A collage of cult film posters.

A Journey Through the Fascinating Exploitation Cinema Movement

A collage of exploitation film posters. The films range from the 1950s to the 1970s.
A collage of exploitation film posters. Courtesy Yell! Magazine

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino released his film Death Proof. The film was part of a double feature along with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror; the entire film was called Grindhouse. The goal of Grindhouse was to recreate the experience of watching exploitation movies at double-feature showings in theatres referred to as grindhouses. Tarantino’s film, as did Rodriguez’s, paid homage to the exploitation cinema movement of the 1970s. Specifically, Death Proof emulates the slasher and muscle car genres.

Death Proof and Planet Terror come from a long line of movies from the 1970s. Collectively, these movies fall under the banner of exploitation cinema. But underneath this banner exists countless subgenres. This article examines the history of exploitation cinema, from its rise, decline, and rebirth. We’ll also take a look at some of the standout genres of exploitation cinema, and list some of the notable films in each genre. First, let’s define what exploitation cinema means.


In short, exploitation cinema is a movement where a film, often cheaply produced, is designed to generate a quick profit by referring or exploiting contemporary cultural issues. Some of these issues include nudity, racism, drug use, and violence. Supposedly, exploitation films attempt to warn viewers about the consequences of partaking in these issues. In most cases, though, these films celebrate or glorify controversial material, either through narrative or visual style. Oftentimes, the risque material of exploitation films generated huge profits for the filmmakers. Apparently, there was a sizeable portion of the population who wanted to see controversial material on the big screen.

The poster for the 1950s exploitation film Glen or Glenda. The poster sensationalizes the topic of a "sex change"
Exploitation films like Glen or Glenda addressed controversial topics, like gender change. Courtesy OpenEdition Journal.

The low production costs of many exploitation films give them a ragged and lurid look. This visual style only added to the controversial subject matter of these films.

As mentioned, multiple genres and subgenres exist within exploitation cinema. Over time, these genres and subgenres churned out highly formulaic films in order to grab a quick profit.

Now that we’ve defined exploitation cinema, let’s go on a journey through its history.


While exploitation cinema exploded during the 1960s and 1970s, it had been in place since the 1920s. It was during that decade when films featuring sex, sensational violence, drug use, and the bizarre became popular with audiences. In the 1930s and 1940s, exploitation films evaded strict censorship by claiming to be educational. This strategy created the cautionary film genre: movies that warned viewers of partaking in lurid acts. The usual content of these films was premarital sex and drug use. A famous film from this genre is 1938’s Refer Madness. This film warned young viewers of the dangers of marijuana use. By today’s standards, the film is quite tame and even comical.

The poster for Reefer Madness. The poster warns viewers that marijuana use leads to "drug crazed abandon". The people on the poster look like ghouls.
Refer Madness warned viewers of the dangers of marijuana use. Courtesy Wikipedia

Exploitation cinema continued to grow in the 1950s. During this decade, a slew of low-budget films were produced. These films were largely in the science-fiction, horror, and thriller genres. As is the case with other exploitation films, these low-budget productions were designed to net the filmmakers a quick profit.


Exploitation cinema truly became popular during the 1960s and 1970s. The main reason for this rise in popularity came from a relaxing of censorhip boards. The mainboard was the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code. The Hays code laid out was acceptable and unacceptable material to be shown in a film. The code was strictly enforced. It severely limited what a director could show in their film; this restricted their creative freedom.

The poster for Blood Feast. The poster advertises the the film's gore. The only color on the poster is blood red.
Films like 1963’s Blood Feast pushed the limits of what could be shown on the big screen. Courtesy IMDb

The code was enforced in 1934 and remained in place for 34 years. Then, in 1968, the Hays Code was replaced with the MPAA rating system. The Production Code had been in steady decline for many years, with several films pushing the boundaries of what could be shown. David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis produced gory horror films like Blood Feast (1963). George Romero released Night of the Living Dead in 1968. That film showed scenes of dismemberment and zombies eating human flesh; this was extremely graphic for the time. These examples show that filmmakers were becoming bolder in what they included in their movies. They were challenging the system.

A replacement ratings board was needed. The MPAA system gave films more freedom, largely due to the new rating system; for example, G for general audiences and R as in restricted. Now filmmakers can add lurid material to their films and market it to an R audience.

The King of Exploitation

Roger Corman on the set of one of his exploitation films. He is leaning out a car window holding a submachine gun.
Roger Corman was the king of exploitation cinema. He gave many famous directors their start in moviemaking. Courtesy IndieWire

The 1960s saw a boom period for exploitation films. And arguably the king of exploitation films was Roger Corman. Over his career, Corman either directed or produced more than 400 films. He made his films quick and cheap. Some notable Corman pictures include Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

Besides directing his own movies, Corman mentored and gave opportunities to several famous directors. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron all got their start directing low-budget films produced by Corman. Corman eventually created his own production company, New World Pictures. This company became one of the major players in the exploitation film industry, producing pictures like Death Race 2000 (1975).

