The Horror Legacy of Rudy Ray Moore

Let’s not forget the gonzo macabre films from the man behind ‘Dolemite.’
Disco Godfather
Vinegar Syndrome + Xenon Pictures
By  · Published on October 29th, 2019

Rudy Ray Moore, the self-proclaimed “ghetto expressionist” behind two of the wildest 1970s cult films is receiving newfound attention thanks to the Netflix biopic Dolemite Is My Name. Moore’s first two films, Dolemite (1975) and The Human Tornado (1976), were so popular that we easily forget he was more than just his dadbod kung fu character. While staying true to his raunchy comedy self, Moore’s subsequent two films, Petey Wheatstraw (1977) and Disco Godfather (1979), pushed his style to surprisingly macabre places, creating films that should be remembered as examples of the horror-noire genre.

Written and directed by frequent Moore collaborator Cliff Roquemore, Petey Wheatstraw follows the title character (Moore), nightclub comedian and kung-fu master who, after being gunned down at a funeral by some underworld thugs, strikes a deal with the Devil. He will get his life back, but only if he marries the Devil’s famously ugly daughter. He agrees and imbued with the supernatural powers of Satan’s mighty cane, Petey wages war on the nightclub owners who put the hit out on him, all while scheming a way out of getting hitched in Hell.

Petey Wheatstraw is a raunchy horror-comedy influenced by the pop-horror of the mid-’70s while still leaning into Moore’s hilarious low-budget aesthetic. A scene in which Petey wreaks psychic havoc is an obvious riff on the previous year’s release Carrie. While it doesn’t look nearly as good as Brian De Palma’s famous prom scene, the wholehearted attempt is as endearing as the costumes the film’s demons wear, which are reminiscent of children’s theatre.

Moore’s character in Petey Wheatstraw also evokes the sensibilities of a late-night horror host, complete with spooky rhythm, raunchy double entendres, and a fourth wall made to be broken. You can imagine Petey rubbing shoulders with everyone from Elvira and Svengoolie to even Coffin Joe, the Brazilian film icon and horror host created and performed by Jose Mojica Marins.

Coffin Joe features in a series of films that Moore’s later works have been compared to. Like Petey Wheatstraw, he is an emblematic character played by an unmatchable showman, despite Marins’ films being much darker than Moore’s. But the comparisons to Moore is really less in who the character is and more in the style and visual language of Marins’ films. Beginning with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), the Coffin Joe series is filled with Halloween motifs and swirling dark imagery for its ghouls to maniacally emerge from, rushing at the screen in a hallucinatory haze.

The influence of Marins’ dreamy style is perhaps most evident in Moore’s final film of the 1970s, Disco Godfather. Equal parts disco odyssey, kung-fu comedy, and horror film, it’s Moore at his most magnetic and boisterous. Written and directed by J. Robert Wagoner, the film follows Moore as Tucker, an ex-cop turned club owner who starts a crusade against the new street drug Angel Dust after his nephew is pushed into a bad trip. Like Petey Wheatstraw, this isn’t conventional horror, but it is filled with drugged-out visions of Hell that look to not only be inspired by the spookiness of Coffin Joe but also the expressionism of Mario Bava and the white-faced demons of ’60s Japanese horror films.

The wack-fueled hallucinations –  demonic basketball players, EC Comics skeletons, ghoulish Sergio Stivaletti-style Angels of Death – were in part brought to life by Disco Godfather’s art director, Robert A. Burns. And, if you look at his resume, you can see why they are so damn good. This is a man who was just coming off of both Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes before going on to work with some of the biggest names in the genre, like Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and Larry Cohen. Hell, he even worked on Microwave Massacre, a tasteless horror-comedy classic that would have been right up Moore’s raunchy alley. Burns knew his horror, and that knowledge helps make Disco Godfather’s spooky beats pop over 40 years later.

But Disco Godfather was rated PG, which many felt castrated Moore’s trademark dirty humor, especially with the film’s gonzo anti-drug PSA tone. In spite of this rating, the filmmakers resisted cringeworthy afterschool-special tropes by really emphasizing the story’s horror beats with an undercurrent of disquiet and malaise in its addiction urban legends. These real-life horrors, along with healthy doses of spooky viscera, are what earn Disco Godfather its horror-noire stripes.

The film’s nightmare energy crescendos in the finale as Tucker is force-fed Angel Dust through a gas mask, turning a drug den into a house of horrors. And while you can poke fun at the over-the-top zeal of Moore in this moment, the last shot is a jarring, brain boiling cap on an ending that must be seen to be believed. Which is a perfect summation of Rudy Ray Moore’s four-film run in the ’70s. He’s a filmmaker that wanted to shock you, push you off balance, leave you feeling something. Typically it was with his balls-to-the-wall humor, but especially with Disco Godfather, he had more macabre tricks up his sleeve than we’ve given him credit for.

I’m not saying that Rudy Ray Moore was a master of horror. But the fact remains that of the four films he put out in the ’70s, half of them are quasi-horror, which means he deserves to be remembered for his contributions to the genre. He helped create some of the most unique, bizarre horror moments of the decade. These films aren’t horror-noire classics like Abby or Blackenstein: they are something else entirely. Something else that, again, you’ve just got to see to believe.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)