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25 Best Modern Exploitation Movies

From sex-and-violence revenge flicks to blaxploitation spaghetti Westerns, meet the new grindhouse classics

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Sex, violence, torn-from-today’s-headlines shockers, fast cars, faster pussycats, psycho killers and kids run wild — throw a few (or all) of these ingredients into a pot, let the whole thing boil over, and you have the recipe for some tasty exploitation cinema. Even if you didn’t grow up in the heyday of flea-pit grindhouse theaters and drive-in double features, you’ve probably seen the era’s sleazy, salacious output — the Nineties saw a serious reappraisal of vintage “sin-ema,” and it’s now possible to check out most of the legendary biker flicks, blaxploitation epics, chop-socky sagas, women-in-prison melodramas and other tawdry exercises in catering to audiences’ primal urges on DVD or Blu-ray.

But exploitation cinema never really went away — it just started playing different venues and took on slightly morphed, occasionally more “respectable” forms. A whole wave of movies influenced by yesterday’s Forty-Deuce classics have emerged in the last few decades, as well as numerous arthouse and A-list dips into depravity that deserve to have the “sploitation” suffix tacked on to their descriptions. Trash by any other name smells just as gloriously ripe.

So we’re counting down the best modern exploitation movies of the last 20 years, from 1995’s one-two punch of Kids and Showgirls to the more recent straight-to-the-gut appeals to filmgoers’ baser instincts. We’re staying away from blockbuster franchises that borrow exploitation’s building blocks (what are the Fast & Furious movies but updated carsploitation flicks high on nitro-fuel?) and just focused on the films that channeled that ol’ sticky-floored, grindhouse-magic feeling. Bring on the guilty pleasures.

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14

‘John Wick’ (2014)

Subgenres: Hitmansploitation, Revengesploitation, Chopsockysploitation
Talk about a movie that has its exploitative priorities in the exact right place. A revenge thriller blessed with a hundred-strong body count and motivated, no joke, by a dead pet dog, Keanu Reeve’s bid to jumpstart the late-act, Liam-Neeson-action-dad phase of his career hits you like a sharp elbow to the mug. The dry humor is a bonus (a five-star hotel that caters strictly to assassins!), but this is a genuine B movie, one that lives and breathes by its exploitation essentials: kinetic violence, half-naked women with oversized guns and mainlined alligator-brain sensations. EH

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13

‘The Paperboy’ (2012)

Subgenres: Southernsploitation, Noirsploitation, Urinatingonjellyfishwoundsploitation
Forget Precious; director Lee Daniels' wayward Pete Dexter adaptation, featuring a police line-up of Hollywood royalty slumming it as South Floridian swamplanders, now looks like the purest expression of its creator's gloriously tacky conviction. How else to explain Matthew McConaughey's naked BDSM motel romp, or John Cusack and Nicole Kidman's mental-telepathy sexcapade, or the extended scenes featuring Zac Efron showing off his tighty-whiteys? (Don't even get us started on the golden-shower jellyfish scene.) One part Southern Gothic noir, one part icky sex fantasia, and all parts what-the-fuck, this is a film that gleefully mines the lowest common denominator like it was an archeological dig. EH

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12

‘Ichi the Killer’ (2001)

Subgenres: J-sploitation, Yakuzasploitation, Ultraviolencesploitation
When Japanese auteur-rorist Takashi Miike's yakuza gorefest premiered at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, promotional barf bags were handed out, and it was no idle stunt. The movie's title is revealed rising from a pool of jizz left after our protagonist, in a black latex body suit, jerks off while watching a pimp rape a prostitute — and that's just the beginning of the vicious, cartoonish parade of depravity. It's 129 minutes that reads like one extended torture sequence. "If you're going to give someone pain, you've got to get into it," Ichi's real hero, young sadomasochistic gangster Kakihara, says at one point. To Miike's eternal credit, he's not just content to give that advice to his protagonist but to follow it to the letter himself. BG

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11

‘Black Snake Moan’ (2006)

Subgenres: Blaxploitation, Hillbillysploitation, Nymphosploitation
Writer-director Craig Brewer's follow-up to his pimps-hos-and-hip-hop hit Hustle and Flow by pushing everything to the max — unleashing a Southern-fried Seventies throwback in which sexual and racial grudges are negotiated via lock and chain. As provenance would have it, Samuel L. Jackson's embittered blues avenger is called to exorcise/imprison Christina Ricci's wounded harlot. "You watch yourself in there," he tells a visiting preacher-man. "Or that girl will be on your dick like stank on shit." In classic exploitation fashion, the film gets to have its sex and moralize about it too, keeping Ricci sweat-drenched in panties and a Confederate half-shirt until she changes her whoring ways — and until the provocation of a young white woman bound to an older black man yields to a half-hearted psychic breakthrough. EH

