Not to speak ill of the (recently) dead, but I've never been too enamored by the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, appreciating the ideas and their historical significance in the realm of gore films more than I actually enjoy watching them. To be fair I'm hardly a connoisseur, having only seen a handful (2000 Maniacs, Blood Feast, and Wizard of Gore), but with those being among his best known/loved titles and me not exactly loving any of them, I am guessing my opinion won't change much if I were to dig deeper. I bring this up because on paper, and even at times in its execution, I Drink Your Blood is in line with his efforts, sharing a certain visual aesthetic and a penchant for a wonkily paced narrative peppered by some outrageous gore effects. Yet, for whatever reason, this one worked on me, meaning I will not have to toss the I Drink Your Blood T-Shirt I won at trivia a while back and vowed at the time to see the movie it would be advertising whenever I wore it in public.
Thanks to Grindhouse Releasing, I've finally gotten around to doing that, as they've re-released the contents of their 2006 DVD on Blu-ray with some new extras and (obviously) an upgraded transfer. For people who already own the DVD and/or know they want the film, feel free to skip down to where I get into the disc's contents. But for those who are as uninitiated as I was until a few days ago, let me get something right out of the way - no one drinks blood in the movie. The plot concerns a satanic cult (who could be mistaken for random hippies) who decide to hang out in a town that's been largely abandoned, save for a few straggler residents and a construction crew. They are given free reign of an abandoned hotel, and are being a general nuisance, prompting a stern talking-to from Banner, the elderly town doctor. The leader of the cult, Horace Bones (Bhaskar) is unsurprisingly not keen to listen to him, and beats the crap out of him - which upsets the man's young grandson, who gets his revenge by poisoning their food with blood from a dog with rabies. A couple of cultists go nuts, the infection starts to spread, and after a while (a bit too long, admittedly) we are treated to gory murders and most of the actors running around with foam dribbling from their mouth.
It's just a shame it takes so long to get to all that fun stuff. It's the halfway point by the time the first cultist snaps, and another 20 minutes before the infected outnumber the innocent. The film was inspired somewhat by Night of the Living Dead (the producer wanted to top it in terms of gore/violence, in fact), so it's a bit odd that writer/director David Durston would take so much time with his outbreak action, given how relatively fast-paced NOTLD was. Not that the film lacks entertainment value until that point - Bhaskar is a delight as the whacked out cult leader, and I was endlessly charmed by young actor Riley Mills as Pete, the kid who sets the whole plot in motion with his revenge antics (made more amusing when - spoiler - he doesn't seem to care much at all when they actually kill the grandfather later on). His apologies and explanations for his actions sound more like a kid that stole a cookie from the jar or maybe broke his mother's favorite vase rather than someone who just caused the death of two dozen people, making him one of my favorite non-villain child characters in a horror movie ever.
As for the gore, it's got that great old-school red paint/melted crayon quality that I love dearly about these old films, and it just looks that much better on Blu-ray to my eyes. Sure, it doesn't look like any blood I've ever seen, but these eyes have grown mighty tired of that smoky, overly dark CGI blood that we see all the time now, so it was completely refreshing to see actual sets and performers being drenched with the stuff. One of the film's more notorious acts of violence (a hand being chopped off with an electric knife) is actually off-screen, but we see a gallon of blood spray a nearby window when it happens, followed by the elderly actress clutching the bloody stump and dropping dead - works for me! I also liked that one infected construction worker opted to keep carrying around the (none-too-convincing) head of a man he killed earlier, as if it might come in handy later.
Animal lovers probably shouldn't watch the film, however - they claim none of the animals they used were actually harmed except for the chicken (Durston says people kill chicken to eat every day, and they apparently DID eat it after, for what it's worth), but that doesn't make it easier to watch in spots. The cults kill a bunch of rats, Horace tries to kill a snake, a rabid dog is shot... it's not exactly Cannibal Holocaust or whatever, but if you count each rat the non-human body count is a lot higher by the film's end. And there are two sexual assaults; not particularly gratuitous or anything, but like the animal stuff, enough to take away from the exploitative fun that the rest of it offers. It's worth noting that the film was given an X-rating for its violence alone (one of the first to be slapped with the rating for that sole reason), leaving the occasional bits of nudity feeling surprisingly subdued in comparison. Naturally, even the violence wouldn't raise an eyebrow nowadays (you've seen worse on Walking Dead, I assure you), but given their "Let's outdo those other guys!" attitude - and Durston's later work directing adult films - I found the (consensual!) sex scenes shockingly chaste.
Grindhouse's DVD was already pretty packed, so the fact that the Blu-ray adds more elevates this from mere special edition to "You might want to set aside a full day to watch everything" status. Let's start with the old stuff; the commentary with Durston and Bashkar is enjoyable, as the two are good friends and happy about the film's quality as well as the newly restored version they are watching. Durston lays out the film's troubled release history; One of the more interesting things about the X-rating is that the ruling came in so late that the film was already shipped out to 300+ theaters, and there was no time or money to send them back and send out an R-rated version. So the theaters were instructed to cut the film as they saw fit, resulting in who knows how many different versions of the film floating around at the time of its release in 1971. Durston tells a few other anecdotes like this, but both men spend an inordinate amount of time telling you how each actor was found (mostly New York theater folks) and other jobs they've done rather than discuss the particular scene they are watching. Their commentary is present on both versions of the film that are on the disc, one the X-rated theatrical cut, the other the uncensored director's cut, which runs about five minutes longer. If you don't want to watch the movie twice to spot the differences, you're in luck, as the scenes are presented on their own, with the accompanying commentary.
