Dead Bodies in Katrina Fridges: Moral Panic and Sleaze in Home Video Exploitation
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Robert Gordon Joseph
Historical overviews of exploitation cinema typically focus on specific historical periods of production, analyzing trends with the benefit of hindsight. These eras include the initial period of exploitation from the 1910s through the 1950s (the “nudie cutie” and “hygiene film” era), the drive-in phase propelled by teen films and Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, or the Blaxploitation cycle of the 1970s. Though broader historical overviews of exploitation cinema exist, they generally end their narratives at the 1990s, if not sooner. The reasons for this are obvious: by the 1990s, traditional theatrical venues for exploitation films – the drive-in and the grindhouse – largely ceased to exist. Exploitation cinema had transitioned into two alternative cinematic spheres. The first of these is the mainstream, in which many exploitation conventions (explicit sexuality, violence, and pulpy storylines) can now be found everywhere from blockbusters to the work of neo-grindhouse revivalists like Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. The second of these is the realm of straight-to-video, first in the VHS/DVD market and then, as the market for physical media gradually declined, streaming platforms. Mainstream iterations of this tradition receive ample coverage, and the films’ exploitation roots are noted by scholars and critics. However, there has been far less coverage of exploitation’s current existence in the straight-to-video realm. Unless a film or director receives an outsize amount of critical attention or popular notoriety, most non-theatrical exploitation is not covered in scholarship because many scholars do not see it as an active film form. As Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton note, without the traditional theatrical outlets, the trends and characteristics of the films and the market are harder to grasp, putting exploitation cinema into an existential debate.
Rather than relying on the traditional gauges of graphic content (which are now ubiquitous beyond exploitation) or distribution (which is all but gone), subject matter is an alternative method by which this field can be navigated. Specifically, scholars can hone in on the concept of “moral outrage,” and how exploitation films utilize the subject matter of specific controversial issues within society as a launchpad for ripped-from-the-headlines narratives. One particular event that drew the attention of exploitation filmmakers in the home video era was Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of which produced a variety of films depicting post-Katrina New Orleans as a lawless den of violence and crime. The storm’s depiction in Patrick Marrero’s Trapped in Katrina (2009), an example of “Katrina Exploitation,” stands in stark contrast with Hollywood’s more mainstream depictions of the Katrina aftermath, even among those films and TV shows that adapt some of exploitation cinema’s more superficial characteristics. Trapped in Katrina is a low-budget film with little production value that was independently produced by the filmmakers distributed by bottom-rung production company Maverick Entertainment. The film views Katrina from Marrero’s perspective as a local, while portraying the storm’s aftermath in a visceral, ambiguous manner too uncomfortable for Hollywood. Though marginalized in the corners of the home video/streaming market reserved for exploitation fans and academics, Katrina Exploitation exemplifies how exploitation cinema continues to exist and to be defined by the moral outrage it draws from real-life controversies. Trapped in Katrina, in particular, demonstrates the important role of sleaze as a distinguishing characteristic of exploitation in an era when the traditional gauges of the form have dissipated.
Exploitation: The Cinema of Moral Panic
Like the term “exploitation” itself, categorizing the politics of exploitation cinema is fraught. Susan Hayward defines exploitation as “films which are generally low in production values but which target specific audiences through exploiting specific ‘topical’ themes or narratives about specific social groups.” This accommodating definition encompasses a wide variety of filmmaking traditions and movements, including: 1920s hygiene films emerging from the perceived sexual deviances of soldiers and young people; 1930s drug films emerging from the fears of alleged drug habits of racial minorities; 1950s juvenile delinquent films; 1960s biker films; 1970s African-American-centered crime and action (Blaxploitation); and eventually, any low-budget international tradition that critics and fans were willing to hyphenate with a trailing “-ploitation.” The narratives of these films range on a spectrum of the histrionic, from crazed hophead teenagers of Reefer Madness (Louis J. Gasnier, 1936) to the murder-revenge exploits of Pam Grier in Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973). Regardless of the era from which they emerged, however, exploitation films are defined partly by depicting measurably more explicit or controversial sexuality, violence, and subject matter than that of films shown in mainstream theaters. However, given the continually evolving nature of the film industry and audience tastes, defining exploitation exclusively by the level of violence and sexuality leads to a quandary: when mainstream cinema becomes more violent and sexual, exploitation cinema’s runway for boundary-pushing gradually shrinks. Calum Waddel argues in The Style of Sleaze that exploitation died partly because the mimicry of exploitation’s violent and sexual content by mainstream films like Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) and 9 ½ Weeks (Adrien Lyne, 1986) rendered the independent mode of exploitation obsolete.
An alternative approach to defining exploitation is via distribution. The defining characteristics of exploitation’s first distribution channels are outlined by Eric Schafer in his history of the first exploitation cycle from the 1910s to the 1950s. Shafer argues that its modes of distribution – festive, out-of-the-mainstream affairs that embraced the carnivalesque – were where exploitation cinema took on a radical political identity. These included the state-by-state roadshow exhibition of pioneering exploitation films like Reefer Madness and Mom and Dad (William Beaudine, 1945). Though post-1950s modes of distribution were separate from this carnival-barker tradition, exploitation cinema maintained a separate mode of theatrical distribution into the 1970s and early 1980s through the drive-ins of the Midwest and South and the dilapidated “grindhouse” theaters of the major coastal cities. However, these theaters faded as spaces for mainstream exhibition as grindhouses were gradually closed due to urban renewal projects and competition from home video. Meanwhile, the shrinking number of drive-ins were overtaken by the mainstream studios, which began releasing what Yannis Tzioumakis calls “glossy exploitation films,” such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). These films were marketed with the same tactics as exploitation (sensationalist advertising, saturated booking) and exhibited some of the formal and narrative conventions associated with the form (sexuality, violence, and violent juvenile content). With these theatrical spaces closed off, the remaining exploitation cinema transitioned to home video, first on VHS, then on DVD, and ultimately streaming. Exploitation cinema still has distinct spaces of distribution in the home video market, including the horror/gore streaming platform Shudder and specialty distributors like the American Genre Film Archive, Troma Entertainment, and Arrow Films. However, the fact that nearly every form of cinema can be consumed in the same manner as exploitation cinema today, combined with the endless overlaps with other cinematic forms (John Waters’ films being rereleased in the highbrow Criterion Collection), makes distribution a complicated lens by which to define modern exploitation.
