David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970) is notorious for being the first film to be rated X for its violence rather than its sexual content (although, this being an exploitation film, it has plenty of both). It’s also notorious for being part of a popular double-bill with I Eat Your Skin, which was actually a film called Zombies from 1964; distributor Jerry Gross of Cinemation Industries was on a gastronomic kick, apparently. That double feature seems particularly out-of-whack when you consider that 1964 is an eternity away from 1970. The dramatic political and social unrest of 1968 stood between, as well as two groundbreaking, edgy horror films from that year that helped redefine the parameters of the genre: Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead. I Drink Your Blood has a little of both in its bloodstream, mixed with an infection of the rabies virus and frothing at the mouth. At least, that’s what happens to the sadistic members of the mini-cult S.A.D.O.S. (Sons and Daughters of Satan). As Manson-esque leader Horace Bones (Indian-born actor Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, with a voice like Ricardo Montalban’s) tells his followers: “Let it be known, son and daughters, that Satan was an acid head. Drink from his cup, pledge yourselves, and together we’ll all freak out!”
The film opens with the evil hippies enacting a Satanic ritual in the woods, slitting the throat of a (real) chicken and dripping its blood on their naked bodies. When Sylvia (Iris Brooks) is caught spying on the proceedings, she’s gang-raped, though the film – or at least this cut of it – spares us the details; come the morning, she’s wandering out of the woods, in a daze. The gang rides into town, then abandons their colorfully painted vehicle, frivolously, by pushing it off a steep ravine while one of their members is napping inside (afterward, he’s not amused). Discovering that the town is mostly abandoned, populated by construction workers building a dam, the members of S.A.D.O.S. settle into an empty hotel by rounding up its numerous rats and roasting them for dinner in a big rat-kabob. When adolescent Pete (Riley Mills) and his grandfather (Richard Bowler) stumble across the vagrants, Gramps is roughed-up and dosed with LSD. Pete invents a novel revenge. After blasting a rabid dog with a shotgun, he draws the rabies-infected blood into a syringe, then spikes his mother’s meat pies fresh out of the oven, to be served up to the cultists for breakfast. His mother, Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks), says glowingly, “We’ll make a baker out of you yet, Pete.” The boy replies, grimly: “No, I’m going to be a veterinarian.” We watch while the gang gobbles up their pies, replete with close-ups of their mouths and the amplified noises of chewing and swallowing, something guaranteed to be repulsive even without the knowledge of the pies’ secret ingredient. It should take at least a few weeks before symptoms appear, but this is a horror film, so we don’t have the time for that. Within a few hours the cultists are sweating and convulsing, and one of their members, Rollo (George Patterson), plunges into a homicidal psychosis, stabbing one man through the chest with a knife before picking up an axe and chasing the others around the hotel. As Gramps says, “What bothers me is that this hippie group is on hard drugs. Coupled with the rabies virus, it could cause unspeakable complications.”
LSD aside, writer/director Durston has a peculiar interpretation of the effect of rabies on humans. Becoming mad dogs, the cultists ooze white foam at the mouth (looking a bit like consumers of The Stuff, come to think of it). Even though a careful distinction is made between getting rabies and getting rabies while on drugs, by the time we arrive at the last leg of the film, any close-contact with the rabid cultists seems to be enough to turn someone frothing and homicidal, so that the disease spreads as quickly as a Romero-scale zombie invasion, and all of Valley Hills is quickly overrun. (The catalyst is one of the more promiscuous members of S.A.D.O.S., who spreads the virus after offering herself up for sex with the construction workers.) Then there’s the matter of “hydrophobia.” Those who contract rabies experience spasms and extreme pain when attempting to swallow water, thus rabies is sometimes referred to by this term. I Drink Your Blood takes hydrophobia literally, to the point that water becomes the crucifix/garlic/silver bullet to the rabid townsfolk. In one ludicrous scene, a rabid mob chases some police officers to a river, where the frantic police stoop over and start splashing the water at their pursuers, who recoil like vampires. Mind you, this is the kind of splashing that one would associate with a summertime water-park frolic – and not what you would expect as a suspense setpiece in the world’s first film to be rated X for violence. Having taken a few steps down this slippery slope, Durston finally gives us what we deserve: Mildred fighting off the madmen by spraying a hose in their faces.
The film does, however, feature a handful of disturbing scenes that point the way toward superior and black-as-pitch horror films to come, including The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The Manson Family-inspired cult, with its arrogance and streaks of sadism, is occasionally unnerving, as is the film’s one brief rape scene – in which a female cultist is dragged by a thug into a shower while she’s still convulsing from the rabies. But it’s the Mondo-style use of real animals that invariably gets under my skin. The rat-kabob and chicken-killing scenes are graphic and unsettling, and in the climax, one of the rabid killers is dragging the real and bloody corpse of a goat behind him. (According to the director, only the chicken was killed for the camera. Still…) The killings themselves are too unconvincing to have much of an effect – there’s a very fake-looking severed head being swung about in the climax – but I strongly suspect that the X rating was leveled due to the shot of a pregnant cultist stabbing herself in her round belly. It’s just another retractable knife, just more fake blood, but the idea is surely enough for the MPAA to break out the X and for I Drink Your Blood to be included in the clip show that the self-appointed moral guardian of the U.K., Mary Whitehouse, presented to a 1983 conference of Conservative members of Parliament (which ultimately led to the drafting of the “Video Nasty” list of banned films). Adding to the film’s disturbing atmosphere is an effective score by Clay Pitts (Female Animal), which uses ear-piercing, siren-like noises before and during scenes of violence. I Drink Your Blood is too clumsy, too goofy to be a completely effective horror film. (I haven’t mentioned Horace’s pirate sword, or the fact that their gang includes a Tarot-reading, middle-aged Chinese woman, for some reason.) But given that Durston was handed the assignment to make a film like Night of the Living Dead, he can take comfort that he essentially beat Romero to The Crazies (1973). I prefer The Crazies.