Peggy Gravel, a neurotic, delusional, suburban housewife, and her overweight maid, Grizelda Brown, go on the lam after Grizelda smothers Peggy's husband, Bosley, to death. The two are arrested by a cross-dressing policeman who gives them an ultimatum: go to jail or be exiled to Mortville, a filthy shantytown ruled by the evil Queen Carlotta and her treasonous daughter, Princess Coo-Coo.
Peggy and Grizelda choose Mortville, but still engage in lesbian prison sex. They become associates of self-hating lesbian wrestler Mole McHenry, who wants a sex change to please her lover, Muffy St. Jacques. Most of Mortville's social outcasts—criminals, nudists, and sexual deviants—conspire to overthrow Queen Carlotta, who banishes Coo-Coo after she elopes with a garbage collector, who is later shot to death by the guards. Coo-Coo hides in Peggy and Grizelda's house with her dead lover. When Peggy betrays Coo-Coo to the Queen's guards, Grizelda fights them, and dies when the house collapses on her. Peggy, however, joins the queen in terrorizing her subjects, even infecting them (and Princess Coo-Coo) with rabies.
Eventually, Mortville's denizens, led by Mole, overthrow Queen Carlotta and execute Peggy by shooting a gun up her anus. To celebrate their freedom, the townsfolk roast Carlotta on a spit and serve her, pig-like, on a platter with an apple in her mouth.Liz Renay as Muffy St. Jacques
Mink Stole as Peggy Gravel
Edith Massey as Queen Carlotta
Susan Lowe as Mole McHenry
Mary Vivian Pearce as Princess Coo-Coo
Jean Hill as Grizelda Brown
Cookie Mueller as Flipper
Channing Wilroy as Lt. Wilson
Ed Peranio as Lt. Williams
Paul Swift as Mr. Paul
George Figgs as Herbert
George Stover as Bosley Gravel
Turkey Joe as Sheriff Shitface
Al Strapelli as Dr. Evans
Brook Blake as Bosley Gravel, Jr.
Karen Gerwig as Beth Gravel
Art director Vincent Peranio built the exterior sets for Mortville on a 26-acre farm in Hampstead, Maryland owned by Waters' friend, Peter Koper. The exterior sets were largely facades constructed of plywood and rubbish Peranio and Waters had collected from around Baltimore. Production manager Robert Maier recalled the challenges of shooting without adequate facilities, how the cast and crew overwhelmed the farm's septic system, how heavy rains nearly washed away the set, and how "charmed" Waters seemed through it all.
The Mortville interiors were filmed in a 5000 square foot second-story loft in a rented warehouse located in Fells Point, Baltimore. The space was unheated, noisy, and poorly suited for film production according to Maier.
Desperate Living was edited for ten weeks in the basement of editor Charles Roggero's home. It was Waters' first film with original music, by Chris Lobingier and Allen Yanus to provide a "cheesy Doctor Zhivago-type score".
Desperate Living is the only feature film Waters made without Divine prior to the actor's death in 1988. Divine had to reluctantly back away from the film because he was committed to appearing in The Neon Woman. Susan Lowe, who had appeared in small or supporting roles in Waters' previous films, was chosen to take over for the role of Mole McHenry. This was also Waters' first film without David Lochary, the reason for which being Lochary's addiction to drugs. Waters said "The reason that David wasn't in Desperate Living is because of PCP. That's all that's to it. I know that's why he wasn't in the film, and he knows it too." Lochary would later die of a drug overdose during the film's production.
Waters had received a copy of Liz Renay's autobiography My Face for the World to See and wanted to offer her a role in the film. He went to see Renay in a burlesque show in Boston, then traveled to Los Angeles to offer her the role of Muffy St. Jacques. He offered her only a brief outline of the story, withholding some of the more graphic details for fear that she might refuse the role. Renay accepted the offer and flew to Baltimore for three weeks of shooting (which was, reportedly, all that the production could afford to pay Renay for her services)..
As with Waters' previous films, the premiere was held in the auditorium of the University of Baltimore. There was a brief controversy when lesbian groups attacked the film for its depiction of lesbianism, and for taking the title of a defunct pro-lesbian magazine. New Line Cinema blew the film up from 16mm to 35mm and opened it at midnight in Manhattan, though the original poster (featuring a cooked rat on a plate) was rejected by The New York Times to run, forcing a new poster to be created three days before the opening. The new poster featured Liz Renay in a screaming pose, fashioned from a production still.
Critics from Good Housekeeping walked out of the film after ten minutes. Otherwise, Playboy enjoyed the film, stating it had to be "seen to be believed". David Chute of The Boston Phoenix said of the film: "In Desperate Living, Waters comes close to creating a work of true trash art." The film currently holds a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.The musician Marilyn Manson and band of the same name include a tribute to Desperate Living on their 1994 album, Portrait of an American Family. The last track on the album has a recording of Mink Stole's character, Peggy Gravel, shouting at children playing baseball (having just broken her window). The line is spoken as follows:
"Go home to your mother! Doesn't she ever watch you? Tell her this isn't some Communist daycare center! Tell your mother I hate her! Tell your mother I hate you!"
Horse the Band's 2009 album was titled Desperate Living after the film.
Japanese director Tomoaki Hosoyama's early pink film Lesbian Harem (1987) is an homage to Desperate Living.