This could explain why the theatre closures and exploitation’s pivot to home video is a convenient endpoint for existing exploitation histories, if they make it that far. The few studies that consider home video distribution of exploitation view the films as a medium of nostalgia for bygone theatrical communities, or they highlight the importance of home media as a vessel of film history. However, one thread that can be drawn through the history of exploitation cinema, from the moral hygiene films of the late 1910s to Katrina Exploitation in the late 2000s, is Schaefer’s explanation of the moral panic that fuels exploitation cinema:
Exploitation films generally followed when discourse on a given issue or problem reached a convulsive
state. The white slave scare around 1913 served as the spark for a series of films and…the pattern was
repeated with venereal disease pictures in the late teens, nudist films in the early 1930s, antidope movies
during the marijuana scare in the mid-1930s, vice ring pictures following Lucky Luciano’s racketeering
conviction in 1936, the postwar hygiene films, more narcotic movies in the early 1950s, and so on.
While Schafer’s definition does not apply to every film defined as exploitation, it does apply to films made after Schaefer’s “traditional” period of exploitation from the 1910s to the 1950s. The later eras of exploitation include: biker films, which fed on the panic surrounding the rise of one-percenter motorcycle gangs in the 1960s; Blaxploitation, which drew partly from the anxieties about the decline of African-American neighborhoods and the rise of narcotics in the 1970s; and the Red Scare films of the 1980s, which were augmented by the rise in political tensions at the end of the Cold War. Though versions of these films were distributed by both mainstream studios and out-of-mainstream distribution networks, their focus on the moral panic of their given eras place them under the exploitation banner. Today’s straight-to-video exploitation draws from similar modern anxieties, including: the increased exposure of police brutality by camera phones reflected in Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler, 2018); the alt-right armed militias of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (Henry Dunham, 2018); and the endless onslaught of school shootings confronted in the upcoming Run Hide Fight (Kyle Rankin, 2020).
Of course, exploitation is not the exclusive purview of films focusing on relevant, controversial topics. One such topical issue is the reemergence of overt White supremacy in the cultural sphere in recent years, as demonstrated by the pro-Confederate march on Charlottesville that culminated in a deadly attack on counter-protesters by a White supremacist. This ongoing phenomenon is addressed by Robin Bissell’s The Best of Enemies (2019) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2017), films representing the narrative traditions of mainstream Hollywood and American Independent Cinema, respectively. Both received traditional theatrical releases and confronted the contemporaneous resurgence of White nationalism through historical analogues. The Best of Enemies attempts this intercession through the story of Klansmen and Black activists feuding over the integration of Durham City Schools, while BlacKkKlansman follows a Black police officer who collaborates with a White Jewish officer to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs. The Best of Enemies resolves this conflict by the film’s lead Klansman, C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), befriending and ultimately adopting the pro-busing stance of the lead activist, Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson). This outcome follows the standard narrative format of Classical Hollywood by using a resolution to “transcend the social conflict represented in the film, often by displacing it onto the individual.” BlaKkKlansman’s narrative is less uplifting and conventional: the infiltration successfully disrupts a planned bombing, but the main character, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), is torn throughout the film between his desire for Black social and political uplift and his belief in the importance of the police in American society, a dissonance that is not resolved by the film’s end. BlacKkKlansman embodies the American Independent Cinema tradition through both the indie film convention of an “ambivalent protagonist” and a lack of narrative resolution – the film ends with the image of a burning cross outside of Stallworth’s apartment building, followed by a montage of the Charlottesville attack and President Trump’s infamous “very fine people on both sides” speech – eschewing the typical Hollywood “happy ending” in favor of a direct challenge to the audience’s politics.
What ultimately separates The Standoff at Sparrow Creek from The Best of Enemies or BlackKklansman is the presence of sleaze in the narrative. Unlike the narrative conventions of mainstream Hollywood and independent cinema, sleaze is less tangible. In his introduction to Sleaze Artists, Jeffrey Sconce describes sleaze as “less a definable historical genre than an ineffable quality – a tone that is a function of attitude as much as content.” Sconce argues that sleaze is not simply a specific amount of gore, violence, or explicit sexuality, but instead “requires judging, if only in one’s imagination, that there is something ‘improper’ or ‘untoward’ about a given text.” Indeed, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a relatively restrained film, with little of the on-screen violence traditionally associated with what one might call a sleazy action film. However, in an era in which there are few remaining content boundaries for films to push, definitions of exploitation are better shifted to how subject matter is thematically approached, rather than the amount of blood or nudity on-screen. Therefore, the conceptualization of sleaze is better centered on attempts at narratives that draw upon moral panic in a manner that lacks a clear moral center for the audience to embrace.
It is this mode of sleaze that is apparent from the first ten minutes of Sparrow Creek. Alerted to distant gunfire and police radio chatter, members of a White nationalist militia in Michigan assemble at an isolated warehouse in reaction to the news of an armed gunman having murdered dozens of police officers at an officer’s funeral. The militiamen become increasingly suspicious of each other as they start to believe that one of them is responsible for the attack. The feeling of impropriety is enhanced by the moral quandary that writer/director Henry Dunham puts the viewer in: rather than the conventional binaries of good and evil (Civil Rights activists and Klansmen) operating within Best of Enemies, or the complicated dynamics of Stallworth’s experiences as a Black policeman in a White world in BlacKkKlansman, Sparrow Creek drops the viewer directly into the perspective of White supremacists openly considering whether they should join a burgeoning uprising against law enforcement apparently spreading across the country. Though an alternative perspective is presented by an undercover police officer that has infiltrated the militia, the police are just as brutally violent as the militiamen, providing the viewer with no moral compass or audience surrogate. Though relatively restrained in its graphic content, the film’s feeling of sleaze emanates through Dunham’s disinterest in conventional morality in cinema.
