THE STEAK BEHIND THE SIZZLE: A Tribute to David F. Friedman

Remembrances by Dr. Mality, Jens Hellroute and Solomon G.

In the world of exploitation cinema, there are very few giants with the influence and pedigree of the late David F. Friedman.  He stands in relation to sleazy softcore and crude gory violence the same way that Pasteur towers over modern immunology or Sigmund Freud dominates psychoanalysis. Conneisseurs of grindhouse film speak in hushed tones of his famed associations with the likes of H.G. Lewis and Bob Cresse. He was truly the grandmaster of the exploitation film and with his passing at the ripe old age of 88, an era has come to an end.

Unlike my lucky associates Jens and Sol G., I never met Mr. Friedman personally, but I've read so many legendary tales of his showbiz savvy and friendliness to fans that I feel like I lost a personal friend when he died. Following my brief look at his amazing career in the exploitation movie biz, we'll turn the floor over to Jens and Sol so they can tell about their face-to-face run-ins with Dave.

Born on Christmas Eve 1923 in the deep, DEEP South of Birmingham, Alabama, it didn't take Dave Friedman long to fall in love with the motion picture business. He was especially fond of the cheap and nasty "roadshow" films and Poverty Row pictures that existed far outside the mainstream film world. In fact, he was so much in love with films like Dwain Esper's "Maniac" that he passed up a career as a publicist with mega-studio Paramount and instead hooked up with the perhaps the first real exploitation studio, Modern Film. He fell under the tutelage of the legendary huckster H. Kroger Babb, who caused a national scandal with his infamous roadshow "Mom And Dad", said to contain footage of a "live birth" .

Dave cut his teeth working with the bombastic Babb throughout the 50's, but felt that he could make more money with more daring films showing nudity and gore. In the early 60's, he met one Herschell Gordon Lewis in what was truly a divinely inspired moment. These two men would turn the entire film industry upside down. At first, they collaborated on a series of "nudie cutie" films such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bares", "Nature's Playmates" and the unforgettable "BOIN-N-NG!"

The diabolic duo really hit their stride when Lewis got the idea to put extreme violence and oceans of phony blood into his films. The resulting collaborations..."Blood Feast", "Two Thousand Maniacs" and "Color Me Blood Red"...ignited the "gore" genre which would explode later in the 70's and 80's. Friedman's frenzied trailers and newspaper ads were the perfect "gasoline" to pour all over Lewis' fire. Those three cheap movies would make literally tens of millions of dollars on the drive-in circuit, particularly in the South...and today, they STILL make money on DVD!

A money dispute led to an unfortunate split between the two pioneers following "Color Me Blood Red", but Friedman didn't slow down. In fact, he entered his most productive period in the 60's working first with Sonny Amusements in California and then his own FPS Ventures. These drive-in powerhouses produced a ton of "roughie" movies combining violence with softcore sex. None was more provocative than "The Defilers", which featured tremendous Friedman-penned publicity taglines such as "A Shattering Study of the Sick Set for Shock-proof Adults!" These were Dave's golden years, as he worked with a who's who of grindhouse goons such as Bob Cresse, Byron Mabe, Barry Mahon and more! Some of the "classics" during this period included "The Erotic Adventures of Zorro", "Trader Hornee", and "A Smell of Honey, A Taste of Brine".

A particular favorite movie of Friedman's was 1967's "She-Freak". A sleazy re-working of the 1932 classic "Freaks", this film reached deep into Dave's carnival roots...a fact he played homage to by actually playing the carny barker who tells the shocking tale of the female monstrosity. Dave would often take small parts in his films, making him a kind of "Hitchcock" for the drive-in set.

The early 70's saw Dave continue a furious pace of releasing exploitation flicks like "Space Thing" and "The Big Snatch".  A real big hit for him was the ultra-violent action film "Johnny Firecloud", which was like Billy Jack on acid. In 1974, Dave finally got involved with a film that even he considered too tasteless...Don Edmonds' "Ilsa, The She-Wolf". The film was a huge smash that makes money to this day, but Friedman had his name changed to "Herman Traeger" in the credits.

