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Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by "exploiting" often lurid subject matter.[citation needed] The term "exploitation" is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. An exploitation film, however, relies heavily on sensationalist advertising and broad and lurid overstatement of the issues depicted, regardless of the intrinsic quality of the film. Very often, exploitation films are of low quality in every sense.[1] However, this has not always been the case. Exploitation films sometimes attract critical attention and cult followings.[citation needed]



Exploitation films may feature suggestive or explicit sex, sensational 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 and 70s with the general relaxing of censorship and cinematic taboos in the USA and Europe. Their producers also used sensational elements to attract audiences lost to television. Most are low-budget films that would not be played in theaters today and would most likely receive an NC-17 rating in the USA. Since the 1990s, this genre has also received attention from academic circles, where it is sometimes called paracinema.

"Exploitation" is very loosely defined, and has more to do with how the viewer approaches the film than with the film's actual content.[citation needed] Titillating material and artistic content can and often do coexist, as demonstrated by the fact that art films that failed to pass the Hays Code were often shown in the same grindhouses as exploitation films. Exploitation films share with acclaimed transgressive European directors such as Derek Jarman, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard a fearlessness toward handling 'disreputable' content. Numerous films recognized as classics contain levels of sex, violence, and shock typically associated with exploitation films, including Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Tod Browning's Freaks, and Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Buñuel's Un chien andalou contains elements of the modern splatter film. It has further been stated that if Carnival of Souls had been made in Europe, that it would be considered an art film, while if Eyes Without a Face had been made in the U.S., it would have been categorized as a low-budget horror film. The art film and exploitation film audiences are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings.[2]

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 (1938) 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. Sex Madness (1938) portrayed the dangers of venereal disease from premarital sex. The film Mom and Dad (1945), a film about pregnancy and childbirth, was promoted in lurid terms. She Shoulda Said No (1949) combined the themes of drug use and promiscuous sex.

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. Their rapid production schedule can take advantage of publicity attached to major studio films. For example, Edward L. Alperson produced William Cameron Menzies' Invaders from Mars in order to beat Paramount Pictures' prestigious production of director George Pal's The War of the Worlds to 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.

Grindhouses and drive-ins

Grindhouse is an American term for a theatre that mainly showed exploitation films. It is named after the defunct burlesque theatres, on 42nd Street, New York, where 'bump n' grind' dancing and striptease used to be on the bill. In the 1960s these theatres were put to new use as venues for exploitation films.

As the drive-in movie theater (an outdoor theater into which the patrons drive and watch the film from their car) began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, theater owners began to look for ways to bring in patrons. One solution was to book exploitation films. In fact, some producers in the 1970s would make films directly for the drive-in market. Many of them were violent action films which some would refer to as 'drive-in' films.


Exploitation films may adopt the subject matters and stylings of film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films. The subgenres of exploitation films are categorized by which characteristics they utilize. Thematically, exploitation films can also be influenced by other so-called exploitative media, like pulp magazines. Exploitation films also sometimes blur genre lines utilizing two or more genres at a time for example the 1980 film Maniac could be considered both a slasher film as well as a splatter film. Doris Wishman's Let Me Die A Woman contains both shock documentary and sex exploitation elements.

1930s and 1940s cautionary films

Exploitation films made in the 1930s and 1940s were films that got around the strict censorship and scrutiny of the era despite featuring lurid subject matter by claiming to be educational in nature. They were generally cautionary stories about the alleged dangers of premarital sex and drug use. Examples include Marihuana, Mom and Dad, Reefer Madness, Sex Madness and She Shoulda Said No!.

Poster for a blaxploitation film

Biker films

In 1953 The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, was the first film about a motorcycle gang. A string of low-budget juvenile delinquent films centered around hot-rods and motorcycles followed in the 1950s. The success of American International Pictures' The Wild Angels in 1966 ignited a trend that continued into the early 1970s. Other biker films include Motorpsycho (1965), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), The Born Losers (1967), Satan's Sadists (1969), Nam's Angels (1970), and C.C. and Company (1970). (See also List of biker films.)


Black exploitation, or "blaxploitation" films, are made with black actors, ostensibly for black audiences, often within a stereotypically African American urban milieu. A prominent theme was African-Americans overcoming the Man through cunning and violence. The progenitor of this subgenre was Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Other examples include Black Caesar, Blacula, Black Shampoo, Boss Nigger, Coffy, Coonskin, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Dolemite, Foxy Brown, Hell Up in Harlem, Live and Let Die, The Mack, Shaft, Sugar Hill, Super Fly, The Thing With Two Heads and Truck Turner.

A cannibal film

Cannibal films

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 cannibalism by 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 involving any living creatures, human or animal. The best known film of this genre is the controversial 1980 Cannibal Holocaust in which six animals are killed. Others include Cannibal Ferox, Eaten Alive!, The Mountain of the Cannibal God, Last Cannibal World, and the first cannibal film, The Man From Deep River. Famous directors in this genre include Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Jesús Franco, and Joe D'Amato.