Calum Waddel argues that exploitation’s bottom line was traditionally to “make money based on showing things that Hollywood simply could not provide.” Waddel focuses on the 1970s, what he considers the last era of exploitation, with sexploitation, exploitation horror, and Blaxploitation respectively showing the hardcore sex, gory excess, and radical Black empowerment that even the mainstream copycats of these exploitation forms could not offer. With the exception a handful of indie films like The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003), hardcore sex remains the purview of the porn industry. However, conventions related to horror and Blaxploitation have either permeated the mainstream or reemerged in what would become modern American Independent Cinema, and their theatrical distributors and venues are nearly all shuttered. Rather than see this as the end of exploitation, it is important to consider what exploitation might continue to show on-screen that Hollywood, be it the mainstream studios or the indie sector, cannot or will not. Though far from exclusive to all modes of exploitation, the following is a viable method of identifying ongoing trends of exploitation cinema in the home video era:
1. centered around a topical controversy
2. framed without a clear moral center, and
3. released primarily (though not exclusively) straight-to-video
Rather than focusing on particular distributors, stars, or directors, this paradigm allows exploitation cinema to be analyzed in relation to a particular moral panic in the national conversation. One such conversation that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates how exploitation cinema represented the aftermath of the hurricane in a manner out of reach to mainstream Hollywood or indie cinema.
Like most exploitation cinema, the films I label “Katrina Exploitation” are situated on the margins of the industry. These films’ existence on the margins connects them to the history of exploitation and to the continued niche appeal of these types of films outside of the studio system. Most significant is the moral panic these films draw from, evoking an ongoing historical trend that began with the 1910s hygiene films and continues in the form of any film exploiting anxieties connected to real-life phenomena to titillate and sell tickets. While exploitation films not explicitly centered around moral panics existed within these eras, orienting the term around this original conception of exploitation as the cinema of moral panic opens up the analysis towards understanding what fears and anxieties that Katrina Exploitation evokes. Katrina Exploitation centered largely on anxieties about race and criminality that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the levees breaking.
“If anyone rioted, it was the media”: Post-Katrina Narratives of Criminality
Almost immediately following the breaking of the levees, rumors of widespread violence and criminality seeped into the national news coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In his overview of the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, Bernie Cook demonstrates that 24 hours had not passed from the initial reports of flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East when CNN’s Aaron Brown began demonizing Katrina residents and framing footage of African-American boys and men running across the floodwaters carrying shopping bags as evidence of “looting and lawlessness.” The tone of this coverage, which would extend to coverage of Katrina by NBC and Fox News, blamed New Orleanians for their own plight, emphasized their status as criminals rather than victims of governmental neglect, and embraced the reactionary perspective of law enforcement through embedded reporting. Throughout this news coverage, trends of victim-blaming and demonization emerged. Media outlets asked why residents did not evacuate, rather than asking why the local or state governments did not provide an evacuation plan. They bemoaned the supposed widespread looting, rather than bemoaning the governmental failure to provide life-sustaining supplies. They wondered aloud how NOPD and the National Guard could re-take control of the city, rather than interrogating how law enforcement let the situation deteriorate to begin with.
News coverage of Hurricane Katrina was too widespread to be characterized entirely along these lines. Then and now, local outlets like The Times-Picayune and the New Orleans AM radio station WWL were praised for their coverage of the hurricane and the flooding. Additionally, individual reporters from national stations were recognized for going above and beyond the line of duty in their coverage of the storm. Released in 2006, one year after the storm, The Great Deluge was one of the first histories of Katrina. In it, then-Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley praises Katrina news coverage (“They had some details wrong but, more important, they got the urgency exactly right”), and he singles out for praise Brian Williams, who was fighting dysentery while reporting in the city on the conditions of the storm. However, with the benefit of time, there has been more scrutiny of national media coverage of the storm and its aftermath. For example, Williams’ on-air reporting has since been criticized, including his dubious claim that there were dead bodies in the mostly-untouched French Quarter. Cook also describes Williams’ TV journalist performance as “producing ‘authenticity’ through manufactured proximity,” such as appearing to be within the eye of the storm while retiring to a hotel room after his segment was filmed. These criticisms have been especially pronounced after the revelation that Williams fabricated a helicopter attack he claimed to experience in Iraq in 2003. Though not every journalist reporting on Katrina came under the level of scrutiny faced by Williams, he represents a larger trend of self-assessment the news media undertook in regards to its Katrina coverage.
Prevalent throughout the coverage of Katrina by network and cable news outlets was the emphasis by anchors on looting, lawlessness, and a need for the police to restore order. The news outlets’ emphasis on looting was part of a larger focus, by both state and local authorities, “on threats to property, rather than on search and rescue.” In a now-infamous press conference, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco warned looters that “battle-tested” National Guardsmen who had returned from Iraq were being deployed to New Orleans, and that “these troops know how to shoot and kill.” This narrative of looters-as-criminals was echoed by CNN and Fox News, whose coverage emphasized the National Guard’s role in protecting property in the business district and cast New Orleanians as criminals responsible for their own fate. This overemphasis on the audacity of looting in a city abandoned by every level of government even seeped into an early “historical” narrative of Katrina. In The Great Deluge, Brinkley gives over whole sections of his book to the diary entries of Bernard McLaughlin, a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard who makes the unchallenged, incredulous estimation that “80% of the crowd in the Convention Center is either wearing looted clothing . . . or carrying shopping bags/pushing carts filled with looted items.” Brinkley would later be criticized for the tone and carelessness of his account: Times-Picayune editor Dante Ramos notes that Brinkley’s coverage has multiple gaffes, relies primarily on news reports in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and “interrupts an engaging narrative again and again with the worst elements of TV punditry.” More measured accounts of Katrina have since been released, including Cook’s Flood of Images and Jed Horne’s Breach of Faith. However, the fact that misleading national coverage bled into the account by a New Orleans-based, trained historian like Brinkley underscores the impact of news media misreporting on the national memory of the hurricane.
