Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

THEY PUT THE SIN BACK IN SINEMA: An Interview with Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford of SLEAZOID EXPRESS
by Dan Taylor

Sleazoid ExpressBy the time I had the bright idea to start the drive-in newsletter EXPLOITATION RETROSPECT in 1986, New York City's infamous area known as The Deuce was experiencing death throes that would result in dramatic changes to the Times Square landscape. Tragic as that development was, more tragic was the passing of SLEAZOID EXPRESS, Bill Landis's landmark 'zine/newsletter that documented the area's cinematic scene and characters. Begun as a one-page movie review handout in the summer of 1980, SE had grown into nothing less than an indispensible guide to the sleaziest, creepiest inner-workings of the city that never sleeps.

Fast forward to 1999... with classic horror, Eurosleaze and art house obscurities from the past three decades receiving more attention than ever thanks to companies like Something Weird Video and the emergence of the DVD format, sleaze fans were thrilled when Landis revived SLEAZOID EXPRESS with partner (and METASEX editor) Michelle Clifford. Four hefty issues of the publication followed (a fifth is currently posted on their Web site at www.sleazoidexpress.com), and Simon & Schuster contacted the couple about a long overdue SE book.

The following interview with Landis and Clifford was conducted via e-mail prior to the publication of the SLEAZOID EXPRESS: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square (Fireside, available through amazon.com)

When and why did the original SLEAZOID EXPRESS come into existence?

BILL: I had a Wall St. day job and between catching every movie possible on the Deuce I hung around a performance art space called Club 57 - 57 St. Marks Place in the basement of a Polish Church. It also had a bar sans liquor license; typical of many clubs in the late 70s/early 80s in NYC. I did little performance art skits there, including once playing Jim Jones giving out Kool Aid to an audience tripping on acid.

SLEAZOID started in the summer of 1980 as a one-sheet biweekly on a manual typewriter. It was the only periodical that covered what played on Times Square at that moment. It reviewed what was playing that week, then I'd dash it right to an offset printer, and it would be given out as a freebie at bookstores, record stores, and Club 57 - where me and my friends really enjoyed this type of film. People like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, John Sex, Basquait, Scott Covert, Beth & Scott B (I'm in their movie VORTEX). These people encouraged me and my passion for Times Square.

Then, SLEAZOID expanded into a four-page monthly (11" x 17" paper folded over). That gave more of the opportunity to delve into the histories of different filmmakers, distributors and genres. You'd have reviews and perhaps one long in-depth story.

Through the years the zine progressed from horror and Badfilm into the weird world of porn... what's your cinematic jones these days?

BILL AND MICHELLE: Horror movies weren't always classics like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. The major studios started the FRIDAY THE 13TH formula and made a slew of slasher movies. Major studios picked up indies for distribution, exploitation companies followed it as a trend - and by and large they were LOUSY. And that's what SLEAZOID reported on - what to avoid on The Deuce and what was worthwhile. Or you'd get a horror slanted campaign for a boring Italian gangster movie. Incidentally, as expanded on in the Sleazoid book, FRIDAY THE 13TH took its whole template from Mario Bava's TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE.

We never considered a good exploitation movie "Badfilm." Maybe unintentionally funny, but that was part of the charm of movies like THE CORPSE GRINDERS. There were some controversial looks at the more offbeat porn films in the latter issues of the first wave of SLEAZOID. This current wave of SLEAZOID doesn't go into porn. The current SLEAZOID covers films that once played Times Square as well as art film and the odd curiosity of unknown film from the 1960's or 70's that deserves merit, like the films that played the deuce for a couple day run.

BILL: It does cover Eurosleaze, which can be considered softcore. For example, there was Issue #3, the "Summer of Sadism" issue, which had a group discussion of Pasolini's SALO by a variety of diverse individuals, including Euro-porn director Lasse Braun, myself, Michelle, video companies that sold it or rented it in stores... a look at Jacopetti's (director of MONDO CANE and UNCLE TOM) unreleased in the U.S.A. MONDO CANDIDO with full pics of the torture chamber scenes... and a special section on adaptations of De Sade. Including the Keir Dullea velour one DE SADE that AIP released, the superb Alice Arno star turn as Justine in JUDTINE DE SADE (best cinematic version of the book), and Jess Franco's disappointing JUSTINE (DEADLY SANCTUARY) with Romina Power playing Justine. So the new format has not only permitted more Euro films that didn't get a chance to play The Deuce, it also honors time-tested ones that were frequently replays, including the bluntly S&M oriented SLAVES IN CAGES and Jess Franco's BARBED WIRE DOLLS.

