One night after hearing the words of Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton), a poet who performs at The Yellow Door cafe, the dimwitted, impressionable, busboy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) returns home to attempt to create a sculpture of the face of the hostess Carla (Barboura Morris). He stops when he hears the meowing of Frankie, the cat owned by his inquisitive landlady, Mrs. Surchart (Myrtle Vail), who has somehow gotten himself stuck in Walter's wall. Walter attempts to get Frankie out using a knife, but accidentally kills the cat when he sticks the knife into his wall. Instead of giving Frankie a proper burial, Walter covers the cat in clay, leaving the knife stuck in it.
The next morning, Walter shows the cat to Carla and his boss Leonard (Antony Carbone). Leonard dismisses the oddly morbid piece, but Carla is enthusiastic about the work and convinces Leonard to display it in the café. Walter receives praise from Will (John Brinkley) and the other beatniks in the café. An adoring fan, Naolia (Jhean Burton), gives him a vial of heroin to remember her by. Naively ignorant of its function, he takes it home and is followed by Lou Raby (Bert Convy), an undercover cop, who attempts to take him into custody for narcotics possession. In a blind panic, thinking Lou is about to shoot him, Walter hits him with the frying pan he is holding, killing Lou instantly.
Meanwhile, Walter's boss discovers the secret behind Walter's "Dead Cat" piece when he sees fur sticking out of it. The next morning, Walter tells the café-goers that he has a new piece, which he calls "Murdered Man". Both Leonard and Carla come with Walter as he unveils his latest work and are simultaneously amazed and appalled. Carla critiques it as "hideous and eloquent" and deserving of a public exhibition. Leonard is aghast at the idea, but realizes the potential for wealth if he plays his cards right.
The next night, Walter is treated like a king by almost everyone, except for a blonde model named Alice (Judy Bamber), who is widely disliked by her peers. Walter later follows her home and confronts her, explaining that he wants her to model. At Walter's apartment, Alice strips nude and poses in a chair, where Walter proceeds to strangle her with her scarf. Walter creates a statue of Alice which, once unveiled, so impresses Brock that he throws a party at the Yellow Door in Walter's honor. Costumed as a carnival fool, Walter is wined and dined to excess.
After the party, Walter later stumbles towards his apartment. Still drunk, he beheads a factory worker with his own buzz-saw to create a bust. When he shows the head to Leonard, his boss realizes that he must stop Walter's murderous rampage and promises Walter a show to offload his latest "sculptures". At the exhibit, Walter proposes to Carla, but she rejects him. Walter is distraught and now offers to sculpt her, and she happily agrees to after the reception. Back at the exhibit, however, she finds part of the clay on one figure has worn away, revealing a human finger. When she tells Walter that there is a body in one of the sculptures, he tells her that he "made them immortal", and that he can make her immortal too. She flees the exhibit, and he chases after her. Meanwhile, the others at the exhibit learn Walter's secret as well, and chase after them. Walter and Carla wind up at a lumber yard where Walter, haunted by the voices of Lou and Alice, stops chasing Carla, and runs home. With discovery and retribution closing in on him, Walter vows to "hide where they'll never find me". The police, Carla, Leonard and Maxwell break down Walter's apartment door only to find that Walter has hanged himself. Looking askance at the hanging corpse, Maxwell proclaims that this could be "his greatest work" and that he would probably have named it "Hanged Man".
In the middle of 1959, American International Pictures approached Roger Corman to direct a horror film—but only gave Corman a $50,000 budget and a five-day shooting schedule—plus leftover sets from Diary of a High School Bride (1959).
Corman accepted the challenge but later said he was uninterested in producing a straightforward horror film. He claims he and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith developed the idea for producing a satirical black comedy horror film about the beatnik culture. Charles Griffith later claimed Corman was very uneasy at the idea of making a comedy "because you have to be good. We don't have the time or money to be good, so we stick to action."
Griffith says he talked Corman around by pointing out that since the film was made for such a little amount of money over such a short schedule, he could not fail to make money.
