Return of the Grindhouse

Like an incredibly strange zombie that’s been hibernating for decades, only to return — more shocking! more astounding! more outrageous than ever! — to overwhelm an unsuspecting populace, grindhouse days are back.

Not that they ever really left — especially not for the Las Vegans who made the movies directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez salute in "Grindhouse."

Their epic (three hours-plus!) double feature opens in theaters today, pairing Rodriguez’s zombie romp "Planet Terror" and Tarantino’s killer-on-wheels "Death Proof," along with previews of such make-believe campfests as "Werewolf Women of the SS." (Bet you didn’t know that the star of 1975’s "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS," Dyanne Thorne, has a Ph.D., is an ordained minister and runs a Las Vegas wedding business with her husband.)

With "Grindhouse," Tarantino and Rodriguez "made two movies for $70 million" (pre-release rumors had the budget approaching $100 million) "and we used to make them for $10,000 apiece," says Ray Dennis Steckler, a Las Vegan since 1969, whose credits include such cult favorites as "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" and "The Thrill Killers" (both from 1964) and 1966’s "Rat Pfink a Boo Boo." (The movie originally was titled "Rat Pfink AND Boo Boo," but the title designer made a mistake — and Steckler lacked the money to fix it.)

These days, "Grindhouse" — complete with scratchy film stock, a hissing soundtrack, mysteriously missing footage and other hallmarks of beat-up prints — qualifies as a mainstream release, playing on thousands of screens in upscale urban multiplexes and suburban malls across North America.

That’s a far cry from the original grindhouse era, which takes its name from the rundown big-city movie palaces that provided a home in the 1960s and ’70s for horror quickies, blaxploitation, racy European sex comedies, women-in-chains shockers, spaghetti Westerns, Hong Kong chop-socky imports and legions of other no-budget, no-star attractions.

Those theaters, and the thousands of drive-ins that dotted the land, needed "a steady diet of regular movies that did not depend on huge budgets and huge stars," explains Ted V. Mikels, a Las Vegan since the ’80s, whose 50-year filmmaking career includes such grindhouse-era favorites as 1972’s "The Corpse Grinders," 1973’s "The Doll Squad" (a "Charlie’s Angels" precursor) and 1968’s "The Astro-Zombies." (Mikels fired future "Columbo" Peter Falk from the latter because "he was too funny.")

Before multiplexes, before home video, drive-ins and so-called grindhouses featured movies that emphasized "a lot of sex and violence and action and humor," notes Greydon Clark, a six-month Las Vegas resident whose credits include such drive-in staples as "Satan’s Cheerleaders" (1977) and "Joysticks" (1983).

Overall, such movies "cater to a common audience whose main interest is blood, guts, gore and sex — and nonstop action," says Eric Caidin, a Hollywood book and poster dealer who presents monthly grindhouse festivals in Los Angeles with fellow aficionado Brian Quinn. (The two staged a pair of grindhouse festivals in Las Vegas last year, one spotlighting Mikels and Steckler, and plan additional programs here.)

To make those movies, filmmakers had to "grind out every dollar you get every way you can," Steckler says, "including the popcorn."

Las Vegan Connie Mason, a local for about three years, starred in such gorefests as 1964’s "Two Thousand Maniacs!" and 1963’s "Blood Feast" — the latter the first horror movie to feature "living-blood color," she recalls. (Mason even has a plaque from 2005’s Chiller Theatre convention proclaiming her the "first heroine of gore.")

But the appeal of going to the drive-in (or the "hardtop," as walk-in theaters were called in those thrilling days of yesteryear) extended far beyond what showed up on the screen.

The total experience, complete with promotional gimmicks designed to heighten the excitement, characterized the era, Mikels and Steckler recall.

Mikels, who distributed his own movies, recalls a triple feature — billed as the "Final Dimension in Shock" — that included "Corpse Grinders," plus "The Undertaker and His Pals" and "The Embalmer."

Together, the three movies "outgrossed every single movie playing at the time," the director recalls.

To drum up interest, Mikels held a contest to determine which theater could build the best corpse-grinding machine in the lobby. An ambulance was parked outside the theater — and, inside, a registered nurse took blood pressure readings from audiences before the fright night began.

In addition, nobody was allowed in without signing a certificate attesting that they were "of sound mind and body" — before they saw the movie, of course. As the certificate read: "In the event of a coronary, insanity or death suffered during and/or following the showing of said motion pictures, I hereby hold this theatre harmless." Afterward, survivors received tiny jars "of ground-up flesh," Mikels jokes. (It was only dog food, he confesses before bursting into gleefully maniacal laughter.)

Steckler, who both directed and starred (under his nom de screen, Cash Flagg) in, among others, "Thrill Killers" and "Incredibly Strange Creatures," often got into the promotional act.

He recalls one theater appearance in which he recruited ushers to serve as masked zombie stand-ins — and stationed the snack bar attendants (all of the female persuasion) in the front row so they’d be in position when Steckler would jump off the stage and grab them, instantly triggering panic in the theater.

At Las Vegas’ long-gone Desert Drive-in, Steckler was watching "Thrill Killers" when a theater employee, wearing the same sort of mask Steckler sported in the movie, wandered past his car, looked in the window and said, "Oh, my God — it’s you!" before fleeing in terror. Steckler also recalls employees, decked out in zombie masks, running around the Stardust Drive-in, which operated next to the now-imploded Strip landmark.

"It was hilarious," Steckler recalls. (OK, maybe not the times he got shot with pellet guns.) But "I always felt I wasn’t making movies, I was creating an adventure for myself."

That outlandish sense of adventure also made the movies more enjoyable for audiences, says Quinn, who remembers returning home at 5 a.m. — to his mother’s ire — after schlock-around-the-clock sessions at New York City’s old 42nd Street grindhouses.

"You weren’t necessarily going to see this one film — it was an experience," he explains. "It was about the trailers, the theaters you were in, whatever intoxicants you smuggled in."

And "even if the movies didn’t live up to the hype," he adds, the "old-style hucksterism" was part of the fun, "almost like you’ve been had, in a way."

For Steckler, "I always felt if you were yourself, and your movies didn’t look like everybody else’s product, there would be a moment where people would say, ‘Hey, that’s really great.’ "

All these years later, people send him e-mails from all over the world expressing exactly those sentiments.

To Mason, it’s exceedingly flattering to be remembered for work when you’ve forgotten about it, she says. "Over the years, I’ve always been amazed at how many people find those films fascinating."

Like mutant dinosaurs, space invaders or other incredibly strange creatures who once menaced humanity, only to be vanquished by more powerful forces, the grindhouse era ultimately faded, a casualty of changing times.

As drive-ins and stand-alone theaters gave way to suburban multiplexes, mall theaters "didn’t want to have a poster up for ‘Black Shampoo’ or ‘Satan’s Cheerleaders, ‘ " Clark explains.

Which didn’t stop grindhouse veterans from making movies — many of which are playing to new generations of fans on DVD.

"If I waited for help, if I waited for financing, I’d never make anything," says Mikels, who begins shooting his latest opus, "Demon Haunt," next week.

Steckler, who runs a local video store and will open a second on May 1 that he describes as "B-movie heaven," still is trying to put together a sequel to "Incredibly Strange Creatures" (and has had discussions with people who want to turn it into a Broadway musical). His current focus is an eight-part documentary project devoted to his hometown of Reading, Pa.

"If you don’t have any money, it won’t stop you if you really want to make movies," Steckler insists. Despite the lack of big Hollywood budgets, he says, "I guess I’ll just have to settle for being known around the world."

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