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8 Great: Grade B Movies that Transcended

By Edited Apr 11, 2016 3 11

"You Failed!"


Grade B
Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2015

Most filmmakers are sincere in wanting to create movies that are entertaining, tell engaging stories, and impress upon the viewer a lingering, visceral afterimage: “Wow, that was a great movie!”; or “I’d like to see that again!”; or “That Sonny Tufts—now there was an actor!” And many succeed, making not only good films but in many cases making history with the quality and professionalism of their final product.

Unfortunately, though, the world of cinema hasn’t been filled with only ersatz D. W. Griffiths, Billy Wilders, Elia Kazans, or Stanley Kubricks.  The world also has in it directors such as M. Night Shyamalin and James Cameron; with big budgets and splashy special effects these people are capable of making a slick product for public consumption, but that product may not necessarily be a truly great movie.

On the other end of the spectrum are those earnest filmmakers who tried so very hard to bring their visions to the masses but failed.  These failures aren’t always necessarily in the concepts (though a Grade B movie such as 1938’s Terror of Tiny Town—a musical Western with an all midget . . . er . . . excuse me . . . ahem . . . “little people” cast—was a horrific concept).  Most of the time the problems in such low-rent movies stem from poor acting, bad production work, hackwork editing, and hokey storylines (such as the mid 1930s’ Reefer Madness, a morality tale of how marijuana can turn an ordinary young buck into a homicidal maniac). 

Often, nearly all of these issues arise from one source: a lack of funding.  Movies cost serious money to simply get a rough cut made and even more to get the polish needed for the final output to be good. 

Grade B movies, perhaps, didn’t always have the luxury of finding an interested studio for backing.  This left the upstart director and “producers” to either fund films themselves or rely on friends, neighbors, and business associates to pitch in financially.  This is an honorable tradition in filmmaking, and many “self-made” movies went on to achieve greatness for their creators.  [A fine example of this is Billy Bob Thornton’s 1996 drama, Sling Blade, definitely not a B movie though made on a small budget of a million dollars.]

Peckerwoods of Hollywood
In addition to independent producers, bigger studios, too, churned out cheapie B movies to quickly capitalize on a topical issue.  [Think about all the sci-fi films of the mid to late 1950s that featured radiation exposure as a vehicle for its stars—usually insects turned gigantic—that played upon American fears of a Cold War-era nuclear holocaust as psychological fodder.]

Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (movie poster)
Credit: Reynold Brown, 1958; public domain

With lurid titles such as 1958’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (featuring an outsized, though pleasingly proportioned model on the movie poster) or Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954 (its marquee sheet featuring a hottie in the clutches of a mutant lizard man) such movies were designed to titillate, terrify, or merely entertain the kiddies for an entire Saturday at matinée showings.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (movie poster)
Credit: Reynold Brown, 1954; public domain

These films were not thought of by their creators as high art; many were banged out as quickly as possible with little care about quality.  [One guy, William Beaudine, who later directed many episodes of the original Lassie TV series of the 1950s and worked for Disney toward the end of his career, was so notorious for wanting to keep things moving along he earned the nickname “One Shot”.  He very rarely did a second take on anything, at least in his TV work.  His last two movies, infamous in movie history for their awfulness, were both released in 1966: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.]

And, of course, the king daddy of all B-movie “moguls” was Edward D. “Ed” Wood, Jr. (1924-1978), a cross-dressing film fanatic whose stabs at movie-making were laughably inept.  Wood used friends, D-list actors (including TVs “Vampira”, Maila Nurmi; “professional” TV wrestler Tor Johnson; and Hollywood great Bela Lugosi, in his declining years), stock footage, and whatever he could cobble together to make his films.

One of them, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956), is routinely listed by almost any critic as the absolute worst film ever made.  In homage to Ed Wood’s kooky take on life and movie-making, quirky director Tim Burton made a pretty good biopic in 1994, Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp (suitably crazed looking) in the title role.

However, there exists a group of films within B-dom that were, by and large, deadly serious about their subjects, their choice of actors, and use of plot and character development.  But, for whatever reasons, these movies just plain failed to achieve the high gloss of well-thought-of films.  However, their overall “badness” helped them exceed the expectations of their makers and financial backers despite (in most cases) terrible acting, crummy editing, awful dialog, and outrageous plot devices.

The following group of movies has the distinction for being responsible for entire franchises and genres of films that followed in their wake.  Here we have zombies, a sexy space adventuress, an eco-spaceman, slayers of hillbillies, a chainsaw-wielding killer, a small-time hood-rat pimp, a post-apocalypse cop, and a buncha young slackers in search of a witch.

All of these movies (in chronological order) were influential on the film industry as well as finding their way into the collective pop culture consciousness.

So, take your sense of decorum and lofty pretenses about art and leave ’em at the theater door; kick back in a comfy chair with a soda and a bag of popcorn and enjoy some cheesy greatness!

8. Night of the Living Dead (released: October 1, 1968)

This film is truly iconic.

Made on a shoestring budget of a mere $114,000 US (around $765,000 today, still a very low figure) this movie was shot in glorious—and grainy—black-and-white because color film was simply too expensive. That unintended “artsy” touch ended up making this cheapie very atmospheric and, thus, more suspenseful and horrifying (with its bad lighting, use of heavy shadows, etc.).  It also was done quickly—it was shot in Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh on a catch-as-catch-can basis over the six months from June to December 1967.

