5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is without question one of the most important horror films ever made. It’s not only one of the first zombie films, but it was the film that sparked the idea of “midnight cinema.” Romero crafted a very influential and political piece with his vision of walking dead, and with his use of an African American lead at the height of the civil rights movement.
The film follows a brother and sister on their annual pilgrimage to their father’s grave in Pennsylvania. While in the cemetery, Barbara is attacked. Her brother Johnny tries saving her and falls causing him to hit his head on a gravestone.
Barbara escapes the man and flees to a house where she meets Ben, a black male who also takes shelter in the home. They board it up attempting to “zombie proof” their new hideout. A teenage couple and a family of three are also using the home to escape the horrors of the zombie outbreak. Ben and the other residents must try to survive while being confined to the house.
Overall, the story is very standard for a zombie film, but this was revolutionary at the time and a film with this plot and premise had never been seen before. Romero’s inspiration for this film came from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Matheson believed that Romero had ripped him off without credit. While similarities between the two are certainly prevalent, Romero’s vision of I Am Legend is certainly no “rip-off”.
When the film was released it was showered with controversy because of the films graphic depiction of gore and it’s racially driven ending. Another reason the film was considered controversial was because the MPAA hadn’t been established yet and the film was being shown as a matinee like most horror films of the time.
Since most matinee horror films from the period were relatively tame, this film was far more graphic than people were used too. Splatter cinema wasn’t new, but films such as Blood Feast (1963) and Jigoku (1960) were not being screened at 2pm on a Saturday like Night of the Living Dead was. After the MPAA was established, (a month after its initial release,) Romero’s film was pulled from its time slot and banished to midnight.
The film was successful during its first month but after it was pulled from many theaters, the film’s popularity and success skyrocketed. It gained a massive cult following and continued to do well as a midnight film throughout the 1970’s. As other films found success in the midnight circuit, Night of the Living Dead began being screened more frequently.
Night of the Living Dead is not just a great midnight movie; it is a truly great film and without question the most important zombie film ever made. Romero etched himself as a horror God with this film, and its racial and political themes make it more than just an exercise in just gore.
Night of the Living Dead is considered to be one of the great American horror films as well as one of the great independent films. If you have never seen this film, put it on your to-do list. It inspired an entire generation of filmmakers as well as countless attempts to revive the zombie genre.
4. El Topo (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is an utterly insane, surreal, and bizarre acid western that helped redefine one of America’s oldest film genres. The film is rich with symbolism, full of controversy, and is one of the most unique films ever crafted. Jodorowsky cemented himself as an underground legend with the release of this film and has since become one of the most influential independent filmmakers ever.
The story of El Topo follows a man named El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) who is traveling with his son through the desert. El Topo arrives at a village of slaughtered people and he swears that he will avenge the fallen from the town. Eventually, he meets a woman and decides to become the greatest gunslinger in the west, even if that means cheating to kill.
El Topo is eventually betrayed and the second half of the film begin there. The second half takes place years later: El Topo has been taken in by a group of deformed people who live in underground caves. He is “born again” and vows to help the mole people escape the caves for good.
To put it simply, El Topo is not a typical western. It is unlike any film in the genre and stands alone as an exercise in insanity. This is typical of Jodorowsky’s films. El Topo happens to be the most straight forward but as far as westerns are concerned, this film is sheer madness.
The film garnered a lot of controversy upon its release. The use of religious symbolism and the violent imagery associated with the religious commentary angered many Christian groups across the country. Throughout the first half of the film, El Topo’s son is fully nude. Many filmgoers found it offensive that a naked child was on screen for so much of the film.
Jodorowsky has stated that the child nudity represents pureness of character, because the child had committed no sin. He had no reason to be ashamed of himself naked. The film also features dead animals, which offended viewers and critics alike. Because the film was shot in Mexico, Jodorowsky did not have to follow the laws and codes of the Unites States.
When the film was released, Beatles manager Allen Klein helped finance the U.S. distribution. In 1971, El Topo found its home at The Elgin Theater after Ben Barenholtz saw a screening of it in New York City and began screening the film at midnight. El Topo was screened seven nights a week at The Elgin. Aside from bootleg copies, midnight screenings were the only way to view El Topo until it was released on DVD. The film was never released on VHS.
