Note from The Devil's Secretary: Eventually, this page will hold the table of contents of all of The Devil's essays on film.  But he hasn't dictated most of those yet, and he wanted his introduction to Exploitation Films posted...and...well...He's The Devil, so I do whatever he says.  Wouldn't you?

It should be no surprise that I am fond of exploitation cinema. One of my favorite ways to spend an evening is sitting about, exploiting...everyone. So many to exploit, so little time. After a long day of exploiting, I'm always up for depictions of others trying their hand at it. Strangely, it's easier to do and to portray, than to discuss. The trick in chatting is that you need to figure out who, or what, is being exploited. It is far from clear.

The ill-conceived view of right-wingers and the politically correct is that it is the actresses (sometimes the actors, but usually not). This is the anti-porn definition, and involves yelping that the poor girls are being exploited because they are having sex onscreen. What is it about sex that so upsets these folks? Would scrubbing floors onscreen be a problem? It's certainly a worse thing to do in "real life" than fucking. So why all the moaning about a bit of the old in-and-out? 

In any case it doesn't make a lot of sense. It doesn't explain how it is exploitation when women are in charge, or more precisely, when  the actresses themselves hold the power—something that is becoming more and more common in hard core.  (It's always fun to listen to explanations of how the actresses are exploiting themselves—a patronizing view that is both insulting and hilarious.) More importantly, this line of thought only pertains to sexploitation films. What about splatter flicks? Is being filmed faking being hit by an axe horribly traumatic? If so, is everyone who dies in any film being exploited? Gone With the Wind must be one of the worst exploitation films ever.

Sometimes you'll hear exploitation used in opposition to art. In this view, a three-hour maudlin examination of the very dull lives of a pair of children in the eighteen-hundreds is dubbed "significant," and therefore, art. Films that people enjoy are not, and thus, exploitation. Naturally, exploitation films are inferior.  This idea not only misses the boat on exploitation cinema, but fails to understand the nature of art. Art is entertaining. When you create art, you must be interested in your audience. What's the point of putting some grand statement into a work if no one will see it or understand what you're saying?

Along these lines, the term exploitation film is most often used pejoratively. It means nothing more than the speaker didn't like the film. Because people tend to think that their views have universal support, that means that no one should like the film, and in extreme cases, that no one should be allowed to see it, particularly children (because someone always has to save the children although it's impossible to determine what the children need saving from). Since there are already useful phrases like, "I disliked that movie," and, "In my opinion, that movie sucked," defining exploitation as "bad" doesn't do anything useful for the language.

Recently it has become in vogue to define exploitation films as those that were shown in "grindhouses," and before those theaters existed, in traveling shows.  This is the Quentin Tarantino definition.  But saying where a type of movie could be seen is part of a description, not a definition. Besides, grindhouses were limited to large cities. Most people caught exploitation flicks at drive-ins. However, it is useful to use the term grindhouse movie in reference to exploitation films that have no theme and slight character development, instead focusing on mindless fun. That doesn't mean that those are the only films that played in grindhouses. 

It should be clear (and if it isn't, I'm telling you to make it clear!) that there is no single or sharp definition for exploitation film.  It is a fuzzy concept at best, which is annoying since the term pops up so often. So, being as great an authority as you are likely to find in the universe, let me (i.e. The Devil) force some clarity on it.

The best place to start is with blaxploitation, since most educated movie fans no longer consider all of the films in the sub-genre to be inferior (it's really more of a movement, but lets not get picky).  Since the word  blaxploitation lacks negative connotations, we can just look at who is being exploited.  In this case, that's easy. Black audiences. Or more precisely, their interest in seeing black actors and urban culture onscreen is being exploited. Extrapolating, exploitation films are ones that exploit the audience's interest in a subject or group. Of course, that means that every film is an exploitation film except ones where the filmmakers don't give a damn about the audience.  Well, that's true, but not useful. So, let me narrow things a bit with the help of history, and add in that the subject or group is outside the scope of the more uptight factions of society. That doesn't mean the films are about negative things—simply things that do not fit into a polite discussion at a dinner party that includes three old ladies in hats, a minister, a racist businessman, the head of the local chamber of commerce, a republican senator, and an etiquette instructor. I'd like to add to the definition that these are low budget films, but I can't as it isn't backed up by history. (Kill Bill cost a pretty penny.  Also relevant are arguments that Natural Born Killers was an exploitation movie—those that disagreed brought up the theme of the movie, not its cost.)

So, exploitation films are those that are designed to exploit a potential audience's interest in a specific subject or group, and that subject or group is removed from current mainstream culture. That's not exactly the way the OED might define it, but it covers all the bases. I'll be reviewing a great many exploitation films, and taking a more in-depth look at some of the sub-categories. It is far more informative to look at those narrower groups. A few of my favorites are:


The largest sub-category, shock films are intended to jar the viewer out of his complacency (or just jar him for the hell of it) with topics or scenes that go far beyond the merely impolite. Incest, cannibalism, rape, and blasphemy are all themes that fit nicely in this group. Graphic scenes of decapitation and torture will usually qualify a film as well.