While there had been many movies before that featured the walking dead it was this one that perhaps gave a more realistic portrayal of what such undead denizens might look like and how they might behave.  Director George Romero used random people for such scenes, mostly volunteers.  Many of the zombies are nude, a disturbing element thrown in for realism, and—because they are “regular” people Romero hired and not supermodels—they are not physically attractive in their builds (if the same movie were made today, only the Salma Hayeks, the Scarlett Johanssons, and the Sofía Vergaras would be nude).

Only the simplest of special effects could be afforded.  Chocolate syrup films as blood in B&W, so Bosco was used; clothing came from the actors or second-hand shops, and makeup was the most basic white-face with black-ringed eyes.  Another fun thing Romero did was get a bunch of ham pieces and raw entrails (donated by one of his actors who owned a butcher shop chain) for the zombies to “eat” and handle.  The meat grew rancid very quickly, but the troupe soldiered on through the stench.

All of the actors and actresses were unknowns or friends of the filmmakers, and some of them appeared in more than one role (for example, an on-screen person might appear in another scene as a zombie eating a bug). 

Something else interesting Romero did in casting—and he did it without commenting on it in the film’s narrative—was making his leading man an African-American.  He said his choice in stage-actor Duane Jones for the lead (as Ben) boiled down to the simple fact Jones gave the best audition for the role.  In America at that time precious few black men (other than Sidney Poitier) were ever cast as heroes in movies with otherwise all-white casts.  Romero simply let the matter lie; it is never brought to the fore or discussed in any way, nor do the other characters in the film make a big deal about his race.  We accept this black man as merely another player and we move on.

The story revolves around some mysterious agent causing the dead to rise and eat the living.  Action in the film consists of Ben and a few other stragglers barricading themselves inside a farmhouse to stave off the zombies attacking the structure.

The film is intense and suspenseful, and it does not have a happy ending.

Upon its release it was panned by some critics for its gore factor (the “eating” of rancid entrails and other fleshy parts) but that element is what made it more realistic than anything that had come before it.  It became a cult classic and spawned an entire franchise of sequels and spin-off films.  It earned back its budget in spades, with over $12 million generated in the US and another $18 million worldwide.  And almost every zombie movie in its wake or any zombie-themed TV show (such as cable’s The Walking Dead) owes a debt to this little Grade B movie.

This film has received one of the highest forms of praise any movie could get.  The Library of Congress elected to “collect” it in its National Film Registry.  These are movies preserved because of their cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.

With its jerky editing, black-and-white “art house” film stock, and of-the-moment acting this movie truly is transcendent.

Night of the Living Dead [Blu-ray]
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7. Barbarella (released: October 10, 1968)

The lead in this campy sci-fi/fantasy flick is a futuristic femme who uses sex as a means of meeting objectives.

Barbarella is based on an early 1960s’ serialized French comic-strip by Jean-Claude Forest; the strips were collected into a book in 1964, and it is this book that was used as the basis for the film.

Barbarella in the Arms of Pygar
Credit: Jean-Claude Forest, 1967

In the comic, Barbarella (an Earth woman of the future) is a space voyager on a mission to find a scientist, Durand Durand, who had been taken captive on another planet by an evil queen.  [And it was from the scientist character that Eighties’ rock band, Duran Duran, took their name.]

Her adventures on this odyssey usually involve her having sex with those she meets to either gain their cooperation in her quest or as a diversionary tactic.  Or, sometimes, she just has sex because she thinks it’s what the other person wants. 

The strip was highly erotic and was considered one of the first mainstream “adult” cartoon offerings (obviously, there had been cartoony erotica written before, but it was mostly of the “under-the-counter” variety).

Barbarella, of the comics, seems to be empowered by her sexuality and wields it either subtly or as a bludgeon, and she appears to be in control of her situation.  The movie version, however, as portrayed by a wide-eyed (and very appealing!) Jane Fonda seems more of a hapless and confused ingénue rather than the mercenary roué of the comic.  [Jane’s husband at the time, Roger Vadim, was the director of this debacle.  And, interestingly enough, Jane wasn’t the first choice for the title role: Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot turned it down.  Jane also turned it down and had to be talked into it by her hubby.]

The movie apparently took its cues in many ways from the mid-1960s’ high-camp version of the TV series, Batman.  The sets, despite supposedly being either in the future or on other planets, practically scream hippie psychedelics.  And the pastel colors and acid-trippy kaleidoscopic lighting effects all make the movie appear horribly dated.

The film has, perhaps, the most idiotic opening song in the history of movies.  It is voiced by what sounds like some Las Vegas lounge lizard.  Heavy on the woodwind and horns and with lots of “ba-ba-ba-ba” backing vocals, the track rhymes the non-word “psychedella”, “interstellar”, and “cockle shell” with “Barbarella”.  It is truly one of the worst ever recorded for a film.

Part of the reason for the awfulness of the movie was the decision to try to make it “hip”, and because of that it failed.  Had the producers (who had Barbarella’s creator, Forest himself, on-hand helping with set design) played it straight this would have been an amazing movie.  Unfortunately, it was very tongue-in-cheek.  It is on many critics’ lists as one of the worst movies ever made.