El Topo is one of the definitive midnight films. It really is the first movie destined for midnight. Had it not developed its cult following in New York, more than likely this film would likely have fallen into underground obscurity.
El Topo changed the attitudes towards independent cinemas and this is the film that began to prove to owners that money could be made by screening these odd, art-house masterpieces. Call it an acid western, call it a cult film, it doesn’t matter; El Topo is an underground icon, and one of the most influential films of the midnight circuit.
3. Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters’ first major feature film is one of the most notorious and controversial films ever made. Intended as a black comedy and exploitation piece, Waters crafted a marvel in gross-out humor, filth, and depravity. There is no questioning that this was Waters’ vision as an artist. Waters didn’t just direct the film, but also wrote, produced, scored, edited, and served as the cinematographer.
The story of Pink Flamingos follows the drag queen Divine (also known as Babs Johnson in the film), a small time criminal who earns the title “Filthiest Person Alive”. Divine becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, and her family is very supportive of her and her despicable acts.
Husband and wife Connie and Raymond Marble, read about Divine in a tabloid newspaper and become jealous of her accomplishments. They attempt to dethrone Divine and become the “Filthiest Couple Alive”. After a series of horrific acts committed by the Marbles, Divine and her brother Crackers kidnap and murder the couple for their actions and disrespect toward Divine and her family.
The budget for Pink Flamingos was $10,000 and Waters cut corners any way possible to get his film made. Completing the film was very difficult for the cast and crew. They shot the movie outside of Baltimore (Waters’ hometown as well as the setting for nearly all of the films).
The trailer used for Divine and her families home had no heat or running water. Waters had to cut scenes in editing because you could see the characters’ breath in certain scenes; particularly, actress Edith Massey, who is in her underwear during most of the film.
When Pink Flamingos was released, it premiered at the Baltimore Film Festival and sold out three nights in a row. The film became somewhat of a legend in and around Baltimore and fans of underground cinema flocked to see Waters’ exercise in filth and trash. Eventually, New Line Cinema picked up the film, which in 1972 was still a small independent distribution company.
In New York, the Elgin Theater agreed to screen the film regularly at midnight. The Elgin became the hub for most successful midnight movies. Had it not been for The Elgin and the theater’s owner, Ben Barenholtz, a majority of the films listed would have faded into obscurity, Pink Flamingos included. Although the film did well in Baltimore and New York, it was banned in several countries and other cities in the U.S. refused to screen the film.
Most of the films featured on this list were notorious and controversial for violence and brutality; Pink Flamingos is the complete opposite. While it does contain violent scenes and even animal cruelty, this film is all about sexual exploitation and shows sex in many taboo ways. You will see actual fellatio, a character eat dog feces, and two people having sex while killing a live chicken. Those are just a few scenes Pink Flamingos has to offer.
Waters’ has been proclaimed the “King of Filth” for a reason, Pink Flamingos is a dirty movie, and even by today’s standards can be difficult to watch. Any controversial or notorious film list is almost guaranteed to feature Pink Flamingos; because it was (and still is) very shocking and flat out disgusting at times. Pink Flamingos is one of the original films to be considered a midnight movie, and there is no question as to why it was banished to the late night crowds.
2. Eraserhead (1977)
When watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead, it’s hard to believe that this was the work of a filmmaker who had never directed a feature before, let alone produced, edited, or did sound design. Eraserhead is purely Lynch, and it not only helped introduce the world to one of the most interesting visionaries of modern cinema, but one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs.
When watching this film, the word inspirational probably wouldn’t cross many viewers’ minds, but that is exactly what Eraserhead is. It inspired an entire generation of filmmakers and artist to pick up the camera and express themselves in a dark and nightmarish way.
Moviegoers and film critics alike have debated the themes and story of Eraserhead since the release of the film in the spring of 1977. What Eraserhead’s purpose was in terms of narrative is simple, it is a film about the fear of fatherhood.
Lynch took this basic idea of being a father and turned it into a horrific and disgusting display complete with a disfigured baby, a mother who runs away, and the notion of being absolutely alone in the universe. Oddly enough, Lynch already had a daughter during the production. The film also works as a piece on the negativities of sex, a common motif seen in most of Lynch’s work.
The AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles made Eraserhead possible. Lynch was one of the first students to study at the newly founded film school and he was given a grant by AFI to make his short film, The Grandmother in 1970. After AFI had seen what kind of work Lynch was capable of, they offered him a place in their institution.
Lynch moved to L.A. to study filmmaking and he eventually presented an early draft of Eraserhead. AFI didn’t fund the project fully, and Lynch had to borrow money from family and friends to complete the project. Eraserhead helped build the AFI Conservatory into what it is today and Lynch is one of the reasons the school has gained a reputation as being one of the best film schools in the world.
When Eraserhead finally premiered in 1977, people were shocked by the grim subject matter, polarizing soundtrack, and grotesque visuals. Critics despised the film and thought of it as filth and some even dubbed the film as unwatchable. However, niche audiences and horror fans flocked to see Lynch’s debut film and were amazed at what they were seeing.
Eraserhead was destined to be a midnight classic and the film was a idolized by the midnight movie crowds. The film generated such a buzz, and had such a cult following, that it played for three straights years in Los Angeles, one year in San Francisco, and nearly two years in New York.
Today, Eraserhead is considered a masterpiece and an achievement in visuals, sound, and special effects. It is also considered one of the greatest debut films by a filmmaker ever. Eraserhead is studied in film schools across the country and is a must see film for viewers looking for something entirely different. While Eraserhead has been stolen from many times, nothing will ever seem as unique or original as this film.
1. Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The definitive midnight movie is none other than Jim Sharman’s sci-fi musical masterpiece Rocky Horror Picture Show. This film, more than any other in the history of cinema, changed the way audience members experience going to the theater. Of all the films listed, this is the only one that you can guarantee is still playing at midnight somewhere in the country. If it’s Saturday night, and Rocky Horror Picture Show is on the marquee, fans are flocking to experience the mayhem and madness this film spawned.
Sharman’s intention with his film was to make a tribute to sci-fi B-movies while putting a rock and roll twist on them. He succeeded in his mission and in doing so, helped create one of the most successful cult films, if not the most successful cult film, of all time. The story follows Janet and Brad, a recently engaged couple as they seek help for their broken down vehicle.
They come across a large, gothic mansion which is the home of Dr. Frank N. Furter, a mad scientist transvestite (perfectly played by Tim Curry) who is attempting to create the perfect man to be used as his love slave. Besides Dr. Frank N. Furter, the mansion also houses his guests as they dance, sing, party, and sleep around during a night Brad and Janet will surely never forget.
The legacy of Rocky Horror can be traced back to the original stage play, which was released two years before the film version. The playwright, Richard O’Brien, co-wrote the film with Sharman and starred as Frank N. Furter’s servant, Riff Raff. The play gained a small cult following in England, where the show premiered. When it debuted at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles in 1974, 20th Century Fox took notice of the plays popularity and decided to adapt it into a feature length film.
Once it was released, it took a little over a year for the film to gain notoriety on the midnight circuit. Fans of the film began attending screenings regularly and eventually began singing and acting out the film. Word of mouth spread, and this film became the most must see attraction at midnight. The film has been in limited release for thirty-nine straight years and shows no sign of going away.
The film has had a significant impact on popular culture as a whole as well. Because the film is a musical, it was able to reach an audience other midnight films hadn’t been able too. Songs such as “Time Warp,” “Sweet Transvestite,” and “Dammit Janet” became hits because of the films successful soundtrack, which broke the Billboard top 50 in 1975. The soundtrack was re-released in 2010 and peaked at number 55 on the Billboard charts.
When one thinks about midnight movies and their contributions to the artistic and cinematic world, none are as influential or as significant as this one. While it might not possess the formal film qualities some of the other films offer, there is no questioning the social and cultural significance of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It defines the entire notion of midnight cinema and spawned a new way of viewing a film. Acting the film out live, dressing up, and quoting every line of dialogue is standard practice. Seeing this film any time other than midnight seems wrong, as though this is what was intended, and that it should never be shown any other way.
Author Bio: Chaz Ludwig is a film writer and avid cinephile. He studied film at Columbia College Chicago and has written and directed 2 short films. He hopes to run an independent movie theater one day.