1. The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, The Wild One (1953)
The Stanley Kramer-produced The Wild One is today better remembered for Marlon Brando’s iconic performance as the leader of the rowdy Black Rebels Motorcycle Club than any other element. And rightly so. Brando’s famous response to “What are you rebelling against?”—“Whaddaya got?”—captures the free-floating wanderlust and rebellion that helped inspire the post-war spike in biker gangs. But the film surrounding it is pretty tedious, and Brando’s gang seems more rude than dangerous. What’s more, Brando’s great crime, possessing a stolen trophy, won’t exactly make anyone lose sleep. He didn’t even steal it himself, and at heart, he’s just a misunderstood kid looking to settle down.
2. The Wild Angels, The Wild Angels (1966)
The mid-’60s saw a spike in interest in biker gangs in general and the Hell’s Angels in particular, thanks in part to Hunter S. Thompson’s exposé Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. In his first-hand account of life with the San Francisco and Oakland chapters of the famed gang, Thompson uses pinpoint precision to detail the biker lifestyle. The book captures both the calculated outrage of adopting Nazi emblems and some truly shocking bursts of crime and violence.
Never one to let a trend pass him by, Roger Corman decided to make what would become ground zero for an explosion of biker movies. Taking an effortless, New Wave-inspired approach—sure, Bonnie And Clyde gets all the credit—Corman follows a few eventful days in the life of a club led by Peter Fonda, playing a character named Heavenly Blues. When his second-in-command, Loser (Bruce Dern), is injured, The Wild Angels’ antisocial tendencies come to the fore. When he dies, they explode in a deeply memorable sequence in which a funeral service turns into a drug-and-alcohol-fueled orgy that doesn’t leave out the corpse.
Up until that finale, Corman’s film doesn’t really make The Wild Angels seem dangerous so much as nasty. The party scenes place a greater emphasis on whooping, hollering, and surf-music rock than real excess. But an undercurrent of sexual danger remains present at all times. Left a biker widow, Dern’s girlfriend (played by Dern’s real-life partner, Diane Ladd) becomes vulnerable and desperate to avoid becoming a “mama,” a woman who acts as common property for the gang. Fonda has a long, angry, philosophical dialogue with a preacher that makes his membership seem like a matter of principled non-conformity. But the church desecration that follows feels transgressive in the ugliest way possible, and the final scenes find Fonda looking hollowed-out and lost. If there’s some middle ground between settling down and hanging out with a bunch of sleazeballs, he can’t find it.
3. The Hell’s Angels (first fictional version), Hells Angels On Wheels (1967)
The Hell’s Angels were the obvious inspiration behind most onscreen biker gangs. Sometimes they even turned up in the movies themselves: Real-life Angels played extras in The Wild Angels. In Hells Angels On Wheels, the San Francisco and Oakland chapters, including leader Sonny Barger, fill out the cast in a movie ostensibly about the Hell’s Angels, though the title didn’t get the name exactly right.
Directed by Richard Rush, later of Stunt Man fame, Hells Angels On Wheels ups the ante on biker outrage by capturing some of the man-on-man tongue-kissing the Angels would bring out to shock the squares. Jack Nicholson plays a peevish gas-station attendant/motorcycle enthusiast who stands up to some bikers when they break his headlight. Impressed, they let him hang around with them, and he soon feels the benefits of having the Angels on his side. Their leader (Barger look-alike Adam Roarke) doesn’t seem to mind that his girlfriend (Sabrina Scharf) wants to show Nicholson a good time, even beyond the expected body-painting-and-bongo-rock orgies. Also, they defend him from some bullying sailors. True, they kill one of the sailors, then later run an old man off the road to his death, just because he happened to be in the way. Which leaves Nicholson to wonder whether he was better off at the gas station after all. He becomes a variation on Fonda’s existential Wild Angels hero, a misfit in the square world, and dissatisfied with the alternative. Still, the movie makes the Hell’s Angels look like the gang to hang with for anyone wanting to engage in chain fights in empty swimming pools.
4. The Black Souls, The Glory Stompers (1968)
Jody McCrea—Joel McCrea’s son, most famous as Deadhead in the Beach Party movies—stars as a good kid who nonetheless likes running with a gang called The Glory Stompers. And why not? It means the thrill of the open road and the requisite outdoor biker parties featuring go-go dancing, vaguely surf-like music, and lots of jiggly women in bras and hot pants. But he’s confronted with the dark side of biker life pretty quickly after pissing off the Black Souls, a mean-tempered gang led by a heavily bearded Dennis Hopper. They beat him up, leave him for dead, and steal his woman with the intent to sell her into slavery in Mexico, as bike gangs do. The Black Souls are a bad bunch, but fortunately for McCrea’s rescue efforts, they’re plagued by infighting and prone to be distracted by parties in which women ride around topless, a sight the film captures from an extremely discreet distance.
