The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) pulls levers in his home in space, while the head of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) floats in the sky. A giant spermatozoon-like creature emerges from Spencer's mouth, floating into the void. The Man in the Planet appears to control the creature with his levers, eventually making it fall into a pool of water.
In an industrial cityscape, Spencer walks home with his groceries. He is stopped outside his apartment by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), who informs him that his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), has invited him to dinner with her family. Spencer leaves his groceries in his apartment, which is filled with piles of dirt and dead vegetation. That night, Spencer visits X's home, conversing awkwardly with her mother (Jeanne Bates). At the dinner table, he is asked to carve a chicken that X's talkative father, Bill (Allen Joseph) calls "man-made"; the bird writhes on the plate and gushes blood. After dinner, Spencer is cornered by X's mother, who tries to kiss him. She tells him that X has had his child and that the two must marry. X, however, is not sure if what she bore is a child.
The couple move into Spencer's one-room apartment and begin caring for the child—a swaddled bundle with an inhuman, snakelike face, resembling the spermatozoon-like creature. The infant refuses all food, crying incessantly and intolerably. The sound drives X hysterical, and she leaves Spencer and the child. Spencer attempts to care for the child, and he learns that it struggles to breathe and has developed painful sores.
Spencer begins experiencing visions, again seeing the Man in the Planet, as well as the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who sings to him as she stomps upon spermatozoon-like creatures. After a sexual encounter with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, Spencer has a vision where he is decapitated by a creature resembling the child, revealing a stump underneath that resembles the child's face. Soon afterwards, Spencer's head sinks into a pool of blood and falls from the sky, landing on a street below. A boy finds it, bringing it to a pencil factory to be turned into erasers.
Spencer seeks out the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, but finds her with another man. Crushed, Spencer returns to his room, where the child is crying. He takes a pair of scissors and for the first time removes the child's swaddling. It is revealed that the child has no skin; the bandages held its internal organs together, and they spill apart after the rags are cut. The child gasps in pain, and Spencer cuts its organs with the scissors. The wounds gush a thick liquid, covering the child. The power in the room overloads; as the lights flicker on and off the child grows to huge proportions. When the lights burn out completely, the child's head is replaced by the planet. Spencer appears amidst a billowing cloud of eraser shavings. The side of the planet bursts apart, and inside, the Man in the Planet struggles with his levers, which are now emitting sparks. Spencer is embraced warmly by the Lady in the Radiator, as both white light and white noise crescendo.
Writer and director David Lynch had previously studied for a career as an artist, and he had created several short films to animate his paintings. By 1970, however, he had switched his focus to film-making, and at the age of 24 he accepted a scholarship at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies. Lynch disliked the course and considered dropping out, but he changed his mind after he was offered the chance to produce a script of his own devising. He was given permission to use the school's full campus for film sets; he converted the school's disused stables into a series of sets and lived there. In addition, Greystone Mansion, also owned by the AFI, was used for many scenes.
Lynch had initially begun work on a script titled Gardenback, based on his painting of a hunched figure with vegetation growing from its back. Gardenback was a surrealist script about adultery, which featured a continually growing insect representing one man's lust for his neighbor. The script would have resulted in a roughly 45-minute-long film, which the AFI felt was too long for such a figurative, nonlinear script. In its place, Lynch presented Eraserhead, which he had developed based on a daydream of a man's head being taken to a pencil factory by a small boy. Several board members at the AFI were still opposed to producing such a surrealist work, but they were persuaded when Dean Frank Daniel threatened to resign if it were to be vetoed. Lynch's script for Eraserhead was influenced by his reading as a film student; Franz Kafka's 1915 novella The Metamorphosis and Nikolai Gogol's 1836 short story "The Nose" were strong influences on the screenplay. Lynch also confirmed in an interview with Metro Silicon Valley that the film "came together" when he opened up a Bible, read one verse from it, and shut it; in retrospect, Lynch could not remember if the verse was from the Old Testament or the New Testament. In 2007, Lynch said "Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film."
The script is also thought to have been inspired by Lynch's fear of fatherhood; his daughter Jennifer had been born with "severely clubbed feet", requiring extensive corrective surgery as a child. Jennifer has said that her own unexpected conception and birth defects were the basis for the film's themes. The film's tone was also shaped by Lynch's time living in a troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia. Lynch and his family spent five years living in an atmosphere of "violence, hate and filth". The area was rife with crime, inspiring the bleak urban backdrop of Eraserhead. Describing this period of his life, Lynch said, "I saw so many things in Philadelphia I couldn't believe ... I saw a grown woman grab her breasts and speak like a baby, complaining her nipples hurt. This kind of thing will set you back". Film critic Greg Olson, in his book David Lynch: Beautiful Dark, posits that this time contrasted starkly with the director's childhood in the Pacific Northwest, giving the director a "bipolar, Heaven-and-Hell vision of America" which has subsequently shaped his films.