Incidentally, Jess Franco discovery, frequent star and Eurosleaze queen Alice Arno is kinda the SLEAZOID Marilyn Monroe – she's the topless gal holding the gun when you go to the website at www.sleazoidexpress.com. Alice is also well remembered in Franco's LA COMPTESSE PERVERSE where she and husband Howard Vernon make a practice of hunting women they lure to their island – including Jesse's wife, Lina Romay. I have appropriated Alice's photogenic image SO many times in the magazine and on the site.

MICHELLE: My mag METASEX is ALL porn. METASEX features such curious movies that played the most severe grindhouses like the Venus, the Eros, the Rialto.... movies like THE BIG MAN (a truly psychedelic opus), FANTASTIC SEX, Johnny Wadd movies... And it has descriptions of the inner workings of them. I got to know performers from just being a kid and calling them up and meeting them. Getting to know them. Although, in the case of John Holmes I met him while he was on the lam in Florida where I lived and we were in traffic and I made the mistake of flipping him the bird (not knowing it was him in the car, I must have been 16). He stopped his car on a dime and got out with a face of murder. I piped up "Sorry Mr Wadd! " It just came out surly like that! Incredibly he laughed and walked away. Others, like Lasse Braun I met later. Jamie Gillis I met when I was 20. I still know him 16 years later.

In METASEX #2 there is a very long description of how the notorious Avon Productions came about: cast of characters included director/auteur Phil Prince, Chelly Wilson, Chelly's bewigged old queen henchman Phil Todero (a former crooked DJ who skimmed off her on the side).

Personally, our film tastes run all over from Deuce to documentary, porno chic era porn, musicals, old Hollywood offerings, even early vintage cartoons (with baby sleazoid), so we see it all.

You stopped publishing SE in 1985 at a time when there was an explosion of exploitation movie zines... what prompted you to stop publishing at that time?

BILL: The Duece closed and the "explosion of zines" were copies of SLEAZOID. My heart was broken when The Deuce closed and the copycats repulsed me. To them it was a trend to follow, to me it was my life and my friends and I were affected by its closing. I had long ties to people in Times Square, and we all didn't know what to do next, we could hardly believe it was shutting. When the theaters were open it was a place you not only worked, you socialized, figured extra ways to get by with co-worker/co-conspirators - and then all of a sudden it was just crumbling. Not just theaters, but a certain lifestyle, was ending.

Mainstream publishing/magazines had no interest in SLEAZOID because of the Deuce being sanitized. SLEAZOID was a reminder of the decadent past not wanted during the peak AIDS wipe out. Mags wanted stories of the clean up not the history being destroyed. I was relegated to a man writing about the past. I wasn't timely. You couldn't see these films I was writing about. Video was so new then - even as high as in the $80-$100 per tape range, financially inaccessible to many.

New York City in the 80s was a hotbed of movie zine publishing with the likes of SE, PSYCHOTRONIC and GORE GAZETTE. What made SE unique from those publications?

BILL: The others weren't a part of The Deuce. I worked there. I was a projectionist and manager of several theaters. My friends were all from there. I knew all about the infrastructure of the theaters. And who ran them, and catching the elusive one-day run.

What prompted you to return to the world of sleaze cinema self-publishing?

BILL: Michelle forced me to by starting her own mag METASEX, and Something Weird Video had put these films on tape making them accessible to a new generation to go see. I wouldn't be a man talking about the past. She started METASEX and got me to write for it, and then she started up SLEAZOID again.

What did you do in the period between ending the old SE and coming back with the new edition?

BILL: Kicked an IV drug addiction, got married, had a child, wrote a biography of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger (ANGER: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY on Harper Collins, available directly from the author), wrote some character actor portraits for FILM COMMENT, contributed several pieces to the VILLAGE VOICE about the old Times Square, had an article about the Needle Exchange program that was in the VOICE and was reproduced in an ACLU book and a Health-Pak book called "Beyond Crisis." Because I didn't put out SLEAZOID didn't mean I stopped writing. I did start writing with Michelle exclusively. In all honesty, Michelle wrote half the Ken Anger book without taking credit.

Many of the films covered in the old SE had a certain legendary status because they were so rarely screened. It seems like ANY film from this era can get released on DVD with a "cult classic" tag... do you think that detracts from the true classics of the era?

BILL: Yes. But it does differentiate from the new stuff which is just a retread of that old stuff.

Metasex: A Journal of Sexual CuriosityMichelle, there aren't many women covering the worlds of sleaze cinema, let alone the world of roughies and underground adult cinema. What was the appeal for you?

MICHELLE: Well, my mother , who I didn't grow up with was heavily involved with Vice and crime. She was pretty intense. She was a Madame, she's killed a person in front of me. I've visited her in prison once. (Hence I can write about WIP films easily.) She brought me to my first film, and made sure I saw TAXI DRIVER. She'd bring me to grindhouses in Boston when I was a kid, as well as explain the inner workings of the vice world. I met all her criminal friends who treated me like a princess. But they would talk in front of me telling me EVERYTHING! They were very violent individuals. I'll write about them one day. They shaped me into wanting to be a writer. My mother gave me my first 8mm camera and my first Polaroid. She was eventually shot in the head by a policeman. Her crimes could be very RESERVOIR DOGS-esque. A lot of Mick (Irish) Boston rough stuff (that feeds into the Roughie writing). And, as for the X stuff, it's like the curtain of OZ; the truth behind X filmmaking is very different from what you see on screen.

You once credited PINK FLAMINGOS with being the flick that sent you down the wrong path in life. Now there's a big budget Broadway musical based on a John Waters flick... how does that make you feel?

BILL: I don't remember crediting that specifically, I did like him back when he was playing in 1972 at the Elgin Theater. I actually enjoyed MULTIPLE MANIACS even more. But he's different now. Defines the words "sell out." But, that is understandable. Personally, I do not care for him. Or artistically. I don't think he's made an interesting movie in 30 years.

Some writing in SLEAZOID is involved with how movies become oral legends... you'd hear about PINK FLAMINGOS from one person, or MARK OF THE DEVIL from another, and they'd always sound more severe in the retelling.

In an old issue of FILM COMMENT Jimmy McDonough and you listed thefollowing as your "Ten Worst Best Bets": BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA-VIXENS, BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS/THE GHASTLY ONES, DO ME EVIL, MONDO MAGIC, OLGA'S GIRLS, PINK FLAMINGOS, PINK MOTEL, SEX WISH, TEEN LUST and THE KING OF COMEDY. What would be on that list these days?

BILL: McDonough wrote scant few things for SLEAZOID. That was half his list. He would be the definition the Rupert Pupkin character in KING OF COMEDY – a movie and a character he was fixated on. He dedicated a book to me recently I was told. We haven't spoken in a decade. He tries to take credit for SLEAZOID when he was in less than a handful of pieces at the very end. Anyway, Michelle and I would list a dozen:

  1. CURSE OF HER FLESH/TOUCH OF HER FLESH – anything by Mike Findlay and John Amero
  2. OLGA'S GIRLS/WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN – all the OLGA'S films
  3. FAREWELL UNCLE TOM
  4. DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE
  5. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT/LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET
  6. PETS
  7. BIG DOLL HOUSE
  8. ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS
  9. MONDO CANE
  10. FLESHPOT ON 42ND STREET
  11. Jess Franco's LA COMPTESSE PERVERSE
  12. Claude Pierson's JUSTINE with Alice Arno

Hollywood seems fascinated with remaking horror flicks that don't need remaking. If there was one exploitation classic you'd like to see get a big-budget, big-screen treatment what would it be and why?

BILL AND MICHELL: We don't believe in Hollywood remakes.

Buy the Sleazoid Express BookHow did the book deal come about?

BILL AND MICHELLE: Simon and Schuster came to us.

What can fans look for in the book?

BILL: A total recreation of Times Square and the way the Deuce used to be. We go inside the Deuce grindhouses – The Lyric, Liberty, Empire, Anco, etc and reproduce the audience action. Go into the films that were so popular.

Will you continue publishing the mag? If so, what can we look forward to in the next installment?

BILL: SLEAZOID will go on, of course! As will METASEX. The next issue of SLEAZOID is already posted on our Web site (www.sleazoidexpress.com). Michelle is working on the new METASEX to be ready for November.

This article originally appeared in Carbon 14 #22, available now through their web site at www.c14.com


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