"cult" movie seems easy enough to define. A film that usually has done poorly at the box
office and developed a following later; a film that stands the test of time, remaining
enjoyable after repeated viewing; a film that is outside or in opposition to the
commercial film industry. There. We defined it—except that, based on our definition, the
mass cultural appeal of the mass-marketed Star Wars franchise negates its
classification, despite an entire mall parking lot of devoted Jedi Knights and Storm
Trooper drones that would probably join forces to defend its "cult" status. The same
applies to the elves, trolls, hobbits, dwarves, and wizards who'd champion that other
So what makes a film go beyond the screen and take on a life of
I started trying to come up with a working definition of "cult"
movies after I heard about a group of bike messengers in New York—all fans of the film
The Warriors—who initiated an annual race from the Bronx to Coney Island following
the characters' route in the film. One hundred and ninety three bicyclists composing
eighty-five gangs turned out one year—from Canada and LA, Virginia and Tokyo. Costumed
as characters from the film and characters that should have been, they staged mock
battles, bike crashes, and classic scenes from the movie.
Warriors, one of the most surreal gang movies ever made, with its assortment of
cartoon characters (including evil mimes with baseball bats) and its comic book style
action, follows "the warriors," a gang falsely accused of murder who have become the
target of a NY-wide manhunt. Based on a book by Sol Yurick, originally a social worker
who worked with gangs, The Warriors is modeled after the Greek history
Anabasis, recorded by Xenophon (a pupil of Socrates) in the 4th century BC. Can
you dig it?
Stories are the transmitters of traditional culture—carrying
values, beliefs, ethical structures, lessons, and symbols; first historically imparted
through an oral tradition that later evolved into literature. In our modern society,
mass-produced pop culture has robbed much of this heritage. Was it possible that these
original values still existed in underground currents? My search to understand the
culture of fiction—which, in academic circles, gave me the status of "fictional
anthropologist"—now had me obsessing about what granted movies "cult"
My friend John was already forming a gang for that NY bike
competition next year: "Seven-Ten Split." Its theme: "Hell bent bowlers biking with a
vengeance!" We would wear bowling shirts with the Chicago flag on the right sleeve and a
logo: a skull crossed with bowling pins that served as the Jolly Roger of ten pin alleys
"Did you even like The Warriors?" I
John shrugged: "It's not on my top ten 'cult'
"Me neither." I responded.
I already knew what he
felt about biking—it wasn't on his top ten list of activities—but he was already
sketching the logo on the back of a place mat.