What makes Barbarella a Grade B movie isn’t its budget (it had enough money backing it and good distribution, even becoming a hit in the UK).  What makes it a Grade B movie is its tone: campy, almost sacrilegiously slandering the original concept.  Talks of a sequel with Fonda were in the works in the 1970s and never came to fruition.  Similarly, the idea of remaking the original, starring either Drew Barrymore or Rose McGowan, had been kicked around for the past several years but was finally shelved.

This schlocky film paved the way for other projects that took relatively staid characters, such as “The Green Hornet”, and turned them into light-weight fluff pieces (as in Seth Rogen’s 2011 take on that hero in his very unfunny, The Green Hornet).

As a cult classic, though, Barbarella (both the movie and the comic) can be seen as a direct ancestor of many sci-fi/fantasy films (such as Heavy Metal).

Barbarella does have its charms. And in addition to being great fun this movie is also a wonderful reminder of what a smokin’ hot bod Jane Fonda had!

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6. Silent Running (released: March 10, 1972)

In direct contrast to Barbarella, the sci-fi cult classic Silent Running was as serious as cancer.

Earth is one hot mess in the 21st Century—its plant life is devastated through resource mismanagement and humanity’s stupidity.  To preserve as much flora and some of its fauna a fleet of space freighters was built that carried huge clear domes, in effect outer-space greenhouses.  They are positioned out near Saturn with the hopes of someday returning to Earth for replanting.

One such ship is Valley Forge (and these ships are HUGE, perhaps the largest ever put on the big screen up to that time).  Among its crew of four is Bruce Dern starring as Freeman Lowell, the ship’s botanist and ecologist.  Early in the film, his character and the rest of the crew learn Earth is in trouble and needs the fleet of nursery ships to return home to be put into commercial use.  They are ordered to jettison the forest domes and return the vessels to Earth’s space.

Dern’s Freeman Lowell loses it.  As the other nearby ships blow the locks that secure the forests to them he slowly slips into a distempered, sense-of-injustice induced madness.  His other crew mates manage to blow four of Valley Forge’s six domes.  In a rage Lowell kills one crew member in one dome; he jettisons and blows up another dome with the remaining two crewmen inside it.  This leaves him with the Valley Forge and one forest dome to tend.

Aboard are three robot drones, initially called Drone 1, Drone 2, and Drone 3.  Lowell accelerates his ship around Saturn so telemetry from his vessel to Earth cannot occur.  In this state of silent running, Lowell tends the remaining forest with the help of his little drone buddies.  These become somewhat anthropomorphized in his mind and Lowell renames them Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  Louie is lost after an accident, and Huey gets damaged beyond repair after Lowell inadvertently runs him over with a powered transport cart.

As the ship emerges from behind Saturn another ship is near enough to contact the Valley Forge.  Knowing he’ll be found to have murdered the other crewmen, Lowell sets Dewey up in the remaining dome as a caretaker and sets it free to float off into deep space (he had rigged a lighting system to keep the plants alive).  He then blows up his freighter.

The closing sequence, with Joan Baez singing an original, weepy tune (written specifically for the movie) while we see lonely little Dewey tending a plant with a watering can has to be one of the most ham-fisted in film history.

Silent Running’s message is very heavy-handed and seems dated.  But, at that time in America conservation efforts weren’t what they are today. Pollutants were pumped into the waters and air at alarming rates without restriction or oversight.  There was a very real danger of destroying much of what we had.  While not perfect the planet is much healthier today than it was back when Silent Running was made.

And the film’s influence is undeniable—anyone know of a little ’droid named R2-D2?  How about the size of that Star Destroyer (not to mention its cobbled-together modeling that looks very much like how Valley Forge was put together)?  George Lucas sure knew about this movie (and a Japanese film he ripped off) when making the original Star Wars.

Silent Running
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5. Deliverance (released: July 30, 1972)

This is a small film, with a pedestrian storyline.

A bunch of guys go off on a bromance weekend to canoe down the thread of a Georgia river one last time before the whole area is flooded by a planned reservoir.  Seems harmless, yeah?  However, the hillbillies down there apparently don’t take too kindly to city folk getting lost on their river or in their woods.  Mayhem and murder result.

This film features some heavy hitters: Jon Voight, Ned Beatty (in his first major film role), and Burt Reynolds star.  The casting is excellent.

The movie created some iconic tropes that have passed into pop culture, such as this one featuring an obviously—and mercilessly—inbred hillbilly boy dueling on his beat-up banjo with one of the “foreigners” playing guitar:

The group pairs off in two canoes, and the downriver trip goes relatively well until Jon Voight and Ned Beatty get separated from the other two.

They make the mistake of setting foot on shore in the woods.  Some mountain types find them; at gunpoint they proceed to harass and then sodomize Ned Beatty (with the rapist uttering the famous line “Squeal like a pig!” as he’s doing it).  Burt Reynolds comes to the rescue and kills the raping hillbilly with a bow and arrow—the other hick runs off into the woods.

They bury the dead man and spend the rest of the film trying to hightail out of the area, fearing the other mountain guy would be stalking them in revenge.  One of their party is apparently shot and tumbles into the river—immediately afterward they are grounded when an accident on some rocks breaks one of Burt Reynolds’ legs.  The party finds they were, indeed, being followed by the surviving hillbilly.  Carrying a rifle this man comes up on the others; Jon Voight kills him with an arrow after lying in wait for him to appear.  That body is weighed down and tossed in the river—they know the area will soon be flooded with a manmade lake and they presume his corpse will never be found.

