The term grindhouse conjures up all sorts of images of glorious sleaze, harrowing vice, and lurid films beautifully reeking of sex and violence that permeated New York City’s pre-gentrified 42nd Street. But grindhouse cinema wasn’t just a dirty gem nestled within the Big Apple’s then most-notorious strip. It was something that was shared, like the most fun-filled and eye-catching spore, across the globe, landing in an assortment of theaters held in Suburbia, USA. (For you cool cats and kittens who not only were aware of this but also got to partake, try not to gloat too hard to us poor souls over here.) Few have captured this very cherished and nearly long-gone phenomenon and even fewer have done so with a keen eye, sharp mind, and a heart chock full of grindhouse love like Nick Cato. His newest book, Suburban Grindhouse: From Staten Island to Times Square and all the Sleaze Between is a glorious tome that dives into Cato’s adventures in his teens and early 20s while seeking out the key films that often glistened with sweat, blood, skin, and atmosphere…on a good night.
Recently, Nick was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions about writing this book and his journey into becoming one of the esteemed voices in the field of cult and outre cinema. So grab a fistful of popcorn and dig!
Loving cult cinema is innate with so many of us outre film fans. What are some of your earliest cult film memories? Tied to that, what was your gateway drug into this heady world?
Nick Cato: While I obviously didn’t know what a “cult” film was at the time, it was a late-night viewing of Night of the Living Dead one Saturday when I was about 6-7 years old drew me in. This was around 1975. I had always liked monster and sci-fi films even at that young age, but this film really got to me. And around 1983 when I read Stuart Samuels’ book Midnight Movies I learned what a massive cult following NIGHT (and other even stranger films) had since its premiere in 1968.
You are a (rightfully) respected writer and editor who has been honing your craft for years now. What was your path from just a fan of these films to writing about it?
NC: Like most “monster kids” I grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I was obsessed with it, even more than comics (which I also loved). I also remember buying the first issue of Fangoria when it was released (actually my mom bought it for me at Waldenbooks!) in 1979. I was 11. And while the writers in those early issues (such as the late Phil Nutman and Dennis Daniel) sparked my interest in writing about film, it was two gentlemen who were a little more underground that inspired me to actually try my hand at writing reviews. One was the late Rick Sullivan, who published a fanzine called Gore Gazette, and a little later was (the also late) Chas. Balun, who did a fanzine called Deep Red and who also wrote for Fangoria. Those guys were like rock stars to me, and to this day I’m still in disbelief that I’m writing for the revamped Deep Red magazine. Rick and Chas had very personal approaches to film reviews, and they both rubbed off on me big time.
Speaking of film writing, did you have any big film writing influences and inspirations going into being a professional scribe?
NC: Although he’s one of the gents mentioned above, the one person who really drove it home for me on a pro-level was Phil Nutman. I finally got to meet him at a 4-day convention in 2010, and one early morning he spent almost 4 hours with me answering questions and giving me tips on how to sharpen my online column (that would eventually become the Suburban Grindhouse book). He also answered a lot of questions I had about fiction writing (which I also do). Phil’s 1993 novel Wet Work is my all-time fave zombie novel, and I believe one of the first to deal with not only fast, but intelligent zombies. He was just an all-around great guy to me despite several issues he battled in his personal life. I’m so glad I was able to meet him and be steered in the right direction by his humorous wisdom. I highly recommend finding the issue of Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine that ran Phil’s complete 80,000+ word book-length look at Amicus Films. It’s incredible.
Getting to read about your experience of watching the drive-in-grime-gem, Hitch Hike to Hell, was a treat! Though, Nick, you hating the film broke my heart! I love Hitch Hike to Hell! But, my wounded opinion aside, are there any theatrically ran films that you initially hated, eventually revisited, and still didn’t hate?
NC: I should note here that while I did indeed hate Hitch Hike at the time, it has grown on me over the years. It’s truly a “so bad it’s good” trash fest, and I’m always amazed when I hear people such as yourself praise it so highly! I have come to see the screening I attended as a bizarre trash film blessing, even if I despised it at the time.
There have been several, but the biggest would be one I originally rented during the VHS days. Lured in by the amazing box art, I sat through The Witch Who Came From the Sea and ejected the videotape when it ended completely ticked off. I loathed it for years. But in 2014, I attended a 5-film drive-in marathon in upstate New York. It was the fourth film on the program and screened around 1:00 A.M. I sat outside my car on a lawn chair and gave it another shot. About halfway through the film, I felt like I had completely missed the boat during my 80s VHS screening. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate just how disturbing it was? Or maybe I was still too much of a hardcore gorehound at that time and couldn’t appreciate it due to its lack of blood? Either way, I fell in love with it and recently bought the slick Arrow Films Blu ray edition. It’s quite underrated. I just wish the poster art reflected the film better than the fantasy-looking design that I believe tricked us early viewers into a rental.
I loved your chapter on Slumber Party Massacre. In it, you refer to Abel Ferrara’s first horror film, Driller Killer, as “overrated.” Tell me some of your thoughts and impressions about Driller Killer, if you can.
NC: To preface, I became a big fan of Ferrara over the years, but still can’t get into Driller Killer. It’s one of the earliest films I rented on VHS after seeing it advertised in a couple of horror magazines, and I just find it a real slog to get through. I love the trashy NYC settings and Ferrara himself is great in it, but it just doesn’t work for me. I think it’s a film that gained notoriety more for its title than its actual story, not to mention its gory video box cover. After seeing Ms. 45, however, he grabbed my attention as a filmmaker. I’m also happy to report he’s a very cool guy (met him at the NYC premiere of his film 4:44 Last Day On Earth in 2011).
