I Drink Your Blood/Phobia (1971) ***
There are some things you really don’t want to be the first person to do, even if others are going to remember and possibly even respect you for it later. For example, although he practically built his career out of courting controversy, I seriously doubt that writer/director David E. Durston actually set out to make the first movie ever to which the MPAA assigned an X-rating solely on the basis of gore and violence. Nor can that movie’s producer and distributor, Jerry Gross, have been terribly happy with the distinction, for he went to great lengths to get the film down-rated to a more marketable R. This is not to say, however, that Gross had a single scruple about trading on the graphic bloodshed which he had so clumsily removed at the ratings board’s behest. By the time Durston’s Phobia arrived in theaters, it had been retitled I Drink Your Blood and paired with a rickety, unreleased mid-60’s voodoo movie to form a double feature that billed itself as “Two Great Blood-Horrors to Rip Out Your Guts!”
I Drink Your Blood is a movie that has been more talked about than seen since the 1970’s, but it merits closer scrutiny due to the influence it may have exerted upon important subsequent films. It is the earliest representative I’ve seen of the lineage that includes not only The Crazies and Cannibal Apocalypse, but the more recent 28 Days Later… as well. Like them, I Drink Your Blood invokes a psychoactive disease (rabies in this case) as an excuse to do something like a zombie gut-muncher without the zombies. At first, however, it looks like it’s going to be a hippy devil-cult movie of the sort that descended in droves upon the nation’s drive-ins in the aftermath of the Tate-LaBianca murders. Our cultists call themselves “Sadus, the Sons of Satan,” and their leader, Horace Bones (Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury), is a grade-A loony in the finest Mansonian tradition. The opening credits roll over Horace’s version of a black mass, in which he intones pompous weirdness (“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acidhead.”) while he and five of his seven followers stand around naked in the woods and drizzle blood from a chicken’s slit throat over the similarly nude body of cultist #6. Cultist #7 is not naked; this is probably because Molly is supposed to be pregnant with Horace’s child, while Rhonda Fultz, the actress portraying her, is merely fat. Unbeknownst to Horace and his circle, there’s a girl (probably Iris Brooks, of Guess What We Learned in School Today?) spying on them from behind a nearby tree. It’s Molly who finally notices the uninvited guest, after which Horace dispatches Rollo (God Told Me To’s George Patterson) and Shelley (Alex Mann, from Keyholes Are for Peeping and Microwave Massacre) to collect her. Andy (Tyde Kierney, later of Vampirella) assures Horace that everything’s okay— the spy is a local girl named Sylvia Banner, whom he invited to watch the meeting when they met and hit it off a day or two ago. Horace is not mollified.
We see just how unmollified he was when Sylvia staggers home the next morning, her dress in tatters and her body covered in scrapes and bruises. She’s apparently in shock as well, for neither her little brother, Peter (Riley Mills), her grandfather, Doc Banner (Richard Bowler), nor her friend, Mildred Nash (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks), can get her to speak and explain what happened to her. Mildred understandably believes Sylvia was raped, and she rushes off immediately to see her boyfriend, Roger Davis (Jack Damon). Roger is the chief engineer of the dam-construction project that has turned Pottersville into a ghost town of only 40 people (down from 40,000), and Mildred plausibly assumes that if Sylvia was raped, it was probably one of his men that did it. Roger isn’t happy to hear that, but he reluctantly agrees to look into it.
Meanwhile, Horace and his cult have had their van die on them, but Bones figures the secluded little spot where the breakdown occurred will serve perfectly well enough as a semi-permanent base of operations. That means Sadus will be staying put in what’s left of Pottersville, and that Sylvia and her family are far from done with them. Just about the only business left in town is Mildred Nash’s bakery, and that’s the first place Horace and company go. In addition to provisioning themselves for the day, they also ask Peter Banner (who works as Mildred’s assistant) if he knows a place where they can stay. The boy explains that not only the inn, but practically every house in the village is empty now in preparation for the drowning that will come whenever Roger’s dam reaches completion. He advises against staying at the inn, however, for it has lain abandoned the longest of the town’s deserted real estate, and is infested with huge and aggressive rats. The rats are somewhat lacking in deterrent value for the cultists, though, and they pitch their camp at the inn in short order.