This is more of a psychological thriller with the men tormented about what they should do after killing the first hillbilly and then having guilt over the murder of the second one.

Its influence can be found in any subsequent film where people from “away” get tangled up with local backwoods types.  The movie is a simple allegory of modernity versus rusticity and good versus evil.  It was a very inexpensive film to make, there are almost no special effects of merit to worry about, and the storyline is fairly uncomplicated. 

But it is an enduring movie and one the Library of Congress also elected to include and preserve in its National Film Registry.

Deliverance (Deluxe Edition)
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4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (released: October 1, 1974)

Like George Romero a few years before him, director Tobe Hooper had very little money to bring his horror film to life.

With a budget of only $300,000 (almost $1.5 million in today’s currency) Hooper managed (using a cast of unknowns, some cheesy special effects, and a leather face mask) to create the template for an entire film genre known as the “slasher” movie.

The movie’s plot is nothing more than a device to introduce the real stars, the cannibalistic family who prey upon lost travelers.  A group of young people—absolutely none of whom are sympathetic or that you care about whether they live or die—are off on a trip to visit a relative’s grave (it is the grandfather of one of the female characters).  Ostensibly, it is to see if reports of vandalism and grave robbing were true.  Afterward, they decide to check out the dead granddad’s old home place.

They pick up a hitchhiker who subsequently freaks them out (and cuts one of the teens with a knife).  After tossing him out they try to find a gas station; since this was the early 1970s in America and we were being held hostage by OPEC with a manufactured gas shortage the travelers are told there’s no gas to be had.  They continue on hoping to come back later when the station gets a delivery.

Instead of sticking to the grandfather’s old homeplace a couple wanders off and finds a strange house in the nearby woods.  The male walks in only to be bashed to death with a mallet by the movie’s killer, Leatherface (so named for the mask he wears).  The girl is hung on a meathook in what turns out to be a complete charnel house of horrors.  Her male friend is then cut up with a chainsaw.

Another male friend sets out to look for the missing two.  He, in turn, is dispatched by Leatherface as well.  Finally, the last two friends set out to find the others.  As the pair approaches the strange home in the woods, Leatherface kills the male; after a quick run-through of the murder house, the girl, Sally, escapes by jumping out a window.  She runs to the gas station from earlier in the film—the owner ties her up and transports her back to the spooky shack.  There, she sees the hitchhiker who had harassed the group earlier—turns out he’s Leatherface’s brother!

After a strange sequence in which the patriarch of the family tries to kill Sally (but is too old and infirmed to succeed) she escapes.  The last shot of the film shows a frustrated Leatherface twirling in rage in a roadway, waving a running chainsaw over his head.

It spawned several sequels and remakes (most recently in 2013).  It also started trends in a) masked killers (as seen in any movie with the words “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” in their titles); b) killers in films using power tools as murder weapons; and c) explicit and gratuitous gore (as would be seen in later slasher movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street films).

This movie earned serious money for its trivial investment.  While shoddily made and badly acted it carries the weight of being a first of its kind, so that sort of makes up for its shortcomings.  And, really, you don’t care about the young adult characters—who lives, who dies.  You’re mostly drawn to this movie out of a sense of morbid curiosity—what will happen next is all you’re interested in as a viewer.

This film accomplishes that sense of anticipation, and that’s not too bad of a job of storytelling right there.

3. Dolemite (released: July 1, 1975)

As bad movies go this has to be truly one of the worst ever made. In comparison to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, Dolemite makes that disaster look positively scholarly and like high cinematic art. But its influence on later movies is so great it has to be mentioned.

The blaxploitation genre has generated many of the worst movies on any rationally thinking critic’s list. Abby (1974), a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist, is one such craptacular film

Dolemite is so awful that Grade Z isn’t even a low enough designation for how substandard it is. Badly acted, badly edited, horribly hammy, and outrageously absurd, it is such a train wreck of a movie that you feel compelled to watch it anyway.

Dolemite (movie poster)
Credit: Dimension Pictures, 1975

Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008), who plays the title role and wrote the story upon which the screenplay was based, was a stand-up comic who had gotten his start in the late 1950s.

One of the comedic characters he used in his stage act starting in the early Seventies was called “Dolemite”, a twitchy “toaster”.  “Toasting” was a verbal jousting session in which blacks told humorous, bawdy, and outrageous stories as a monologue or ranked on each other in verse using slang and expletives, sometimes over a basic rhythm track—it was the forerunner of rap.

Dolemite is a low-level pimp and street operator who owned a club where girls go-go danced.  He was convicted of possession of stolen property (a trunk full of fur coats) and a large stash of narcotics (also in his trunk).  However, it turns out that he owned none of the contraband and he had been set up by a rival street criminal to get him out of the way so the rival could have his turf.

The film opens with the eponymous title character seen in a prison cell.  Played by Moore (who also wrote the movie) he is called to the warden’s office for a discussion.

