1979 was the year. The Iran Oil Crisis was in full swing, Sony unveiled The Walkman, The Boomtown Rats were climbing up the charts, and a then beardless child was born who would go on to start The Blood Sprayer. 1979 was also the year that a young filmmaker named Abel Ferrara began upon his path of cult status by directing and starring in a well-known exploitation classic: The Driller Killer.
The Driller Killer tells the story of Reno Miller, a young New York artist who’s struggling to make end’s meet. His life is plagued by a lack of inspiration, lack of money, his girlfriend’s girlfriend, the punk rock band next door, and a dream that seeps into his psyche distorting his perception of reality. Being poor, fucked up, and desperate will drive a man to madness. It will even drive him so far as to kill…with a power drill. No one is safe from Reno’s wrath. If you’ve crossed him-and everyone has-you die.
While in the U.S., particularly the drive-in/grindhouse circuit, the film was quite well-received, the British government had different ideas. Ironically, the film landed in the states in 1979, which was also the year Margaret Thatcher took office. A few short years later, The Driller Killer became a victim of Thatcher’s cinematic witch hunt. As the tale goes, The Driller Killer’s British distributor known as VIPCO (Video Instant Picture Company) decided to take out a full page ad in many film and entertainment publications. The ad itself wasn’t out of the ordinary, considering the times and/or the film. The photo used for the ads was that of a man having his skull drilled through. It was enough to cause an uproar amongst the self-appointed moralists who were on a warpath to stop art. None of these people had actually seen the film, yet wanted to crucify anyone involved based solely on the (sensationalized) advertisements.
As the Video Recordings Act of 1984 took shape, The Driller Killer was pushed towards the forefront of the debacle. Mike Bor, The Principal Examiner of the British Board of Film Classification even referred to TDK as the film that was “almost single-handedly responsible for the VRA of 1984″. The movie didn’t receive an official U.K. release until 2002, however, several edited versions of the film did float about in underground circles. These cuts of the film were marred with black bars and censoring of various kills from the movie. Nonetheless, it did see the light of day after 20 years and was even rumored to be remade by Jed Sheperd back in 2008.
After a certain amount of time, the film’s legacy became less about the actual film. It’s been honored in songs by bands ranging from punk legends The Damned to cartoonishly hilarious death metal outfit, Frightmare. There’s even a Swedish crust band called Driller Killer. The film cemented itself into European cult history by being a martyr for free speech.
I didn’t choose to cover The Driller Killer because I like it. In fact, I’ve always kinda disliked the movie. I’m a huge fan of Abel Ferrara, the film’s star and director. He’s responsible for 2 films very near and dear to my blackened heart: Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant. These 2 films (along with TDK) have been a lasting part of Ferrara’s cult fame. In both Ms. 45 and The Driller Killer, you were able to get a real sense of the times and of Ferrara’s personality. His early exploitation works carry very similar themes in them. Catholic guilt/religious redemption are a strong theme of an Abel Ferrara movie. This would prove no different with The Driller Killer, as we see Reno’s salvation or damnation struggles play out. There’s also several other themes that are indicative of his work that can be found in TDK: The gritty urban plight of New York, eclectic soundtrack choices ranging from punk rock to classical scores, scenes of extreme and explosive violence, and for some reason, lesbian sex. So, obviously I like the guy. Then, what’s my hang-up with The Driller Killer?! I mean, it’s got all the elements I love about exploitation films and then some. This write-up should be me showering the film with praise. Alas, it’s not. After several voluntary viewings, I still can’t fully commit to seeing what they saw. A legacy will often precede the quality of films from this era. This is where I stand with TDK. As time has gone on, I’ve found more merit in the film. I’ve seen the beginning roots of those Abel-isms mentioned earlier. He had a real sense of his own identity and used that in each of the films he’s made. But like a lot of the other Video Nasties, TDK pales to today’s standards (or lack thereof). There are some really shoddy moments of acting and while the kills are interesting, they’re far from shocking. Even with all of its punk rock pedigree and aesthetics, the movie will not scare or shock you (assuming you’re familiar with exploitation films). It will give you a snapshot of the times. It will show the beginning of what would become a great career. But at the end of the day, The Driller Killer is a fine example of how truly fucking ignorant the Margaret Thatcher administration was. Had they actually watched the film, they’d see very little that could be considered damning to society and more that could be damning to the plight of the young filmmaking community.
Without a doubt, the Video Nasties era has given genre fans much to discuss. A lot of the films that we consider classics were on the British Parliament’s chopping block, but ended up surviving. My indecisiveness with The Driller Killer still doesn’t take away from the fact that it did end up with a legendary notoriety. Abel Ferrara has done better-much better. But make no mistake, The Driller Killer survives on…whether I like it or not.