In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Exploitation Film

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductions
  • Encyclopedic Overviews and Guides
  • Anthologies

Cinema and Media Studies Exploitation Film
Ernest Mathijs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0096


Exploitation film is a type of cinema, often cheaply produced, that is designed to create a fast profit by referring to, or exploiting, contemporary cultural anxieties. Examples include films about drug use, nudity and striptease, sexual deviance, rebellious youths or gangs, violence in society, xenophobia, and fear of terrorism or alien invasions. Ostensibly, exploitation films claim to warn viewers about the consequences of these problems, but in most cases their style, narrative, and inferences celebrate (or “exploit”) the problem as much as critiquing it. The low costs of production allow for quick turnarounds, enabling the exploitation film to address issues of high topicality. This also gives the films a ragged and rickety look that often fits the marginality of their topics. Within the exploitation film, numerous small and sub-genres operate, many of which are highly formulaic. To further complicate matters, the term “exploitation” is not uncontested. Terms such as “grindhouse,” “trash,” or “cult” (or “cinéma bis” in French) are often used to denote (largely) the same films. Because of the low reputation of the exploitation film, scholarship has long remained scarce. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a steady increase in attention, much of it propelled by fan scholarship from outside the academic world. Overall, the history of the exploitation film is divided into a “classical” period, which runs roughly until the 1960s, and a “modern” period. The classical period is characterized by production routines that mimic those of Hollywood, with the key figure that of the showman-producer, and by provocative marketing and advertising, renegade distribution, and scattershot reception patterns. The modern period is distinguished by a higher degree of explicit material in the films, as well as a larger sense of self-awareness in its presentation to viewers, meaning that exploitation films knowingly place themselves in an existing tradition, commenting on the very notion of “exploitation” and catering to audiences who know what they will be accessing. This self-awareness has led scholars to observe that the viewing tactics audiences employ for exploitation films simultaneously celebrate and ridicule the films, thus upsetting distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture. In the modern period the key figure is that of the auteur-director. The classical period of exploitation film is largely studied through a historical lens, whereas the modern period has led to extensive theorization of viewing practices. This focus on viewing practices is partly the result of the increased visibility of exploitation fandom, and of the wide variety of forms of exhibition (such as drive-ins, video, festivals, cable television, DVDs), through which modern exploitation films can be consumed. Because of this focus on viewing practices, it can be argued that the exploitation film is no longer a type of film, but rather a kind of film viewing.

General Overviews and Introductions

This heading collects writings that have argued for the exploitation film to be a research subject in its own right, and that offer an introduction into its most common practices, themes, and receptions. Definitive overviews of exploitation film are rare. Most studies limit their range to particular areas of the field, especially those covering the modern period. One reason for this is the unwieldy nature of the topic. As a phenomenon in the periphery of what cinema should be, the exploitation film resists easy categorization and definition, and as a result its scholarly study often finds itself on the defensive, arguing for even a reason to be considered a legitimate object of research. Two of the earliest attempts to overview exploitation films, Ferrer 1963 and Hitchens 1964, demonstrate this position, as well as trying to tackle the subject using an ironic approach. The very struggle for a definition is shared by most sources listed below, and this has led to a situation in which overviews of the exploitation film have had to devote a lot of energy discussing meta-definitions (definitions of definitions). They have also tried to connect the study of exploitation to other areas of film studies deemed more legitimate and functionalist, such as gender studies, censorship, or pedagogy (see the authoritative works Cook 2005, Schaefer 1994, and Schaefer 2007, respectively). Alternatively, this separation from the mainstream of film studies has led to overly celebratory overviews from—predominantly—fan-scholars (e.g., Stevenson 2003). Their importance and influence on the study of the exploitation film cannot be underestimated. If nothing else, their efforts have given research into exploitation films a grassroots base, a constituency of readers and commentators with whom academics find themselves in continued debate. Some of this debate centers around the necessity (or refusal of it) for theorizing exploitation film, and it is for this reason that most overviews of the field are light on theory (see Theories of Exploitation Film for more on this subject). Another common interest of overviews of exploitation films is a historical framework, or a desire to help write the history of the subject. Because of the historical tendency to present North American exploitation film as the exemplar, or even the model, for the genre, sources that present a wide overview of that region have been included under the general overview heading (see Schaefer 1999 for arguably the most commanding study of this kind). Preference has been given to concise introductory texts.

  • Cook, Pam. “The Pleasures and Perils of Exploitation Films.” In Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. By Pam Cook, 52–64. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    This is the most complete of three essays on the topic by the author. Cook 1976 (discussed under Theories of Exploitation) laid out a theoretical framework, while Cook 1985 (under Women Exploitation Auteurs) stresses an auteurist perspective. Cook’s core concern is the difficulty of defining exploitation cinema as a genre or a mode of filmmaking.

  • Ferrer, Frank. “Exploitation Films.” Film Comment 2.6 (Fall 1963): 31–33.

    Eccentric and idiosyncratic, but valuable because it is one of the earliest attempts to define exploitation film while it was at a crossroads—in between classical “moral danger” film and modern risqué film—and also because it highlights core industry practices.

  • Hitchens, Gordon. “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth About Exploitation Films.” Film Comment 3.2 (Spring 1964): 1–13.

    In the form of an interview, this discussion covers the definition, industry practices, and the crossover between mainstream cinema and exploitation film (Errol Flynn is a case in point). Also notes the shift from classical to modern exploitation film (and names Blood Feast [1963] as key in that process). Partially refutes the claims of Ferrer 1963.

  • Schaefer, Eric. “Resisting Refinement: the Exploitation Film and Self-Censorship.” In Special Issue: Exploitation Film. Film History 6.3 (Fall 1994): 293–313.

    Part of a special issue on exploitation film. Highly valuable for its discussion of the relationship between exploitation film practices and institutions of censorship (such as the MPPDA). Focuses mostly on the classical exploitation film and the 1920s and 1930s. Mark Langer’s editorial introduction to this essay is also useful.

  • Schaefer, Eric. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

    The most complete and thorough overview of early and classical exploitation film in the United States. Because of its scope and range, this is essential reading for any understanding of exploitation film. Schaefer covers the origins and history of exploitation and also offers a comprehensive definition and a good insight into industry practices. Types of exploitation films that receive particular attention include the drug film and the sexploitation film. Appendixes include an exhaustive filmography.

  • Schaefer, Eric. “Exploitation Films: Teaching Sin in the Suburbs.” Cinema Journal 47.1 (2007): 94–97.

    DOI: 10.1353/cj.2007.0059

    A short, astute, and clearly voiced practical introduction to the status of exploitation film as a subject of pedagogy and academic research. Largely jargon-free, yet scholarly in its aims and approaches. Probably the ideal introduction to the topic for any student.

  • Stevenson, Jack. Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist. Manchester, UK: Headpress, 2003.

    One of the most concise and easily accessible introductions to exploitation film, written by one of the leading fan-scholars active in the field. Stevenson introduces key features such as exploitation acting and stardom, cult cinema, the aesthetics of trash, and camp viewing. The tone is celebratory.

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