5. The Born Losers, The Born Losers (1967)
Meaner and more rape-happy than the average movie biker gang, even though one of their members looks like a stereotypical beatnik and their hangout includes a big poster of James Dean, the Born Losers announce their intention to offend everyone via the emblem on their jackets: a naked woman hanging on a cross. They’re dangerous at any time, and even more so when hanging out in a coastal California town that’s a favorite for vacationing college students. After a rape spree that leaves three women hospitalized, and one babbling like an idiot, the Born Losers appear to have pushed their life of crime and destruction too far. Fortunately for them, they’re dealing with the most incompetent police force this side of Jackie Gleason’s anti-Bear squad. Unfortunately, they’re also dealing with a badass local named Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, who later revived the character for Billy Jack and its sequels) who won’t stand for their raping ways. After one rape too many, he makes sure the gang will never ride, or rape, again.
6. The Devil’s Advocates (non-werewolf chapter), Run, Angel, Run! (1969)
Even as movie bikers go, Angel (William Smith) is a total asshole. As Run, Angel, Run! opens, he’s sold out his buddies in the not-so-frighteningly named The Devil’s Advocates by selling their secrets to Like magazine for $10,000. Stuck in jail, he calls on his girlfriend (Valerie Starrett) to bail him out by turning some tricks. When she shows up with more than the required $80, he asks, “What’d you do? Form an assembly line?” Again: asshole. His old gang, however, is filled with even bigger assholes who chase him up the California coast, occasionally in split-screen (this being a movie from 1969, after all). Eventually Smith starts to see the appeal of the straight life, thanks to a biker-turned-farmer (Dan Kemp) who takes him in. And how does Kemp get repaid for helping? The Devil’s Advocates turn up and rape his daughter. The moral of the story: Never assist a Devil’s Advocate. If he doesn’t rape a loved one, one of his former buddies will.
7. Man-Eaters, She-Devils On Wheels (1968)
Unlike most biker gangs, the all-female, L.A.-based Man-Eaters seemingly formed a bike club primarily to compete. Or maybe that should be secondarily. The club’s members race each other weekly, in events where the bikes seem to reach speeds in excess of 30 or 40 mph. (Director Herschell Gordon Lewis never really masters the racing sequences.) Then, under the direction of a leader named Queen (Betty Connell), they pair off with a group of male biker groupies for an orgy, with the winner of the race getting first pick, and the loser getting the dregs. It’s kind of like a scuzzy variation on Mystery Date. Unfortunately, a rival male gang has it out for them, and murders their adorable, pint-sized mascot Honey Pot (Nancy Lee Noble). But even though they sport a logo of a pussycat wearing a bowtie, the Man-Eaters do not go down easily. Soon they’re stringing wires across the road to decapitate their enemies, a technique that allows Lewis—better known for films like Two Thousand Maniacs! and Blood Feast—to break out some of his patented gore.
8. The Satans, Satan’s Sadists (1969)
This low-, low-budget movie from Al Adamson (the cheapie specialist behind Psycho A Go-Go, and later, Doctor Dracula) features a truly brutal gang led by Russ Tamblyn. Wearing granny glasses and a floppy hat that makes him look more like Chuck Barris than Charles Manson, Tamblyn and his gang of nogoodniks take over a desert diner and commence raping and killing everyone in sight, when not delivering speeches about middle-American hypocrisy. (“Even though I got a lot of hate inside, I got friends who ain’t got hate inside. They’re filled with nothin’ but love. Their only crime is growing their hair long, smokin’ a little grass…”) But Tamblyn and a gang that also includes “Firewater” (his name is a respectful homage to his Native American heritage) and “Acid” (who likes acid) prove no match for an Army vet who takes them out while expressing regrets for his actions. “Oh Christ,” he exclaims after killing Tamblyn. “At least in Vietnam, they paid me…”
9. Hell’s Angels (second fictional version), Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969)
Apparently okay with Hells Angels On Wheels’ portrayal of them as casually murderous thugs, the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels signed on to play themselves in another movie. But in spite of the title, they’re clearly supporting players in what’s essentially a Las Vegas heist movie with a biker twist. Director Lee Madden shepherds stars/co-writers Tom Stern and Jeremy Slate through a story in which they play Hollywood playboys who decide to rip off Caesars Palace just for kicks. Their convoluted plan involves posing as vacationing Boston-area bikers, then befriending some Hell’s Angels too dimwitted to see past their pretty-boy hair and lame club name: The Salem Witches. (Really?) Then they check into a casino and trick the Angels into causing a commotion while they rob it. Does double-crossing a bunch of bikers with names like Terry The Tramp and Tiny (plus Sonny Barger) work out well? No, it does not. Madden apparently liked the milieu well enough to return the following year with…
10. The Exiles (or the Nomads), Angel Unchained (1970)
The Arizona-based Exiles (or Nomads; their jackets have both names on the back) aren’t really a bad bunch. They mostly like to booze and get high, and in a striking opening scene, battle other bikers at an abandoned amusement park. But the lifestyle has started to wear on Don Stroud, who amicably parts ways with his biking comrades a few minutes into the film. Opting for a more sedate existence, he settles down with some hippies at a commune run by Luke Askew. There, Stroud hooks up with a beguiling, free-spirited lass (future TV cop Tyne Daly). But when some hippie-hating, dune-buggy-riding locals decide to run the hippies out of town, Stroud has little choice but to call on his old pals to ensure peace and love the old-fashioned way: through violence. Also on board is the tastefully nicknamed Injun, who keeps the bikers happy with drug-laced cookies.
