The Video Nasties #72 – The Driller Killer (1979, Abel Ferrara)

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‘I can’t work with those guys playing that loud music.’

‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD’ screams the opening title card of The Driller Killer, setting the tone for a grimy, scuzzy punk rock horror drama about the creative process.

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New York native Abel Ferrara’s second film as director, after the little-seen 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, is one of the films that inadvertently kickstarted the whole Video Nasties phenomenon. The grisly cover art, showing a man having his head drilled into, was used alongside SS Experiment Camp and Cannibal Holocaust in a trade magazine in the early 80s, causing a series of complaints that led to the government getting involved. However, unlike SS Experiment Camp, The Driller Killer is actually a very good film from a director who would go on to become a fairly well-respected auteur director who worked with major Hollywood stars, although, like fellow provocateur David Cronenberg, he’s found it hard to get projects off the ground recently.

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Ferrera himself (under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine) stars as struggling artist Reno Miller. Ferrara (looking like John Travolta’s junkie brother) anchors the film with his whacked-out performance, delivering scathing monologues with a venom that seems to come from a place of pure misanthropy.

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If the film is about anything, it’s about the difficulties in creating art. Miller is struggling to finish his new painting, and anyone who’s ever tried to create something will relate to his struggles. A creative block, not knowing when to stop, no money, distractions, no appreciation; poor old Reno has all of the above, so when a punk rock band, Tony Coca-Cola & The Roosters move in above him, he can be forgiven for snapping. He buys a portable battery pack and rampages through New York, drilling vagrants to death. Okay, so maybe he takes his frustrations a bit too far, but noisy neighbours man. They’re the worst.

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I once lived for six months below some jackass who was learning guitar, and every night he played the same blues scale over and over and over again until I thought I could take it no more. If I’d had a drill at that time, I don’t know what I would have done. Maybe Miller should have just gone upstairs and drilled the band to death instead of all the innocent homeless guys he slays?

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Luckily for the viewer, The Roosters are a great band and the perfect soundtrack to this DIY punk rock movie. Shot on grainy 16mm photography, Ferrara clearly has real talent for powerful imagery and though the first kill doesn’t come until the 43-minute mark, it’s never boring.

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It’s worth pointing out for those expecting a carnival of blood and guts that The Driller Killer is mostly a movie about one man losing his grip on reality. The murders, when they do come, are graphic and intense but only take up a very small part of the film. But for folk who love seeing old New York when it was still a real pit and getting a glimpse into the underground punk scene of the time, then this is definitely one to check out.

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