Ed Wood--the Film Cult That Wouldn’t Die

<i> Harry Medved is the co-author of four books on the motion picture industry, including "The Golden Turkey Awards" and "The Hollywood Hall of Shame." </i>

“Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s delightful homage to the cross-dressing Grade Z movie-maker, ends with a brief written epilogue that describes the fate of this unique auteur. “Wood died in 1978,” it reads. “Two years later he was voted Worst Director of All Time, bringing him worldwide acclaim.”

How did Wood go from this anonymous status to becoming the center of a thriving international cult? And when did his rogues’ gallery of eccentric collaborators emerge from the Wood-work? (As Wood’s friend and frequent star Bela Lugosi bellows in “Glen or Glenda”: “Da story mahst be tohld !”)

I’ll confess that I played some role in Wood’s transformation, and thanks to Burton’s biopic (“ ‘Ed Wood’: ‘50s Blithe Spirit,” Calendar, Sept. 28), I can finally say with dignity that I was his cult leader.

Wood’s “Worst” status was not the result of some universal poll of film critics--there were only two “bad movie” mavens who determined the vote, and they happened to be Harry and Michael Medved. My brother and I gave Wood the life achievement award for worst director of all time in the pages of our 1980 tome, “The Golden Turkey Awards,” where we recognized for the first time Wood’s monumental contributions to the world of bad cinema. Our decision was influenced by the surprisingly strong showing of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” in our readers’ poll for the worst film of all time.



We felt compelled to track down the mad genius-in-reverse who created this multilayered mess-terpiece. Rumor had it that Wood hung out at a 16mm film rental house in central Hollywood--this was in the days before video stores--where he rented his favorite Westerns and Lugosi horror movies. When I asked for help in contacting Wood, I was told, “Oh, you just missed him!”

“Did he leave a forwarding number?”

“No. He just died. He had a heart attack while watching a football game.”

Despite my heartbreak at his recent passing, I remained undaunted in my search to discover the “true facts” of his complex life and interviewed dozens of lovable lunatics who inhabited Wood’s circle of Hollywood “fringies.”

At the age of 17, I had developed a fearless devotion toward my subject, somewhat akin to the relationship that Wood himself enjoyed with Lugosi, as depicted in the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. (To further my connection with Wood, the personal assistant to TV psychic Criswell even offered the possibility of contacting Wood through one of their seances at the Hollywood YMCA--and he reassured me that Criswell’s pronouncements were “97% accurate . . . most of the time.”)


As I journeyed into Wood’s past, his co-workers reacted with muffled guffaws of disbelief. “Plan 9” star Gregory Walcott howled through the phone receiver when I first contacted him about “Eddie” Wood: “His was the most ridiculous film I have ever worked on in my life! Why in the world would anyone want to read a book about his god-awful movies?”

As if to answer his question, “bad film” fanatics came crawling out from underneath their rocks or from under their sinks in the early ‘80s, and a genuinely rabid Ed Wood cult began (notably at UCLA where an All-Day Wood Marathon was held at Melnitz Hall in 1981). My brother and I hosted screenings of the Wood Triptych (“Bride of the Monster,” “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9”) at Worst Film Festivals on four continents, developed a successful TV series in England devoted to Wood and other schlockmeisters representing “The Worst of Hollywood,” and unveiled historically awful film clips from the Wood pile on “Today,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Evening News With Dan Rather” and more than 400 talk shows around the world.

David Letterman and “Seinfeld” devoted segments to “Plan 9.” Video documentaries, comic books and trading cards followed, but after eight years as Keepers of the Ed Wood Flame, we passed the torch to Golden Turkey fan Rudolph Grey, providing him with reams of unpublished interviews that he used for his Wood biography, “Nightmare in Ecstasy.”


The extraordinary irony is that our epithet for Wood as “Worst Director of All Time” has helped make him a hot commodity. Like most of the misfit characters in Tim Burton’s movies, Wood wanted desperately to fit into the mainstream, and now he has finally made it, 16 years after his death. The cult followers will see to it that the Wood fires will never flicker.

Ed, if you’re up there in “bad movie” heaven with your angora wings fluttering and observing your long-overdue lionization as American popular culture phenomenon, I hope you’re savoring every moment.