11. Unnamed toughs, The Cycle Savages (1969)
The Bruce Dern-led gang of The Cycle Savages don’t appear to have a name, but they do have a clear M.O. The terror of the Los Angeles suburbs, they cruise the streets looking for adventurous hippie chicks, then selling them into a prostitute ring run by Dern’s brother (Casey Kasem). It’s a sweet operation, so it’s understandable that Dern would guard it with a paranoid intensity. After Dern catches a clean-cut young artist (Chris Robinson) drawing his gang in the middle of a stompdown, he decides that this “uncool” behavior should be punished, lest the police use the drawings against them. (Either Dern has a faulty understanding of the law, or the film takes place in an alternate universe where drawings can be admitted as evidence. Maybe in a sequel, dogs stand trial for their illegal poker games.) “I’m going to show you that I can do a little artwork, too,” Dern hisses before cutting Robinson with a razor. But after 90 minutes of tortured overacting, only one of them is left to sketch the death scene. (Hint: It isn’t Dern.)
12. The Dragons, Angels Hard As They Come (1971)
The uneasy relationship between bikers and the counterculture gets explored again in a script co-written by a young Jonathan Demme. Here, a group of drug-dealing bikers called The Angels (an organization with no apparent hellish association) tries to lay low after a drug deal goes awry. Three Angels, including the soulful Long John (Scott Glenn) decide to hang out in a ghost town populated by hippies, including a fresh-faced Gary Busey, and another bike gang called The Dragons. All seems to be going well, and Glenn and a woman who catches his eye even have a rap session, mellowing out the vibes by breaking down the stereotypes about hippies and bikers. (“Shit, I’ve never been to Altamont.”) Only problem: The Dragons are fucking nuts. When one of the hippie women dies in a round of group sex gone terribly wrong, The Dragons get all paranoid and assume that the Angels are trying to assassinate their leader. Soon, The Dragons begin subjecting the Angels to a sadistic game of Chopperball, which is kind of like polo, but with bikes instead of horses and people instead of balls.
13. The Devil’s Advocates (werewolf chapter), Werewolves On Wheels (1971)
In a movie that doesn’t fully make good on its title until the closing moments, a group of bikers that includes “Eve Of Destruction” singer Barry McGuire (as “Scarf”) run into some satanic monks. As their ranks become afflicted with a bad case of lycanthropy, they have to struggle with whether their new desire to bite, howl, and kill conflicts with their highway-riding, yokel-terrorizing lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t.
14. The Devil’s Advocates (Vietnam chapter, also non-werewolf), The Losers (a.k.a. ’Nam’s Angels) (1970)
The biker-movie cycle rolled out alongside the Vietnam War, an entanglement mentioned in many of the films. But only one biker movie took place inside Vietnam. Directed by Jack Starrett (fresh off Run, Angel, Run!), The Losers sends five beer-swilling bikers—swastika regalia and all—upriver on a covert mission to rescue a CIA agent (also played by Starrett). Why bikers? “Speed’s all you’ve got going for you.” Well, speed and a bunch of Yamahas outfitted with machine guns and armor. Biker-movie vets William Smith and Adam Roarke help lead a charge that results in more biker-on-Viet Cong carnage than any movie ever made. Surprisingly, Vietnam has a lot more cycle-friendly ramps than might be expected. Also, Red Chinese soldiers are surprisingly generous in supplying their prisoners with mind-bending weed.
15. The Black Six, The Black Six (1973)
When a white bike gang kills a kid for the crime of dating a white woman, in swoop The Black Six, a gang of six Vietnam-vet bikers who, as their name suggests, are black. (They’re also played by professional football players, including “Mean” Joe Greene. The opening credits even list their team affiliation.) And that, in short, is the whole plot. But there’s a lot more to these guys than righteous rage. When not avenging a fallen friend, they like to hang out on farms, helping widows, tossing bales of hay, and cuddling goats. They’re sweet, really—until they encounter racism. Then they become total bad-asses. And in this film, they encounter badass-inducing racism a lot, between loonnnngg scenes of driving around to generic Shaft-funk. The film has one foot in the biker genre and one foot in the blaxploitation world, a sign that new types of heroes and villains were starting to take over.
16. Satan’s Helpers, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Ways in which the Satan’s Helpers may punish you if you make them angry: hanging, killing, stomping, tattooing, and/or time alone with an imposing biker mama. Ways to escape: Perform a lively dance to The Champs’ 1958 hit “Tequila.”