Pink Flamingos Is DIY Filmmaking at Its Best and Worst

John Waters and the Dreamlanders made Pink Flamingos for art, not money, and set the high bar for low budget.

Cast and Crew of Pink Flamingos
Photo: New Line Cinema

John Waters mixed do-it-yourself moviemaking with don’t-try-this-at-home mayhem to produce the ultimate and most fiercely independent film. Made for $12,000, Pink Flamingos premiered at the Baltimore Film Festival 50 years ago. The cult masterwork replaced Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo as the midnight movie in residence at Elgin Theater in Manhattan and set high and low standards for no-budget motion picture filmmaking.

While the extremely low-budget Plan 9 from Outer Space is renowned as the worst film ever made, Pink Flamingos has a street rep as the raunchiest. Ed Wood’s sci-fi horror mashup cost $60,000 to make, which by 1956 standards is still five times the budget Waters spent. And this from an NYU film school reject who stole textbooks and sold them back to the college bookstore, and went to sleazy exploitation movies more often than going to class.

“I went to New York University, very briefly,” Waters is quoted on I got kicked out in 1966–marijuana, which was a big scandal then. It was in the Daily News.”

The budding filmmaker who’d once staged violent puppet shows for kids’ birthday parties in Baltimore partied with Lower Manhattan’s underground anti-elite filmmakers. In Netflix’s The Andy Warhol Diaries, directed by Andrew Rossi, Waters expertly dissects the independent ethos fueled by The Factory films. He specifically cites Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977), directed by Jed Johnson rather than the studio’s regular Paul Morrissey, as a film Waters should have made.

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Made for $1.25 million, Andy Warhol’s Bad had the biggest budget of any of Andy Warhol’s films. But it was the last one produced by the Warhol Factory. It is best known for an urban infanticide scene, which earned the movie indignant reviews. In the film, Perry King plays a hitman working out of a nail salon. He’s given a contract to execute an autistic kid. “Consider it euthanasia,” he is told.

While still a must-see underground offering, it broke no new ground in cinematic repulsion. It falls just short of the artistic street spots of Warhol’s earlier productions and didn’t elicit the scandalized reactions of offended moviegoers. It may very well have benefited from Waters’ touch.

Pink Flamingos, Bad and Andy Warhol’s Trash (1970) share a similar dark sense of humor.

“That’ll be you if you don’t shut up,” a mother tells her son as he gawks at the splattered remains of the baby tossed from a high-rise window in Bad. The laughs were cheap and crude, but Waters’ was cheaper and cruder. Pink Flamingos is about a competition to be “the filthiest person alive,” which climaxes in a dogshit-eating salvo against the vapid straights conforming to accepted society.

Waters’ cast and crew were bent, broke, and reveled in being beyond repair. They made movies for art, not money. Their subjects were not on the outside looking in. They were the inside who never looked back. Instead they showed what was coming.

Who Are The Dreamlanders?

Waters created his own film society, and all his movies have been shot on location in Baltimore. He converted his home on 25th Street into Dreamland Studios, assembled a troupe of regular players called “the Dreamlanders,” and went into production. Waters calls this his film school, learning the art of camerawork on short films Black Leather Jacket (1964), Roman Candles (1966), and Eat Your Makeup (1968).

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Waters’ first full-length feature was Mondo Trasho, made for $2,100. During shooting, almost the entire crew was arrested for “participating in indecent exposure.” It was a five-second shot of a nude man in the middle of a road, and the community took sides. In February of 1969, Waters screened his early shorts in court to prove he wasn’t a pornographer. He won. It cemented the Dreamlanders outlaw status.

“The Weathermen were a big influence,” Waters told The Washington Post about making Pink Flamingos. “We wanted to do cultural terrorism in a funny way.” Mondo Trasho premiered on March 14, 1969. Three months later, a late-night raid turned into a riot at the Stonewall Inn, a West Village gay bar owned by the Genovese crime family.

The Dreamlanders were film and performance over-enthusiasts drawn to downtown Baltimore’s gay scene. They included Waters’ childhood friends, the petty-criminal, dope-smoking, shoplifting, self-proclaimed “bad suburban kids” from Towson and Lutherville: Bob Skidmore, Mark Isherwood, and Mary Vivian Pearce, the only Dreamlander to appear in every one of Waters’ movies (her scenes in Cry-Baby were cut).

Joining in on the fun was the crowd who lived in “the Hollywood Bakery,” a former commercial bakery owned by Vincent Peranio, who would go on to become Waters’ art director. He’d also turn the space into a studio, and share it with George Figgs, who also arranged the first public showings of Waters’ Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Roman Candles; Susan Lowe, best known for playing Mole McHenry in Desperate Living; and Mink Stole, who appears in all of Waters’ features.