Consequently, everyone knows just where to find the hippies when Sylvia finally emerges from her near-catatonia, and divulges the story of the attack. Doc Banner is furious, and he marches off with his shotgun that night to give Horace and the rest a piece of his mind. The old man’s arrival interrupts a rite whereby Rollo and Horace mean to test Shelley’s commitment, and while the cultists are quick with a cover story (they’re a troupe of itinerant actors, and this is just a scene they’ve been working on), it’s clear enough that Banner doesn’t quite believe them. This does not mean that Doc has the wariness and determination necessary to maintain control of the situation, however, and he is swiftly disarmed. Horace and Rollo beat the old man up and dose him with LSD; worse still would probably have befallen him had Peter not followed his grandfather out to the inn, but even Horace is reluctant to cut loose in front of a little kid. He and the other cultists merely throw a huge scare into the boy before sending him packing with his drug-addled granddad.
Now so far, the plot of this movie has basically amounted to a steady succession of bad ideas, the fallout of each inspiring an even worse idea in its turn. Well get ready for the prize-winner of them all. It turns out Doc Banner is called “Doc” for a reason— he’s the veterinarian around these parts. Meanwhile, Peter has been seeing a rabid dog roaming around in the woods for some time now. After bringing Doc home from his ill-starred confrontation with the cultists, Peter goes out and shoots the mad dog. Then he uses some of his grandfather’s veterinary equipment to extract a bunch of the animal’s infected blood. At the bakery the following morning, Peter spikes a batch of Mildred’s meat pies with the rabies-bearing dog blood, and insistently sells them to the hippies. Unfortunately, Peter seems not to have thought his revenge scheme through too clearly. Sure, the rabies will kill the cultists, but it will also make them crazy first— and with the exception of Andy (who breaks with the others in the aftermath of Doc’s visit, and is therefore not around for the infectious feast), they were all pretty fucking crazy to begin with! Within 24 hours, Shelley has been chopped to pieces by his erstwhile friends, Horace and Rollo are prowling the woods with bladed implements, Sue-Lin (Jadine Wong) is setting herself on fire in the street like a Vietnamese monk, and Molly and the unnamed cultist I had come to think of as the Mutie Cutie (Lynn Lowry, from Sugar Cookies and The Crazies) are giving Pottersville’s few remaining townspeople an education in the hazards of giving aid to strangers. Worse yet, another cultist whose name I didn’t catch (probably Arlene Farber, from Two Girls for a Madman and Girl on a Chain Gang) has sex with every single member of Roger Davis’s construction crew, creating an entire army of rabid roughnecks with access to all manner of potentially deadly equipment.
I know I should no longer be surprised by the impact that extensive, poorly executed censorship can have on a movie, but I Drink Your Blood really is an unusually extreme case. The R-rated version (which was the only one available for many years) is almost unwatchable— disjointed, confusing, timorously light on the promised mayhem, and above all dull. The original X-rated edit is another matter, though. Obviously there are some features of the film that no amount of editing was going to affect, one way or the other. Whichever version you watch, the acting is uneven, and the top of its range is low enough that Lynn Lowry can stand out from the crowd despite having not a single line of dialogue. Even the unexpurgated version has some serious holes in its plot (although not nearly as many as the R-rated cut), especially concerning the unaccountable failure of practically everybody to exploit fully the protection the river affords against attack by hydrophobic rabies victims. What comes through loud and clear in the X-rated edit, but was missing to a great extent from the previously available version, is I Drink Your Blood’s discomfiting overall meanness. The pregnant Molly’s final fate is a great shock set-piece, as is the grisly suicide of Sue-Lin. Horace Bones, in his studied mistreatment of his followers, plays like the even more evil twin of Alan from Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things; the aimless, mindless, pointless cruelty he cultivates throughout the film is more disturbing, in its way, than any of the bloody mutilations for which I Drink Your Blood was smacked down by the ratings board. And only the Mondo-style employment of lots of genuinely dead animals is more unpleasant than the sex scene at the construction site, which gradually devolves not just into gang-rape, but gang-rape that plays upon the rabies-sufferer’s well known aversion to water. I Drink Your Blood, in its pristine form, is an ugly, sinister film, of exactly the sort that makes the 70’s my favorite decade for cinematic horror.