Outlaw biker film
Outlaw biker clubs formed in the late 1940s on the West Coast after the end of World War II. Their culture was first popularized in the glossy Marlon Brando film The Wild One (1953), which tells a story based very loosely on actual events. The film's success was followed by a string of low-budget exploitation films aimed at a teenage audience such as Motorcycle Gang (1957) and The Hot Angel (1958). But the genre really took off in the mid 1960s after the Hells Angels gang became prominent in the media. In particular, the Hunter S. Thompson book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was published in 1966.
Films of the 1960s
In 1965 director Russ Meyer made Motorpsycho (aka Motor Psycho), an obscure film about an evil motorcycle gang led by a disturbed Vietnam War veteran. In 1966 American International Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels with Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra. This film, aimed at the teenage drive-in crowd, was a surprise hit and a new exploitation film subgenre was born. AIP dominated the market and quickly released a semi-sequel Devil's Angels starring actor-director John Cassavetes and The Glory Stompers with Dennis Hopper in 1967.
In 1968 AIP produced The Mini-Skirt Mob, Angels from Hell, and The Savage Seven (the film debut of actress/director Penny Marshall). The company would go on to make five more biker gang films: Hell's Belles (1969), Hell's Angels '69 (1969), Angel Unchained (1970), The Hard Ride (1971), and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971).
Other small independent filmmakers went on to produce dozens of low-budget biker films until the trend dissipated in the early '70s. Crown International produced and/or distributed Wild Rebels (1967), The Hellcats (1968), Five the Hard Way (1969), Wild Riders (1971), and Pink Angels (1972).
Rebel Rousers (filmed 1967, released 1969) featured Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Harry Dean Stanton. Dern also starred as a sadistic gang leader in Cycle Savages (1970). In 1969, Peter Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson would team up on the classic "hippie biker" movie, Easy Rider, the antithesis of the violent biker-gang genre.
Sonny Barger, founder of the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels, was a consultant on several films. He and other gang members appeared as extras in Hells Angels on Wheels and Hell's Angels '69. The Hell's Angels appeared as extras playing a gang called the Las Vegas Hotdoggers in the Roger Corman film Naked Angels starring Michael Greene in 1969.
The Born Losers
The Born Losers (1967) introduced Tom Laughlin's iconic Native American action hero Billy Jack. Unable to get his Billy Jack script produced, Laughlin wrote and directed The Born Losers to capitalize on the current biker movie trend (which finally allowed him to make Billy Jack in 1971). The story was inspired by news reports of the Hell's Angels terrorizing a California community. As a cost-saving measure, a stunt scene of a motorcycle crashing into a pond was taken from co-producer AIP's 1966 comedy The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.
The Born Losers is also significant for its social criticism and portrayal of the biker gang as a force of pure, unredeemable evil. Here, for the first time, a lone hero stands up to, and ultimately defeats, the gang. Prior to this, the majority of the films in this genre imitated The Wild One with a sympathetic gang member (the reluctant leader or a new member) who ultimately rejects the outlaw biker lifestyle. Prime examples would be the Fonda character in The Wild Angels, Jack Nicholson in Hell's Angels on Wheels (1967), and Joe Namath in C.C. and Company (1970).
Jack Starrett has the role of a tough-talking police officer. He played essentially the same character in Hell's Angels on Wheels and Angels from Hell (1968). Starrett was also in Hell's Bloody Devils (1970), and directed Run, Angel, Run in 1969 and Nam's Angels in 1970. The last film is unusual as the bikers are portrayed as patriotic heroes sent on a rescue mission to Vietnam.
Novelty biker films
A number of novelty films were made featuring all-female biker gangs such as The Hellcats aka Biker Babes (1967), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), The Mini-Skirt Mob (from AIP) with Sherry Jackson and Harry Dean Stanton (1968), Sisters in Leather (1969) with Pat Barrington, Angels' Wild Women (1972), Cycle Vixens (1978), and Chrome Angels (2009).
The Pink Angels (1971) is a somewhat campy film about a gang of homosexual bikers who head down the coast to attend a drag ball. Bury Me an Angel (1972) is a revenge story featuring a female biker (and female director). Angels' Wild Women (1972) centers around a group of tough female bikers who dominate men and eventually go a revenge-driven rampage.
The 1970s to the present
As the trend began to lose momentum, filmmakers started to create horror hybrids such as Werewolves on Wheels (1971) and Blood Freak (1972). The British horror film Psychomania (1971) involves a biker gang that makes a pact with the devil to obtain immortality.