Reports of looting were eventually overshadowed by stories of even greater, unsubstantiated degradations that intimated a total breakdown of humanity in the city by its residents. The centers of this supposed breakdown were the Superdome (the designated “shelter of last resort”) and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where survivors flocked to after false rumors that it was a planned evacuation center. National media amplified rumors of widespread rape, assault, and murder at both locations. Rumors within survivors were subsequently picked up by police, officials, and finally the national media, and the result was “print the legend” fear-mongering by national media, including unconfirmed reports of residents sniping at rescue helicopters. Before later backtracking, NOPD Chief Eddie Compass claimed in a now-infamous televised interview with Oprah Winfrey that, “We had little babies in [the Superdome], little babies getting raped.” While there were reported instances of rape and one shooting (by police) at the convention center, the tales of violence were highly exaggerated, creating a national moral panic about post-Katrina New Orleans.
Both Governor Blanco and the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, Lieutenant Colonel Russel Honoré, conceded in 2015 that the looting and lawlessness was significantly overblown, fueled by uncorroborated reports amplified by the media, and that most looters were just taking what they needed to survive. However, the stories of lawlessness emerging from Katrina and amplified by the media had direct, material effects on how authorities and citizens responded to the crisis. More affluent neighborhoods were invaded by private security forces paid for by both the government and residents desperate to keep their property from being looted. Sheriff’s deputies in neighboring Gretna turned back evacuating residents on the Crescent City Connection by gunpoint, fearing that the city’s perceived crime wave would spread into the suburbs. Four NOPD officers opened fire at unarmed citizens on the Danziger Bridge, killing two and resulting in criminal convictions of the officers eleven years after the shooting. Quasi-militias of white citizens shot at African-Americans they perceived to be trespassing, particularly in the majority-White neighborhood of Algiers Point. Often embedded with local and state law enforcement and the military, national reporters embraced the “under siege” mentality of their handlers, portraying locals as insurgents to be either survived or cleared out. Search-and-rescue efforts, including bus transports, paramedics, and rescue helicopters, were hampered by unfounded rumors of violence and civilian snipers, contributing to the greater death toll.
In his account of the misreporting of Hurricane Katrina, W. Joseph Campbell parallels Katrina news coverage and post-apocalyptic film and literature:
None of those reports was verified or substantiated: no shots fired at rescue helicopters, no child rape
victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood, no sharks. No single news organization committed all those
errors. And not all the lapses were committed at the same time. But the erroneous and exaggerated
reporting had the cumulative effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal
violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.
Campbell is not alone in making these pop culture comparisons. Direct parallels to both George Miller’s exploitation classic and William Golding’s allegorical novel were made by Leon Hadar’s 2005 report on Katrina for Singapore’s Business Times, along with Robert Mendick of London’s Evening Standard in his reporting of rape, looting, and violence around the Superdome. Mendick’s article, in particular, takes on the tone of a colonialist reporter’s second-hand recounting of a third-world coup. Along with recounting Compass and Blanco’s infamous quotes without critique, Mendick limits his interviews to phone conversations with British nationals describing the experience of their relatives second-hand, as well as an after-the-fact interview of a Canadian tourist in New Orleans. The interviewees make comparisons to Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and Lord of the Flies. The father of a British man trapped in the Superdome tells the interviewer, “Unsavoury characters…are making derogatory marks towards Gretchen,” his son’s young wife. The father-in-law states that he has heard rumors of rapes in the Superdome and notes that, “they are part of a small number of white people in there.” In another telling interview, the Canadian tourist says, “I’m not sure I am going to get out of here alive. I’m scared of riots. I’m scared of the locals. We might get caught in a crossfire.” This framing of “the locals” as an ominous Black other to be feared and avoided draws on the worst stereotypes of Black male criminality and sexual menace that were evoked in less direct terms in mainstream coverage of the storm. This dog-whistle journalism, combined with Mendick’s decision to not interview any New Orleans natives, demonstrates how post-Katrina fears fell back on long-held Black stereotypes in both America and abroad. Though a more extreme example of racism than most mainstream coverage of the storm, this sensational and lurid picture lays the groundwork for the New Orleans that appears in Katrina Exploitation.
The equation of real-world events to a work of exploitation cinema underscores the degree to which many worldwide “audiences” processed Hurricane Katrina in sensationalist terms, understanding New Orleans as a city responding to a natural disaster by descending into lawlessness. This position was embraced by many in the media. As Bernie Cook argues, instead of understanding New Orleans by engaging with locals and verifying reports of violence, the national media “sought to represent New Orleans as ‘slipping deeper into violence and despair’ (studio anchor Laurie Dhue led off The Fox Report on September 1, 2005, with this assertion).”
This dominant narrative, which emphasized New Orleanians’ responsibility for their own downfall, was countered after the storm by a narrative that emphasized the humanity of New Orleans’ abandoned Black citizenry, the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to properly maintain the levees, City Hall’s failure to evacuate its most vulnerable residents, and the inability of the federal government to provide humanitarian aid to those still trapped in New Orleans. This counter-narrative emerged in a trend of nonfiction Katrina film and TV, including Spike Lee’s miniseries When the Levees Broke (HBO, 2006), Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s documentary Trouble the Water (2008), and Frontline’s episode on Katrina, “Law & Disorder” (PBS, August 25, 2010). Contrasting these works with the muddled contemporaneous accounts of Katrina by the news media, Cook notes that these counter-narrative works “would attempt to cut through the fog to reveal aspects of the causes and impacts of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.” If these works “cut through the fog,” the Katrina Exploitation films released at the same time walked right into the fog, reveling in the worst perceptions of pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans that the news media emphasized in their coverage.