The warden, without benefit of the jurisprudence system, is prepared to let Dolemite out of prison.  Why?  Because the madam who runs Dolemite’s whore house, Queen Bee, had come to see the warden with information that would prove Dolemite was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted!  [That’s just how the world works, by the way—a prison official will, on the word of a tired old prostitute, set a prisoner free so he can clear his name.]

Once set free, Dolemite is met at the prison gate by a bevy of young women in a pimpmobile.  The first thing he does is strip off his prison issue jacket and slacks (right there in public) and puts on a laughably colorful and flamboyant pimp suit (complete with hat).  [And throughout this movie Moore goes through more costume changes than Diana Ross or Cher at one of their live shows; almost everything he wears is the classically absurd pimp clothes of the mid 1970s.]

To get back at whoever framed him (local crooked cops and his rival—who has mayoral backing to keep “the blacks” happy and voting) he regroups at his pimp palace.  There, we learn his “girls” have all been taking kung fu lessons and are “experts”. Dolemite himself apparently knows some type of martial art (what it is, I can’t tell you, but it’s sloppy and undisciplined onscreen).

One of his first moves is to get back his night club.  When he was sent up the river Willie Green, Dolemite’s arch-enemy, had taken it over and was using it as a front for drugs and gun running.  He takes his club back, and then hosts the granddaddy of all pimp parties there with a live band, him “toasting” (a tale about a monkey who constantly fought with a lion), and African style dancers.  A fight breaks out, Dolemite and his ladies kick derrieres, and in the end he clears his name and gets to live happily ever after.

This movie uses every negative racial and ethnic stereotype ever seen and then some.  The mumbling and shuffling black junkie, the flashy pimp, the white cops on the take, the corrupt politician—they’re all there.

The acting is truly awful (only the man who plays the white warden gives a reasonably credible performance).  In the opening scenes where Queen Bee is in the warden’s office, in one frame she is merely sitting there, stone faced, and in the next second we are given a close-up of her now tear-streaked face as she monotones, “Oh, Dolemite, I’m so happy”.  Moore’s “acting” is wooden throughout; he delivers most of his lines as if he is struggling to remember them.  [About the only time he sounds natural is when he is toasting, which he does twice in the film.]  The language, by 1975 standards, was pretty rough, too.

And the film work is awful as well.  The concept of good editing apparently didn’t occur to anyone.  Right after the warden reminds Dolemite of why he’s incarcerated, without warning the movie jumps to a scene of cars rolling up in a neighborhood and cop types getting out and taking up defensive positions.  This turns out to be a flashback of Dolemite’s frame-up and arrest, and it takes a few moments for the viewer to figure that out.  There are also some continuity problems among other execution issues.

On the plus side, Dolemite makes almost every other blaxploitation film before it (Shaft, Super Fly, et al) look like grand opera. 

There were some sequels, too: The Human Tornado (1976) and The Return of Dolemite (2002; a/k/a, The Dolemite Explosion).

This movie not only has a cult following (it’s the kind of film that ran 24 hours a day in grindhouse theaters) but it has influenced other movies with its unbelievable story line, attempts at action, and goofy characterizations.  Parody movies such as 1988’s I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka! and even such better fare as the “Death Proof” segment from Grindhouse (2007) owe a debt to Dolemite.

Bad film aficionados all over the world have kept this terrible movie gleefully alive.

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2. Mad Max (released: April 12, 1979)

Set in a near-future dystopia in Australia this small action film managed to create a blockbuster franchise featuring the title character and also helped make American-born “Aussie” actor Mel Gibson a household name.

The movie is set a few years into the future.  The world’s economy seems to be on the brink of total collapse and infrastructure is falling apart badly.  This film does not specifically address what the social, cultural, political, or economic problems were that led to the current state of society we just accept that “something” happened within the recent past.

Basic resources, such as gasoline, are growing scarcer and scarcer.  As a result, wandering gangs of marauders have taken to the roadways to rob and harass the populace in general. Policing these toughs is the job of Max Rockatansky and his fellow officers of Main Force Patrol (MFP).  Their best weapons are their high-powered vehicles.

One particularly nasty biker gang is The Acolytes.  The movie opens with an Acolyte renegade, Nightrider, speeding along in a stolen police vehicle after killing a rookie cop. The MFP gives chase; in pursuit the fugitive is killed when his car wrecks.  His remains are shipped in a wooden coffin to a nearby town awaiting pick up from whatever interested party wants to bury him.

The Acolytes arrive to collect their dead friend. Instead of simply tending to business and leaving they proceed to make mayhem.  Their criminal behavior spills over into gang raping a local girl and her boyfriend after forcing them off the road. Max and his partner discover the traumatized girl and also find one of the gang members, “Johnny the Boy”, left behind because he is too stupefied by recreational drug use to ride.  They take him off to jail only to find he soon gets cut loose after magically neither the victims nor any of the other put-upon townspeople stepped forward to testify.  Johnny’s gang buddies pick up their mate from jail; they mark Max and his fellow officers involved in the death of Nightrider for retribution by the gang.

The Acolytes ambush Max’s partner, Goose, on the road.  They set fire to his overturned vehicle, leaving him for dead.  He survives (barely) but is nothing more than a crispy shell when Max visits him in the hospital. 

Max, having expressed doubts about staying on the job many times before, is finally at a breaking point.  With Goose’s assault he is completely disillusioned—he sees things only getting worse “out there” and his department hasn’t the resources to combat the growing plague of nomads on the landscape.  He decides to quit.