Initial casting for the film began in 1971, and Jack Nance was quickly selected for the lead role. However, the staff at the AFI had underestimated the project's scale—they had initially green-lit Eraserhead after viewing a twenty-one page screenplay, assuming that the film industry's usual ratio of one minute of film per scripted page would reduce the film to approximately twenty minutes. This misunderstanding, coupled with Lynch's own meticulous direction, caused the film to remain in production for a number of years. In an extreme example of this labored schedule, one scene in the film begins with Nance's character opening a door—a full year passed before he was filmed entering the room. Nance, however, was dedicated to producing the film and retained the unorthodox hairstyle his character sported for the entirety of its gestation.
Buoyed with regular donations from Lynch's childhood friend Jack Fisk and Fisk's wife Sissy Spacek, production continued for several years. Additional funds were provided by Nance's wife Catherine E. Coulson, who worked as a waitress and donated her income, and by Lynch himself, who delivered newspapers throughout the film's principal photography. During one of the many lulls in filming, Lynch was able to produce the short film The Amputee, taking advantage of the AFI's wish to test new film stock before committing to bulk purchases. The short piece starred Coulson, who continued working with Lynch as a technician on Eraserhead. Eraserhead's production crew was very small, composed of Lynch; sound designer Alan Splet; cinematographer Herb Cardwell, who died during production and was replaced with Frederick Elmes; production manager and prop technician Doreen Small; and Coulson, who worked in a variety of roles.
The physical effects used to create the deformed child have been kept secret. The projectionist who worked on the film's dailies was blindfolded by Lynch to avoid revealing the prop's nature, and he has refused to discuss the effects in subsequent interviews. The prop—which Nance nicknamed "Spike"—featured several working parts; its neck, eyes and mouth were capable of independent operation. Lynch has offered cryptic comments on the prop, at times stating that "it was born nearby" or "maybe it was found". It has been speculated by The Guardian's John Patterson that the prop may have been constructed from a skinned rabbit or a lamb fetus. The child has been seen as a precursor to elements of other Lynch films, such as John Merrick's make-up in 1980's The Elephant Man and the sandworms of 1984's Dune.
During production, Lynch began experimenting with a technique of recording dialogue that had been spoken phonetically backwards and reversing the resulting audio. Although the technique was not used in the film, Lynch returned to it for "Episode 2", the third episode of his 1990 television series Twin Peaks. Lynch also began his interest in Transcendental Meditation during the film's production, adopting a vegetarian diet and giving up smoking and alcohol consumption.
Lynch worked with Alan Splet to design the film's sound. The pair arranged and fabricated soundproof blanketing to insulate their studio, where they spent almost a year creating and editing the film's sound effects. The soundtrack is densely layered, including as many as fifteen different sounds played simultaneously using multiple reels. Sounds were created in a variety of ways—for a scene in which a bed slowly dissolves into a pool of liquid, Lynch and Splet inserted a microphone inside a plastic bottle, floated it in a bathtub, and recorded the sound of air blown through the bottle. After being recorded, sounds were further augmented by alterations to their pitch, reverb and frequency.
After a poorly received test screening, in which Lynch believes he had mixed the soundtrack at too high a volume, the director cut twenty minutes of footage from the film, bringing its length to 89 minutes. Among the cut footage is a scene featuring Coulson as the infant's midwife, another of a man torturing two women—one again played by Coulson—with a car battery, and one of Spencer toying with a dead cat.
The soundtrack to Eraserhead was released by I.R.S. Records in 1982. The two tracks included on the album feature excerpts of organ music by Fats Waller and the song "In Heaven", written for the film by Peter Ivers. The soundtrack was re-released on August 7, 2012, by Sacred Bones Records in a limited pressing of 1,500 copies. The album has been seen as presaging the dark ambient music genre, and its presentation of background noise and non-musical cues has been described by Pitchfork Media's Mark Richardson as "a sound track (two words) in the literal sense".
Eraserhead's sound design has been considered one of its defining elements. Although the film features several hallmark visuals—the deformed infant and the sprawling industrial setting—these are matched by their accompanying sounds, as the "incessant mewling" and "evocative aural landscape" are paired with these respectively. The film features several constant industrial sounds, providing low-level background noise in every scene. This fosters a "threatening" and "unnerving" atmosphere, which has been imitated in works such as David Fincher's 1995 thriller Seven and the Coen brothers' 1991 drama Barton Fink. The constant low-level noise has been perceived by James Wierzbicki in his book Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema as perhaps a product of Henry Spencer's imagination, and the soundtrack has been described as "ruthlessly negligent of the difference between dream and reality". The film also begins a trend within Lynch's work of relating diegetic music to dreams, as when the Lady in the Radiator sings "In Heaven" during Spencer's extended dream sequence. This is also present in "Episode 2" of Twin Peaks, in which diegetic music carries over from a character's dream to his waking thoughts; and in 1986's Blue Velvet, in which a similar focus is given to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams".