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10

‘The Duke of Burgundy’ (2014)

Subgenres: Eurosploitation, Sexsploitation, S&Msploitation
From chilly castled interiors to mysterious S&M gamesmanship, Peter Strickland's tale of a lepidopterist (Borgen's Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her faithful lady servant flawlessly evokes the look, language and tone of Seventies Euro-sexploitation. But while it dutifully piles on the kink, dropping references to golden showers and human toilets, this Sapphic pas de deux manages to become something truly unique: a clever treatise on roleplaying that still wallows in exploitation cinema's baser instincts. It’s neither a museum tour of grindhouse erotica's past nor a reinvention of the fetish genre — just a smarter, deeper, more consequential combination of the two. EH

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9

‘Baise Moi’ (2000)

Subgenres: Revengesploitation, Outlawsploitation, Thirdwavefeminismsploitation
A Thelma and Louise for the shock-cinema set, this French femme-revenge flick is in your face from the get-go: It's title translates as "Fuck Me" (or, per some alternate listings, "Rape Me"), and it only gets more aggressive from there. After a sex worker and her skinflick-actress friend are gang-raped, the duo hit the road and go on a crime spree; as they work their way up to becoming France's modern-day Bonnie et Bonnie, audiences are treated to a lot of graphic, hardcore sex and gory violence. Critics seized on novelist/filmmaker Virginie Despentes' background in the world's oldest profession and her co-director Coralie Trinh Thi's adult-film work, but as they pointed out to the press, Baise Moi is not porn — it's a provocation with penetration scenes and strong feminist viewpoint, shot in a seedy, grimy style that emphasizes a punk-as-fuck attitude. And like all good exploitation, you may love it or hate it, but you sure as hell can't ignore it. DF

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8

‘Django Unchained’ (2012)

Subgenres: Blaxploitation, Revengesploitation, Plantationsploitation
Set in American South a couple years before the Civil War, Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti Western/ slavery-revenge fantasy follows Jamie Foxx's freed hero and main Inglourious Basterd baddie Christoph Waltz as they set out to rescue a damsel in distress in service to Leonardo DiCaprio's comically despicable plantation owner. Django Unchained makes no qualms about depicting the antebellum South as a place of shameful, brutal atrocity, but don't call it a message movie; the fun you feel in watching our shameful history get a Shaft-style dose of payback channels the vintage exploitation epics that Tarantino cut his filmgoing teeth on. If you don't feel a twinge of giddy delight as Foxx blasts racists to oblivion, you are probably either a Confederate-flag flyer or dead from the brain down. KG

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7

‘The Raid’ (2011)

Subgenres: Siegesploitation, Gunsploitation, Chopsockysploitation
Welsh filmmaker travels to Indonesia, produces insane martial-arts extravaganza in the process. Admittedly, the story behind the making of this epic action flick — director Gareth Evans had been hired to helm a documentary in the Asian country when he became obsessed with the nation's pencak silat fighting style — is more nuanced than the premise, in which a loyal cop Rama (martial artist Iko Uwais) lays waste to different baddies inside a criminal kingpin's heavily guarded stronghold. But subtlety doesn't matter in a video-game movie like this; sheer mayhem does. And if nothing else, The Raid is an unapologetic orgy of kinetic kicking, punching, skull-crushing, firearm usage, blade handling and overall bodily harm. The 2014 sequel is arguably more off-the-hook, but in terms of catering to one's baser exploitation-movie instincts and cranking things to 11, you simply do not get better than this. TG

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6

‘Drive’ (2011)

Subgenres: Carsploitation, Lonersploitation, Eightiesploitation
The hero with no name, the innocent damsel in distress, the can't-fail crime that goes wrong: On paper, Drive might seem like nothing more than a collection of hoary genre stereotypes. On screen, however, it's a modern-exploitation knockout, with director Nicolas Winding Refn's neon-noir giving Ryan Gosling's stoic, soulful getaway driver plenty of chances to power through concrete jungles and dish out pain in large doses. A brutal film replete with exhilarating car chases and gruesome violence (who likes forceful tooth extractions and shotgun blasts to the head?), Refn's ode to Eighties' synth-scored thrillers skirts past car-porn into some sort of long, sick night of the soul. TG