One of the facets that make Suburban Grindhouse a cult film fan’s treasure is your pure reverence and attention to detail about the local theaters that you attended as a teenager and young adult. It’s a sweet paean to an era where theaters were still big and hadn’t completely moved over to the multiplex model, yet. (I always loved that the great Dave Friedman referred to them as “Mall-soleums.”) What do you miss the most about some of those old theaters?
NC: The theaters I grew up in had their own character. Even the twin theaters had more personality than modern multiplexes and still had a non-corporate feel (even if some were owned by bigger chains). Being a fan of horror and seeing most of these films before I was 17, it was nice to know some of these theaters would admit my friends and me without an adult. Smaller theaters were often run by families or a couple of friends, and I got to know a few of them on Staten Island. There was always a more community-minded feel than there is now when you wander into a “Mall-soleum” (lol I like that!) and get the sense you’re being hoarded into your overpriced seat with your overpriced popcorn and usually to see a crappy mainstream film.
Are there any current theaters that you love?
NC: In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY there is a great theater called the Nitehawk Cinema. They recently opened a second theater (also in Brooklyn), but their Williamsburg branch features varying midnight movies every weekend, and once a month they host a series called “The Deuce” where they show a film that played in Times Square back in the 70s-80s. Most of these films are shown on 35mm prints, and everyone who works there (that I’ve met) are genuine film fans. I’ve read the Nitehawk was fashioned after the popular Alamo chain, which we also have in my area, but I think at least here in NYC the Nitehawk is one of the better theaters, especially for fans of horror and cult films. There’s also the Film Forum, which features some great classic retro screenings, and a couple of small “storefront” theaters that while they only screen digitally, can be a lot of fun (such as the Spectacle Theater and the Film Noir Cinema, both located in Brooklyn).
Personal opinion time, do you think there is any correlation between the fist-down-the-throat scene in Just Before Dawn (1982) and the epic cover art for Anthrax’s debut album, Fistful of Metal (1984)? (Please say yes!)
NC: Ha! Quite possibly! And maybe the Anthrax cover art inspired the fist down the throat scene in Class Of Nuke’Em High (1986)? A big happy throat/fist trilogy? (On a side note: I saw a q&a with director Jeff Lieberman after a screening of Just Before Dawn in NJ around 2011. I found it adorable that he kept arguing it wasn’t a slasher film. Whether he wasn’t making it to be one or not, it surely is!).
If you got to orchestrate a Suburban Grindhouse-themed film festival, what would the program look like?
NC: Talk about a dream come true! This is a hard one as there are so many films I’d love to host and introduce, but if I had a 5-film marathon over-nighter I’d go with Nightmare (1981), Alucarda (1977), Blood Freak (1972), Raw Force (1982), and The Black Gestapo (1975). I continually find myself obsessing over these 5 films for one reason or another. Either way, if I ever ran some kind of Suburban Grindhouse Fest I’d go with these or focus on films I felt were underrated, be they campy or serious.
In addition to being a fantastic film writer, you have also written a number of novels. What are the differences for you between writing prose vs non-fiction? Is one more rewarding than the other?
NC: They’re both very different animals, and I find fiction writing more time consuming and subject to way more re-writes. I’ve had one novel published (with two more completed and currently being shopped), but my fiction seems to work better in novella form (I currently have 7 novellas in print). Writing about film is what I do when the fiction muse needs inspiration, yet on average I seem to spend equal writing time doing both.
I think they’re both rewarding, especially having peers on both ends (who I also grew up reading) praising my work and a couple of them not afraid to tell me when something needs to be done better. Or just thrown out!
Nick, you are the man. What can we hope to see from you in the near-mid-far future?
NC: My second film book (tentatively titled Damaged Brains: An Obsessive Look At Romano Scavolini’s Nightmare) recently found a home, and while I can’t name the publisher yet, they have a very special limited edition thing in mind that’s going to freak out fans of the film. I’ve seen some original artwork they have planned and the whole team involved are major fans of the 1981 clas-sick. I’m crazy excited about this one, especially since I managed to get an interview with Kathleen Ferguson, one of the stars who has never spoken about the film publicly before. In fact, this is her very first interview anywhere, so it’s nice to offer fans something they haven’t seen/heard before as an extra on the Code Red Blu-ray release of the film. I’m also underway on my 3rd film book, tentatively titled Those Sleazy 70s, where I take a look at over 20 films I believe pushed boundaries and made the 70s such a groundbreaking, crazy time for cinema, everything from seldom-seen gems to big-budget hits.
On the fiction front, my next novel Lovers is nearly finished (it’s an odd take on the necrophilia thing, sort of like Nekromantik during a cosmic apocalypse with a … never mind. But it’s definitely out there and not as “gross” as it may sound) and am co-writing a novella with Andre Duza titled Il Cinema De Lucifero, which should satisfy fans of the extreme stuff. I’ve been a big fan of Duza for a while, so getting to work on this with him has been fantastic. We’re both very “cinematic” in our writing style so it’s meshing nicely. Plus he’s a Nightmare fan who also saw it theatrically back in the 80s, so we have that unexplainable bond fans of certain things have.