What is a B-movie?
Some—dismissive and so-called “highbrow” critics—say B-movies are irredeemable dreck. A waste of celluloid, money, and precious time. Films that scraped the bottom of the barrel and shouldn't have bothered.
A part of me pities these detractors. Such attitudes strike me as very narrow, dour, and joyless. Such folks probably deny themselves all sorts of cheap, simple pleasures and can't be much fun at parties.
As an ardent horror and adventure fan—and a lover of zombie flicks in particular—I'm often put into a position where I have to defend B-movies.
So what if they're not highbrow cinema about Important topics?
So what if they'll never be nominated for Academy Awards or make it into the AFI's Top 100 Greatest Films list?
B-movies are entertaining. Isn't that what movies are supposed to do? Entertain us?
Before I defend this much-reviled art form any further, let's get down to brass tacks and return to that first question: what is a B-movie?
For starters, it should have more than one of the following:
- A budget so small it's microscopic. The actors were literally paid in sandwiches and carwash tokens.
- The cast is composed of direct family members, neighbors, classmates, soap stars, or washed-up Hollywood has-beens.
- A plot hammy enough to be classified as deli meat, while the dialogue is so wooden the actors could fashion it into a crude stake to use against the evil vampire they're running from.
- Subversive and risqué topics. (Think John Waters's brand of counter-culture weirdness.) LGBTQ+ characters and issues; punk and goth lifestyles; sex and blatant nudity regardless of how it fits into the plot; themes and stories that fly in the face of societal standards or moral ideals.
- Is Roger Corman's name listed anywhere in the credits? Chances are good you're watching a B-movie.
- The threat is a CGI yeti that leaps tall trees in a single bound. Or a mad scientist with an army of zombified Frankenstein's monsters. Or a mutant sea beast. Is Dracula back to cause trouble for the 97th time? Did a stupid co-ed chant a forbidden eldritch curse and summon a legion of soul-sucking demons? Congratulations! You're enjoying a classic B-movie!
Historically speaking, B-movies began as the less-billed half of double features. With shorter run times and smaller budgets than the more advertised “A-movie,” they were often ignored by critics and appealed primarily to younger audiences eager to watch anything on a big screen.
Churned out quickly by studios only interested in making a quick buck, many early B-movies have been lost to obscurity, never making it to a VHS distribution, let alone DVD or Blu-ray.
Different decades saw different genres birth especially large numbers of B-movies. Westerns, action adventures (most set in Ancient Greece or jungle landscapes), sci-fi, fantasy, and horror have all enjoyed the B-movie treatment.
Today, this film style is most often associated with horror and creature features, largely thanks to the SyFy Channel's utterly ludicrous Originals like the never-ending Sharknado series and various hybrid monsters (Lavalantula, Dinocroc, Gatoroid … the list goes on and on).
So, to be a B-movie, a film needs more than just a small budget. Plenty of indie films are made with microbudgets, and very rarely are they put in the same category as the likes of Evil Dead or Infestation.
B-movies are also … a state of mind. They mostly fall on one side of the line or the other.
On the one side: the filmmakers, cast, and crew genuinely want to make an entertaining movie. They may be inhibited by their budget or talent pool, but they go into the proceedings fully embracing any campy aspects of their script. They know they're making a B-movie, and they're having a lot of fun in the process.
(A few of the films that fall under this sub-category include: Sharktopus, Evil Dead II, Peter Jackson's wonderful Braindead—also known as Dead Alive—and anything ever released from Troma Entertainment.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the dividing line: films that try either too hard or just not at all. These are the boring, slow, dull, badly-paced clunkers, where everyone involved either thought they were making a “serious art movie” or the director just didn't give half a shit about the end result.
Maybe the director/writer/producer only made the film so his son could star in it (looking at you, Arch Hall, Sr.), or the primary financial backer wanted his wife to be the leading lady, despite the fact that her voice is akin to a dental drill and the Sphinx has more emotional range.
Whatever the exact reasoning, these B-movies are only worth watching if you've plenty of booze and witty friends on hand to lampoon them. These are the movies you typically only find on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Elvira's Movie Macabre DVD sets. And, yes, these make up a significant portion of the B-movie population.
Then why do so many people (yours truly included) love and defend B-movies so ardently?
Well, because they're hysterical, for starters.
Either they're intentionally funny, with goofy dialogue and slapstick performances, or their inventive, low budget special effects make us crow with laughter. Sometimes the atrocious acting is its own joy—just watch any of Tom and Judy's scenes in the original Night of the Living Dead and you'll understand what I mean.
There's not a lot of room for dignity in B-movies, and that's genuinely laudable when Hollywood continues to churn out depressing, mopey, Oscar-bait films designed to darken your day. I always admire actors who aren't afraid to look silly on camera, who commit fully to stupid dialogue while throwing themselves around with abandon. (I'm looking with unbridled fondness at you, Bruce Campbell.)
B-movies also feature utterly ridiculous, incredibly fun premises. A shark/octopus hybrid is swallowing bungee jumpers whole (Sharktopus)! A skeleton that ONLY TALKS IN ALL CAPS commands an evil twin to kill a scientist and pair of meddling aliens (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra)! A woman with a machine gun leg takes on marauding zombie hordes (Planet Terror)!
