Cafe Flesh (1982) was Stephen Sayadian’s followup to his first feature film Nightdreams (1981) (for my review of the latter, included in Part 1 of this series, click here). Sayadian, as “Rinse Dream”, co-wrote with Jerry Stahl (AKA “Herbert W. Day”), co-produced with Francis Delia (“F.X. Pope”), and if IMDb is to be believed, co-directed with an uncredited Mark Esposito.
Stahl was a heroin-addicted journalist who went on to become a successful novelist and “grossly overpaid, self-loathing, can’t-look-in-the-mirror-without-gagging TV writer”. His credits include Alf, CSI, and most unexpectedly, Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II. He and Sayadian are close. He once spent thirteen sleepless days detoxing in a corner of Sayadian’s loft.
My favorite quote about him comes from the book Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, though I found it on Wikipedia. In regards to the episode he wrote: “He turned in a completely incomprehensible, unusable, incomplete script a few days late and as I recall there were blood stains on it.” This after mistaking a week-long coke bender for a single day and having to furiously type something up on the spot while a courier knocked on his door.
Delia is an expert photographer they met at Hustler. He went on to direct music videos for The Bangles, Blue Öyster Cult, Oingo Boingo, The Ramones, Rockwell, Starship, Wall of Voodoo, Weird Al, and others.
According to a YouTube channel started by his son, “Mark Esposito was an independent filmmaker in the 1980s. His talent as a young writer/director saw him rubbing elbows with the likes of Woody Allen, Richard Donner, and John Avildsen. In his cannon were many short films, music videos, and commercials.”
You’ve probably heard Cafe Flesh and don’t know it. Rob Zombie sampled one of its sex scenes in his old band White Zombie’s biggest hit “More Human Than Human”. The moaning at the beginning — an actual porn star. Well, maybe. Most of Nightdreams was shot without sound and dubbed later, so Cafe Flesh likely was too. The moaning might just be some random lady they grabbed to do voiceover. If you listen closely, you can even make out composer Mitchell Froom’s score. His song “The Key of Cool” is audible from about 00:27 to 00:37.
Froom was a friend of Stahl’s from high school. His jazzy synthesizer score was later released as “The Key of Cool” by Slash Records, a sub-label of Warner, with sporadic spoken word lyrics by Stahl. The cover is a photograph taken by Delia of a masked man from the film. The album was recently given a limited vinyl re-release as the Cafe Flesh Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Fun City Editions. Parts of it could have been lifted from a Sonic the Hedgehog game.
There’s a lot of contradictory misinformation surrounding these players, so bear with me. Stahl, for example, has claimed that his nom de porn “Herbert W. Day” was both the name of his little league coach and high school principal, and that he adopted it out of revenge for their having publicly spanked him, before admitting he made up those stories to amuse himself. Sayadian cautions that some of his friend’s recollections are wrong.
In a cover article penned for the April, 1985 edition of Playboy, Stahl says Cafe Flesh was conceived as a sexy albeit softcore Cabaret-style musical. He and Sayadian shopped it around for a good half a year and were passed on by just about everyone. That’s when they finally agreed to add penetrative sex to get funding. The film was shot in ten days for a hundred-thousand dollars. Stahl makes it sound like he and Sayadian sacrificed their integrity changing the script and got roped into the world of adult entertainment against their better judgment, ignoring the fact that they’d already gotten their figurative dicks wet the year prior with Nightdreams.
From other sources I gathered their sophomore effort was cut to an R, presumably in the hopes it could still be released that way, and was shown in said form to potential investors to raise additional funds. However, the hardcore footage was ultimately reinserted and/or re-shot at the insistence of the producers. Froom was told to extend his score and make it disturbing.
“We came up with repulsive, anti-sexual, anti-stimulating sex.” Stahl recalls in the liner notes of the Fun City Editions LP. “We wrote sex scenes designed to keep you from getting an erection.”
“The sex is not to arouse…” Sayadian said of his work in 2021. “That wasn’t the intention. When you look at these sex films, they’re never about sex. They have sex in them, but they’re never about sex… I like sex because of the imagery you’re allowed to play with. It gives me a lot of ideas for images.”
Unsurprisingly, Cafe Flesh failed to please those who spank it in theatres, but found success as an art movie. It replaced Pink Flamingos at the prestigious Nuart, played college campuses, and achieved a level of acclaim in Europe. The movie’s Wikipedia page contains the humorous, unfounded claim it was “enjoyed primarily by Iowans”. That’s the best kind of trolling: subtle and random.
Cafe Flesh was made during a time of renewed hostility between the US and the Soviet Union, and reflects that. It’s set in a radioactive, post-apocalyptic… I’m tempted to say “wasteland”, but we never actually see what it looks like outside. The whole thing was shot on a single dark set and takes place indoors. Continue reading