Well into his 70s and 80s, Roger Corman continued to produce exploitation films. He gave many more directors their break into the film industry, mentoring and helping refine their craft.

Boom period

The film poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The poster features the villain, Leatherface, holding a chainsaw. A young victim is hanging from a meat hook.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was part of a boom period in exploitation cinema. Courtesy IMDb

As the 1970s began, exploitation cinema as a market exploded. The film industry was flooded with cheaply made films containing sensational material. While exploitation films were often associated with sleaze and violence, several important movies emerged during this era. Kim Henkel’s and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was made during this time. The film was shot on a shoestring budget and contained scenes of graphic violence. The gritty and realistic visual style of the film influenced many future directors and films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains an important piece of film history.

Some directors employed avant-garde and experimental techniques in their films. Jump cuts, freeze frames, and other editing tricks were used in many exploitation films. Read more about experimental filmmaking here.

Many directors used exploitation films to address contemporary social and political issues. Scholars argue that exploitation horror films of the 1970s attacked issues like the Vietnam War, the economy, and the women’s and civil rights movements. For example, the violence of a horror film mirrored the violence of the Vietnam War. Activist Robin Wood researched how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre critiqued the capitalist patriarchy. This goes to show that not all exploitation films were sleazy movies. Many addressed important issues of the day, something several mainstream movies did not do.

The Grindhouse

The marquee outside a grindhouse theatre. The marquee advertises the exploitation films "A Fistful of Talons" and "Kung Fu Zombie".
The typical marquee of a grindhouse theatre. Courtesy Geeks of Doom

With the popularity of exploitation cinema came a new type of theatre: the grindhouse. Grindhouse refers to a theatre that mainly shows exploitation films. So where did the “grindhouse” term come from? Some believe its origins lie in the burlesque theatres on New York City’s 42nd street. The main attraction in these theatres was the striptease and “bump’n’grind” dances. Once burlesque theatres became defunct, they were transformed into exploitation theatres. The new owners named their theatres grindhouses after the popular dances formerly shown in the building.

As grindhouses grew in popularity, filmmakers began to make movies specifically for these theatres. The films ranged from action to horror to even pornography. The quality varied, owing to the low budget of the films. But many grindhouse movies went on to become cult classics. To attract audiences, grindhouses offered double, triple, or all night showings for a single admission charge. That meant audiences could watch two, three, or as many movies as they wanted for a cheap price.

The advent of home video and cable movie channels spelt the end for grindhouse theatres. By the 1980s, grindhouses were obsolete. However, nostalgia for these theatres remains. Grindhouse theatres have their own cult following that remains strong today.

Modern exploitation

The exploitation cinema renaissance slowly declined after the 1970s. Low budget films were still made in the 1980s, but they did not attract the same large audiences of the 1970s. It seemed like exploitation cinema was dead.

Then, in the 1990s, a new crop of directors emerged who celebrated exploitation films. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez incorporated exploitation film elements into their own movies. The two would direct films for 2007’s Grindhouse, a celebration of grindhouse movies.

The poster for the double feature film Grindhouse. The poster for each film is featured. The overall poster is styled as a 1970s poster.
The 2007 film Grindhouse paid homage to exploitation cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Courtesy IMDb

There are other celebrations of exploitation cinema. 42nd Street Forever is a collection of trailers from various grindhouse movies. Several volumes have been replaced. But recently, DVD distributor Synapse Films compiled the best trailers from the volumes and released them on a single Blu-ray disc. This disk came out in 2012. With a runtime of over two hours, 42nd Street Forever is the perfect gift for exploitation film buffs.

Despite being long dead, exploitation cinema continues to generate a sizeable fanbase.

As mentioned, exploitation cinema has many genres and subgenres too numerous to mention. Here are some of the famous genres and subgenres. Example films for each category will be listed as well.


The poster for Shaft. John Shaft is featured firirng a gun.
Released in 1971, Shaft is regarded as the originator of blaxploitation. Courtesy IMDb

This genre emerged in 1970. Blaxploitation films were made specifically for urban black audiences. Consequently, blaxploitation films depict themes and material that African-American audiences could relate to: for example, racism, poverty, and inner-city violence. Most films in this genre were set either in New York City or Los Angeles, which had large black populations. The protagonists of these films were usually drug dealers, pimps, or gangsters. Antagonists tended to be corrupt white authority figures, such as politicians, judges, or police officers. A typical Blaxploitation plotline involved a black protagonist attempting to overcome adversity brought on by evil white people. In most cases, the black hero defeats the white villain. Other trademarks of blaxploitation films include ghetto settings and funk music soundtracks.

Debate surrounds blaxploitation’s origins. Some magazines name 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as the first film in the genre. The film, directed by Melvin Van Peebles, incorporates blaxploitation tropes: corrupt cops and black power. However, the film that truly began in the blaxploitation genre is 1971’s Shaft. Directed by Gordon Parks, Shaft‘s protagonist is a private detective, John Shaft. Shaft had all the things that make blaxploitation great: a charismatic hero, an urban setting, and a popular funk soundtrack.

The 1970s were full of blaxploitation films. The genre slightly declined during the 1980s. But the genre underwent a rebirth in the 1990s. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino released Jackie Brown, an homage to 70’s blaxploitation. Tarantino cast blaxploitation star Pam Grier as the protagonist, and the posters for Jackie Brown referenced Grier’s 1974 film Foxy Brown.

Cannibal films

The poster for Cannibal Holocaust. The poster shows still images from some of the film's graphic scenes. The poster plays up the film's horror through red and yellow colors.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is the most famous or infamous film in the cannibal film sub-genre. Courtesy IMDb

This exploitation cinema subgenre was a specialty of Italian filmmakers during the 1970s and 1980s. Most cannibal films depict cannibalism practised by primitive tribes located in South American or Asian jungles. Usually, an American or European explorer encounters the tribe and must escape them. 

Cannibal films are characterised by exotic locals and graphic and realistic violence. The violence takes many forms, such as rape, torture, and animal cruelty. The gory violence of cannibal films is considered the trademark of the genre.

The sub-genre officially started in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River. Lenzi’s film led to a boom period for cannibal films. This period lasted from 1977-1981. The year 1980 was a prolific period for cannibal films; several famous movies were made in that year. Most famous of all was Rugerro Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. This film lives in infamy for its graphic, realistic, and unrelenting violence. The violence was so realistic that Deodato was charged with the murder of one of the actresses. Despite the controversy, Cannibal Holocaust was an enormous success. However, Deodato’s film spelt the end of the cannibal film subgenre. The violence put off many people. Audiences realised how distasteful many of these movies truly were. By the late ’80s, cannibal films were all but over.

Slasher films

A collage of slasher film posters. Popular slahser films Hallloween and Friday the 13th are featured.
Slasher films were a popular genre during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Courtesy Bloody Disgusting

Arguably, slasher films are the most popular genre in exploitation cinema. The usual slasher film plotline centres around a psychopath stalking and killing a group of victims, usually teenagers or young adults. A famous slasher film trope is the final girl: a young woman left alone to confront and defeat the villain. Sex and drug use are other traits of slasher films.

Early slasher films include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas (1974) is considered the originator of the genre. Clark’s film introduced several slasher film tropes: the final girl, graphic violence, and adopting the killer’s perspective. But the movie that popularized slasher films was John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Carpenter’s film added additional tropes: the masked killer, the killer’s troubled past, and the victims being more interested in sex and recreational drug use.

Halloween set off an explosion of slasher films, all of which came in the 1980s. Some examples include Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984). Eventually, slasher films became highly formulaic. The genre petered out by the late 1980s. Slasher films did regain some popularity in 1996 with the release of Scream. But, the boom period for slasher films is over. However, the genre is still celebrated by horror film fans.


The film poster for Rabid. The poster features a young woman victim frozen dead in a freezer.
David Cronenberg’s Rabid was part of Canuxploitation, a wave of low budget horror films made in Canada. Courtesy IMDb

This subgenre hails from the Great White North. Canuxploitation refers to B-movies made in Canada. Film scholars also refer to this period of Canadian film as the “tax-shelter era”. This term comes from new regulations put in place by the Canadian government in 1974. The regulations intended to jumpstart the fledgeling Canadian film industry by providing filmmakers with tax breaks.

The tax-shelter era resulted in numerous low-budget horror films. Among them was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. David Cronenberg also got his start during this era. His films Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) are two cult classics of the Canadian horror film movement.

American directors started taking advantage of the tax breaks. These directors, whose films were rejected by Hollywood, went north to make their films quickly and cheaply. Other American directors used the system as a tax shelter as their films were not meant to turn a conventional profit.

Canuxploitation effectively ended in 1982 when tax breaks were lowered. Though many view the movement over, others argue Canuxploiatation continues to this day. The Canadian horror film Cube (1997) is viewed as a modern entry into Canuxploitation.

In the sea of exploitation film genres, Canada can lay claim to its very own, distinctive genre: Canuxploitation.

A unique film movement

The poster for a grind house film festival. The film advertised is I Drink Your Blood.
Many theatres hold film festivals that celebrate exploitation cinema. Courtesy New Beverly Cinema

Exploitation cinema has always been a part of film history. Since the 1920s, exploitation films have attracted audiences with controversial and sensational themes and material. The movement underwent a boom period in the 1970s. Out of that boom period came various subgenres: blaxploitation, cannibal films, slasher films, and Canada’s own Canuxploitation. The popularity of exploitation films resulted in theatres dedicated to showing these movies. They were called grindhouses.

After the 1970s, exploitation cinema slowly fell from the public eye. However, a new generation of directors rose to celebrate grindhouse movies. These directors placed references to exploitation films into their own movies. In 2007, the double-feature film Grindhouse was released. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino each directed their own exploitation film. In 2012, Synapes films released a Bluray collection of exploitation movie trailers. It was called 42nd Street Forever.

These recent releases demonstrate that exploitation cinema is not an extinct film movement. In fact, legions of film fans continue to celebrate this unique part of film history.

Check out more articles on film history and film culture. Or read more about pop culture and the arts.

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