Speaking of: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez are now filmmakers with serious clout and acclaim, but even they concede that there are some things that can only be done B-movie style. The pair are such huge fans of the genre that they purposefully made just such a double feature with Grindhouse.
Rodriguez paid homage to cheapo zombie and mad-science-run-amok horror with Planet Terror—definitely the superior offering in this twofer, the truest to the spirit of the B-movie—while Tarantino's Death Proof is a riff on the exploitation and car chase films of the 1970s.
By aging the film in post-production, adding in cigarette burns, un-synching dialogue, and cutting out scenes to give the final product that bona fide missing-reel look, Tarantino and Rodriguez delivered big budget B-movies with scads of star power in front of the camera.
Only by playing up the feel and tropes of B-movies could the pair have told their stories the way they wanted to. They embraced the genre that so many other filmmakers reject because they love it in all of its sheer over-the-top ridiculousness.
After all, where else but in a B-movie are you going to see a pair of redneck good-ol'-boys restoring a cabin in the woods as their “summer home,” only to find themselves besieged by “college kids” who can't seem to stop killing themselves all over their property (Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil)?
What big studio would greenlight an ambitious smash-up that's part 1950s psychodrama, part 1960s lighthearted beach romance, and part 1980s slasher flick (Psycho Beach Party)?
Only a B-movie could mix blasphemy with LGBTQ+ positivity, choreographed musical numbers, wicked kung-fu fighting, and vampire horror (Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter).
While we're on the topic of unusual messages in B-movies—like Jesus defending lesbians in the midst of a vampire apocalypse—that's yet another thing to love about this style of film. Without huge studios interfering in the end result, filmmakers have the freedom to create stories with some seriously subversive commentary.
John Waters has this down to a fine art by now, with his counter-culture classics like Pink Flamingos (considered one of the most controversial and important gay films of all time, starring notorious drag queen Divine) and Hairspray (perhaps the most mainstream-palatable of Waters's films, it still features a drag queen mother, an overweight heroine addict, and an interracial relationship, as well as serious themes of racial inequality and cultural appropriation).
Slumber Party Massacre may seem, at first blush, to be yet another typical slasher flick piggy-backing off the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th. However, this particular gem was written by Rita Mae Brown (yes, indeed, THAT Rita Mae Brown) and is a surprisingly feminist horror flick.
Women are everywhere in B-movie, as coaches, carpenters, telephone repair women: they hold positions of power and dominate fields most often populated with men. The sporty co-eds stalked by the Driller Killer ably fight back while their boyfriends and other men crumple like wet tissues, dying far more violently than any of the ladies.
Meanwhile, George Romero's zombie films have always featured black heroes. Duane Jones may have gotten the lead in Night of the Living Dead simply by being the best actor, but that casting choice—and the film's brutal ending—became incredibly relevant when the film was released just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Land of the Dead even featured an undead Black Panther in Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a zombie who led a revolution against a corrupt living regime.
So there are fun plots, silly dialogue, and inventive special effects to enjoy. Subversive commentary to make you think more than you expected. Then, there's how B-movies take in the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses—actors, I mean.
When struggling actors are trying to jump-start their careers, they often have to turn to B-movies to build up a resume. Multi-Academy Award-winning actor Jack Nicholson got his start in Roger Corman's schlocky The Terror, while one of Brad Pitt's first leading roles was in the slasher flick Cutting Class. Tim Curry surely wouldn't be such a household name today if he hadn't first made waves in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
On the reverse end of the spectrum, a lot of established actors find B-movies to be a final bastion. Those who have fallen out of grace thanks to changing trends in mainstream cinema (i.e., they've gotten too old to be bankable in Hollywood's eyes) or due to personal issues often turn to B-movies to pay the bills.
Poor Bela Lugosi was typecasted his entire career, and in later years his poor health began to take its toll. At that point, the only work he could find was with a director who had a true gift for making atrocious films: Ed Wood.
Wood may have been a terrible director, but he was a firm friend and did his best to keep the former Dracula supplied with paying work. Lugosi's final film, Plan 9 from Outer Space, may be known as the worst film ever made—but there's a sort of immortality in even that.
David Carradine had a storied career in television and film, but by the end of his life he was acting primarily in little known flicks like Dead & Breakfast—a charming black comedy/horror outing that features line-dancing and singing redneck zombies. (It's as great as it sounds.)
Michael Madsen, another star of Tarantino's Kill Bill, is more often seen in SyFy Originals these days, such as Croc and Piranhaconda. Eric Roberts—brother to the more famous Julia Roberts—has appeared in several high-profile films (Batman Begins), but also dabbles in more outrageous fare (Sharktopus).
That's just another wonderful thing about B-movies: they can surprise you with familiar faces, both “before they were big” and “so that's where they went.”
Ultimately, B-movies are something you either like or you hate. Of course, taste is always subjective, and one man's trash is another woman's treasure. I readily concede that such schlocky low-budget fare isn't for everyone.
I do ask, however, that you try running a mile in a frightened co-ed's shoes. Face down just one or two vampires, or perhaps thwart a mad scientist's dreams of global domination. You may find yourself having a whole lot more fun than you expected.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.