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5

‘Pirahna 3D’ (2010)

Subgenres: Naturerunamuksploitation, T&Asploitation, Splattersploitation
Too winking and gag-happy goofy to be pure horror, this remake of Joe Dante's 1978 Jaws rip-off is the cinematic equivalent of the kid who pops his zits in the name of cheap, stomach-churning spectacle. Alexandre Aja's B-movie monster-splatter-satire was a direct descendent of 3-D's gimmicky Fifities infancy, rife with comin'-atcha thrills like dislodged eyeballs, projectile breasts, and Eli Roth's deservedly decapitated head. Thy will shall be done: let Adam Scott and Elizabeth Shue play it straight, let Jerry O'Connell and Kelly Brook play it skank, and just let everyone else play the bait. If we still had drive-ins, this one would never concede the midnight slot. EH

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4

‘Showgirls’ (1995)

Subgenres: Vegasploitation, Strippersploitation, OMFGsploitation
Squint your eyes juuuust right, and Paul Verhoeven's tawdry Sin City tale is a fiendish satire of every star-is-born drama Hollywood ever churned out. But what makes this mondo trasho epic so deliciously watchable is that it's played straight, as the Robocop director indulges his fascination/revulsion for American excess via a tale of a dimwitted small-town gal (Elizabeth Berkley) who goes to Vegas with dreams of being a dancer. Add feeble backstage drama to NC-17 salaciousness and oh-dear-lord performances, and voila: You've created a brilliant monument to kitsch on steroids. Is Showgirls good-bad or just bad-bad? The fact that the movie drunkenly poledances such petty distinctions into oblivion is its greatest triumph. Grind on, Nomi. TG

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3

‘Kids’ (1995)

Subgenres: Teensploitation, Drugsploitation, Skateanddestroysploitation
Whether you think of photographer-turned-filmmaker Larry Clark as a sleazeball, a realist or a genius, he's inarguably an icon of modern-exploitation cinema. Every movie that the now-72-year-old has made wears its teensploitation bona fides on its tattered sleeve, (vengeful adolescents in Bully, horny youngsters in Ken Park, wild skaterats in Wassup Rockers), but none have had the resonance of Kids. Written by Harmony Korine when he was 19, this you-are-there chronicle of a drug-using, condom-hating, self-proclaimed "motherfuckin' virgin surgeon" and his posse sent the media, and by proxy American parents, into a tizzy about out-of-control youth. A bacchanal of narcotics, perversity and repressed feelings, it's depiction of young adulthood would make even Fellini blush. According to an Entertainment Weekly poll of real teens at the time, Clark came pretty close to how they think. "It was good to watch kids talking the way we talk," said one participant. If that doesn't frighten you, Mom and Dad…. KG

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2

‘Battle Royale’ (2000)

Subgenres: J-spolitation, Teensploitation, Killerschoolgirlspolitation
Hunger Games, eat your heart out. Twelve years before J-Law picked up her bow, this Japanese teen-snuff splatterpiece pitted 42 ninth graders against each other in a government-run version of the most dangerous game, arming them with everything from grenades to a pot lid. As is the "Asian extreme" way, no arterial spray was left offscreen: Boys blast girls with machine guns, girls knife boys with crushes on them in the groin and those who escape their peers have the high-tech collar around their neck explode. Social commentary? Barely any. Shitty CG fire? Nada. Brutal kid-on-kid action? Check, and lots of it. No wonder this gross-out flick stands as one of Japan’s highest grossing. BG

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1

‘Spring Breakers’ (2012)

Subgenres: Teesmploitation, T&Asploitation, Jamesfrancosploitation, Everythingsploitation
"Spriiing breeaaak…forreverr…." James Franco's lascivious whisper echoes throughout this bad-trip take on the beach movie, giving the film just enough over-the-top surreal fantasy to make it the quintessential girls-in-trouble movie. Nearly two decades after he revitalized the genre with his Kids screenplay, Harmony Korine pulled out all of the stops with this bonkers sun-and-fun romp: bikini-clad teens, drugs, sex, squirt guns, shotguns, male gun-shaft fellatio, EDM, GTA, jail, revenge, "Scarface on repeat," Florida, James Franco in cornrows and the greatest Britney Spears-scored balaclava-clad musical interlude ever. The fact that it pushed the envelope with starring roles by two would-be-squeaky-clean Disney starlets, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, made the film's sexist/feminist duality all the more enthralling. No less than the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, called it the "best sexploitation film of the year." What else could a discerning filmgoer ask for? KG

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