“By the time I made Desperate Living, the era of midnight movies was over, so at the time it was the least successful of all my films. Weirdly enough, it now does really well on video and college campuses. And I’m not quite sure why.”–John Waters



FEATURING: , Susan Lowe, Liz Renay, Jean Hill, , , “Turkey Joe”

PLOT:  With the help of 400 pound maid Griselda, suburban housewife Peggy accidentally murders her deceptively bucolic husband and goes on the lam. A cop directs the fugitives toward a Pleasure Island for criminals called Mortville. Things go south with the village’s fascistic matriarch, until there’s a mutiny in the ramshackle town.

Still from Desperate Living (1977)


  • was originally intended for the role of Mole McHenry (eventually played by Susan Lowe), but could not back out of an alternate commitment. Desperate Living is the only film Waters made during Divine’s lifetime in which the hefty transvestite did not appear.
  • Waters did not cast regular for the film due to the latter’s drug use. Lochary died soon after Desperate Living was released, either from a PCP overdose or from bleeding to death during an accident that occurred while he was tripping on PCP (reports differ).
  • The tagline was “It isn’t very pretty”—a radical understatement.
  • Budgeted at $65,000, this was Waters’ most expensive film to date. 1974’s Female Trouble had a budget of $25,000, while 1972’s Pink Flamingos cost a mere $10,000.
  • The extras of Mortville were homeless residents from the Baltimore skid row, bused in for a single day’s shoot.
  • According to Waters, lesbian groups in Boston protested the film, forcing its cancellation in Beantown.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening credit scene of a dead rat served on expensive china, salted, and eaten at a swank dinner party. It sets the table for what’s to come.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cross-dressing cop; toddler in the fridge; scissors self-castration

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waters outdoes Multiple Maniacs“cavalcade of perversion” in this grunge fairy tale that includes systematic lesbianism, cross-dressing, odious hippie sex scenes, cannibalism, necrophilia, bat rabies, copious facial warts, and gap-toothed queen Edith Massey sexually serviced by leather-bound Nazis.

Opening credits for Desperate Living

COMMENTS:  The finale in John Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” Desperate Living is the most mean-spirited of his films, so much so that even Waters himself has claimed that he went too far with it (he criticized himself for not including a normal protagonist to offset Mortville’s outlaw denizens). Desperate Living, however, is a rogue burlesque with Waters at his most consciously surreal. Indeed, this is what Surrealism is supposed to be: provocative, revolting anarchy. Its première only lacked an actual riot, which is what the original Surrealists repeatedly aimed for (Luis Buñuel reportedly took a pistol to the movement’s early events, preparing to whip rioters with it). After Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, the midnight circuit knew what to expect of Waters, and were perhaps too pacifistic to wreak havoc.

Waters’ posthumous self-disgust with Desperate Living is understandable, and explains his eventual move to nostalgia with Hairspray (1988). Despite, or perhaps even because of, Desperate Living‘s descent into a kitsch Gehenna, Waters inched towards becoming a more multi-faceted filmmaker after this (as much as he could while still remaining John Waters). Actually, sentimentality had always been an essential part of his Waters’ diet, having worshiped at such diverse altars as , (surprisingly to some), and The Wizard Of Oz as well as , and . There’s not even a sliver of that vital part of himself here, however. Rather, Waters retains a brilliantly narrow focus that expanded and buttressed the rotten punk fortress he had been shrewdly building for a dozen years.

In hindsight, we can see Desperate Living as Waters’ personal query. “It’s a fairytale for fucked-up children,” he once said. Visually, the film verifies that assessment, with the psychedelic sets of Mortville ((Fabulously designed by Vincent Peranio, who also was responsible for cooking the rat)) evoking ludicrous adolescent nightmares. There’s also the derelict hippie commune, the type of which we can imagine being constructed for the childlike followers of Charles Manson. Fauvist paintings, along with portraits of dictators Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin, decorate the plywood castle walls of Queen Carolotta. It’s the most ferociously idealistic of Waters’ films, but also the angriest. Self-proclaimed dystopian films are run-of-the-mill—and, given the current climate, we will undoubtedly see a renewed wave of the genre—but the pessimism of Desperate Living is internally authentic and, like before him, Waters’ ongoing obsession for crime aligns him with camp outcasts.