Chambara films

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 Hanzo the Razor, Lady Snowblood, Lone Wolf and Cub, Sex and Fury (which would also be a sexploitation film) and Shogun Assassin 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.


Carsploitation films are films featuring many scenes of car racing and crashing with sports and muscle cars that were popular around the era. The quintessential film of this genre is Vanishing Point. Others include The Blues Brothers, Cannonball, The Hitcher, Death Race 2000, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Gone in 60 Seconds, Mad Max, Race with the Devil and Two-Lane Blacktop. Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof is a modern homage to this genre, as well as to slasher films and the films of Russ Meyer. The Fast and the Furious franchise fits into this subgenre, as well.

Eco-terror films

Eco-terror films, also called "nature-run-amok" or "natural horror" films or "eco-horror" films, focus on an animal or group of animals that are far larger and more aggressive than is usual for its species, terrorizing humans within a particular locale whilst a group of other humans attempt to hunt it down. This trend began in the 1950s, when concern over atomic testing led to the popularity of movies about giant monsters. These were typically either giant prehistoric creatures awakened by atomic blasts, or ordinary animals mutated by radiation.[3] These films included Godzilla, Them!, and Tarantula. The trend was revived in the 1970s as awareness of pollution increased, with corporate greed and military irresponsibility being blamed for destruction of the environment.[4] Night of the Lepus, Frogs, and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster are examples of these movies. After the massive success of Steven Spielberg's 1975 Jaws, a number of highly similar films (sometimes regarded as outright rip-offs) were produced in hopes of cashing in on its success. These included Alligator, Cujo, Day of the Animals, Great White, Grizzly, Humanoids from the Deep, Monster Shark, Orca (film), The Pack, Piranha, Prophecy, Razorback, Tentacles, and Tintorera. Roger Corman was a major producer of these films in both decades.

Giallo films

Giallo films are Italian-made slasher films that focus both on the cruel deaths committed by the killers and the subsequent search of detectives for the said killers. They are named for the Italian word for yellow, "Giallo", the color of which was the background of the pulp novels these movies were initially adapted from or inspired by. The progenitor of this genre was La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much). Other examples of Giallo films include 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet), Il gatto a nove code (The Cat o' Nine Tails), L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), La coda dello scorpione (The Case of the Scorpion's Tail), La tarantola dal ventre nero (Black Belly of the Tarantula), Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh/Blade of the Ripper), Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace) and Tenebrae. Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava were the most proficient directors of this genre.

A Nazisploitation film

Mondo films

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. The first and best-known mondo film is Mondo Cane (A Dog's World). Others include Shocking Asia and the Faces of Death series.


Nazi exploitation films, also called "Nazisploitation" films, or "Il Sadiconazista", focus on Nazis torturing prisoners at death camps and brothels during World War II. The tortures inflicted are often of a sexual nature; and the prisoners, who are often female, are nude. The progenitor of this subgenre was Love Camp 7 (1969). The quintessential film of the genre which launched its popularity and its typical tropes was Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974); about the buxom, nymphomaniacal dominatrix Ilsa torturing prisoners in a Stalag. Others include Fräulein Devil (Captive Women 4/Elsa: Fraulein SS/Fraulein Kitty), La Bestia in Calore (SS Hell Camp/SS Experiment Part 2/The Beast in Heat/Horrifying Experiments of the S.S. Last Days), L'ultima orgia del III Reich (Gestapo's Last Orgy/Last Orgy of The Third Reich/Caligula Reincarnated as Hitler), Salon Kitty and SS Experiment Camp. A lot of nazisploitation film were influenced by art films like Pier Paolo Pasolini's infamous Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom) and Liliana Cavani's Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter) .

A Rape/revenge film

Rape / Revenge films

Films in which a woman is raped, left for dead, recovers and then subsequently extracts a typically graphic, gory revenge against the person/persons who raped her. By far the most famous film of this genre is I Spit on Your Grave (also called Day of the Woman). Others include Ms. 45 and Thriller - en grym film (Thriller: A Cruel Picture). The Last House on the Left also contains rape / revenge elements; although in this film the woman is incapacitated by the rapists and it is her parents who take revenge. Quentin Tarantino made reference to this genre in Kill Bill, in which the main character is left for dead in the beginning and seeks revenge.


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; with his best known films being Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Supervixens. Other well-known sexploitation films include the Emmanuelle series, Showgirls and Caligula. Caligula is unique among sexploitation films and exploitation films in general in that it features high budget and eminent actors (Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren).


Shock exploitation films, or "shock films" or "shocksploitation films"; contain various shocking elements such as extremely realistic graphic violence, graphic rape depictions, simulated bestiality and depictions of incest. Examples of shock films include Antichrist, August Underground's Mordum, Baise-moi, Blood Sucking Freaks, Combat Shock, I Drink Your Blood, Fight for Your Life, Hostel, House Of 1000 Corpses, I Spit on Your Grave, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and its sequels, Irréversible, Last House on Dead End Street, The Last House on the Left, Men Behind the Sun, Nekromantik, Pink Flamingos, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom), SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Snuff, Ta Paidia tou Diavolou (Island of Death), Thriller - en grym film (Thriller: A Cruel Picture) and Vase de Noces (Wedding Trough/One Man and his Pig/The Pig Fucking Movie).