His C.O., however, thinks Max is a good cop.  And as there are too few of them, he had ordered a specially modified police interceptor to be built.  This black super-charged car was meant as an enticement to Max—his boss lets it be clear that will be his cruiser if he stays on the job.  Meanwhile, Max is hell bent on quitting, but agrees to take a vacation to think it over.

The vacation does not go well.  Max, his wife, his toddler son, and their dog all go off to visit people and spend time in the country.  The Acolytes stumble upon the Rockatansky family and after stalking them Max’s wife and kid are rundown on the roadway by several bikers.

The grieving Max vows revenge.  He returns to MFP headquarters and commandeers the black super-charged interceptor, Pursuit Special.  He systematically finds low level gang members and kills them on the open road.  He then seeks out the higher-ups, the key members who burned his partner and killed his wife and son.  He kills them in various ways (gunshot, a forced wreck into an oncoming truck).  Max gets shot in the leg himself during his altercations with these last guys.

Johnny the Boy (an extremely sycophantic and loathsome character, the worst in the movie in my book) comes in for some special treatment.  Discovered at a random (and fresh) car crash site, Johnny is taking the boots from a dead man. 

A gimpy Max gets the drop on him.  He cuffs Johnny’s ankle to the smoldering wreck.  He then sets up a loose head lamp with gasoline dripping in it to be sparked by a burning cigarette lighter after a few minutes.  Max tosses Johnny a hacksaw and tells him he can either hack through the cuff (which would take too long before the car exploded in flames) or he can saw through his ankle (which would take considerably less time).  One of Johnny’s last catcalls is telling him, “You’re mad!”  As Max walks away we see a ball of fire erupt as the wrecked car blows behind him.

Now completely bereft of his humanity and perhaps slightly unbalanced Max takes the Pursuit Special and heads out into the desolation of the Australian Outback.

This movie was made independently by Australian director George Miller (who co-wrote the story and screenplay with a partner in 1975).  Its music was scored and arranged by Australian composer Brian May (not to be confused with the legendary guitarist of rock band, Queen).

It was Miller’s first feature film.  With precious little in the way of a budget (between $350,000 and $400,000; no more than $1.2 million US today, a paltry sum for an action movie) he and his cohorts did the best they could.  The cars were mostly restyled and retrofitted early 1970s Ford sedans (some of which had been retired from a local police department).  Thanks to having almost no money for costuming, only Max and his partner got to wear the now-iconic leather gear of the MFP—all the other “leather” was vinyl.

And cheapness tells in the filming, too, placing the action in areas where no constructed scenery or sets are needed.  Many of the “special effects” were done “in camera” using first-person points-of-view and speeding up the film to make it look as if the cars are going faster than they really are.

It is in the chase scenes this movie hearkens back to cheesy, low-rent action flicks such as Mr. Majestyk (1974) or Vanishing Point (1971).  It was filmed in roughly two six-week sessions with another two weeks for some clean-up work. 

But while the first Mad Max may reek of cheapness in execution it has grossed over $100 million US since its release.  It held the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any movie (finally losing that honor to the next entrant).

The spawn it produced were not Grade B movies by any stretch.  Mad Max 2 and Mad Max 3 (respectively known as The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in the US) were huge box office hits and entrenched the Mad Max character firmly into the pop psyche.  A new big-budget action film, using a different actor (as Gibson is long in the tooth and would likely no longer be credible in the role) came out in 2015 (Mad Max: Fury Road).

The influence of Mad Max on similarly-themed post-apocalyptic movies cannot be denied (though some could point to 1975’s sci-fi film, A Boy and His Dog, as influential on the “Max” series, especially as it relates to some elements of The Road Warrior).

Max lives!

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1. The Blair Witch Project (released: July 30, 1999)

This inexpensive indy project was put forth as documenting a true story.

According to that story an English colonel, last name Blair (and that’s all that is given), set foot in the Maryland lands sometime in the 1630s to build a fort to protect the nascent city of Baltimore (presumably from Indian attacks), a colony established in the name of Lord Calvert.  In the area was the Black Hills Forest, a place allegedly shunned by the Natives for superstitious reasons.  Regardless, Blair and his company built a fort there in 1634.

In Ireland in 1729, a girl named Eilis “Elly” Abaigeal Kedward was born.  She emigrated from there to Maryland later in her life, settling in the small village of Blair, Maryland.  Elly developed a reputation as a healer using folk medicines but as time wore on her solitary living and quirkiness led to charges of witchcraft.  Specifically, she was said to have pricked the fingers of several children, drawing their blood.  The explanation for this was she allegedly was investigating some new disease she had stumbled upon.  In February 1785, the 55-year-old woman, who was a Catholic living among Protestants, was accused not only of witchcraft but of prostitution as well.

Her punishment was banishment from the town.  She was forcibly bound to a sledge and dragged out into the spooky Black Hills Forest during a very bad winter.  She was tied to a tree and abandoned.  It is presumed she died of hypothermia or wolf attack or any number of other things; regardless, she was never seen or heard from again.  [Another version of the story has her tormenters leading her blindfolded into the woods.  Tying her to a tree they abused her physically, cutting symbols into her flesh, and then leaving.  Coming back to find her still alive they heaped more abuses upon her until finally, tiring of toying with her, they set their dogs on her.  This did not kill her, either, so the lynch mob hanged her from the tree where they’d tortured her.  What became of her body is not noted.]