The film has also been noted for its strong sexual themes. Opening with an image of conception, the film then portrays Henry Spencer as a character who is terrified of, but fascinated by, sex. The recurring images of sperm-like creatures, including the child, are a constant presence during the film's sex scenes; the apparent "girl next door" appeal of the Lady in the Radiator is abandoned during her musical number as she begins to violently smash Spencer's sperm creatures and aggressively meets his gaze. David J. Skal, in his book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, has described the film as "depict[ing] human reproduction as a desolate freak show, an occupation fit only for the damned". Skal also posits a different characterization of the Lady in the Radiator, casting her as "desperately eager for an unseen audience's approval". In his book David Lynch Decoded, Mark Allyn Stewart proposes that the Lady in the Radiator is in fact Spencer's subconscious, a manifestation of his own urge to kill his child, who embraces him after he does so, as if to reassure him that he has done right.
As a character, Spencer has been seen as an everyman figure, his blank expression and plain dress keeping him a simple archetype. Spencer displays a pacifistic and fatalistic inactivity throughout the film, simply allowing events to unfold around him without taking control. This passive behavior culminates in his sole act of instigation at the film's climax; his apparent act of infanticide is driven by his life of being domineered and controlled. Spencer's inactivity has also been seen by film critics Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc as a precursor to Lynch's 1983–92 comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World.
Eraserhead premièred at the Filmex film festival in Los Angeles, on March 19, 1977. On its opening night, the film was attended by twenty-five people; twenty-four viewed it the following evening. However, Ben Barenholtz, head of distributor Libra Films International, persuaded local theater Cinema Village to run the film as a midnight feature, where it continued for a year. After this, it ran for ninety-nine weeks at New York's Waverly Cinema, had a year-long midnight run at San Francisco's Roxie Theater from 1978 to 1979, and achieved a three-year tenure at Los Angeles' Nuart Theatre between 1978 and 1981. The film was a commercial success, grossing $7 million in the United States. Eraserhead was also screened as part of the 1978 BFI London Film Festival, and the 1986 Telluride Film Festival.
Eraserhead was released on VHS on August 7, 1982, by Columbia Pictures. The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Umbrella Entertainment in Australia; the former was released on August 1, 2009, and the latter on May 9, 2012. The Umbrella Entertainment releases include an 85-minute feature on the making of the film. Other home media releases of the film include DVD releases by Universal Pictures in 2001, Subversive Entertainment in 2006, Scanbox Entertainment in 2008, and a DVD and Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection in September 2014.
Upon Eraserhead's release, Variety offered a negative review, calling it "a sickening bad-taste exercise". The review expressed incredulity over the film's long gestation and described its finale as unwatchable. Comparing Eraserhead to Lynch's next film The Elephant Man, Tom Buckley of The New York Times felt that while the latter was a well-made film with an accomplished cast, the former was not. Buckley called Eraserhead "murkily pretentious", and felt that the film's horror aspects stemmed solely from the appearance of the deformed child rather than from its script or performances. Writing in 1984, Lloyd Rose of The Atlantic felt that Eraserhead demonstrated that Lynch was "one of the most unalloyed surrealists ever to work in the movies". Rose described the film as being intensely personal, finding that unlike previous surrealist films, such as Luis Buñuel's 1929 work Un Chien Andalou or 1930's L'Age d'Or, Lynch's imagery "isn't reaching out to us from his films; we're sinking into them". In a 1993 review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington described Eraserhead as unique, feeling that the film's "intensity" and "nightmare clarity" were a result of Lynch's attention to detail in its creation due to his involvement in so many roles during its production. In the 1995 essay Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum felt that Eraserhead represented Lynch's best work. Rosenbaum felt that the director's artistic talent declined as his popularity grew, and contrasted the film with Wild at Heart—Lynch's most recent feature film at that time—saying "even the most cursory comparison of Eraserhead with Wild at Heart reveals an artistic decline so precipitous that it is hard to imagine the same person making both films".