With the rise of studio blockbusters, the decline of drive-ins and the proliferation of truly hardcore pornography in the late 70's, Mr. Friedman's contributions to the film industry slowed way down and finally ground to a halt in the 80's. He always took pride in the fact that his sexploitation films never showed penetration or actual sex acts. He did become involved on the fringes of the porn business in the 1980's and was the very first president of the Adult Film Association of America, but it was pretty obvious the fun had gone out of the biz for him. He retired in 1985 and expected to spend his golden years in relative obscurity.

A funny thing happened to David F. Friedman in the early 1990's, though, and it went by the name of Something Weird Video. Run by exploitation film fanatic and huge Friedman fan Mike Vraney, this niche company specialized in the "trash" that all other studios neglected. When Vraney acquired the rights to many of Friedman's old films, he brilliantly marketed them to a whole new generation of film fans bored with the monochrome corporate Hollywood crap infecting endless multiplexes. Suddenly Friedman classics like "The Defilers" and "The Big Snatch" were popular again. Vraney and Friedman became close friends and Mike was said to think of the amiable Dave almost as a second father. A source of endless anecdotes about the glory days of grindhouse fact, a living museum of film history..., Dave's commentary tracks on many Something Weird Video DVD's boosted his popularity.

In the 2000's, David F. Friedman enjoyed a renaissance where he was much in demand at various film conventions. As Jens and Sol will now attest, he was never one to pass up a chance to tell a good story. In February 2001, Dave smoked his last cigar and drank his last martini, passing away peacefully in the presence of friends and family.

While mainstream society continues to shuffle blandly through a world of watered down crap passing itself off as entertainment, TRUE film fans know what a treasure David F. Friedman was. It is a real disappointment of my life that I never met him personally but I am glad that I was able to really sample and enjoy his work. His true legacy puts him in the company of P.T. Barnum...never giving the suckers an even break!!!

And now, here are my compadres...

by Jens Hellroute

I met the mighty monarch of exploitation cinema during the Something Weird festival at the Danish Film Institute in March 1999. Been working in the book and video store for like a year and I was stoked about meeting the legend
(producer and writer) behind trash epics like “The Erotic Adventures Of Zorro”, “Blood Feast” and “2000 Maniacs”. Something Weird head honcho Mike Vraney had brought the cream of the crop of his cultfilm catalogue with him to Copenhagen for the three day festival. Including introductions from him, David F. Friedman and competitions (I won a ‘corpse’ and “The Black Klansman” t-shirt), nurses and whatnot to evoke the mood from the hey days of exploitation movies before each showing of the 16/35 mm prints.

 In between the sleaze nuggets I had the good fortune of speaking to Mr. Friedman several times who more than lived up to my expectations. A short fat old dude with a big smile and even bigger cigars which he was puffing on relentlessly during the weekend. Yeah, that was back before the strict anti-smoking laws. He told me many zany tales of low budget filmmaking, especially in Florida. To save money on catering and the feeding the crew and cast, he often had guys like Col. Sanders doing cameos in the films so the production could get food for free during shoot. He got many young starlets to perform in the buff with a promise of career in Hollywood. Friedman stated many times that he was more of an ass man, unlike his bosom loving friend Russ Meyer. Still he talked a lot about how big tits sells. There was no better place for his features than in the South in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, the prejudices and bigotry of the Bible Belt and the moral outrage the films caused were pure gold at the box office, or at the drive-ins. He told me that the combo of less educated Americans’ ignorance as well as their fascination with forbidden sinful movies were his bread and butter for decades.

 He also said that many of the films back then promised more in the outrageous ads than they actually could deliver. “You gotta sell the sizzle, Jens, not the meat” was his credo. A sorta weird moment arose when I asked him if most of the locations were shot without a permit. He looked at me like I was an undercover cop, denied that had ever happened and showed me his SAG card to prove everything was done legit, haha. Friedman came off as a friendly very eccentric uncle you wish you had, and a used car salesman. A meeting I will cherish for the rest of my life. Rest in peace, David, and thanks for the all classicks.

My Dinner With David Friedman

by Solomon G

I have been fortunate enough to have spent a lot of time with David Friedman - though only a few hours over the course of two days in person. You see, years ago, I found myself helping to curate a 35mm projection cult/horror/exploitation film marathon at the (now shuttered) historic Vine Theatre in Hollywood, CA, with two other fanboy type friends of mine: Eric Eichelburger (aka Eric Anxiety) and Adam Tamberg (aka Adam Trash).