However, the taint of her unjust execution—and tying someone to a tree to die of starvation or exposure to the cold is certainly an execution—cast a pall over Blair.  Within a year, her ghost was said to haunt the village, and all of her accusers as well as many children began disappearing in the Black Hills Forest.  Finally, with a curse apparently upon the hamlet most of the residents fled and it became a ghost town.

In 1809 a book named The Blair Witch Cult was allegedly printed that documents the legend of the Blair Witch. And the city of Burkittsville, Maryland, was later founded on the ill-fated site of Blair in 1824.  Ostensibly the curse of the Blair Witch made its presence known in the early 1940s when an eccentric local man in Burkittsville confessed to kidnapping and murdering several children; one survived.

Fast forward to 1994.

Three student documentarians went out to Burkittsville to do a small film about the Blair Witch.  They were never seen or heard from again.

A huge manhunt ensued that found over 100 searchers (via ground and air) spending over 30,000 hours combined in the effort.

Though the students weren’t found their video cameras, still cameras, a journal, and some other field equipment were discovered a year later in a duffel bag buried beneath a 100-year-old, abandoned cabin.  The “found footage”, as well as the photographs, told the story of what happened to these three intrepid souls.

The discovered DAT and Hi-8 images show the students walking through the woods, getting lost and spooked, and stumbling upon an old cemetery and some crudely constructed, totemic stick figures placed around the woods.  One of the students disappears, apparently murdered by an unseen force; the filming abruptly ends when the last two survivors enter a derelict house and something happens.

A movie was made in 1999 about the case; based on the film found (presented in documentary format) we can only assume the ghost of Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch, got the latter two in the abandoned residence.

The film cost all of $600,000 US to make (a tad over $840,000 today, a trifling amount); it earned almost $250 million globally.  And the filmmakers did not expect this level of popularity, thinking the movie might be better sold to a cable outlet and with a limited theatrical release in small venues.

Word-of-mouth on this small movie spread like wildfire, though, months before it was even released thanks to a cleverly-crafted Web campaign.  It was the first ever to be promoted so heavily upon the Internet.  It had its own webpage that told of the legend of the Blair Witch and of the missing film students.  And the “hits” on the page were in the millions.  [Though the Web site’s hosts would later be accused of artificially inflating those numbers it is irrelevant: the bottom line is the site alone was responsible for creating the manic buzz about this movie.]

The Blair Witch Project caught the attention and the imaginations of the public.  Even established movie-related websites bought into the story of the “missing” filmmakers (IMDB once included the information that the students were still missing).

Everything about this movie is a lie, though.

There was never a town of Blair where Burkittsville, Maryland, now stands and there was never a Blair witch.

The entire legend of Elly Kedward, despite its great detail (year of birth, nationality, etc.) was concocted from whole cloth by the film’s creators (though there are many people online who, using existing lies and misinformation, ignorantly continue to write about her as if she were a real, historic figure).

There was never a Colonel Blair who built a fort on the current site of Burkittsville (which was, truthfully, established in 1824, so that part’s not a lie).  On its face, such a fort makes little sense—this fortification, if it existed and was intended to protect the Baltimore colony, would have been almost 65 miles from Baltimore as the crow flies.  In an era when making 12 miles per day was considered good—on foot or on horseback—it would take over five days to get word to Baltimore about any impending attack from the West.

Map showing location of Burkittsville relative to Baltimore, MD
Credit: Yahoo Maps, 2015

Almost none of the landmarks noted in the film are in Burkittsville (in Frederick County): the Black Hills Forest lands, Coffin Rock, and other places aren’t even close.  And the movie was shot over 25 miles (40 km) away in a state park.

The high school mentioned—“Blair High School”—is in reality completely named Montgomery Blair High School and is in Silver Spring, Maryland (in Montgomery County where one of the film’s producers grew up). 

The school was named for Montgomery Blair, a Maryland lawyer (who served as Dred Scott’s counsel in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, an 1857 issue that set precedent over whether or not an African-American, be he/she free or slave, was a citizen of the US).  He was later a cabinet member during Abraham Lincoln’s administration (as Post-Master General it was Blair who developed the US postal money order as a means of curtailing cash on-hand in postal transports, reducing robberies).

The book, The Blair Witch Cult, is also a fraud.  Interestingly enough, the only allegedly existing copy of the book was recently described as so deteriorated that its text is almost entirely illegible, with precious few passages surviving, but quoted online on the Blair Witch Project website.  Magically, this book—apparently once available for public scrutiny—is now in the hands of an unnamed private collector and unavailable for inspection.

No such crime from 1940-1941 of a local derelict kidnapping and killing several children happened, either.  There are no newspaper or police records of such an event (and considering the bizarre nature of the killer’s claims, that some witch’s ghost told him to do it, you’d think this story would be all over the media of the day and would have found its way into crime anthologies, etc.).

The same is true of the 1994 search for the missing students—it never happened.  Such an expansive manhunt would have featured on national news broadcasts. Furthermore, local police confirm there was no such hunt.

And, amusingly, people still believed the fake story even though the “missing” students (actors) appeared on television to give interviews!