Twenty-first century critical opinion of the film is widely positive. Eraserhead holds an average rating of 91% on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, representing the distillation of 55 reviews, with the critical consensus "David Lynch's surreal Eraserhead uses detailed visuals and a creepy score to create a bizarre and disturbing look into a man's fear of parenthood." Writing for Empire magazine, Steve Beard rated the film five stars out of five. He felt that it was "a lot more radical and enjoyable than [Lynch's] later Hollywood efforts" and highlighted its mix of surrealist body horror and black comedy. The BBC's Almar Haflidason awarded Eraserhead three stars out of five, describing it as "an unremarkable feat by [Lynch's] later standards". Haflidason felt that the film was a gathering of loosely related ideas, adding that it is "so consumed with surreal imagery that there are almost limitless possibilities to read personal theories into it"; the reviewer's own take on these themes were that they represented a fear of personal commitment and featured "a strong sexual undercurrent". A reviewer writing for Film4 rated Eraserhead five stars out of five, describing it as "by turns beautiful, annoying, funny, exasperating and repellent, but always bristling with a nervous energy". The Film4 reviewer felt that Eraserhead was unlike most films released to that point, save for the collaborations between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí; however, Lynch denies having seen any of these before Eraserhead. Writing for The Village Voice, Nathan Lee praised the film's use of sound, writing "to see the film means nothing—one must also hear it". He described the film's sound design as "an intergalactic seashell cocked to the ears of an acid-tripping gargantua".
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw similarly lauded the film, also awarding it five stars out of five. Bradshaw considered it to be a beautiful film, describing its sound design as "industrial groaning, as if filmed inside some collapsing factory or gigantic dying organism". He highlighted the film's body horror elements, comparing it to Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien. Keith Phipps, writing for AllRovi, also gave the film a rating of five stars out of five; he highlighted the disturbing sound design of the film and described it as "an open metaphor". He felt that Eraserhead "sets up the obsessions that would follow [Lynch] through his career", adding his belief that the film's surrealism enhanced the understanding of the director's later films. In an article for The Daily Telegraph, film-maker Marc Evans praised both the sound design and Lynch's ability "to make the ordinary seem so odd", considering the film an inspiration on his own work. A review of the film in the same newspaper compared Eraserhead to the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, describing it as a chaotic parody of family life. Manohla Dargis, writing for The New York Times, called the film "less a straight story than a surrealistic assemblage". Dargis felt that the film's imagery evoked the paintings of Francis Bacon and the Georges Franju 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts. Film Threat's Phil Hall called Eraserhead Lynch's best film, believing that the director's subsequent output failed to live up to it. Hall highlighted the film's soundtrack and Nance's "Chaplinesque" physical comedy as the film's stand-out elements.
In 2004, Eraserhead was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. Selection for the Registry is based on a film being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Eraserhead was one of the subjects featured in the 2005 documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, which charted the rise of the midnight movie phenomenon in the late 1960s and 1970s; Lynch took part in the documentary through a series of interviews. The production covers six films which are credited as creating and popularizing the genre; also included are Night of the Living Dead, El Topo, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 2010, the Online Film Critics Society compiled a list of the 100 best directorial débuts, listing what they felt were the best first-time feature films by noted directors. Eraserhead placed second in the poll, behind Orson Welles' 1941 Citizen Kane.
Lynch collaborated with most of the cast and crew of Eraserhead again on later films. Frederick Elmes served as cinematographer on Blue Velvet, 1988's The Cowboy and the Frenchman, and 1990's Wild at Heart. Alan Splet provided sound design for The Elephant Man, Dune, and Blue Velvet. Jack Fisk directed episodes of Lynch's 1992 television series On the Air and worked as a production designer on 1999's The Straight Story and 2001's Mulholland Drive. Coulson and Nance appeared in Twin Peaks, and made further appearances in Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and 1997's Lost Highway.
Following the release of Eraserhead, Lynch attempted to find funding for his next project, Ronnie Rocket, a film "about electricity and a three-foot guy with red hair". Lynch met film producer Stuart Cornfeld during this time. Cornfeld had enjoyed Eraserhead and was interested in producing Ronnie Rocket; he worked for Mel Brooks and Brooksfilms at the time, and when the two realized that Ronnie Rocket was unlikely to find sufficient financing, Lynch asked to see some already-written scripts to consider for his next project. Cornfeld found four scripts that he felt would interest Lynch; on hearing the title of The Elephant Man, the director decided to make it his second film.
While working on The Elephant Man, Lynch met American director Stanley Kubrick, who revealed to Lynch that Eraserhead was his favorite film. Eraserhead also served as an influence on Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining; Kubrick reportedly screened the film for the cast and crew to "put them in the mood" that he wanted the film to achieve. Eraserhead is also credited with influencing the 1989 Japanese cyberpunk film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the experimental 1990 horror film Begotten, and Darren Aronofsky's 1998 directorial debut Pi. Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger cited Eraserhead as "one of the greatest films [he had] ever seen", and said that it came closer to realizing his vision than even his own films. According to Giger, Lynch declined to collaborate with him on Dune because he felt Giger had "stolen his ideas".