Relevant examples: Freaks, Pink Flamingos, Salo o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma.



This one seems like it should be easy, but is actually the trickiest subgenre to specify.  The easy part: films with nudity and sex.  OK, but ignoring those who put anything with nudity in this category, when does showing flesh make a movie sexploitation, when it is eroticism, when pornography, and when something else entirely? There is no good answer, and I'm not going to pretend there is. I'm just going to make arbitrary distinctions. Four useful ones are:

  • Sexploitation: A macro term that includes most of the others.
  • Porn (or Hardcore): A different entertainment form than film. Character, plot, theme, and setting is of no importance. The only aim is to excite the viewer. While I highly recommend you watch as much as possible, I will not be reviewing porn since standards don't count. The only way to judge these films is if they excite you. 
  • Softcore: Films with nudity and sex (without penetration and money shots). The full expression is "Softcore Porn," which just confuses the matter, as it is only sometimes Porn (see Vignette Softcore below). When the so-called softcore film has a plot and character development, it is better to use terms like Erotica.
  • Vignette Softcore: A series of sexual unrelated scenes, often hung together with a brief framing story.  Vignette Softcore tends to either be very soft, taking advantage of lush locations (topless scuba divers) or is simple simulated sex scenes. Vignette Softcore is Porn.i

Relevant examples: Emmanuelle, Last Tango in Paris, Young Lady Chatterley.



Gore for gore's sake. The splatter in question is blood splatter, though brains, internal organs, and chunks of skin are all good options. This subgenre took off in the 1960s and never looked back. Many splatter films aim for comedy, taking the level of gore so over-the-top that it is impossible to take seriously. It has a great deal of overlap with several other sub-genres: zombie films, slashers, cannibal films.  

Relevant examples: Blood Feast, Dawn of the Dead, Dead Alive.


Education Exploitation

Many of the early movies that played in grindhouses fall into this category.  From the '30s through the '60s, you could find movies that claimed to be made for the social good, warning of dread problems and educating viewers (particularly parents) how to avoid calamities. The horrible social problems were generally sex, drug-use, or just general teen misbehavior.  To get across their message, naturally, they had to show a great deal of the bad behavior.  Later there came the Mondo films, faux documentaries on the weird, violent, and sexual, which morphed into semi-snuff pieces.

Relevant examples: Reefer Madness, Mondo Cane, Faces of Death.



Primarily films made in the 1970, blaxploitation movies were made for black audiences and featured black characters. They tended to have an urban setting and focused on drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, and corrupt Caucasians. Almost always action films, they contained a healthy dose of sex and violence. (Read more)

Relevant examples: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Superfly.


Women in Prison (W.I.P.)

Like the name says, you've got women and they're in prison. The standard story has an innocent girl arrested on trumped up charges and tossed into a barbaric prison where she is tortured and sexually abused. There's often a lesbian prison matron and a sadistic warden who forces the heroine into prostitution.

Relevant examples: Caged Heat, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Ilsa - The Wicked Warden.



If it can be called exploitation, and there are Nazis, then it's Natziploitation. These films vary wildly. I wouldn't be surprised if the black S.S. uniform was the only thing they all have in common. However, a majority of them are W.I.P. films with the prison being a concentration camp. Often, an evil Nazi scientist (generally female) carries out sexual experiments on her captors, or simply tortures them. While the setting allows for statements on the nature of evil, racism, and the depth that ordinary people can sink to, don't expect these films to actually contain such messages. Natziploitation films are all about shocking the audience. 

Relevant examples: Ilsa - She Wolf of the SS, Salon Kitty, SS Love Camp.


Inquisition Films & Nunsploitation

Mainstream cinema avoids negative religious stories; thank god for these overlapping sub-genres. These are the films that dispel the notion that Natziploitation movies don't have themes. Inquisition pics are period pieces that comment on religion, the Catholic church, and the destructive nature of excessive power through tales of torture. at Nunsploitation films focus on nuns in sexual or violent situations and not only take on the themes of the Inquisition films, but also examine repression. Nunsploitation films are most prevalent in countries where the Catholic church's influence is substantial. (Read more)

Relevant examples: The Devils, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, School of the Holy Beast.


Cannibal Films

Primarily made in Southern Europe in the 1970s and '80s, cannibal films involve a team of modern Westerners traveling to the jungle where they meet primitive tribes. Fitting into both the shock and splatter categories, before the end credits roll, most of the intruders have been graphically chewed on, and many of the cannibals have been sliced up.  Plus, there's usually a sacrificial ceremony or two.

Relevant examples: Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox.


Revenge Films

Even in shock cinema, revenge films are dark and cruel.  They also tend to be very simple.  Someone is killed, and a friend or family member goes after the killers, taking them out in particularly gruesome ways.  These pictures rarely end well for anyone. A popular sub-category is rape & revenge, where the female victim is raped, and may or may not be murdered afterwards.  If she lives, she is the one hunting her attackers.

Relevant examples: Death Wish, I Spit on Your Grave, Kill Bill.








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