Exploitation Film: Grindhouse, Blaxploitation, and Other Genres

blaxploitation film
Lobby card from the blaxploitation film 'Coffy' (American International Pictures), starring Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, and Robert DoQui, 1973.

Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

An exploitation film is a movie that attempts to capitalize off current pop culture trends or popular genres, often by including controversial or titillating content to attract audiences.

Key Takeaways: Exploitation Films

  • Exploitation films are typically low-budget movies that attempt to profit off popular trends or appeal to audiences with violent or sexual content.
  • Through the 1980s, exploitation films were typically exhibited at independent movie theaters, some of which were labeled "grindhouse" cinemas.
  • Subgenres of exploitation films include blaxploitation, sexploitation, and Ozploitation movies.

Origins of Exploitation Films

Like most commercial films, the aim of exploitation films is to make money. However, what sets exploitation films apart from typical Hollywood cinema is the extreme, lurid, taboo, or bizarre content. In addition, these films are typically produced on low budgets, since they are usually made (with some exceptions) outside of a major Hollywood studio. Exploitation films often feature violent or sexual content beyond what one might see in a Hollywood movie, or at least are advertised as such in promotional material in order to attract theatergoers.

Exploitation films have their roots in smaller studios during the first few decades of commercial cinema. While major studios like MGM, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. created big-budget features in the 1920s through the 1950s, smaller studios created films on much lower budgets that followed popular trends. For example, many so-called "Poverty Row" studios (because of their low budgets) created Westerns because of the popularity of the genre.

The popularity of exploitation films increased in the 1950s. Films were created for drive-in theaters and independent movie theaters such as so-called "grindhouse" theaters, which showed more violent or sexually explicit features than standard theaters. Though exploitation films are typically thought of as low-quality or low-brow movies by many audiences, a number of exploitation films have grown in stature to be considered cult classics. Others, like 1968's Night of the Living Dead and 1971's Shaft, have received critical acclaim and have been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Several early exploitation films were able to include material that wouldn't normally pass censorship boards by being presented as educational, like the 1930s anti-marijuana films Reefer Madness and Assassin of Youth, or as dramatized re-enactments of real-life experiences (i.e., docudramas), like the 1943 anti-child marriage movie Child Bride and Ed Wood's 1953 transgender movie Glen or Glenda. In the 1960s, this concept was taken further with "Mondo" movies (named after the 1962 Italian feature Mondo Cane), which present vignettes of shocking "real" behavior that is actually staged by filmmakers. Mondo movies include the infamous horror series Faces of Death, which depict gruesome, realistic imagery of death.

Exploitation Film Trends

Exploitation films often reflect cultural trends in order to profit off current popular interests. For example, the rise of motorcycle and car culture in the mid-1960s led to a number of low-budget biker films, such as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968). Other exploitation movies were filmed quickly and released to capitalize off recent news stories, such as 1967's Riot on Sunset Strip, a "hippie exploitation movie" inspired by the December 1966 curfew riots in Hollywood, California. Unsurprisingly, several other "hippie exploitation" movies, such as Roger Corman's 1967's movie The Trip, followed over the next several years.

Other exploitation film trends began by attempting to recreate the success of an earlier hit independent movie. For example, the 1969 movie Love Camp 7 depicts a pair of female American World War II soldiers who infiltrate a Nazi female prison camp where they undergo physical and sexual torture. The international success of the film inspired imitations in two distinct exploitation subgenres: the women in prison genre (such as 1971's The Big Doll House) and the "Nazispoitation" genre (such as 1974's Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS). Typically, the popularity of a particular exploitation film subgenre lasted only a few years.

Exploitation Film Subgenres

Publicity still portrait of American actor Richard Roundtree in the blaxploitation crime drama 'Shaft' (MGM), 1971. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

Blaxploitation Films

Blaxploitation is one of the most popular subgenres of exploitation films. They were created by African American filmmakers, starring African American actors, and were aimed primarily toward urban audiences. Two 1971 action films, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft, are credited for popularizing the subgenre after they became minor box office hits on very low budgets. Many blaxploitation films are action movies, but the subgenre also includes other types, like horror (1972's Blacula and 1973's Blackenstein). One of the biggest stars of blaxploitation films is Pam Grier, who appeared in films like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), helping popularize female leads in blaxploitation films.

Actresses Haji, Lori Williams and Tura Satana
Actresses (left to right) Haji, Lori Williams and Tura Satana (1938 - 2011) in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!', directed by Russ Meyer, 1965. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Sexploitation Films

By the 1960s, cinema censorship rules in the U.S. had undergone a major overhaul and a growing number of independent theaters played American and international films with increased sexual content. In sexploitation films, the promise of nudity or sex was a key part of the marketing (although many mainstream publications refused to advertise these films). One of the most popular early sexploitation directors was Russ Meyer, who directed movies like The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Vixen! (1968), which was one of the first films to be given an "X rating" from the Motion Picture Association of America, and Supervixens (1975). Like other exploitation films, many of Meyer's films were made on very small budgets and were huge financial successes at the box office. Perhaps the most infamous sexploitation film is the Penthouse Films-produced 1979 historical epic Caligula, which was banned in several countries for its explicit sexual content.

Actor Tony Moran on the set of Halloween
American actor Tony Moran on the set of Halloween, written and directed by John Carpenter. Corbis / Getty Images

Slasher Films

There are a number of subgenres of exploitation horror films, such as giallo films (Italian-made horror movies), creature features (like those made by Roger Corman), rape and revenge films (such as 1978's I Spit on Your Grave), and splatter films (gore-heavy movies like 1963's Blood Feast).

Though the slasher film genre grew into its own horror film subgenre with the success of major franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series, the slasher film genre originated as a low-budget, gore-filled exploitation film subgenre in the wake of the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and perhaps the most popular slasher film, Halloween (1978).

Actors Mel Gibson and Hugh Keays-Byrne
American actor Mel Gibson and English actor Hugh Keays-Byrne on the set of Mad Max written and directed by Australian George Miller. Corbis / Getty Images

Ozploitation Films

Independent low-budget movie industries in several countries produced their own exploitation films, often filtered through their own cultures. One of the most popular is Ozploitation films, which originated in Australia in the early 1970s. Ozploitation films cover a variety of subgenres, including horror films, like 1971's Wake in Fright (which was released under the title of Outback internationally), sex comedy (1973's Alvin Purple), and martial arts (1975's The Man from Hong Kong). The most popular Ozploitation film is George Miller's Mad Max (1979), an action movie which became a major international hit and helped Mel Gibson become a Hollywood star.

Modern Exploitation Films

Though the number of independent movie houses has declined in recent decades, many exploitation films still are released as straight-to-DVD and straight-to-VOD movies, particularly creature features, martial arts films, and internationally-produced horror movies. In addition, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth have been influenced by exploitation films and have incorporated aspects of exploitation films into their work.