The Driller Killer (1979) – By Roger Carpenter


Notorious more for being banned in Great Britain during the video nasties scare than for its content, The Driller Killer has been banned, chopped up, cut, censored, and, along the way, become a cult classic horror film. Though Director Abel Ferrara dismisses the film as simply something made to cash in on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre craze, many critics hail the film as a “thinking man’s slasher film”.

By now the story is well-known: Reno (Ferrara using the pseudonym Jimmy Laine) is a down-and-out painter sharing a poverty-row apartment with two women. Reno’s girlfriend, Carol (Carolyn Marz), is perhaps a little too high-society for Reno while the other girl, Pamela (Baybi Day), is simply a junkie hanger-on. Reno is a man clinging to the edge of life. He is destitute—Carol is paying the bills—and is perhaps suffering from “painter’s block” caused by the pressure of working on a painting he hopes will be his breakthrough as an artist. Enter a punk rock band that call themselves The Roosters who move into the flat above Reno’s place. In typical drunken, punk-rock fashion, the group practice day and night. They are so loud it makes it hard for Reno to work, placing additional pressure on him. He suffers a psychotic break and, during a handful of blackouts, he takes a drill and begins a bloody murder spree.

The film has become famous for several reasons—most notably for an infamous murder scene in which Reno shoves a drill bit into a bum’s forehead, scrambling his brains as the blood pours from the wound. The video cover for the film was a shot of this gory scene and, along with a handful of other lurid video covers, would usher in Britain’s Video Nasty era. Typical, however, of many video nasties, the film isn’t nearly as brutal as its reputation. Perhaps almost as famously, Ferrara opts to go to a black screen (red in the U.K.) during one of the murders. As Ferrara has explained, the choice was more about not filming a how-to for street murders than any self-censoring by the director. However, before the advent of the Internet, rumors abounded about “lost footage” of this scene. The gossip was the scene was simply too barbaric to show to the public. The reality is the scene was never simply never shot, either for aesthetic choices or, more likely, due to time and budgetary constraints.

Speaking of budget, another reason the film has become so well-known is for its raw, gritty feel, similar to a documentary in some scenes. Ferrara, a lifetime resident of the Big Apple, shoots a late-seventies, pre-Giuliani, New York that is gritty, grimy, and filled with homeless boozers and gutter-dwellers. This New York is dirty and garbage-filled—so dirty, in fact, that one wonders why Carol doesn’t shy away from touching the buttons on a pay phone for fear of catching some terrible disease. And while some of the bums in the film are staged, sadly, many shots are real. It captures an authentic New York before the clean-up. The result is a depressing, nihilistic atmosphere that makes one wonder why anyone would choose to live in the squalor depicted in the film. Shot over a period of time that spanned 1977 and 1978, and shot mostly on weekends, Ferrara managed to make a quality film with almost no money, with no permits, and with no real support. This is true guerilla film-making in its purest sense.

As everything comes to a head, Reno becomes more and more despondent until he finally snaps. At this point, he embraces the violence simmering within him and the film becomes a revenge picture as he tracks down the people who have hurt him most, like his agent who has recently dismissed him as “merely a technician” and Carol, who has left him for better prospects. Ferrara, proving he is more than merely a first-time feature director, elevates the film from other slasher films of the period with the ending to The Driller Killer. Shocking more for when Ferrara chooses to end the film than for anything that is actually done, it is a brave ending that some viewers may see as a cheat. I, for one, find it refreshing.

The film is a powerful document of a decadent, late-seventies New York scene. Overwhelmingly depressing and bleak, it’s a wonder The Big Apple didn’t produce more serial killers during this era. The film reminds me of another gritty, low-budget film by the name of Combat Shock, shot nearly a decade later in the same environs as The Driller Killer.

Arrow Video has released the film in an extremely limited (2,500 copies) Steelbook edition as well as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo. The presentation comes in two different versions: the uncut theatrical version, which runs 96 minutes, and an extended, “director’s cut,” which features five additional minutes of footage cut before general release. The “cut” footage doesn’t add any violence or gore but does extend a few scenes of characterization. Both versions are available in 1:85:1 as well as 1:37:1 aspect ratios. Arrow has given the film a new, 4K restoration. While the film looks terrific and probably will never look better, there is still significant grain noticeable. I mention this not as a criticism of Arrow but because, in this case, the extra grain really helps the atmosphere of the film, essentially a grindhouse movie shot directly on grindhouse turf. Arrow has also chosen to keep the original 1.0 mono soundtrack, which is low and muddy. The opening of the film includes a title card that reads, “The film should be played LOUD,” which is true, as it’s the only way to really hear everything that’s being said. Thankfully, Arrow has included optional English subtitles in case the sound isn’t clear enough for the viewer.

Arrow also includes some significant special features such as Ferrara’s little-seen love letter to his New York neighborhood, a full-length documentary entitled Mulberry St., shot in 2010. Filmed during Little Italy’s annual street festival, Feast, it’s a unique film in that, as far as I could tell, there was no real script or screenplay. The film opens with no real introduction and simply shows Ferrara walking through the neighborhood over 11 days, meeting his longtime friends and many local characters. It’s interesting as a snapshot into Ferrara’s life and ruminations about life. Ferrara again appears in an exclusive audio commentary, moderated by Brad Stevens, who wrote a book on Ferrara. In both the commentary and the documentary, Ferrara comes across as very New York, very down-to-earth, very real. He is a man used to saying what he feels without worrying about any fallout. He is simply very authentic and occasionally really funny, as when Stevens asks him what he remembers about his make-out scene with Carolyn Marz in the taxi. Ferrara’s comment: “Man, I remember the way her titties felt.”

Also included is a short interview with Ferrara as well as Ferraraology 101, a visual essay a guide to Ferrara’s film work. At nearly an hour, it’s a great overview of his work, but seems a little rushed at the end. A short film trailer for The Driller Killer is included as well.

Arrow has put together a very nice package of this cult classic horror film. Both combo and steelbook versions are available through Amazon or you can go directly to Arrow Film’s website at: