Exploitation films may feature forbidden sex, wanton violence, drug use, nudity, freaks, gore, the bizarre, destruction, rebellion and mayhem. Such films have existed since the earliest days of moviemaking, but they were popularized in the 1960s with the general relaxing of cinematic taboos in the U.S. and Europe. Since the 1990s, this genre has also received attention from academic circles, where it is sometimes called paracinema.
Ephraim Katz, author of The Film Encyclopedia, has defined exploitation as:
Exploitation films often exploited events that occurred in the news and were in the short term public consciousness that a major film studio may avoid due to the length of time of producing a major film. For example Child Bride (1935) addressed a problem of older men marrying very young women in the Ozarks. Other issues such as drug use in films like Reefer Madness (1936) attracted an audience that a major film studio would avoid to keep their mainstream and respectable reputations. Several war films were made about the Winter War in Finland, the Korean War and the Vietnam War before the major studios showed interest. When Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Halloween 1938 radio production of The War of the Worlds shocked many Americans and made news, Universal Pictures edited their serial Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars into a short feature called Mars Attacks the World for release in November of that year.
Some Poverty Row lower budget B movies often exploit major studio projects due to fact that the rapid production schedule of making their films can take advantage of the publicity of the major studio to get an audience for their film and leave the slower bigger budgeted competitor to suffer reduced admissions at the box office. For example Edward L. Alperson produced William Cameron Menzies' Invaders from Mars to beat Paramount Pictures prestigious George Pal's version of The War of the Worlds into the cinemas. Pal's The Time Machine was also beaten to the cinemas by Robert Clarke's Edgar G. Ulmer film Beyond the Time Barrier (1960). As a result, many major studios, producers, and stars keep their projects secret.
The 1980s home video market and urban renewal threatened to render the grindhouse obsolete. By the end of that decade, grindhouse theaters had vanished from former urban "sleaze" districts like Boston's Combat Zone, Los Angeles' Broadway and Hollywood Boulevards, New York City's Times Square and San Francisco's Market Street. By the mid-1990s, they had completely disappeared from the United States.
There remains much affection for the grindhouse era amongst some cinephiles. An example is the 2007 release of Grindhouse, a double feature consisting of Planet Terror and Death Proof, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, respectively. Both films contain elements found in many grindhouse films, and are bridged by trailers for fictitious films that also fit into the grindhouse genre (sexploitation, slasher films, etc.), although one notable example, Machete, is currently being produced as a feature film. Grindhouse also features simulated film scratches, splices and some clipped dialogue, to recreate the feeling that the prints of the films are worn and battered copies, which was often true of the prints of many films grindhouse theaters showed in their heyday.
Black exploitation, or "blaxploitation" films, are made with black actors, ostensibly for black audiences, and about stereotypically African American subjects such as slum life, drugs, and prostitution. A prominent theme was African-Americans overcoming the Man through cunning and violence. Examples from the 1970s, when Blaxploitation was introduced, include Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft, Dolemite, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Super Fly, Boss Nigger, Blacula, Coffy, The Mack, and Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which is often credited with inventing the genre. Notable spoofs of the genre include Keenan Ivory Wayans' I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle and Malcolm D. Lee's Undercover Brother.
Sex exploitation, or sexploitation films, are similar to softcore pornography, in that the film serves largely as a vehicle for showing scenes involving nude or semi-nude women. While many films contain vivid sex scenes, sexploitation shows these scenes more graphically than mainstream films, often overextending the sequences or showing full frontal nudity. Russ Meyer's body of work is probably the best known example; the movie Showgirls, and the films of Andy Sidaris are examples of recent sexploitation. Caligula can be regarded as sexploitation, except that it was very high budget and even featured international stars such as Malcolm McDowell and Peter O'Toole.
1953's The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, was perhaps the first of this subgenre that usually focuses on motorcycle gangs with plenty of sex and violence. But most of the films were made in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s. Other biker films includes Motorpsycho (1965), The Wild Angels (1966), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), The Born Losers (1967), Satan's Sadists (1969), Nam's Angels (1970), and C.C. and Company (1970).
Cannibal films, otherwise known as the cannibal genre, are a collection of graphic, gory movies made in the early 1970s on into the late 1980s, primarily by Italian moviemakers. These movies mainly focused on torture and cannibalism by Stone-Age tribes deep in the South American or Asian rain forests, usually perpetrated against Westerners that the tribes hold prisoner. Similar to Mondo films, the main draw of cannibal films was the promise of exotic locales and graphic gore. Like the jungle adventure movies (popular in the '50s-'60s) and the Mondo shockumentaries (popular in the '60s-'70s) that came before them, these movies were often released under various alternate titles by their distributors, often capitalizing on their more successful US inspirations. These films are also notorious for their animal killings, featuring scenes with animals eating prey and also the cannibals killing alligators, crocodile, snakes, and other animals.
