Both a warzone and a utopia for misfits, this period gave us punk rock, no wave, hardcore as well as experimental fiction, underground comics and grindhouse cinema that emanated from the ruins of the city.
Several people have documented this period in their own way. Such as Bill Landis.
Noted for his Sleazoid Express zine, as well as biographies of directors Kenneth Anger and Joel M. Reed, the death of Landis in December 2008 marked the end of a chapter in underground movie history. One where movie houses were aplenty and showed everything possible in order to get people in. Films like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, Cannibal Holocaust, Shogun Assassin and 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy became part of what is now referred to as grindhouse cinema.
As Landis once said:
Grind houses were opulent, old-style movie palaces with chandeliers, opera seats and huge screens. They seated several hundred people and played all kinds of films, across genres. A shoebox theater catered to the adult audience, seated eighty to 200, usually on one floor, and was shaped like a rectangular shoebox…. It was a very egalitarian form of entertainment that attracted all sorts — kids cutting school, people on dates, inner-city people escaping the cold or heat. The biggest hits cost five dollars. Certain theaters, like The Ankle, which was across from Port Authority, catered to a more criminal element…. People wanted to get the most bang for their buck. If the movie disappointed them, they’d throw things at the screen…. They became unsafe because of the crack epidemic. Crackheads were insane in their criminality, while the junkies would just pass out.
And, in this milieu, Landis thrived.
Young, opinionated and horny, he worked on Wall Street by day and became a recognisable face on 42nd Street at night via performing plays, watching films and working in pornography as well as publishing an influential fanzine that broke boundaries in terms of looking at exploitation cinema with an academic eye and championing films made by genuine outsiders.
But who was Bill Landis?
Preston Fassel, a journalist for Fangoria magazine (openly despised by Landis) has to be commended for taking the time to piece together this biography of a deeply complex man. One whose journey as a sexually abused army brat takes him further and further to the edge before the love of a woman sees him blend into suburbia and back into the spotlight when Hollywood directors begin to homage the grindhouse aesthetic.
Running at 140 pages, Fassel packs an awful lot of action and discussion into this tome, meaning that a beginner to Landis will be able to taste the culture that he thrived in, the various highs and lows of his life, culminating with his sad and needless death. Connoisseurs of Sleazoid Express will be familiar with the main narrative all too well but should still find enough in the quotes from his peers to be amused.
Acting as a testament to Landis, and 42nd Street in general, this book will propel you into areas you’d never had imagined.
Preston Fassel, 2021, Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street. Encyclopocalypse Publications. ISBN-13: 978-0578304809
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.