The first five minutes of Streets of Blood (Charles Winkler, 2009) gives every indication of the kind of movie its audience decided to rent on iTunes or borrow from the local library. After a brief opening exchange between Detective Devereaux (Val Kilmer) and his police therapist (Sharon Stone), the film flashes back to helicopter shots of a flooded New Orleans neighborhood, accompanied by news announcements of the flood damage, an address from President Bush, and an announcement of Mayor Ray Nagin’s decision to pull NOPD officers from search-and-rescue missions to combat looting. The audience is then placed into the flooded streets of New Orleans on a dark and stormy night. A quick montage of images sets the stage. A woman carries her baby through the floodwaters. Deveraux walks through what appears to be a Mardi Gras float warehouse to find his partner’s bloated corpse bobbing in the waters. Uniformed police officers spray-paint buildings to indicate that they have been searched. Most prominent in the scene, however, are the looters: scores of nondescript Black bodies taking not only water bottles but electronic appliances, suitcases, and shopping carts full of nonessential goods. Standing on the roof above a video store, a White contractor with body armor and a scoped rifle (Richard F. Law, credited as “Blackwater Guard”) begins shooting indiscriminately at the looters. Approached by Deveraux and a uniformed cop, Stan Johnson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), the two officers try to convince the guard to put his rifle down. When the contractor shoots at Devereaux, they both return fire, killing the guard. Afterwards, as the two cops formally introduce themselves, Devereaux says to Johnson that “The Big Easy ain’t so easy anymore.”
As a representation of Post-Katrina New Orleans, this opening scene is a stew of ideas and perceptions about what New Orleans was like at the height of the flooding. The scene is presumably set in the week immediately following the storm’s landfall on Monday, August 29. Looting remains rampant, as does violence, and the numerous faceless Black extras taking goods out of stores reflects one of the greatest boogiemen of Katrina: looters raiding stores not for self-preservation, but to take advantage of the post-hurricane chaos for material gain. In short, the opening scene is a fever dream of popular stereotypes and fears about post-Katrina New Orleans. The film taps into the moral panic surrounding Hurricane Katrina, which is further complicated by its portrayal of the NOPD: the film heavily implies that Deveraux killed his last partner for being corrupt and does the same to Johnson by the film’s end. Streets of Blood perfectly fits this article’s definition of a modern exploitation film: drawing from a ripped-from-the-headlines moral panic, injecting sleaze into the narrative, and releasing the film straight-to-DVD.
Streets of Blood is one of five exploitation films released in the aftermath of Katrina that fit these characteristics, alongside Waters Rising (Greg Carter and Shawn McElveen, 2007), Jump Out Boys (Amir Valinia, 2008), Death Toll (Phenomenon, 2008), and Trapped in Katrina. All released within four years of Katrina’s landfall, the films take place in post-Katrina New Orleans and were made cheaply with: B-list stars (Stone, Kilmer, and Jackson are easily the biggest names in any of these films, with Stone and Kilmer well beyond their prime as box office draws); middling star power (an aged Kris Kristofferson appears in Jump Out Boys, and rapper-turned actor DMX appears in Jump Out Boys and Death Toll); or no star power at all (Waters Rising and Trapped in Katrina are the lowest economic rung, with no recognizable names to put on either poster). While all are set in New Orleans, each is filmed in a different location: Waters Rising in Houston, Jump Out Boys in (quite obviously) rural Ponchatoula, Streets of Blood in Shreveport, and Death Toll shot in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Only Trapped in Katrina was shot entirely in New Orleans.
The representation of New Orleans and Katrina in these films is far from uniform. Waters Rising and Death Toll use Katrina as little more than an epilogue, with each film’s narratives primarily focusing on gangland conflicts that preceded the hurricane. However, all five films approach the city and the hurricane with varying degrees of sleaze, drawing on moral panic surrounding police and gang violence in New Orleans before and after Katrina without either a clear moral center or a clearly articulated statement on the social impact of the storm. In both Streets of Blood and Jump Out Boys, the lead detectives commit multiple acts of violence against civilians that the films do not ironize or moralize; the filmmakers are content to view this as a part of the day-to-day life of post-Katrina New Orleans. This contrasts from the demonstrable morality of the officers in mainstream or indie films like Disney’s post-Katrina sci-fi Déjà Vu (Tony Scott, 2006). It also differs from the over-the-top parody of violence and degeneration by the titular NOPD detective in Werner Herzog’s indie noir Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). Though Katrina Exploitation films muster a general dissatisfaction with the government’s delayed response to the flooding and mourn the many who died, the central narratives are more interested in reveling in the worst stereotypes of rampant crime augmented by the national media in late 2005.
Another important characteristic of these films is their general lack of quality. Clumsily acted, staged in locations that are often clearly not New Orleans, and with noticeably poor visual effects, these films fail to transcend the pejorative association that comes with the “exploitation” label. However, even films with clear budgetary and formal limitations can be impactful and thoughtful in ways that films with more money and intentionality cannot. This is never clearer than in Trapped in Katrina. Written and directed by Patrick Marrero, a New Orleans-based filmmaker making his first (and to date, only) feature film for the bargain-basement studio Maverick Productions, the film follows a couple as they return to the still-ruined city to assess the flood damage to their home. When they become stranded, the husband storms off after a fight and returns to find his wife gone, leading to several bizarre interactions with another local who never left the city. Like other post-Katrina films made by local filmmakers, such as Low and Behold (Zack Godshall, 2007), Marrero uses Trapped in Katrina to explore the human impact of the storm on residents that both evacuated and “rode out” Katrina. Unlike other films, Trapped in Katrina is unabashedly exploitation, using its low budget in the service of a sleazy, unhinged narrative that culminates in hallucinations and a covered-up murder. Through this sleaze, Marrero transcends his film’s formal shortcomings to present a picture of post-Katrina New Orleans not found in mainstream or independent cinema traditions.