Then Durston offers a cute take on a talk show, set (presumably?) at his own house where he sits down with three of the film's actors (Lynn Lowry, Jack Damon, and Tyde Kierney) as well as the exec who came up with the film's title. Durston wanted the film to be called "Hydrophobia" (the technical term for rabies), but their producer, Jerry Gross, wanted the film paired with I Eat Your Skin, an unreleased voodoo zombie he had picked up, so the title was changed to make their "connection" seem that much stronger (and, naturally, there is no skin eating in I Eat Your Skin, which was also shot under a different name). He also tells the story about how Lowry came late to the audition process, so late that he had already cast every role, but was so smitten by her that he gave her the role as a mute so he could get her into the movie without having to change the script much (he also gave her the aforementioned hand-carving scene), whereas Kierney confirms that all the rats that appeared to be killed on-screen were already dead - and two that were used for action shots went on to be the stars of Ben and Willard!
If you've listened to Durston's commentary and watch this, you're already going to start hearing some stories repeated, and you can expect to hear them again if you dive into the other Durston-centric extras, including a lengthy Q&A from a 2003 New Beverly screening (hosted by the late Eric Caidin) and another, shorter Q&A from a horror convention screening in 2004. Lowry's casting, the title, the different cuts, the Charles Manson influence on the plot... I've heard these stories 4-5x a piece at this point, so I was eager to move on from anything he was in (no offense to Durston, of course, he just seems to have zeroed in on a half dozen or so key stories from the film's production and forgotten the rest). Thankfully, there is also a new commentary track featuring Kierney and Damon, and not only do they have better memories about the production as a whole (rather than the careers of their coworkers), but they're also not afraid to dish dirt! You get stories about asshole producers, drunken actors, fights with Durston, etc. Nothing malicious or anything, just two guys casually offering the information that some folks might opt to keep under wraps out of fear of getting into trouble (since Durston, Gross, and Bashkar have all since passed away, there's no need to worry about offending them). Both are soft spoken and I admit I often couldn't tell who was who, but for my money it's the superior track, and if time is an issue and you don't care much about the other actors' backgrounds, I'd say skip Durston's commentary in favor of any of his other appearances on the disc (there is also an hour long interview with him where he covers his entire career), listening only to this one.
Interestingly, there are two other movies offered on the disc. One is I Eat Your Skin, which I found rather ironic since Durston hated the film and his film's association with it, making its presence on what will likely be the definitive release of his most popular film almost a bit of a slap in the face (plus, the movie is unwatchable, no surprise since it comes from the uber-terrible Del Tenney). Durston's ghost will probably be far more pleased that it also offers Blue Sextet, his earlier "psychedelic shocker" featuring Damon, who also offers commentary (a bonus feature with its own bonus features! I told you this disc was packed). I can't imagine it'd be anything that would interest me based on its description, so I didn't bother to watch the whole thing, but I can tell you it looks like a pretty good transfer. Then there's the usual gaggle of promotional material - trailers, stills, radio spots - plus, hilariously, two 8mm versions of the film from Germany! Both of them cut the film down significantly (they run 16m and 24m - the movie is anywhere from 83-87 minutes long) and unsurprisingly focus on the gore scenes at the expense of any semblance of coherency, but they are definitely enjoyable to watch in their sped up form (the German dubbing is also entertaining to my ears, for what it's worth). I tell you, I've watched a lot of bonus features in my time, and I am 99.999% sure this is the first time I saw a German 8mm recut of the film I was buying, so kudos to Grindhouse for giving me something unique here. All this stuff is on Disc 2, by the way - the only extra on the first disc besides the commentaries and deleted scenes is a pretty charming look at the film's recent showing at a drive-in theater that still shows movies on 35mm - and yes, it was paired with I Eat Your Skin.
Seeing the footage from the New Beverly screening made me a bit sad; not just because I miss Eric Caidin, but also because I suspect I'd enjoy the movie even more if I saw it there (or somewhere like it), as opposed to by myself at home. The slower spots might be magnified when projected to a room full of anxious (perhaps slightly inebriated) moviegoers, but those big moments would kill, and it'd be easier to forget that it's not always dishing up the sort of stuff that gave it its notorious X-rating. But I still had a bit of fun with it, and as these sort of productions don't exist anymore (or opt for sadistic torture violence when they do) it was great to see what I had missed while appreciating the good old days of drive-in fare. Grindhouse has put together an extensive (exhaustive?) Blu-ray set that any fan will be happy with, and plenty of bang for your buck if you opt to blind buy. And if you're a student of the history of the zombie film, it's a must-see - they're not zombies per se, but it's one of the first post-NOTLD horror films to feature a virus spreading throughout the cast and turning them into zombie-like killers, paving the way for films like Shivers (which also featured Lowry) and 28 Days Later just as much as Romero did.