Despite its teeny budget and jerky camera work, the “true story” Web hype and debate, and its rough stab at story telling this is a truly great film.  Though the “found footage” concept had been used before (in a horror movie about cannibals in 1980) it was this film that worked the concept into something greater than a mere “discovery” and presentation of documentation.  The movie is suspenseful, chilling, and downright entertaining when all is said and done.

Consciously or not it has been influential on many other movies, such as 2007’s Paranormal Activity and the more recent District 9 (2009), which used after-the-fact “found footage” and “eyewitness” reminiscences as part of its narrative. It also spawned a sequel (not so well-received) and a well-received series of video games not to mention millions of dollars’ worth of movie-related merchandise.

The Coen Brothers’ “true story” movie, Fargo (1996), was similarly put forth as based on actual events.  Those guys, though, didn’t keep singing the party line after it was obvious Fargo (a great movie, by the way) was a fabrication from their own minds.

The Webulace, however, has kept the lie of the Blair Witch going, even to this day with uninformed and gullible people writing “factual” bios about Elly Kedward and the Blair Witch legend.  [And I will be absolutely shocked and surprised if some troll doesn’t come across this article and tell me I’m wrong about the Blair Witch: “She was, too, real!”]

The Blair Witch Project
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End Credits

Certainly there is a litany of Grade B movies that may have gone on to embed themselves in our brains (1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show and certainly Rocky, the underdog movie of 1976 featuring Sylvester Stallone). But those presented here, whether positively or negatively influential, all made their marks on not only us, the paying public, but on other filmmakers as well.

Just enjoy the few good ones there are, and laugh at the laughably bad ones where you can.


Honorable Mention: Toxic Avenger (released: May 1984)

They don’t get much dumber than this; likewise, they do not get more cultic, either.

A group known as Troma Entertainment (and I’m guessing “Troma” is a punny way to add the word “trauma” to their name) were basically two guys who started out in 1974 making campy, low-budget, sex-comedy movies.

Then, the idea to make a comedic horror movie was broached and the group brought us The Toxic Avenger.  It is the story of a typical 98-pound nerdling named Melvin who works at a health club as a janitor. 

He is mercilessly teased by the club’s staff and its patrons.  At one point he is talked into wearing a pink tutu and then abused so much by his tormenters he leaps out an upper story window to get away from them.

Conveniently, he falls into a flatbed truck filled with open barrels of nuclear waste (because, hey, that’s just how the EPA wants all hazardous materials transported).  The noxious substance burns his skin and also causes him to change into a large, freakishly strong mutant with a potato-like head.  He becomes a super hero, acting as a vigilante against the town’s criminal element.

The movie is badly done, but that was on purpose.  The premise is absurd, the acting is terrible, and the special effects are cheesy (but all done with great vision).  It is funny and entertaining while being gory at the same time (Toxie’s means of disposal of many criminal types are, shall we say, “creative”: tearing one guy’s arm off, using an industrial mixer to kill another, etc.).  [On a personal note, one of the actors—playing a police officer spying on the movie’s leading lady late in the film—was a college buddy of mine.  He did the movie over a break period, and he never told anyone he was in it because he was a “serious actor” and didn’t want to admit taking that step down.  I got to rag on him about it when I finally saw it on VHS way back when.]

The Toxic Avenger is a cult classic, and it spawned several sequels, a Broadway musical, and a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. 

The character of the Toxic Avenger, with his raggedy mop and nuclear-waste blackened tutu is recognizable globally.

Grade B don’t git no better’n that!

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Jan 19, 2016 6:44pm
Great article, Vic. I actually loved "Silent Running" but hated "The Blair Witch Project" and the whole "found footage" genre that it seems to have spawned.
Jan 19, 2016 9:08pm
I'm a fan of "Silent Running" as well. Made my wife watch it for the first time recently. I've seen it about six times. Still think the Valley Forge is one of the coolest space ships brought to the big screen. Thanks for reading!
Jan 19, 2016 9:08pm
I'm a fan of "Silent Running" as well. Made my wife watch it for the first time recently. I've seen it about six times. Still think the Valley Forge is one of the coolest space ships brought to the big screen. Thanks for reading!
Jan 20, 2016 1:59am
Awesome article, Vic!
Jan 20, 2016 9:49am
Thanks, I try. And thanks for reading!
Jan 23, 2016 2:26am
I've only actually seen three of those films, Night of the Living Dead (actually available in the public domain, although I got it on DVD), Mad Max and The Blair Witch Project , although I've heard of all of them.
Jan 23, 2016 8:03pm
I've seen 'em all and own 'em all (either on VHS or DVD). The newest Max movie, Fury Road, was pretty good. And you gotta break down and see "Barbarella" to believe it. Thanks for reading.
Feb 5, 2016 4:59pm
Thanks for the back story on the "Blair Witch Project." Had no idea it was all made up. I remember the ads for it - seemed really spooky. Great job researching, as usual, Vic.
Feb 5, 2016 8:12pm
BWP was actually a fairly suspenseful movie. I liked it well enough, just not enough to want to see it a dozen times (as I have with "Barbarella", "Mad Max", and "Silent Running". Thanks for checking it out.
Feb 14, 2016 7:45pm
Great Selections.
Feb 14, 2016 8:24pm
Thanks for looking!
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