The original troupe also included Bob Adams, Paul Swift, Chris Mason, Peter Koper, Maelcum Soul, and David Lochary. Original Dreamlander George Stover went on to make his sci-fi debut in Don Dohler’s The Alien Factor, the first science-fiction movie filmed in Maryland. Pat Moran is now a casting director who won Emmys for his work on VEEP, Life on the Streets, and Game Change.

The term Dreamlander has come to refer to anyone who acts in more than one Waters film, such as Traci Lords who appeared in Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994), and Jean Hill and Ricki Lake who make irregular appearances. Danny Mills is considered a Dreamlander even though he only appeared in Pink Flamingos.

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The Most Divine Dreamlander

The most recognizable of the original Dreamlanders is Harris Glenn Milstead. A character actor who excelled at playing women, Waters stage-named him Divine, in a nod and wink to Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. Divine’s influence is immeasurable, not only on the drag community, but on the mainstream of both fashion and film. Ursula the Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid is based on the larger-than-life, menacingly vulnerable characters Divine created.

Ed Wood pioneered indie-film drag representation in his semi-autobiographical cautionary tale Glen or Glenda (1953). Billy Wilder mined faux drag for comedy in Some Like it Hot (1959). Milstead’s turn as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos turned Divine into a cult star. She is fabulous and disgusting and we love her for it.

Cheap Tricks

Waters was 25 when he wrote, directed, and produced Pink Flamingos. He was also primary camera operator, as he would be on all his films until Polyester in 1981, and kept his troupe moving through 12 to 15-hour-day shoots. His productions were cheap but artful. Production designer Vincent Peranio got the Johnson family trailer for $100 in a junkyard and painted it pink to match the flamingos. The set designs are pure anarchy, the color compositions are chaotic, and the mid-century modern furniture is tacky. The combination gives the film an aura of Technicolor.

The film’s thrift shop cinematic sensibilities prefigured punk, but defined its fashion. David Lochary used the blue ink out of a Magic Marker to dye his hair. Mink Stole used her own wardrobe for the neon-haired villain character Connie Marble. To inexpensively avoid further arrests, outdoor scenes were shot on a farm in Phoenix, Maryland, owned by Divine’s friend Bob Adams.

Waters made all his early films, including Pink Flamingos, on his father’s dime, and always paid him back with interest. The experimental director would screen movies in art galleries, church basements, college campuses, and tiny independent theaters to earn enough money to keep making films. There was enough left over after Pink Flamingos to make Female Trouble.

Pay for Play Until You Get Paid

Pink Flamingos is the ultimate cult film because it was made by, about, and for outsiders, and shown outside normal distribution. It was shown in the margins of movie venues. Screenings and marketing were a guerrilla operation.

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Waters’ influences ranged from art house film high-brow to sleazy exploitation films, which had been promising to show audiences things they couldn’t see anywhere else since carnival tent shows in the 1920s. Luridly overblown cautionary epics like Is Your Daughter Safe?, Reefer Madness, Child Bride, and Assassin of Youth were far below even the cheapest of B-movies, and were shown in the furthest fringes of the theater circuit.

Pink Flamingos premiered in an auditorium Waters rented at the University of Baltimore on March 17, 1972. It had three showings, and all were sold out due to Waters’ ad hoc marketing genius. The film was eventually distributed by then-new New Line Cinema, who booked it at the Elgin Theater where it ran for over a year at midnight. It is the second original midnight film ever screened at the famed theater.

The greatest cult films begin in controversy. Pink Flamingos is probably best known for the long-shot of Divine eating dog shit, but that is not the most disturbing scene in the taboo-smashing film. Waters skewered morality to savage hypocrisy. The film joyfully features gore, drag, blasphemy, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Variety called it “one of the most vile, stupid, and repulsive films ever made.” Mary Avara, head of the Maryland State Board of Censors from 1960 until 1981, said just discussing Waters made her “mouth feel dirty.” The film was banned in cities and countries. It is still given the most restrictive viewer advisory possible.

“Overseas it plays as an American horror movie,” Waters, who has been called The Pope of Trash, Prince of Puke, and Godfather of Gross, told The Washington Post.

John Waters and the Dreamlanders were just having fun at the expense of art, and wound up at its forefront. It is very hard to overstate how important their films are to underground and commercial moviemaking. This is motion picture pioneering at its most casual and cost effective. After 50 years, Pink Flamingos is still ahead of its time. The film didn’t change but it changed film. The society it spoofed is still catching up.