A film about desperation, Desperate Living is aptly named; a summation of everything Waters had been navigating toward. Having reached an apex here, possibly unwittingly, it becomes the filmmaker’s shrill, skid marked tightie-whitie. And we can locate the pulse of Waters’ sympathies; although here, that pulse was ultimately too faint, missing the puritan heart of Divine (no, that’s not a typo) and the sibling center of Lochary. Their absence casts a callous pall over the film. The initial takeaway is something akin to Freaks (1932), but without the redemptive postlude. It’s Waters’ most rewarding challenge, which apparently he can’t revisit. For those willing, Desperate Living has the potential to produce a maniacal euphoria. It’s far less offensive than the moralistic platitudes being bandied about in cinema (and culture) with the sincerity of a hypocritical shrug. Waters’ finale to his trash trilogy is not merely what Surrealism is supposed to be about; it’s a cinematic obligation.

G. Smalley adds: I actually disagree with those (including Waters himself) who think this is his “least joyous” (again, Waters’ words) film. Waters is certainly kinder to his actors here; in Pink Flamingos he asked them to do things he shouldn’t have, whether they were willing or not. (Although a couple of Desperate Living‘s scenes involving children just cross the line into irresponsible filmmaking, at least no chickens were killed, no friends go down on each other, and no one eats feces). No one can suggest that Peggy Gravel is a nastier character than Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport; Peggy at least has the excuse of mental illness. There are no jokes in Desperate Living crueler than the Marble’s scheme in Flamingos to rape and impregnate runaway girls and sell their children, or than Trouble‘s subplot where Edith Massey is caged in a birdhouse, only to have Divine cut off her hand. Nor could there be; Waters quickly found the limit of what he could achieve via shock in Pink Flamingos, and spent the rest of the “Trash Trilogy” refining his aesthetic to make it less shocking and more witty. Female Trouble does this by introducing an actual plot and focused satire. Desperate Living buffers its cruelties with the unreal fairy-tale plot, the gaudy production design, and, most importantly, with Waters’ best dialogue writing. Lines like “I don’t want no white man looking at my Tampax!,” ” Look at those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen!,” and the exquisitely ironic ““I have never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing” are so ludicrous, and delivered with such hysteria, that they’re impossible to take seriously. Waters uses his camp ear to transform misanthropic harangues from the merely hateful into the realm of the transcendently droll—he takes the piss out of his own nihilist impulses. And Desperate Living drips with these maliciously delicious mal mots. The fact that this is Waters’ funniest movie makes it, to me, his most joyous film. I don’t think Waters stopped making shock films after Desperate Living because he had gone too far, but because he had finally gotten the formula just right. There was nowhere left to go; it was time to try a new challenge.


“You could look far and wide to find a more pointlessly ugly movie than John Waters’s Desperate Living, but why would you bother?” Janet Maslin, New York Times (contemporaneous)

“DESPERATE LIVING would have been unendurable had this plot been approached with any degree of realism. Instead, Waters designed it as a sick fairy tale, filmed on sets so tacky that you wonder where he spent the $65,000 it cost. Even still, Waters manages to reach–and surpass–the limits of bad taste…”–TV Guide

“The pinnacle of gross-out humor, Desperate Living is Waters’ strangest and funniest film.”–Robert Firshcing, All Movie Guide

IMDB LINK: Desperate Living (1977)


Desperate Living – Trailer – The not safe-for-work original trailer

Monday Editor’s Pick: Desperate Living (1977) – Alt Screen blog curates a selection of critical quotes and interview excerpts

Dreamland News: Filmography – Not a lot of info on the Desperate Living page at the John Waters fan site, but you can always click around for more

DESPERATE LIVING (1977) – Alfred Eaker’s original review for this site


Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste – Waters’ memoirs outline his bad taste philosophy

DVD INFO: The unrated New Line DVD (buy) is out of print but readily available. It contains the trailer and a commentary by Waters and Liz Renay (recorded separately). Waters is, as always, charming, and the aging Renay retains a saucy, offbeat charisma that makes it easy to understand why the director cast her.

Desperate Living is also available in the New Line editions packaged together with Polyester in the collectible “John Waters Collection #2” (buy) and the rare and expensive 8-disc “Very Crudely Yours, John Waters” set (buy) (where it appears alongside Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, Hairspray, A Dirty Shame, Pecker, and a disc of extra features).

Desperate Living is also available to rent or buy on-demand (courtesy of current rights-holder Warner Brothers).

Desperate Living is not currently available on Blu-ray, but with Warners holding the rights and the Criterion Collection expressing interest in canonizing Waters with their recent restoration and release of Multiple Maniacs, there is hope that it may someday join the high-def ranks.

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