Cannibal films were very popular exploitation features in the 1970s and 80s, after Umberto Lenzi made Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio, the first film to depict on-screen cannibalism, in 1972. In 1977, Ruggero Deodato made Ultimo Mondo Cannibale, inspiring several other film makers to follow suit in a period known as the cannibal boom. This period would also see the most notorious film of the subgenre, Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (an acknowledged influence on The Blair Witch Project), in 1980. After 1981, however, the cannibal boom had ended, and cannibal films were few and far between. The fad concluded in 1988 with Mondo film director Antonio Climati's Natura contro (also known as Cannibal Holocaust II).
In the 1970s, a brand of revisionist, non-traditional samurai film rose to some popularity in Japan, following the popularity of samurai manga by Kazuo Koike, on whose work many later films would be based. Films such as Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood and Hanzo the Razor had few of the stoic, formal sensibilities of earlier jidaigeki films such as those by Akira Kurosawa -- the new chambara featured revenge-driven antihero protagonists, gratuitous nudity, steamy sex scenes, gruesome swordplay and gallons of blood, often spurted from wounds as if from a firehose. Many of these films were subsequently released internationally -- sometimes in truncated form, as with Shogun Assassin, an edit that combined the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films.
Famous names at this time included Sonny Chiba, Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Meiko Kaji. Kaji, star of the Lady Snowblood films, would further contribute to Japan's exploitation output by starring in the Female Convict Scorpion series, that country's answer to the women in prison genre.
The influence of these films can still be seen today, both in Japanese films like the Azumi series and US films like Kill Bill, whose plot and style pay homage to many of the aforementioned samurai films.
Unlike Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 incorporated several elongated scenes of nudity and even more quantities of gore, thus popularizing the zombie exploitation film. Several imitators and spin offs followed (including a Zombi 3 and Zombi 4), bringing the European zombie craze to full steam (Fulci would again contribute with his films City of the Living Dead in 1980 and The Beyond in 1981). In the exploitation viewpoint, one of the more notable of the zombie exploitation films is Marino Girolami's 1980 film Zombie Holocaust, which combined the zombie movie with the cannibal movie.
Mondo films, often called shockumentaries, are quasi-documentary films that focus on sensationalized topics, such as exotic customs from around the world or gruesome death footage. Similar to shock exploitation, the goal of Mondo films is to be shocking to the audience not only because they deal with taboo subject matter (for instance, foreign sexual customs or varieties of violent behavior and rebellion in various societies), but because the on-camera action is allegedly real. Though some Mondo films contain certain amounts of educational material, it is chosen in order to shock its audience. Examples of using this technique while exploiting nations in the news are the documentaries on Africa, Mau Mau (1955) and Africa Addio (1966). This can be seen not only in the way the films are shot, but also by the fact that some of the most shocking footage has, in actuality, been staged.
The name "Mondo" itself comes from the first commercially successful film of this type, Mondo Cane (in Italian, this means Dog World or World as a Dog, a title meant to imply that the world, as showcased in the film, is a brutal, nasty place). Mondo Cane was followed by a number of sequels and spinoffs, many of which were also produced in Italy. Mondo films continued to be major staples in exploitation film culture through the 60s and into the late 70s, when the style of the films began to change. While at first these films contained similar content of exotic and bizarre customs, in 1978, the film Faces of Death took the focus less from worldly rituals and more on footage of human death. Since then, most of the Mondo films have been similar to death films, which, unlike their predecessors, are mostly comprised of genuine accident, suicide, and execution footage.
A splatter film or gore film is a type of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and violence. These films, through the use of special effects and excessive blood and guts, tend to display an overt interest in the vulnerability of the human body.
Due to their willingness to portray images society might consider shocking, splatter films share ideological grounds with the transgressive art movement. As a distinct genre, the splatter film began in the 1960s with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman, who became notorious for such work as Blood Feast (1963), and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964).
With the rising cost of a B picture, American film exhibitors found that a foreign made film could be picked up for nearly the third of a cost of the cheapest American made film. For example Joseph E. Levine purchased the Italian made Hercules for $35,000, and years later A Fistful of Dollars was picked up for the same price. Both films did extremely well at the box office. In addition to Westerns, the European cinema (often co-productions between several European nations and featuring American and British actors) provided horror, and over the years as the genre's changed, sword and sandal, Eurospy imitations of James Bond, Dirty Harry and The Godfather crime films would be dubbed into English, retitled and cheaply purchased to fill out a double feature.
Women in prison films are films that feature women prisoners who are tortured, humiliated, and forced into sexual situations by sadistic wardens and guards. In turn, the prisoners often hold a bloody revolt against their captors. Like sexploitation, the main focus of women in prison films is high sexual content (while remaining softcore) or, like shock exploitation, torture and cruelty. Movies include Roger Corman's Women in Cages and Bamboo House of Dolls, Barbed Wire Dolls by Jesus Franco, Women's Prison Massacre by Joe D'Amato, Reform School Girls by Tom DeSimone, or Caged Heat by Jonathan Demme.