Z movie  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The term Z movie (or grade-Z movie) arose in the mid-1960s as an informal description of certain unequivocally non-A films. It was soon adopted to characterize low-budget pictures with quality standards well below those of most B movies and even so-called C movies. While B movies may have mediocre scripts and actors who are relatively unknown or past their prime, they are for the most part competently lit, shot, and edited. The economizing shortcuts of films identified as C movies tend to be evident throughout; nonetheless, films to which the C label is applied are generally the products of relatively stable entities within the commercial film industry and thus still adhere to certain production norms.

In contrast, most films referred to as Z movies are made for very little money on the fringes of the organized film industry or entirely outside it. As a result, scripts are often laughably bad, continuity errors tend to arise during shooting, and nonprofessional actors are frequently cast. Many Z movies are also poorly lit and edited. The micro-budget "quickies" of 1930s fly-by-night Poverty Row production houses may be thought of as Z movies avant la lettre. Latter-day Zs may not evidence the same degree of technical incompetence; in addition to bargain-basement scripts and acting, they are often characterized by violent, gory, and/or sexual content and a minimum of artistic interest, readily falling into the category of exploitation, or "grindhouse" films, and some are considered the worst films ever made.

Examples

Director Ed Wood is often described as the quintessential maker of Z movies. Yet his work reveals the ambiguity of the category. Certain very-low-budget pictures of his such as Glen or Glenda (1953) and Jail Bait (1954), though broadly and risibly incompetent, are also entertaining on their own terms and evidence an intriguing artistic vision.

Three films are frequently cited as exemplifying the classic Z movie:

  • Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), directed by Wood, is often labeled the worst film ever made. It features an incoherent plot, bizarre dialogue, inept acting, intrusive narration, the cheapest conceivable special effects, and cardboard sets that the actors occasionally bump into and knock over. Stock footage is used throughout, whole sequences are used multiple times, boom mics are visible, and actors frequently appear to be reading from cue cards. Outdoor sequences contain parts filmed during both day and night in the same scene. The movie stars Maila Nurmi, in her Vampira persona, and Béla Lugosi, who died before the film was made. Test footage of Lugosi shot for a different project is intercut with shots of a double with a different physique and hair color, who covers his face with a cape in every scene. The narrator refers to the film by its preproduction name, "Grave Robbers from Outer Space."
  • The Creeping Terror (1964), directed by Arthur J. Nelson (who also stars in the film under the pseudonym Vic Savage), uses some memorable bargain-basement effects: stock footage of a rocket launch is played in reverse to depict the landing of an alien spacecraft; what appears to be shag carpet is draped over several actors shambling about at a snail's pace, thus bringing the monstrous "creeping terror" to the screen. The movie also employs a technique that has come to be synonymous with Z-movie horror: voiceover narration that paraphrases dialogue being silently enacted onscreen.
  • Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), directed by Harold P. Warren, a fertilizer salesman who had never worked in film before (or since). The film is famous for its incompetent production, which included the use of a camera that could not record sound, the recording of the entire soundtrack by only three people (who provide the voices for every character), the horrible editing, the introduction of characters who never impact the plot in any way, and the disjointed dialog. The movie also features an extremely long beginning crawl (to which credits were supposed to be added but never were), a character named Torgo who is intended to be a Satyr, but who wore his prosthetics incorrectly, making it look like he simply has very large knees, and the clapboard being clearly visible in one scene. Manos was the subject of an episode of the movie-mocking series Mystery Science Theater 3000. Like Plan 9, it frequently tops lists of the worst movies ever made.

The latter-day Z movie is typified by such pictures as Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995) and Bikini Cavegirl (2004), both directed by Fred Olen Ray, that combine traditional genre themes with extensive nudity or softcore pornography. Such pictures, often after going straight to video, are fodder for late-night airing on subscription TV services such as HBO Zone.

Etymology

The earliest usage of the term (as grade-Z movie, and without the full derogatory meaning now usually intended) so far located is in a January 1965 newspaper review by critic Kevin Thomas of The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), an American International Pictures film directed by Roger Corman. The earliest clear use of Z movie so far located in its now prevalent sense is by Todd McCarthy in the introduction to the 1975 book Kings of the Bs. Though Z movie is most commonly used to describe films of the overtly low-grade sort described above, some critics use the term more broadly to describe any inexpensively produced movie that defies the norms of mainstream filmmaking in some significant way.

Sources

  • Heffernan, Kevin (2004). Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953–1968 (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-3215-9
  • McCarthy, Todd, and Charles Flynn, eds. (1975). Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System—An Anthology of Film History and Criticism (New York: E.P. Dutton). ISBN 0-525-47378-5
  • Peary, Danny (1988). Cult Movies 3 (New York: Fireside). ISBN 0-6716-4810-1
  • Quarles, Mike (2001 [1993]). Down and Dirty: Hollywood's Exploitation Filmmakers and Their Movies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland). ISBN 0-7864-1142-2
  • Schaefer, Eric (1999). "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-2374-5
  • Taves, Brian (1995 [1993]). "The B Film: Hollywood's Other Half," in Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939, ed. Tino Balio (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press), 313–350. ISBN 0-520-20334-8
  • Thomas, Kevin (1965). "Poe 'Tomb' Is Stylish Scare Film," Los Angeles Times, January 22.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Z movie" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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