when it came to horror movies. Here were four women in obvious peril. A menacing man with the most phallic representation of a drill you’ve ever seen stands over terrified women whose only role in the movie was to find themselves in positions where their boobs threatened to fall out of their skivvies. This box art embodied everything that was so naughty while simultaneously appealing to me about horror. I was not then and am not now, even after thousands of hours among the most heinous horror movies ever made, some kind of mysoginist but that photo made me want to watch this movie. Badly. These days I’m told that it’s as shitty as it looks.
Escape From The Bronx
dir. Enzo Castellari, 1983
They had a big-ass poster up for this one that really drew me in. The art, depicting the movie’s star, Mark Gregory, once again as Trash in this sequel to 1990: The Bronx Warriors, a movie I like a lot more than I should, is pretty compelling stuff. The movie is actually a shameful piece of garbage but the art, coupled with that lure line, The Year Is 2000… was the kind of thing that really grabs a kid’s attention. Some ridiculous part of me hoped that in the far future of 2000, the world would really have gone to shit and gangs would be warring in the street over turf and resources. It’s stupid as hell, but based on this sort of poster art, could you blame me? The submachine gun, front and center, always suggested to me that it played some sort of role in the proceedings but it doesn’t. I still don’t know what the hell it’s doing on the poster apart from taking up negative space in the design. I caught a whiff of this one shortly after seeing Escape From New York for the first time so just about any combination of post apocalypse themes, escaping and New York were an allure that I could not resist. LEAVE THE BRONX!
dir. Paul Donovan, 1985
Everyone with an interest in post-nuke movies, and those of us who remember the halcyon days of the video store, are familiar with this box. Def-Con 4’s packaging embodies the spirit of this age when drawing people’s attention meant selling a video rental. Like most movies that took this road, the poster has little bearing on the actual movie. At this stage in its production, producers probably had a script outline and not much else. Sales and funding balanced precariously on the success or failure of the poster, which rarely ever featured actors in the movie or anything concrete from the actual film. With the exception of Blastfighter, I can’t think of a more misleading piece of movie art. The plot concerns a bunch of astronauts aboard a nuclear armed satellite, but the lion’s share of the movie takes place on Earth. So that’s about where the similarities end. For those with a tolerance for high cheese, Def-Con 4 is actually a pretty decent entry and one of the few Post-Nukes to emerge from Canada. I’ve actually seen this art in other place but I’m not sure where it came from. I’m fairly certain that it’s not an original piece of work commissioned for the film like a lot of these posters tend to be as it shows up every now and then in collections of science fiction themed art. I suspect that it was probably a pin-up from an issue of Heavy Metal.
Faces of Death
dir. Conan Le Clair, 1978
I’m actually having a really hard time finding the original box art for the Faces of Death sequels, which were even more threatening than the first but the big, bold, proudly displayed BANNED! banner was the sort of thing that you didn’t often see. This was the kiss of death for a lot of movies but it was a brilliant piece of marketing by Gorgon Video whose logo was also about the most intimidating thing on the shelves. Faces of Death (Review) was a mythical beast of the horror section. The packaging is actually quite plain but it speaks volumes. The movie is a fucking dog and everything about it is fake but because of this menacing red and black box, it had a sinister reputation. Think back to how many sleepovers you attended where this was one of the movies you watched. I still remember that sudden shock when my friend Mike and I actually managed to rent this at our local shop and that intense disappointment as I watched it and realized that the sales pitch was in the packaging and the product was a rancid horror movie with not a hint of ghoulish documentary to it. The sequels and Worst Of tapes did nothing to make me feel any better.
I Spit On Your Grave
dir. Meir Zarchi, 1978
I think the most troubling thing about the Wizard Video release (and subsequent releases) of I Spit On Your Grave, a movie I’ve never seen released under its original title, Day of the Woman, is the prominence of ass on the cover. There are few movies as vile as I Spit On Your Grave which, for its spectacle of extended, extremely graphic and unbearably sadistic rape scenes, has built a strange cult of weirdos and revenge movie fanatics. One of my favorite blogs is even named after it. If there’s one thing they really shouldn’t do is lure you in with the sexy because if there’s one thing this movie isn’t, it’s that. So there you go, more misleading shit that made me feel pretty bad upon viewing. I was 14 when I caught up with this one and was ready for some T&A. Unfortunately, I was treated to a half hour of T&A that I would rather not have seen since the T&A was attached to a brutalized, screaming, struggling woman. True to the poster copy, though, I’d have a pretty hard time convicting her of her crimes if I were on the jury but I don’t remember anyone being burned.
dir. Lamberto Bava, 1985
Demons was one of the first movies that I ever saw advertised in a newspaper with the actual X rating attached to it. I was still pretty young at the time and X rated, to me, meant that it was porn. I don’t know. Porn with demons, I guess, and a hard rockin’ soundtrack provided by Motley Crue, Iron Maiden and Go West (?). Unlike the other boxes on this list, Demons actually featured a still from the actual movie rather than some weird artist’s representation based on script treatments. I really loved that makeup and seeing this image at eleven years old just freaked my shit out like all good horror movie art tended to do. It fascinated me, though, and it wasn’t long before I took it home and popped it in the VCR with no real expectations. The movie is called Demons, the box has a demon on it. What more did I need? Well, a coherent narrative would have helped, for starters. Demons is a fucking shit show and I have to tell you, I expected more from someone bearing the name Bava. It just doesn’t make any sense but tries to convince you that it does. Demons lay siege to a movie theater. Everyone is eventually killed. A dude rides a motorcycle through the theater set to Flash of the Blade and then a helicopter crashes through the ceiling. The end. Wish there was more to it than that, but them’s the breaks, kid.