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By Doug Brunell | June 1, 2004

The very first time I took a trip to New York City I was still in school. Junior high, if memory serves me correctly. One of the first things I remember seeing was a huge advertisement painted on the side of a dilapidated building. It was of Toxie and it said, “The Toxic Avenger — Coming Soon. Troma.” Or something very similar. I was in awe. This city was a movie lover’s paradise, and it was Heaven for fans of exploitation films. Little did I know that would eventually change.

New York’s finest cheap cinemas had the stink of decay about them. Semen, urine, sweat and blood mixed with pot smoke and vodka to produce a potpourri of vile few places have ever dared to match. It was the grindhouse enthusiast’s dream — and worst nightmare. These seedy cinemas, located in the heart of the city, were home to drug deals, prostitution, gay sex, seizures and so on. They were the perfect place to watch a kung fu flick, a slasher film or a drunk with a twitch.

They are mostly gone now. Replaced by Disney stores and family-friendly restaurants. Gone are the bums, the transvestite street walkers and myself. I haven’t been back to the 42nd Street area since it was “cleaned up,” and I don’t think I’ll ever return. I have no desire to see the future of America in the heart of Hell.

Few were surprised by the “renovation” of New York City. When it came to the theatres, we all knew it was only a matter of time. Once home video got a stranglehold on the market, there was no real place for these dens of filth anymore. The kinds of films that played in these theatres went straight to video or disappeared all together as lifestyles shifted. Few would see “Zombie” in the theatre when they could see it at home, and it was assumed the theatre crowds wanted something different anyway. The grindhouses couldn’t afford to show things like Return of the Jedi in its first run, either, and the new tourist crowd didn’t want to see “Dawn of the Dead.” So the theatres disappeared. The porn stores and strip clubs went, too. They were zoned out, shut down or ignored, and they died a torturous death. Someone somewhere determined that this was how it was supposed to be. This was the friendlier New York. This was the cleaner version. New York 2.0.

I always thought that theatre owners could’ve fought back, though. They could’ve turned to the more edgy indie filmmakers and said, “Give us something we can show on the big screen. Something that will pack them in like ‘Maniac’.” Instead, it seemed like there was a big miscommunication, and suddenly years of attempts by angry parents and lawmakers to stop these kinds of films and shut down the places that showed them had a very devastating effect.

Nobody wants to see The Great American Snuff Film in a Loews. In those wonderful days of yore, they may have had a chance to see it in some dank hole for a few bucks — where the film would’ve seemed at home. Now it is at home on the DVD player … and that makes the film, and films like it, lose something. They seem a little less dangerous. Hell, they are a little less dangerous. When you sat in one of those theatres viewing what the British called a “nasty,” you kind of wondered about the people seated around you. Were they fans like you, or were they really f****d up in the head and masturbating? It was guaranteed that at least one of them was doing that very thing.

You won’t find that at home … unless it’s you.

I hate to sound like a complainer, always whining about the “good ol’ days,” but these theatres are history. Now nearly every theatre is as sterile as a hospital when it comes to personality. They show safe films in safe environments. They offer “entertainment experiences” and feed us gourmet coffee. They are as inviting and familiar as a McDonald’s. And the movies they show are much the same way. Forgive me for complaining, but I want the filth to return. I long for the time when freaks and perverts could meet and partake in a group experience. I miss having the bad sound systems and the films that sometimes went out of focus. I miss the smells and the danger. And I miss the films that were the reason for the journey. Complainer? Yes. Whiner?

Most definitely. I’m very bitter, too.

New York City’s devastation was just one more step in the plan to make America as banal as the CBS network. Movies suffered for it. I suffered for it, and I imagine many of you did, too. Like the drive-in, these cinemas that offered the worst in exploitation are now bittersweet memories. It doesn’t matter what factors did them in. I’m still pissed it had to happen.

There really is no business like show business, but that business is really just a business these days. The shock is gone. The art is gone. The thrill is as dead as Princess Di. F**k you, Disney, and f**k you, Loews. You ruined the dream. May you rot in your Raisinet Hell.

Discuss Doug Brunell’s “Excess Hollywood” column in Film Threat’s BACK TALK section! Click here>>>

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