The Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979)

posted in: Duane, Review | 0
A struggling artist in desperate need to sell a painting finds his mind beginning to unravel as day to day annoyances build and weigh on his subconscious. He takes to the streets of New York with a power drill, annihilating the undesirables that reside there.

Abel Ferrara’s (Bad Lieutenant, Ms. .45) magnum opus is still as relevant today as it was in 1979. Shocking and poignant, The Driller Killer is a scathing look at humanity and all of the filth and disease this world is riddled with; and dares to offer a bloody and violent solution. This film is so deeply layered I’m almost reticent to try and do it justice with mere words, and I daresay it’s possibly one of the most important films to come out of America in the late 70s. Rife with scathing social commentary, The Driller Killer combines elements of horror, punk rock, surrealism, and even at times has an almost guerilla documentary feel to it. Lesser films would crumble under the weight of such a magnitude of elements, but Ferrara manages to blend it all together perfectly into an experience that remains unparalleled to this day. Originally The Driller Killer was intended to be a film along the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but it manages to have more in common with Taxi Driver, which speaks volumes of the versatility and exceptionality contained therein.

The story revolves around a man named Reno (played brilliantly by Ferrara himself), a struggling painter living in a tenement loft in a seedy area of New York with his girlfriend and an extra-curricular female roommate. Times are tough but the girls like to waste money on frivolities like electricity and talking on the phone. Reno is working on his masterpiece, which he hopes to be able to sell to his art dealer in the near future. It seems the whole world is out to get Reno, as he is assaulted on a day to day basis by omnipresent irritations and people just generally being assholes. He’s forced to deal with vagrants constantly, his landlord has rented the apartment upstairs to an up and coming punk rock band who rehearse day and night, his girlfriend is disenchanted and more interested in fucking their strung out female roommate rather than giving Reno the time of day. The pressures of life finally begin to chip away at his sanity as he struggles to complete and sell the painting before going broke without compromising his artistic integrity. Unable to cope he decides to use his power drill for a little street sweeping.
Right from the opening scene The Driller Killer gnashes its teeth at society and its ills. Homophobia, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, loss of faith, hedonism, mental illness, and the ugliness of capitalism are widely explored themes that grip the viewer and refuse to relent as we are dragged along for the ride into Reno’s steady descent into madness. His character is a metaphor for the lost, the stepped on, the overlooked, and the betrayed individual that dwells within all of us. The choice of the power drill as a tool to cleanse society of that unwanted, sick, parasitic element is a brazen “fuck you” to the world as social detritus is fucked to death by his drill of hate, no longer allowed to cower in the corner and suckle at society’s masticated teat. The aforementioned band Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters serve as a catalyst to Reno’s need to cleanse, representing the arrogant hedonism in society’s bowels as they bleed forth their inexorable cacophony at all hours of the day and night, enchanting his girls and generally imposing their will upon him as he inches further into madness and desperation. Tony is the antithesis of Reno; boisterous, arrogant, and outgoing. In many ways Tony is the physical manifestation of a society that has wronged Reno.COSDS-The-Driller-Killer00007
Reno’s masterpiece serves as the fulcrum to the film; an exquisite painting of a wild buffalo, rushing toward the canvas with eyes blazing. As the viewer is forced to examine the buffalo at great length throughout the entire film, many things come to light. The buffalo is truth. The buffalo shows Reno his possible future (in the form of witnessing his own visage being showered with a fountain of blood as he maniacally drills an unseen victim to death) and he has a strange connection to the painting. The buffalo is the only reason that that trio of malcontents are still together in that dingy studio apartment; its promise of prosperity is a way for the girls to effortlessly continue their pointless existence. The painting is both an obsession and a curse to Reno, as it seems to hold his very survival in the balance. In essence it is a symbol of the struggle between good and evil that dwells within all mankind.

The Driller Killer was successfully prosecuted under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act in the early 80s – all part of that whole “Video Nasty” idiocy; according to Principal Examiner at the British Board of Film Classification Mike Bor: “The Driller Killer was almost single-handedly responsible for the Video Recordings Act [of] 1984” (based almost solely on the cover artwork).Rest assured, The Driller Killer does contain its share of shocking moments, but it’s not some obscene gorefest by any stretch of the imagination. The kill scenes are ferocious and brutal, containing a stark realism to them that convinced many upon release that they had just watched a snuff film. There’s also a mild smattering of T&A to round things out, but The Driller Killer is so much more than blood and tits. In addition to its beauty and grittiness, there’s so much more to experience; amid its numerous layers this film has a lot to say.


The Driller Killer is as important of a film as it is notorious. This is unquestionably essential viewing.
Official COSDS Nunspank Rating:


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Duane co-founded The Church of Splatter-Day Saints in 2005. When not immersed in film he's enjoying good whiskey, smoking meat in the backyard or thinking about sluts. He makes a damn fine habanero fire sauce.

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