Madness at Max Volume - Abel Ferrara’s THE DRILLER KILLER

The infamous NYC sleaze merchant's 1979 exploitation debut doubles as a grimy punk scene document.


The opening title card of The Driller Killer isn’t so much a suggestion as it is a threat. Crust merchant Abel Ferrara’s first non-pornographic picture (following 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) wants to bludgeon the audience until everyone watching devolves into the same diseased headspace as its titular vagrant-murdering maniac. The Driller Killer finds Ferrara prowling back alleys and inserting shots of bums puking, all while awful punk sleazoids, Tony Coca Cola and the Roosters (headed by associate producer/artist D.A. Metrov, who crafted the film’s oddball paintings), shred a distorted Peter Gunn theme at the infamous Max’s Kansas City. Though it becomes a bit of a chore to sit through by the final reel, Ferrara presents us with a grimy, authentic portrait of New York Dolls-era NYC punk, peppered with unpleasant gore that left the film banned in the UK for two decades.

“What do you mean the music’s too loud? You play all your records loud!” demands one of the two bedmates who live in a dilapidated flat with sinewy, starving artist Reno (Ferrara – acting under stage name Jimmy Laine). Reno can’t really offer an explanation outside of how he just can’t stand the noise anymore. The truth is: Reno’s been slowly descending into pure madness, plagued by gruesome visions of showering in bright red blood. It seems this Big Apple gutter rat’s psyche has been crumbling for a while, but ever since The Roosters rented the space below his apartment, the painter’s been pushed completely over the edge, sketching black-eyed buffalo that have been clawed by some unknown monster outside of the canvas’ frame. When he’s not wandering into churches and freaking out in front of nuns (a regular Ferrara motif), Reno’s stabbing the heads of skinned rabbit carcasses. The city’s incessant noise is consuming the man, his new downstairs neighbors acting as a soundtrack to the sickening violence he spies happening in the streets every day.

Ferrara’s vision of New York’s filth causes Reno’s lunacy to feel that much more lived-in, even as frequent collaborator Joe Delia’s Italian-sounding synth score (some of those high-pitched stabs predate similar sonic explosions in Cannibal Holocaust) reminds us that this is, in fact, a work of utter splatterpunk invention. The insertion of what feels like permit-free documentary footage of street people interacting and harassing each other only heightens the jangly, distasteful realism of the production. Perhaps most fascinating is Ferrara’s self-casting in the lead role; obviously an act of necessity that nevertheless links him with the rest of these vile, dirt-stained urban demons. Much how he’d play a rapist in his exploitation masterwork follow-up, Ms. 45, Ferrara understands that the only thing that separates him from the scum he’s fictionalizing is a camera. He is just as damned as the rest of these smelly souls.

The band footage captured inside of Max’s Kansas City is the most thrilling aspect of the picture, as Ken Kelsch’s camera whips around; coked up and untethered to any one subject. Dancers on the floor are just as important as The Roosters’ chugging, No Wave anthems, as The Driller Killer doubles as a scene document when Reno isn’t running around slaughtering homeless people with his newly purchased power tool. By ’78 – ’79, Max’s was already in its second iteration of existence, having been a regular art crowd hangout spot for the likes of Andy Warhol and his entourage in the late '60s/early '70s. Glam gods like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper played there, while Bob Marley and the Wailers once opened for Bruce Spingsteen. By ’74, Max’s had fallen off in popularity and closed in December of that year, only to become an Ed Koch campaign office.

In ’75, the club was re-opened by Tommy Dean Mills, who hired CBGB booker Peter Crowley to bring in new talent. Under Crowley’s reign, Max’s became a punk haven, where The Ramones, Suicide, and The Damned all made appearances. Bowie introduced Devo as “the band of the future” at Max’s in ’77, and Ferrara’s film captures the venue in its final gasp, just before Bad Brains would close out the joint in ’81. For The Driller Killer, Ferrara envisions the legendary sound cave as a cacophonous burrow of skullduggery; home to miscreants and misfits looking to blow each other’s eardrums out. In order to get extras to appear in the film, Ferrara and his crew even lied about providing an open bar, shooting quickly and ducking out before anyone realized there wouldn’t be any free alcohol. He was fast, cheap, and out of control – just like the wild crowd he was committing to celluloid.

The final thirty minutes of The Driller Killer descend into a nightmarish massacre, as Reno re-discovers a potency he somehow lost in the whirring instrument of death. Bellies are divided, skulls are split, and there is no redemption for anyone involved. Ferrara has always possessed a nihilistic point of view, but his first exploitation picture is completely devoid of hope. The Driller Killer is not a fun “slasher movie” (which it’s sometimes mistaken for), but rather a street level view of madness not too far removed from John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Only unlike that younger filmic Chicago cousin, Ferrara has no time for sinister silence. This is madness at max volume, ready to watch you bleed out in the gutter beside one Reno’s toothless victims.