Trapped in Katrina
Like Streets of Blood, the opening credits of Trapped in Katrina feature a collage of government officials, civilian phone calls, and news anchors discussing the build-up and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Near the end of the credits, an anchor describes New Orleans as, “a city with no basic human services. There is little the police can do.” This is followed by an unidentified woman repeating NOPD Chief Eddie Compass’ claim of survivors “raping babies,” and that, “it’s like Baghdad out there.” These snippets, though two of many, exemplify the narrative perspective of writer/director Patrick Marrero. In the audio commentary that accompanied the DVD release of Trapped in Katrina, Marrero and his cinematographer, fellow New Orleanian Randall Perez, emphasize the shoestring budget of their film (drawn from Marrero’s insurance payout), having to film in the houses of friends and family for sets (including Marrero’s former house, still in its ruined post-Katrina state), and shooting with a limited cast and crew around everyone’s day jobs. However, they also note their desire for Trapped in Katrina to embody the paranoia that was spreading among their friends that stayed for the hurricane. “Everybody was afraid of looters,” Perez notes, “and it was just, like, widespread panic inside the city, because nobody had any kind of idea what was going on. So everybody just armed themselves.” Marrero adds that because so many died in the flooding, it is possible that someone could have been shot and killed, and so much time would have passed before the body was found that no one would ever solve the crime. Speculation about what could have happened to many New Orleanians, as well as the rumor- and media-driven paranoia that gripped the city, informs the narrative of Trapped in Katrina, which attempts a cinematic embodiment of that local paranoia through low-budget exploitation.
The first twenty-five minutes only hint subtly at this panic, however. In the first act, we are introduced to the Texas-born Hilton (Fayard Lindsey) and to Amelia (Anne Arceneaux), his New Orleans-native wife, as they make their “look and leave” trip, a real-life program in late 2005 during which New Orleans homeowners were allowed temporary access to the still-closed city to assess their home’s damage. Hilton, who already renewed his driver’s license in Texas while they stayed with his parents, is openly hostile to Amelia and her desire to return and rebuild their life in the city. The film follows them as they interact with a National Guardsman at a checkpoint, view the damage throughout the city, and return to their ruined home, alongside an accompanying montage of photographs of other real-life homes as they were discovered by New Orleans residents on these trips. Hilton and Amelia are constantly at each other’s throats, and after Hilton discovers that their tires have been blown out by road debris, he explodes in frustration at Amelia and walks off to find help. Though choppily paced and clearly micro-budgeted (only five actors appear in the entire film), the film’s focus in the first act is reminiscent of other verité-style indie films about Katrina like Low and Behold, with a clear emphasis on the government’s failure to evacuate residents in advance of the storm or to provide timely help after the flooding began. The only hint of what is to come is a horror movie trope recounted by the National Guardsman, who ominously warns the couple that they “gotta be out by sundown."
image credit: screen capture from Trapped in Katrina provided by author
This foreshadowed turn to a more lurid focus comes after Hilton’s fight with Amelia. After cooling off, he returns to find Amelia gone, and with cell phone service out, he cannot find or contact her. Searching the neighborhood for her as it grows dark, he spots a man carrying a lantern across the street and follows him into a house. After attacking and knocking Hilton out for trespassing, the man introduces himself: Jules (Brian Perry), a White local who is secretly squatting in his shelled-out former house. Jules seems unstable, but Hilton accepts his hospitality for a time as gunfire echoes outside. Against Jules’ advice, Hilton eventually heads back out into the dark to search for Amelia. As a police truck drives by, Hilton’s attempt to hail it is thwarted by Jules, who claims that the police would just kill Hilton, who is Black. “There ain’t no prisons, so they ain’t taking no prisoners,” Jules warns. After returning to Jules’ house, Hilton eventually discovers that Jules is keeping his mother’s corpse in one of the bedrooms under a blue tarp. Jules explains that his mother was swept up in the sudden floodwaters that came the morning after the storm, which he claims “must be when they blew up the levees.” There are no funeral homes open, so Jules is holding on to her until he can give her a proper burial.
This second act takes a clear turn to a sleazier treatment of the storm as exploitation conventions emerge, including right-field narrative twists (the unlikely possibility that a local could live secretly in his house while concealing his decomposing dead mother from searchers) and b-movie genre conventions (the hidden dead body discovered in the forbidden room). During this act, the film’s preoccupation with social injustice and victimhood in post-Katrina New Orleans merges with these conventions in the narrative. Jules embodies the paranoia that spread through the city, which is expressed in his beliefs (possibly from firsthand experience) that police are killing anyone they encounter after dark. Though the widespread police misconduct and violence after Katrina is now a matter of public record, it was Marrero’s original intention to take that established fact and inject it with even more sleaze. In the audio commentary, he and Perez note that a written scene, cut for budget and time, featured Hilton witnessing police throw several bodies into the back of their pickup truck, insinuating a widespread mass-murder and cover-up by the NOPD. As it stands in the final film, Jules’ paranoia is commonly found in the minds of many New Orleanians: that the predominantly-White police do not hesitate to commit violence on Black men, and that the White power structure would not hesitate to dynamite levees and flood poorer areas to save the nicer parts of the city, as they did during the 1927 Mississippi River flood. However, this paranoia is augmented beyond plausibility and into the realm of sleaze with the reveal that Jules is keeping his mother’s corpse, which resembles a ghoul from a Lucio Fulci horror film.
