Cult Movie Review: Pink Flamingos (1972)

Cult Movie Review: Pink Flamingos (1972)

When it comes to cult movies, there are few as audacious and stomach-churning as John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). This film isn’t available for streaming, which is a shame as it is one of the premier cult classics in film history. I purchased the film on DVD years ago when I was first getting into the films of John Waters, and at that time, one viewing was all I could get through or have the desire to sit through until yesterday. The film is quite graphic (although all in dark humor) and there is no way to discuss it without covering the infamous moments in the film, which if you have seen the film, you likely already know what those moments are. The work of Waters and Divine certainly has some more accessible moments, such as 1988’s Hairspray (not the remake), but their collaborations in the 1970s helped to form an entire genre of cult films known as “transgressive cinema.” Titles such as Multiple Maniacs (1970), Female Trouble (1974), and Polyester (1981) are certainly worth seeing, but it’s Pink Flamingos that truly stand the test of time. 

What Is the Movie About?

In essence, Pink Flamingos is a film about bias and judgmental predispositions in society just as much as it is about filth and outrageous displays of depraved behavior that the characters engage in. John Waters’ impetus blurs the lines between outlandish slapstick and shock cinema at a time when the ideals of the sexual revolution and flower power generation were giving way to extreme disillusionment in American society thanks to the corruption in politics and the stagnation of the ongoing Vietnam War. John Waters attempts to take the moral context that defined the post-World War II Era that was further eroded by the vices and ineffectual scandals and imperfections established by the government and wholesome values of Americana, and display all the fears and bias that the societal status quo felt about alternative lifestyles and opinions related to the working class. Divine plays a version of himself, and his character is trying to hold the title of the “filthiest person alive”. As a drag queen living at a time when there was no hint of trans or LGBT rights, and in cinema, there were only documentaries, Waters makes this plot device a send-up of the persecution levied against Americans living their identities out in the open. The entire plot of the film is one scene after the next of characters engaging in shocking displays of sexual situations and depravity, including one scene that involves police officers responding to a noise complaint at Divine’s trailer and he and his mother and son kill the officers with a meat cleaver and eat them. 

Why Is This Movie Important?

This film typifies the spirit of independent film in its most radical and auspicious interpretations. The film is only enjoyable insofar as what a viewer’s idea of entertainment is or rather, the sometimes stomach-churning escapades in the film are more titillating and darkly humorous in that a viewer may grapple with rather burst out laughing or recoil in horror at the grotesque displays of the characters. According to Michael Z. Newman, “At one point (the alternative market) included exploitation films, and in John Waters, we have the clearest case of an indie auteur whose aesthetic is in this tradition”. Pink Flamingos personifies the spirit of independent filmmaking as well as the more cultish aspects of “Mondo cinema”–cinema that is outlandish and shocking in a documentary, cinema verité aesthetic, as well as the most jaw-dropping examples of shock cinema found in exploitation films. The final scene of the film gained infamy in how it depicts Divine passing by a dog defecating on a sidewalk, whereupon he reaches down, picks up the excrement, and eats it all on camera. Divine decided to eat real dog feces for the scene, and it provides the viewer with a moment in cinema history that clings to the memory. Harry Alan Potamkin describes this quality in the cult film as “anything in life is stuff to the film, given that the mind can handle it” (28). The entire viewing experience of Pink Flamingos is an exercise in “if the mind can handle it.” Characters have orgies, rape one another, engage in stupefyingly awful displays of eating things that people would never eat, using body parts like a man’s anus and naked bodies as depictions of unassuming humor, and without deeper analysis, people would naturally be disturbed and offended by what they are seeing on screen.


Like all indie and cult films, there is always a deeper meaning to what is being seen. Even if a filmmaker or screenwriter never consciously meant for a film to have symbolism, the zeitgeist of the times and conditions in the social stratosphere would conjure up meaning to what seemingly can have no meaning other than to disgust. John Waters has Divine eat dog feces as a way to rub the disgust that upper-class society and the morally superior cast upon individuals they deem as inferior to their perceived “goodness.” If you view the film and are angered by what you see, you have no choice but to swallow what you are seeing because you can never “unsee” it; just as you can never erase people that offend you for whatever reason from the world. Some viewers or commentators would likely wonder why anyone would want to see a film like this, and this plays into how exploitation films have always been cast aside as garbage cinema that only exists to offend viewers. There can be nothing further from the truth. Certain cult films, like Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) or even something like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) do have offensive material, but there is always an element of transgression that exists within the narrative. It is easy to have an expected reaction to objectionable material, but closing yourself off from it only exits to limit your worldview. This is the quintessential exploitation film, and one of Waters’ best films.

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