Underground film is a generic term used to refer to any film made outside the context of the Hollywood Arena. The 1970’s were a monumental time for American cinema, as Hollywood had begun to change and the film culture as a whole was going in a new direction. During the 1970's, restrictions on adult content, sexuality, bad language, and violence in films became less stringent. These more adult themes began to find widespread use in cinema, especially underground cinema.
The '70's followed on the heels of the hippie movement of the 1960's, and took place at a turbulent time in American history. Women were demanding greater equality, rock and roll and free love were still rampant, and drug use was also playing a larger role in American culture.
Hollywood itself entered the 1970's in an artistic and financial slump. The majority of important and influential movies made in the '70's were made by independent filmmakers and had themes largely based in the counter-culture. The 1970’s were a time of questioning, and change and this was reflected in the movies of the decade. As the counter-culture produced risky, artistic, alternative films, this inspired Hollywood to become more radical in their movie choices as well, causing a widespread and lasting shift in cinema as a whole.
The majority of these counterculture films were shown in special theatres referred to as grindhouse theatres, so the films came to be known as grindhouse films in some circles. The term grindhouse theatre originated in the film The Lady of Burlesque, a 1943 movie in which a character referred to a 42nd street Burlesque theatre as a grindhouse. Although the Burlesque theatres were largely defunct by the 1970's, the concept of the Burlesque as risqué entertainment persisted. During the 1970's, in an effort to compete with television and to offset lost revenue from urban decay and white flight, theaters were struggling to draw crowds into the abundance of theatres built during the 1930's cinema boom. These so-called grindhouse theatres stepped away from standard Hollywood fare, instead offering films that focused on pornography, horror, martial arts, or other counterculture subjects.
Counterculture films in the 1970's can be categorized into 3 main subcategories: martial arts, exploitation (including African-American Cinema) and no wave. In addition to these counterculture movies, the pornography industry began to develop and come-of-age in the 1970's as well, with the relaxed standards on nudity in film. (TV Repair) is no problem for an underground cinema patron.
Martial arts films originated in Asia, and were especially famous in Hong Kong. During the 1970's, martial arts films became extremely popular in America. Martial arts movies are primarily action films that focus on highly choreographed fighting scenes. The majority of Martial Arts films in the 1970's were produced outside of the United States, in Hong Kong, by the Shaw Brothers, Joseph Lai, and Godfrey Ho. These films were redubbed in English and broadcast in United States television series and movie theatres commonly known as Black Belt Theater or Kung Fu Theater. The stars of these Kung Fu films became a cultural phenomenon throughout this time, and actors including Tony Jaa, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are still well known for these movies decades later. Fists of Fury, one of the most well known movies from the 1970's, has been credited by some as the foundation of Bruce Lee's career.
Blaxploitation films targeted urban black audiences, and discussed themes of racial inequality and prejudice. The term 'blaxploitation' is derived from a combination of the word "black" and the word "exploitation." Blaxploitation films encompassed all genres of film: some were action movies; others were horror, nostalgic, comedy, coming-of-age, courtroom dramas, or musicals. The common theme that ran through these movies was twofold: they catered to a primarily black audience, and they starred primarily black actors. In addition, the majority of these blaxploitation films also featured soundtracks with traditionally black music, including funk, jazz and soul. Famous blaxploitation films include: Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song , Foxy Brown, Black Belt Jones, Uptown Saturday Night, Abby, Sparkle, Cornbread, Earl and Me, Cleopatra Jones, Car Wash, Shaft, Five on the Black Hand Side, Three the Hard Way, and Superfly. Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes were two of the most famous directors of blaxploitation films, and Fred Williamson, William Marshall, and John 'Candy Tangerine Man' Daniels were famous blaxploitation actors.
No Wave films became popular during the late 1970's. The height of their popularity occurred from 1976 to 1985, primarily in Tribeca and the East Village. No Wave Cinema, or New Cinema, was loosely based on New Wave music. Both the cinema and the music featured mood, tone and feeling. The movies lacked extensive setting, characterization, and plot detail and were a form of "punk" film making that emphasized setting the stage through tone. Famous No Wave Film makers include Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, James Nares, Seth Tillet, and Vivienne Dick. Famous films included 11 thru 12, Ark of Destiny and Ballad of a Thin Woman.