image credit: screen capture from Trapped in Katrina provided by author
The third act leans into this implausibility as it pivots into surreal horror. Falling asleep after Jules’ explanation about his mother, Hilton dreams that his wife is the dead woman under the tarp. After seemingly waking up, he returns to the room with the dead body and discovers Amelia’s cross on the mother’s hand. Hilton kicks Jules awake, demanding to know where Amelia is. When Jules attempts to throw him out of the house, a struggle ensues. When Jules knocks Hilton over, he launches into a tirade about how Hilton should “go back to Texas” and that “it’s time for you to start paying your dues” as someone who abandoned the city while Jules and others stayed and suffered. Hilton knocks Jules over with a nearby 2x4 and kills him when he won’t reveal where Amelia is. He then goes to Jules’ taped-up refrigerator in his backyard and opens it to find his wife’s corpse, just before Jules hits him from behind with a piece of wood.
image credit: screen capture from Trapped in Katrina provided by author
The apparent attack by Jules startles Hilton awake, revealing the previous scenes to be a dream. Hilton goes out into the backyard fridge, opening it to find nothing inside. Jules, confused by Hilton’s actions and continued badgering about Amelia’s location, tapes the fridge back up, while Hilton tries again to reach Amelia’s cell phone. When the call finally goes through, her ringtone can be heard from Jules’ pocket. Hilton immediately attacks and interrogates Jules, declaring that he will kill Jules if he doesn’t tell him what happened to Amelia. When he notices Jules fingering what appears to be Amelia’s cross across his neck, he hits him over the head with a shovel, killing him. Hilton then drags Jules’ body into his own home’s empty fridge and tapes it inside. Just after Hilton pushes the fridge to the curb, Amelia reappears, embracing Hilton. Trapped in Katrina ends as Hilton looks over his wife’s shoulder at the refrigerator, followed by a real-life still of countless rows of refrigerators collected after the storm.
image credit: screen capture from Trapped in Katrina provided by author
In this final act, the sleaze of the film’s narrative is fully formed and connected to the moral ambiguity of Marrero’s reflection on Katrina. The scene features overt tension between Hilton, an outsider who left, and Jules, a native who stayed to “ride out” the storm. After losing Amelia in the ruined city, Hilton loses his mind in his attempt to find her. Having already lost his mother during the flooding, Jules has little sanity left and is stuck hiding in his empty house with his mother’s corpse. As they both face personal crises over lost loved ones, property, and senses of self-identity, the two characters eventually come to blows, and the ending is ambiguous as to whether Hilton will get away with Jules’ murder. In a touch that is specific to Katrina, the center of Hilton’s paranoia centers on the Katrina fridge, a ubiquitous sight in post-Katrina New Orleans that became a folk-art symbol. Many fridges were photographed and adorned by residents with protest-centered graffiti and decorations, and it took an extremely long time for the city to haul the hundreds of thousands of fridges away. Taped shut due the rancid smell of spoiled food and maggots, Perez notes in the commentary that he does not believe that anyone opened those fridges again, a belief that partly inspired Trapped in Katrina (the film’s working title was “Free Gumbo,” from graffiti Marrero saw on a Katrina fridge). Katrina fridges are prominently featured in other Katrina cinematic texts, including the HBO series Treme (2010-2013) and When the Levees Broke, but only an exploitation film could appropriate their symbolism into a place to hide a dead body. This appropriation is enhanced by the film’s playful final shot of an endless sea of fridges waiting to be disposed of: an homage to the final scene of the B-movie pastiche Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981).
image credit: screen capture from Trapped in Katrina provided by author
While the lines of this conflict between Hilton and Jules in Trapped in Katrina are clear, reading their deadly fight as political allegory would impose a false narrative: Marrero and Perez state on the audio commentary that they were not attempting an overt message with their film. A better function of these scenes is a cinematic reflection on the collective mania that struck New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Hilton’s imagination of the worst possible scenario leads him to commit a horrible act twice: once in a dream, and once in waking life. Like the worst-case rumors of rape and murder in the Superdome and the sniping of rescue helicopters, Hilton’s worst fears turned out to be false, but his nightmare became a self-fulfilling prophecy: a dream of murder turned into an actual murder.
Like much exploitation, Katrina Exploitation films are flawed in their form. Shot with low budgets on unconvincing backdrops with fading stars or no stars at all, they exist on the margins of cinema, with little recognition beyond the most devout Louisiana cinema or b-movie fans and scholars. However, a film does not need to be celebrated to be a work of exploitation cinema, and these films collectively represent one feasible, replicable model for tracking modern exploitation through their focus on an established, identifiable moral panic. Trapped in Katrina has low production value, obvious day-for-night photography, and often histrionic performances, but more than any other Katrina Exploitation film, Patrick Marrero’s film embraces the moral panic surrounding post-Katrina New Orleans and the potential for exploitation films as a medium to reflect more controversial elements surrounding that panic left unobserved by mainstream and independent cinema. With similar films released primarily on home video emerging in response to comparable moral panics like school shootings, police violence, and the reemergence of White nationalism in the American public sphere, this paradigm for modern exploitation is worth further consideration.
 Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 152-153
 Mathijs and Sexton, Cult Cinema, 152.
 Linden Dalecki, “Maverick Entertainment Presents ‘Marketing Mimicry’: Targeting the Urban‐American Teen Film‐viewer via DVD and Direct‐download,” Young Consumers 13, no. 4 (November 16, 2012): 367–80.
 Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 123.
 Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 134.
 Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema: An Introduction (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006).
 See Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 and Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema: An Introduction; See also Calum Waddel, The Style of Sleaze: The American Exploitation Film, 1959-1977 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).
 David Church, Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Fandom (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015); Aaron T. Pratt, “Horror and Exploitation on VHS: The History of Home Video Comes to Yale,” Journal of Visual Culture 14, no. 3 (Dec. 2015), 332-335.
 Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, 25.
 Though the biker genre was dominated by b-studios, particularly AIP, both Little Fauss and Big Halsy (Paramount, 1970) and Vanishing Point (20th Century Fox, 1971) were iterations of the genre released by major studios. Juxtapositions between independently-released iterations of both blaxploitation, such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Cinemation Industries, 1971) and Shaft (MGM, 1971), and the Red Scare cinema of the ‘80s, such as Red Dawn (MGM/UA, 1984) and Invasion U.S.A. (Cannon Films, 1985).
 Not coincidentally, all of these films are produced by the same outfit: Cinestate, a Dallas-based outfit specializing in neo-exploitation. (See Scott Tobias, “Does the Movie Industry Need an Unsafe Space?” The Ringer, December 17, 2019, https://www.theringer.com/movies/2019/12/17/21024790/cinestate-rebeller-run-hide-fight-dallas-sonnier-craig-zahler.)
 David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 82-83.
 J.J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (New York: Continuum, 2007), 27-45; Sherry B. Ortner, “Against Hollywood: American Independent Film as a Critical Cultural Movement,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2, no. 2 (2012), 2.
 Jeffrey Sconce, “Introduction,” in The Style of Sleaze: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics, ed. Sconce (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 4.
 Sconce, “Introduction,” 4.
 Waddel, The Style of Sleaze, 5.
 This quote is taken from a bipartisan report by the U.S. House of Representatives on the response and the hurricane’s aftermath, cited by W. Joseph Campbell in “How the Media Got Hurricane Harvey Right,” Poynter, September 5, 2017, https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2017/how-the-media-got-hurricane-harvey-right/.
 Bernie Cook, Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), 42-43.
 Martha Carr, “The Times-Picayune’s Hurricane Katrina Coverage Among Top Ten Works of Journalism the Past Decade,” The Times-Picayune, April 6, 2010, https://www.nola.com/news/weather/article_c9322f8e-ff2e-527a-b854-7b93a2ac3234.html;
Rajini Vaidyanathan, “The Hurricane Station,” BBC News, August 24, 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-20ed5228-1f23-4906-9057-ffdd9d5272f2.
 Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: William Morrow, 2006), xvii, 318-320.
 Richard Campanella, Cityscapes of New Orleans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017), 315-318.
 Regina Longo, “Bernie Cook Reflects on Katrina Media at the Ten-Year Mark in Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina,” Film Quarterly 68, no. 4 (Summer 2015), https://filmquarterly.org/2015/07/01/bernie-cook-reflects-on-katrina-media-at-the-ten-year-mark-in-flood-of-images-media-memory-and-hurricane-katrina/.
 Amanda Taub, “The Brian Williams Helicopter Scandal: A Clear Timeline,” Vox, February 9, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/2/5/7987439/brian-williams-iraq-apology-helicopter.
 Cook, Flood of Images, 40.
 Cook, Flood of Images, 40-49.
 Brinkley, The Great Deluge, 565.
 Dante Ramos, “Eye of the Hurricane,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2006, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-may-07-bk-ramos7-story.html.
 Cook, Flood of Images, 83; Jarvis DeBerry, “Echoes of Katrina Gunfire, Real or Imagined,” The Times-Picayune, August 28, 2011, https://www.nola.com/opinions/article_0f3ddca5-0f4c-5f48-927f-4c8e9a7d6a5c.html.
 Eddie Compass, interviewed by A.C. Thompson. Frontline, “Law & Disorder,” PBS, May 19, 2010, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/law-disorder/interviews/compass.html.
 Martha Jewson and Charles Maldonado, “The Myths of Katrina,” Slate, August 28, 2015, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2015/08/hurricane-katrina-10-years-later-the-myths-that-persist-debunked.html.
 Mark Guarino, “Misleading Reports of Lawlessness after Katrina Worsened Crisis, Officials Say,” The Guardian, August 16, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/16/hurricane-katrina-new-orleans-looting-violence-misleading-reports.
 Jeremy Scahill, “Blackwater Down,” The Nation, September 22, 2005, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/blackwater-down/.
 Campbell Robertson, “New Orleans Police Officers Plead Guilty in Shooting of Civilians,” The New York Times, April 20, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/us/hurricane-katrina-new-orleans-danziger-bridge-shootings.html.
 A.C. Thompson, “Post-Katrina, White Vigilantes Shot African-Americans with Impunity,” ProPublica, December 19, 2008, https://www.propublica.org/article/post-katrina-white-vigilantes-shot-african-americans-with-impunity.
 Cook, Flood of Images, 68-78; 93-98.
 Jim Dwyer and Christopher Drew, “Fear Exceeded Crime’s Reality in New Orleans,” The New York Times, September 29, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/29/us/nationalspecial/fear-exceeded-crimes-reality-in-new-orleans.html; Arjen Boin, Christer Brown, and James A. Richardson, Managing Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from a Megacrisis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019), 93-94; See also DeBerry, “Echoes of Katrina.”
 W. Joseph Campbell, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 168.
 Campbell, Getting It Wrong, 241; Susannah Rosenblatt and James Rainey, “Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2005, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2005-sep-27-na-rumors27-story.html.
 Robert Mendick, “It was like a scene from Mad Max,” The Evening Standard (London), September 2, 2005, https://advance-lexis-com.libproxy.udayton.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:4H17-FD90-00W7-33XY-00000-00&context=1516831.
 Mendick, “It was like a scene from Mad Max.”
 Mendick, “It was like a scene from Mad Max.”
 Cook, Flood of Images, 16.
 Cook, Flood of Images, 121.
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 Marrero and Perez, audio commentary for Trapped in Katrina.
 David Beriss, “Katrina Fridges, 10 Years After,” Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, August 28, 2015, https://foodanthro.com/2015/08/28/katrina-fridges-10-years-after/.
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