Eric had contracted Mr. Friedman to speak during the post-viewing segment of She Freak - Dave's personal favorite of his own films. Originally, my pals suggested meeting with Dave (and his lovely niece-in-law, who's name unfortunately escapes me) at some cookie-cutter franchise theme restaurant. Nay, nay, said I - only the last remaining of the old-school industry haunts would do for this occasion: Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd! My hunch was correct, in that it turned out, indeed, the place was a regular stop for Dave when he worked out of an office near the Paramount lot, off of Gower. Amazingly, the elderly-yet-still-spry head waiter actually remembered Dave and said, "Welcome back, Mr. Friedman"!

Our table was not quite ready, so we sat at the swanky oak bar and nursed a few cocktails at like a bunch of real old-time Hollywood swells. Communication at this point, while quite pleasant and amiable (we found Dave to be refreshingly open and congenial), was a little difficult because the dinner-hour canned jazz was a little on the loud side at the bar, and Dave's hearing was not really the greatest at his age. However, when we moved to the table for dinner, the conversation definitely perked up as we spoke with the great man about shooting details of his work (with and without frequent collaborator and pal, Herschell Gordon Lewis).

Dave seemingly never tired recounting tales of the legendary Forty Thieves, his life in the carny circuit and his film work of the 1960s - and we sure never tired of listening! For me, it was kind of like a crazy, absurd dream: having dinner with Dave Friedman at Musso & Frank Grill, talking about the good old days of Hollywood hucksterism and exploitation filmmaking. I was actually imagining the tales he spun on scratchy black and white film in my mind. I wish we could have been smoking huge Cuban cigars!

Later that night, the video-projection-arm of the program was held at a hip West Hollywood club (Don Bolles of the Germs was spinning disks that night), and Dave insisted on going with us to check out a screening or two. However, again, the music was insanely loud, thus rendering it impossible for us to communicate very well with Dave - though he did hang out for quite a while despite that.

The following day, after the main screening of his film, Dave got up onstage and explained to the audience why he considered She-Freak to be the personal favorite film of his oeuvre: it represented to him some very real and fond memories of his early carny days (with which he actually remained involved until the end). Anecdotally, having been a small child in the 1960s (when She Freak was filmed), I can attest that the carny milieu  is a strikingly accurate for the day - with it's red-and-white-striped tents, clean covered picnic areas and rickety midway rides, et al. One could almost smell the corn-dogs and spun sugar, and really notice Dave's fondness for this film and era as he spoke, (even I felt a twinge of nostalgia as Dave recounted tales of a time I only just vaguely recognized).

About four years after the film marathon - on the other side of the country, in New York City - I found myself on the post-production team for a documentary film that is to feature selections from a very lengthy series of videotaped interviews with Dave, filmed on location at his family home in Anniston, GA (also produced and directed by my pal Eric Anxiety, though as yet unreleased). As assistant editor on this project, it was partially my function to sift through the many hours of interview (taken over the course of one long day), wherein Dave tirelessly recalled the complex and detailed story of his involvement in film: from his early days as carny, to years in the radio-corps during WW II, on to his time as an ad-man and film booker with Paramount, working with Kroger Babb and Del Sonney on the road-show circuit, his early works with Mr. Lewis and their subsequent parting of ways, sort-of twisted tales of Lee Frost and Bob Cresse, the 'roughie' sub-genre he basically created first with H.G. Lewis, and later with his own production, The Defilers - and much more! All in great, meticulous detail!

At the very end of many, many hours of interview, Dave remarked, "How long is this…movie gonna be - eleven hours?!?" But then, only in a half-joking way, because he was really very enthusiastic to share his experience(s) in the wild and wonderful world of exploitation filmmaking - and from producing and directing to camera operation to set decorating and acting, David Friedman did it all!

It was wonderful to sit all that time and listen to Dave Friedman talk about his life and the old days in his very home, showing his framed posters and memorabilia in his museum-like show room. It's a cliché to say , but they just don't make 'em like Dave Friedman anymore, and the world has become a less entertaining place without him.