Corman says that the genesis of the film was an evening he and Griffith "spent drifting around the beatnik coffeehouses, observing the scene and tossing ideas and reactions back and forth until we had the basic story." The director says by the end of the evening they developed the film's plot structure, partially basing the story upon Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Griffith says Corman was uneasy about how to direct comedy, and Griffith, whose parents were in vaudeville, advised him that the key was to ensure the actors played everything straight.
The film was shot under the title The Living Dead, and filming started 11 May 1959.
According to actor Antony Carbone, "[The production] had a kind of spirit of 'having fun,' and I think [Corman] realized that while making the film. And I feel it helped him in other films he made, like The Little Shop of Horrors−he carried that Bucket of Blood 'idea' into that next film."
Actor Dick Miller was unhappy with the film's low production values. Miller is quoted by Beverly Gray as stating that,
If they'd had more money to put into the production so we didn't have to use mannequins for the statues; if we didn't have to shoot the last scene with me hanging with just some gray make-up on because they didn't have time to put the plaster on me, this could have been a very classic little film. The story was good; the acting was good; the humor in it was good; the timing was right; everything about it was right. But they didn't have any money for production values...and it suffered.
American International Pictures' theatrical marketing campaign emphasized the comedic aspects of the film's plot, proclaiming that the audience would be "sick, sick, sick—from laughing!", a reference to cartoonist Jules Feiffer's popular Village Voice comic strip and his 1958 book with the same title. The film's poster consists of a series of comic strip panels humorously hinting at the film's horror content.
According to Tim Dirks, the film was one of a wave of "cheap teen movies" released for the drive-in market. They consisted of "exploitative, cheap fare created especially for them [teens] in a newly established teen/drive-in genre."
When Corman found that the film "worked well," he continued to direct two more comedic films scripted by Griffith: The Little Shop of Horrors, a farce with a similar plot to Bucket of Blood and using the same sets; and Creature from the Haunted Sea, a parody of the monster movie genre.
The film is in the public domain and has been widely distributed on home video from various companies. The film's negative was acquired by MGM Home Entertainment upon the company's purchase of Orion Pictures, which had owned the AIP catalog. MGM released A Bucket of Blood on VHS and DVD in 2000. MGM re-released the film as part of a box set with seven other Corman productions in 2007. However, the box set featured the same menus and transfer as MGM's previous edition of the film.
From a contemporary review, the Monthly Film Bulletin stated that although "the horror ultimately becomes rather too explicit, this macabre satire on beatniks and teenage horror films has some particularly adroit dialogue and tragi-comic situations." The review praised Dick Miller, who "gives a performance of sustained poignancy as the half-wit hero."
In a retrospective review in Sight & Sound, the review referred to the film as "Corman's best work" with "hilarious dialogue and a finale reminiscent of Fritz Lang's M" and that his "low-budget comedy horror pic works both as satire at the expense of the Beat generation and as a trenchant little allegory about the New York art world in general."
Corman later said the film "wasn’t a huge success, but I think we were ahead of our time, because The Raven, which is a triumph, is far less funny. Maybe the film was too modest, filmed in five days on sets that came from a film about youth. The distributors didn’t know what to make of a movie that didn’t belong to any particular genre. They were always scared of comedy."
In addition to the aforementioned 1995 remake, a musical production of A Bucket of Blood was produced by Chicago's Annoyance Theatre in 2009. It opened Sept. 26, and closed Oct. 31, 2009, garnering exceptional reviews, including a recommendation from the Chicago Reader. The musical was directed by Ray Mees, with music by Chuck Malone. The cast included James Stanton as Walter Paisley, Sam Locke as Leonard, Peter Robards as Maxwell, Jen Spyra as Carla, Colleen Breen as Naolia, Maari Suorsa as Alice, Tyler Patocka as William and Peter Kremidas as Lee. Another musical adaptation is currently in development, retitled Beatsville. It features a book by Glenn Slater and music and lyrics by Wendy Wilf.