Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street by Preston Fassel
Encyclopocalypse Publications (December 7, 2021)
146 pages; $9.99 paperback, $3.99 Kindle
Reviewed by Damon Smith
The modern internet has made being a fan of genre film so much easier. Information is abundant on even the most obscure z-movie and new “boutique” Blu-ray labels seem to pop up overnight with lavish releases and restorations of dozens of obscure horror, action, and exploitation films. The scene has come a long way from trading bootleg tapes at cons or mailing out orders cut from fanzine pages, and a major figure at the very genesis of this movement was the late Bill Landis. His fanzine, Sleazoid Express, set the standard for what exploitation film journalism could be and acted as an ethnography to a culture that much of America was more than happy to sweep under the rug.
It is fitting, then, that in his biography, Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd, author Preston Fassel has crafted an account of “Mr. Sleazoid” that is both fascinating and deeply humanizing. A quick read compared to many biographies, Landis cuts right to the bone with a thorough dive into not only Landis’ life and times, but also the now-lost world of grindhouses and exploitation films he lived in. Starting right off with a prelude that perfectly frames the man Landis would become, Landis hits the ground running and never slows down.
From his childhood to his time in the porn industry as “Bobby Spector” to his tragic, early death; Fassel never hides the ugly sides of Landis’ life nor ignores the good aspects of Mr. Sleazoid, as he tells the story of a multifaceted man whose flaws cascade through his life and the people he meets. This dualism drives the narrative along and doesn’t let up until the final page — Bill Landis the creative, the junkie, the sarcastic writer, the somber journalist. It’s fascinating stuff, and almost unbelievable in how poetically “grindhouse” it feels in its retelling considering it happened to a man who would go on to be “the” voice in talking about exploitation films. Despite ostensibly being a piece of longform investigative journalism, the prose in Landis is breezy as it recounts it all without sacrificing depth; Fassel’s writing making what could be a heavy tale into a gripping read from beginning to end.
Alongside the biography, Landis also showcases a window into the New York of the 1970s and ’80s. The highs and lows of the life of the 42nd Street scene and the eventual death of its culture to make way for the modern tourist Mecca of the 21st Century, Time Square, lead to a poignant crescendo as a later chapter details Landis’ return to a far more “Disneyfied” New York, now seemingly in a much better place in his life. To say more would be a disservice to the book, but Landis creates just as vivid a snapshot of late-20th century New York City as any film set and filmed during those turbulent years.
Of course, Bill Landis left us in 2008, and it’s this passing that gives this book extra weight. The final chapter is particularly hard-hitting and — as a fan of this sort of cinema — it is surreal seeing past and present intersect in its final pages with more and more familiar names popping up. With many of the interview subjects in this book aging, and a few having passed during writing, it’s hard not to feel the shadow of death looming over many of the narratives in Landis — especially with the foreknowledge of what happened to Bill himself — but that gives weight to the importance of telling these stories while they still can be told; especially for a scene such as this that was ignored by the wider culture. When you combine all these factors, it is impressive what Fassel has managed to accomplish in a fraction of the pages other biographies take up and end on such a high, and affecting, note.
It has been a long time since Something Weird Video first started putting grindhouse mainstays such as Basket Case and Blood Freak to VHS to bring them to the masses, and even longer still since the lights died down on the 42nd Street of Landis, Milligan, and Henenlotter. In that time, exploitation films have gone from a dying breed to a focus of an entire cottage industry of historians, journalists, and restoration companies. Bill Landis was there at the start of this movement. His zine preserved a subculture, laid the groundwork for future genre writing, and turned a lens on topics that mainstream horror publications are grappling with to this day. Sleazoid Express was groundbreaking, and Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street gives the story of the man behind it all the same care that he gave to covering the life and death of 42nd Street and its films. For any fan of genre cinema, especially grindhouse flicks, this is a must read.