Orgy of the Dead (1965)

The cult of Ed Wood has a lot to answer for. A complete chapter is no doubt devoted to him in the history of the so-bad-it’s-good genre. His masterpiece, if you would call it that, was Plan 9 for Outer Space (1957) but more likely these days to attract attention for the cross-dressing Glen or Glenda (1953). Johnny Depp embellished the legend in the 1994 Tim Burton biopic.

Even so, little can prepare you for the likes of Orgy of the Dead, nowadays sold on Wood’s name, but to which he only contributed the screenplay based on his own novel. Not that, given his mesmeric incompetence, he would have done any better in front of the camera. It’s trash, but it’s a hoot, especially when The Mummy (Louis Ojena) and the The Wolfman (John Andrews) enter proceedings in costumes that would have been ridiculed on the domestic Halloween scene.

Bob (William Bates), a horror writer seeking inspiration, and girlfriend Shirley (Pat Barrington), drive out in the country. When their car crashes they end up in a cemetery and tied to stakes watch the dead, ruled by the Emperor (Criswell), come to life. Except the departed all look as they are auditioning for a job in a strip club. So what you get is one scene after another of nearly-naked girls gyrating for the camera. That’s pretty much it, until the sun comes up and the obvious occurs.

This marked the directorial debut of A.C. Stephens whose company Astra had started off with different intentions, buying up the rights to five films by French comedian Fernandel which would have been destined for arthouses. Criswell was a famed seer, appearing on countless television programs, who predicted the death of President Kennedy. Ed Wood – or Edward D. Wood Jr as he was known then – had made a television series Criswell Predicts (1953) and Criswell acted as narrator of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Given the battles Hollywood had with introducing snippets of nudity in the 1960s I wondered how such blatant nudity got through the censor. Well, quite easily actually. Films with such high skin quotients simply did not apply for a rating. The Production Code was a self-funded censorship scheme operated by the studios. They submitted their films to this board and received an official rating. But if you did not submit your picture – foreign filmmakers also got round the censor by not applying – you didn’t get a rating and unless some officious local censor came after you then the pictures would play wherever cinemas would book them.

The case against wholesale nudity, such as the plethora of nudist camp movies that appeared in the 1950s, was torn apart by a ruling from the New York Court of Appeals in 1957 which declared, in relation to Garden of Eden (1954), that “nudity in itself” was not covered by “obscenity in law.” That opened the door for the likes of Russ Meyer and The Immoral Mr Teas (1959).  

The drawback for moviemakers entering this new subgenre was the lack of movie houses willing to show such films. Arthouses that might take a racy Ingmar Bergman or Fellini drew the line at treating their patrons to such overt fare, although The Orgy at Lil’s Place (1963) set records at the 390-seat World arthouse in New York where it ran for 29 weeks taking an average $10,000 per week at a time when tickets cost around a dollar.

Tracking box office figures through Variety, I was surprised to discover that some major cinemas in major cities were happy to screen Orgy of the Dead. It played in Chicago at the 1,100-seat Monroe and pulled in a “merry” $6,000 in a double bill with Jungle Street Girls (1960) which, despite the title, was a B-picture crime drama starring David MacCallum and then-wife Jill Ireland.

Orgy of the Dead was far more popular in Boston where it played both the 1,909-seater Pilgrim and the 625-seat arthouse Symphony Two. In its first outing at the Pilgrim it collared $5,500, returning six months later supported by nudist feature Adam Lost His Apple (1965) to pull in another $5,000. It made more – $6,200 – on its third appearance there after another six months. Following that it ran for two weeks at the Symphony in a double bill with Russ Meyer’s Lorna (1964) for a grand total of just under $5,000.

SOURCES: Variety box office figures – December 14,1966, August 17 1966, February 1 1967, August 23 1967, October 4 1967, October 11 1967; “NY Art Sites Favor U.S. Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p155; “Astra Gets Rights to Five Fernandel Films,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p16.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “Orgy of the Dead (1965)”

    1. Thanks for the spelling tip. I just came across this on Youtube and attracted by the Wood connection gave it a look. You can guess my reaction by the fact that I gave it no stars. My worry is that people like Wood attract a cult following on the back of nonsense like this. Heaven knows what his novel was like.

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