The biker gang ethos also featured strongly in the famed low budget Australian production Mad Max (1979, dir. George Miller, starring Mel Gibson), with the film spawning the real-life subculture of Survival bikes.
By the late 1980s the once shocking and controversial genre became an object of campy humor in horror-comedies such as Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989), I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990), and Biker Zombies (2001).
In 2008, Quentin Tarantino served as executive producer on Hell Ride starring Dennis Hopper and Michael Madsen. This is an homage to the motorcycle gang films of the past. It was written and directed by Larry Bishop, who acted in a number of biker films such as The Savage Seven in 1968. Tarantino is a noted fan of the Australian biker movie, Stone.
The 2009 documentary Biker Mania includes a compilation of theater trailers and footage that tracks the history of the genre from the 1950s to the present.
Cultural references and parodies
After the release of The Wild One in 1953, the image of the motorcycle gang, particularly the Marlon Brando character, inspired many imitators and satires in films and television shows.
- The girl group The Shangri-Las scored a Number #1 hit single with their motorcycle gang pop song "Leader of the Pack" in 1964.
- "Blue's Theme", an instrumental rock song that opens with the sound of a motorcycle engine, was featured on the soundtrack for The Wild Angels film. The song, written by Davie Allan and The Arrows, was a hit single in 1967.
- From 1963 to 1966 American International Pictures produced a series of seven Beach party films. All but one featured Harvey Lembeck doing a Brando parody as Eric Von Zipper, inept leader of The Rat Pack motorcycle gang. These films are: Beach Party (1963), Bikini Beach and Pajama Party (both 1964), Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).
- The Horror of Party Beach (1964), a campy beach party-horror hybrid, includes a motorcycle gang most likely inspired by the popular American International beach movies.
- The Twilight Zone (episode: "Black Leather Jackets", 1964), a group of aliens disguised as a motorcycle gang takes up residence in a small American town.
- The Addams Family ("The Addams Family Meets a Beatnik", 1965), a runaway rebel crashes his motorcycle in front of the Addams' house and stays with the family for a few days. Their non-judgmental acceptance of him leads to his reuniting with his estranged father.
- Both Herman Munster of The Munsters (1964–1966) and Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.) of The Beverly Hillbillies had episodes where they dressed up like Brando from The Wild One and raced around on motorcycles.
- I Spy ("Trial by Treehouse", 1966), Kelley Robinson (Robert Culp) goes undercover as a Brando-esque leader of a motorcycle gang. Culp wears the same type of hat, sunglasses, and leather outfit and affects some of Brando's mannerisms.
- Lost In Space ("Collision of the Planets", 1967), the Robinsons contend with a gang of unruly interplanetary space bikers led by Daniel J. Travanti.
- Get Smart ("The Mild Ones", 1967), a genre parody featuring The Purple Knights, a literate biker gang who see themselves as modern Arthurian knights. Max and 99 must pass as new gang members to rescue a kidnapped prime minister.
- The Monkees ("The Wild Monkees", 1967), the guys pretend to be a biker gang to impress four tough female motorcyclists. Trouble ensues when the girls' boyfriends arrive, the Black Angels biker gang.
- Saturday Night Live (Feb. 14, 1976), John Belushi and guest host Peter Boyle both dress up as Brando from The Wild One for a "Dueling Brandos" parody sketch.
- Every Which Way but Loose (1978), John Quade plays Cholla, the leader of the inept Black Widows motorcycle gang who have frequent disastrous run-ins with Philo Beddoe (played by Clint Eastwood).
- Saturday Night Live (Nov. 18, 1978), guest host Carrie Fisher was featured in a beach movie parody skit ("Beach Blanket Bimbo from Outer Space") in which John Belushi played Harvey Lembeck's leather-clad Eric Von Zipper character.
- The Rockford Files ("The Return of the Black Shadow", 1979), straightforward drama pays homage to classic '60s biker films.
- Saturday Night Live (February 20, 1982), guest host and biker film veteran Bruce Dern appears in the parody sketch "The Mild One". He plays a thoughtful, Zen-inspired leader of a biker gang who uses philosophy instead of violence to terrorize people in a diner.
- Syder, Andrew. "Ripped from Today's Headlines: The Outlaw Biker Movie Cycle". Scope. Archived from the original on 2006-08-30. Retrieved 2008-01-26.