Halloween is one of the more famous slasher films

Slasher films

Slasher films focus on a psychopathic killer stalking and killing a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner. The victims are often teenagers or young adults. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is often credited as creating the basic premise of the genre. It truly emerged as a genre during the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. Well-known slasher films include A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Anthropophagus Beast, Black Christmas, Child's Play, The Driller Killer, Friday the 13th, Halloween (which is usually credited with starting the genre in 1978), My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Sleepaway Camp, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Toolbox Murders. The genre experienced a mainstream revival in the 1990s with the success of Scream, which both mocked and paid homage to traditional slasher conventions. Slasher films often prove phenomenally popular and spawn numerous sequels, prequels and remakes that continue to the present day.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a well-known spaghetti western

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Western is a nickname for the Italian-made Western films that emerged in the mid-1960s. They were considerably more violent and amoral than typical Hollywood westerns (some films have body counts of over 200 people killed) and often eschewed (some say "demythologized") the conventions of earlier Westerns. Examples include Death Rides a Horse, Django, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Grand Duel, The Great Silence, For a Few Dollars More, The Big Gundown, and A Fistful of Dollars.

Splatter films

A splatter film or gore film is a type of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and violence. As a distinct genre, the splatter film began in the 1960s with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman, whose most famous films (and quintessential examples of the genre) include Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), The Gruesome Twosome (1967) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). Some later splatter films, such as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, along with Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and Dead Alive (also called Braindead) featured such excessive, unrealistic, over-the-top gore that they crossed the line from horror to comedy.

Women in prison films

Women in prison films emerged in the early seventies and remain a popular subgenre to this day. They are primarily voyeuristic sexual fantasies about prison life that rely on heavy doses of nudity, lesbianism, sexual assault, humiliation, sadism, and rebellion among captive women. Movies include Roger Corman's Women in Cages and The Big Doll House, Bamboo House of Dolls, Barbed Wire Dolls by Jesus Franco, Women's Prison Massacre by Joe D'Amato, Reform School Girls by Tom DeSimone, and Caged Heat by Jonathan Demme.

Minor sub-genres

  • Eschploitation films: apocalyptic Christian end-times thrillers.(see: eschatology)
  • Mexploitation films: films about Mexican culture and/or portrayals of Mexican life within Mexico often dealing with crime, drug trafficking, money and sex. Hugo Stiglitz is a famous Mexican actor is this genre.
  • Ninja films: a subgenre of martial arts films, these films center on the stereotypical, historically inaccurate, image of the ninja costume and his arsenal of weapons often including fantasy elements such as ninja magic. Many such movies were produced by splicing stock ninja fight footage with footage from unrelated film projects.
  • Pinku eiga (pink films): Japanese sexploitation films popular throughout the 70s, often featuring softcore sex, rape, torture, BDSM and other unconventional sexual subjects that were considered erotic.
  • Stoner films: a subgenre of films that center around an explicit use of the drug marijuana. Typically, such movies show marijuana use in a comic and positive fashion. Marijuana use is one of the main themes, and inspires most of the plot.
  • Teensploitation films: the exploitation of teenagers by the producers of teen-oriented films, with plots involving drugs, sex, alcohol and crime. The word Teensploitation first appeared in a show business publication in 1982 and was included in the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for the first time in 2004. The films of Larry Clark, Bully, Ken Park and Kids are probably the best-known teensploitation films. For 1950s teen films, see American International Pictures.

Directors associated with exploitation film

See also



  1. ^ Schaefer 1999, pp. 42-43,95
  2. ^ Hawkins, Joan. "Sleaze Mania, Euro-Trash, and High Art: the Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture". Film Quarterly. Dec 1999: Vol.53 No. 2. pp.14-29
  3. ^ Evans, Joyce A. "Celluloid Mushroom Clouds: Hollywood and the Atomic Bomb". Westview Press, 1999. pp. 102, 125
  4. ^ "Notes Toward a Lexicon of Roger Corman's New World Pictures". Accessed Aug 10, 2009
  5. ^ Kolker, Robert Philip. "A Cinema of Loneliness". pp. 258-265. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
  6. ^ Lictenfeld, Eric. "Killer Films". [1] 13 Sep 2007, accessed 30 Jul 2009


  • Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999
  • Jeffrey Sconce, "'Trashing' the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style", Screen vol. 36 no. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 371–393.
  • Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984, 1994. ISBN 0-312-13519-X
  • V. Vale and Andrea Juno, RE/Search No. 10: Incredibly Strange Films RE/Search Publications, 1986. ISBN 0-940642-09-3
  • Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia 5e, 2005. ISBN 0-06-074214-3
  • Benedikt Eppenberger, Daniel Stapfer Maedchen, Machos und Moneten: Die unglaubliche Geschichte des Schweizer Kinounternehmers Erwin C. Dietrich. Mit einem Vorwort von Jess Franco. Verlag Scharfe Stiefel, Zurich, 2006, ISBN 3-033-00960-3

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